Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour — Whiskey Part 1

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A transcript of the first half of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour 2020 Special: “Whiskey.” First broadcast September 21, 2020 on SiriusXM Radio.

Diana Krall
It’s nighttime in the city. There’s a hint of jasmine in the air. A startled cat runs across the piano keys. My neighbor keeps walking around upstairs. A man slowly falls out of love.

It’s Theme Time Radio Hour, with your host, Bob Dylan.

We’re going to need more ice.

Bob Dylan
Hello, friends, and welcome back to Theme Time Radio Hour. I’m your host, Bob Dylan. To paraphrase Alexandre Dumas, in “The Count of Monte Cristo,” “I’m so delighted to see you here. It makes me forget, for the moment, that all happiness is fleeting.”

Bob Dylan and Heaven’s Door

You may wonder what brings us back after so long, with an all-new episode of Themes, Dreams, and Schemes. Well, the answer is simple. Recently, I met some distillers and blenders, and together we cooked up our own brand of Tennessee bourbon, double barrel, and straight rye whiskey. Maybe you’ve read about it, it’s called “Heaven’s Door.” Now, I’m not going to pull your coat too much about it, because me telling you how good it is, is like trying to tickle yourself. It just doesn’t work. You have to taste it, then it speaks for itself. But, we all thought it might be a good idea to do an episode of Theme Time all about those various amber intoxicants.

There’s no shortage of songs, and it has been fun to get the gang back together. Though it’s been so long, I’m not even sure if we should call it Theme Time Radio Hour anymore. I mean, does anybody still have a radio? Some folks might even be listening on a smart toaster. I don’t know. Theme Time Device Hour just doesn’t sound right.

Tell you what, we’re going to keep the name and not worry about where you listen to it. So, let’s crack open a fresh bottle of Heaven’s Door, and we’ll learn where NASCAR came from, and what exactly is meant by “coming through the rye,” and a whole lot more. Let’s start things off on the quiet side.

Wynonie Harris

“Whiskey, whiskey, on the shelf, you were so quiet there by yourself. Things were fine ’til they took you down, and opened you up, and passed you round.”

[“Quiet Whiskey” — Wynonie Harris]

Bob Dylan
“Whiskey on the shelf.” That was leather lung blues shouter Wynonie Harris, with a raucous tale of quiet whiskey. I was looking at the song writer credits on my copy of that record, and Wynonie got his name on there, as did Henry Glover, who was a fascinating character. There’s also a guy named Bob Schell, who wrote a couple of other things for the King label. But the fourth guy’s name really caught my eye: Fred Weismantel. Who’s he?

Turns out he started out as an arranger with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. From there, he co-wrote some of the rockinest jump blues of the ’40s and ’50s, like the one we just heard. He went on to write for Johnny Ray, and in the late ’60s, did some of the horn shots for Steam, on their “Na Na Na, Hey Hey Hey, Kiss ’Em Goodbye” album. A nice run, good going, Fred.

Next song you’re about to hear is based around some floating verses. These maverick standards were kind of like a common pool of lyrics lots of people used. The title of the song, “If the River Was Whiskey,” was first published in a book from 1928. It popped up on a record a year later in Sleepy John Estes’s version of “Diving Duck Blues.” You’re going to hear that opening verse travel to half a dozen different songs, including another one you’ll hear before the end of today’s program, so stay tuned.

In 19 and 20 (sic), Charlie Poole, that North Carolina wizard of the banjo put it together with an even older song, “The Hesitation Blues,” and recorded this version. Charlie Poole reinvented this playing style after injuring his hand in a drunken bar room bet. The man knew how to take lemons and make lemonade, and I’m pretty sure he added a healthy shot of hooch to that. Here’s my label mate, on Columbia Records, Charlie Poole.

[“If the River Was Whiskey” — Charlie Poole]

Bob Dylan

Charlie Poole makes a river of whiskey sound pretty good. However, a river of molasses, that’s a different story altogether. On January 15, 19 and 19, 2.5 million gallons of molasses ran through the streets of Boston’s North End. A tank that was being used in the manufacture of rum exploded. People say, “slow as molasses,” but a 40-foot high wave of molasses flooded the Boston streets at an amazing 35 miles an hour, leaving 21 people dead. Some people in that part of town swear they can still smell molasses in their basements.

Aftermath of the Great Molasses Flood, Boston, MA

This is Theme Time Radio Hour reminding you that no molasses is used in the manufacture of bourbon, whiskey, and rye.

Charlie Poole made a river of whiskey theoretical, but when Willie Nelson sings about “Whiskey River,” you have no doubt that it exists. Even though everybody thinks of it as one of Willie’s songs, I know I do, it’s one that he didn’t write. It was written by a guy they called the Country Caruso, Johnny Bush.

Johnny and Willie knew each other back in the early ’60s. This was when Willie was writing songs like “Crazy,” and “Nightlife.” Johnny had this distinctive voice that songwriters loved. It had a little catch in it, like a built-in heartbreak.

Johnny Bush
“I’m drowning in a whiskey river.”

Bob Dylan
Willie loved his singing. He financed Johnny’s first record and used his band to back him up. He was doing pretty good, and “Whiskey River” was climbing the charts, until his voice started failing him. He turned to drugs, and developed stage fright, on top of everything else. But his friends never gave up on him, and he never gave up on himself.

Medical treatment, hard work, and supportive friends like Willie, brought him back, and since then he’s released new music, and received many accolades. Johnny Bush swam in the whiskey river, and lived to tell the tale. Here’s his loyal friend Willie to tell you all about it.

[“Whiskey River” — Willie Nelson]

Bob Dylan

Willie Nelson swimming upstream in that whiskey river. You’re listening to Theme Time Radio Hour, full of whiskey dreams, bourbon schemes, and rye themes.

I was at Elmo’s the other night, and a bear came in and said, “Give me a whiskey… and a soda.”

“Why the big pause?” asked the bartender.

The bear shrugged and replied, “I don’t know, I was born this way.”

Lady Gaga told me that joke.

You know, when you polish off a bottle of whiskey, there’s some things you definitely should not do, like drive, or operate heavy machinery. But there are some things you can do, like learn how to put a ship in an empty bottle, or make sand paintings inside them, like Andrew Clemens did, in Dubuque, Iowa, in the 1890s. But perhaps my favorite thing would be to cut the neck off of it, and sand down the edges, and learn to play bottleneck guitar.

[“Bottleneck Blues” (excerpt) — Sylvester Weaver and Walter Beasley]

In the background is Sylvester Weaver and Walter Beasley, from 1927 on the OKeh label. Truth to tell, Sylvester’s probably using his pocket knife to get that slide sound. But I’ve seen people use all sorts of things to play bottleneck, including medicine bottles, old lipstick tubes, a piece of copper wire, and actual bottlenecks. Nowadays, you hear people like Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, Jack White, and maybe the best of them all, Derek Trucks, keeping that sound alive.

Bottleneck guitar

Now, this next record is also from the 1920s, and the guitar sounds like it could be from a country-blues string band, but a big surprise happens when the vocals come in. Edmund Tagoe and Frank Essien were a couple of African ex-pats from Ghana, living in London. Back in the ’20s when they recorded this song, “Whiskey Sununu Odia,” for the Zonophone label.

You will enjoy West African artists on Zonophone Records

Bob Dylan
Recorded music changed everything. For example, we can hear how Hawaiian music influenced blues and country, and right here it’s pretty obvious these guys were hearing records by guys like Bo Carter and Blind Blake, even Sylvester Weaver.

As a matter of fact, Zonophone actively tried to merge African styles with European and American song forms to reach more customers. Kind of like David Byrne, before David Byrne. Whiskey’s the only word I understand here, and they’re singing in a language called “Ga,” which is spoken in the regions around Accra, the capital of Ghana. But, sometimes, you don’t have to understand every word to get the meaning. I imagine people enjoying Sam and Dave in a lot of countries that don’t speak English. Here’s Edmund Tagoe and Frank Essien.

[“Whiskey Sununu Odia” — Edmund Tagoe and Frank Essien]

Bob Dylan
Edmund Tagoe and Frank Essien with a piece of world music from before you could take a course in it at the university.

There’s a lot of cocktails you could make with whiskey. Perhaps you might enjoy an Old Fashion, or a Rob Roy. Some folks mix whiskey with Coke and peanuts. There’s a Mint Julep, the Suburban, and the Sazerac. After dinner, maybe you might enjoy an Irish coffee. There’s bourbon sweet tea, the Manhattan, Whiskey Sour, the Brain Duster, the Rusty Nail, the John Collins, the Irish Mule, and the Algonquin. But you can’t forget the Highball, the Hot Nail, the Brass Monkey, or the Irish Redhead.

Now, me, I like it simple. A couple of fingers of Tennessee whiskey, maybe over ice. Repeat if necessary. Another guy who likes simple was our good friend Bobby Charles. He never got fancy, but he always got his point across. Like in this song, by a fellow who’s got all the whiskey. And that’s not all he’s got.

[“He’s Got All the Whiskey” — Bobby Charles]

Bob Dylan
He’s got all the whiskey, and he won’t give you none. Bobby Charles, here on Theme Time Radio Hour, where we are playing songs all about those intoxicating amber fluids that are fermented from grain, and mostly stored in oak barrels.

Penn Jillette
Hi, this is Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller, and I’ve never had a drink of alcohol in my life. But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying songs about whiskey, here on Theme Time Radio Hour, with Bob Dylan.

Bob Dylan
Funny how times change. There are things in this next song that seem woefully out of touch today. For instance, Timmie Rogers, that’s not Jimmy Rogers, that’s Timmie Rogers. He wants an old whiskey and a young woman, and not the other way around, because he says, “Be sure you get a young chick, because gals do not improve with age.” An adage he shared with Errol Flynn.

It would be easy to write Timmie Rogers off for such sexist thoughts, even in 1946, when this record was made. But consider this, he was also a groundbreaking comedian, considered the first African American to do an act that didn’t depend on racist props, exaggerated caricature, or grotesque costuming. Most black comics dressed like tramps, and other type of low characters, so as not to be, as the club owners put it, too aggressive for the white audiences.

Timmie Rogers “Oh, yeah!”

Timmie wasn’t having any of that. He just came out in his tuxedo and he told jokes. He also played the ukulele. Maybe you remember his catchphrase, “Oh, yeah!” which he developed in 1949 and used on television shows with people like Jackie Gleason, Flip Wilson, and Johnny Carson.

Timmie Rogers
Money, money, money, everybody wants money. And you know, money is the root of all evil, and I’m trying to find those roots! Oh, yeah! People like Bing Crosby, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, Bob Hope, Ella Fitzgerald, you think they’re happy? Oh, yeah!”

Bob Dylan
Don’t judge Timmie too harshly, he was backwards in some ways, but he led the charge in other.

[Good Whiskey (And a Bad Woman) — Timmie Rogers]

Bob Dylan
Oh, yeah! (laughter) Another thing Timmie talks about in that song is pinpoint carbonation. That’s an old style of carbonation that they don’t use anymore, where they used to take dry ice pellets, and melt them. It would create smaller, longer-lasting bubbles in the sparkling water, making for a more effervescent drink that would hold onto its fizz, further into the evening.

We’ve all heard the phrase “beer goggles,” where one brew too many might make you think a guy or a gal in a bar is a seven when they’re actually a three. Well, here’s Laura Cantrell, with a more sophisticated version of the same phenomenon. I suppose you could call it “spirit spectacles.”

[“The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter” — Laura Cantrell]

Bob Dylan
“The whiskey makes you sweeter than you could ever be to me,” a song written by Amy Allison, daughter of longtime Theme Time favorite, Mose Allison. Amy has a similar dark sense of humor like her father, but Amy is more like a country fan than her old man Mose.

David Hidalgo TTRH ID

Bob Dylan
One of the best things about a nice, stiff drink, is its ability to be the perfect companion for solitary evening of melancholy rumination. As Frank Sinatra explains in this evocative number, co-written by Doris Tauber, along with the Song Bird of Savannah, Johnny Mercer, “Drinking Again.” Here’s Frank.

[“Drinking Again” — Frank Sinatra]

Bob Dylan
From his 1967 album, “The World We Knew.” That following year, Jeff Beck recorded an album called “Truth,” with a young singer named Rod Stewart. They cut a track for that record called, “I’ve Been Drinking.” and took song writing credits. They didn’t include it on the album. As a matter of fact, it didn’t come out until 2005, when it was a bonus track on a reissue. Give a listen, see if it sounds familiar.

[“I’ve Been Drinking” (excerpt) — Jeff Beck / Rod Stewart]

Bob Dylan
See? The generation gap is never as wide as people thought.

Professorial Speaker
In this case, the alcohol is made out of fermented corn mash. When the fermented mixture is heated, vapors are given off that contain products of the fermentation, including a relatively high percentage of alcohol. As the vapors cool, they change to liquid, and drip from the distillery. Whiskey ordinarily contains about 43 per cent or more of alcohol.

Bob Dylan
Earlier in the program, I told you that most of the liquids we were talking about today were aged by law in oak barrels. Well, here’s a song about the big exception. Corn whiskey must be 80 per cent corn mash, as opposed to bourbon’s 51 per cent, and since it is not required to be barrel aged, it is often clear in color, and lacks the rich flavor that bourbon has. But, it does have its fans, among them Jimmy Witherspoon. Here’s Jimmy, from September 30th, 19 and 52. Three years to the day before James Dean died. Jimmy Witherspoon, “Corn Whiskey.” You’ve got to love a song with hand claps as good as these.

James Dean, September 30, 1955

[“Corn Whiskey” — Jimmy Witherspoon]

Bob Dylan
I’ve always wondered if they had a guy near the microphone really filling that glass in the end of that song. That’s a swinging little LA band, backing up ‘Spoon, there. Tiny Webb on guitar, Maxwell Davis on tenor sax, and Earl Jackson on piano.

You’re listening to Theme Time Radio hour. Let’s have another half pint.

Here’s a little bit of country boogie, with the sawing fiddles and dancing steel guitar, courtesy of Beaumont, Texas native, Billie Harbert. Billboard magazine gave this record a good review in its December 26th, 1953 issue, calling it “an energetic reading of a bar room novelty,” predicting big jukebox play.

Well, they were right about what it sounded like, don’t know how many plays it got, though. On Starday Records, here’s Billie Harbert.

[“Ain’t That Whiskey Hot” — Billie Harbert]

Bob Dylan

Ain’t that whiskey hot? And while we’re on the subject, there’s nothing better on a cold night, or if you’re under the weather, than a hot toddy. Here’s how I make one.

Take a mug, fill it with boiling water til the mug gets nice and hot. While the mug is heating up, take four cloves and stick them in a twist of lemon. You’re going to need them later. Empty the mug, and fill it back halfway with fresh boiling water. Add a couple of tablespoons of brown sugar and stir it up til it dissolves. Drop in your lemon twist with the cloves. Squeeze about a quarter ounce of fresh lemon juice, and add at least two ounces of bourbon. Now, climb under the covers, put on some good soothing music, and if you have a cold, it will be gone in seven to 10 days.

Hot Toddy

We’ve talked about this next song before, how Amos Milburn recorded it first in 19 and 53. We played a version that Johnny Lee Hooker pushed a little more of the blues in ’66. But down Jamaica way, lots of folks were listening to records by guys like Amos Milburn, Roscoe Gordon, and putting a little island skip to the beat.

Ska, blue beat, later on reggae, were influenced heavily by American jump blues, as you can hear from this 1968 recording, by Kingston native Alfred Brown, for Jamaica’s Muffat label, owned, coincidentally, by Lenroy Muffat. It was picked up later the same year by Chris Blackwell, for his better distributed Island Records, in the UK. Here’s Alfred Brown, with “One Scotch, One Bourbon, and One Beer.”

[“One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer” — Alfred Brown]

A termite walks into a bar

Bob Dylan
Alfred Brown, singing about a hat trick of inebriants, here on the special whiskey edition of Theme Time Radio Hour.

I was nursing a drink at Elmo’s Lounge last night, when a termite walked in and asked me where was the bartender.

Have another drink, you’ll get that one later.

Jenny Lewis
Hi, this is Jenny Lewis, and I’m having a whiskey with Bob Dylan on Theme Time Radio Hour.

Harry Choates

Bob Dylan
Our next selection is about rye whiskey. Well, what is rye whiskey, you might ask. It’s a whiskey that’s distilled from at least 51 per cent rye grains, that gives it a spicier taste than bourbon.

Harry Choates is going to tell you all about it. He recorded down in Beaumont, Texas, for the Gold Star label. People gave him credit for introducing Cajun elements into Western swing. Legend has it he wrote the Cajun classic “Jole Blon,” but sold the rights to it for $100 and a bottle of whiskey.

They still tell stories about him down in Beaumont way, but I think all you really need to know is he got arrested for not paying alimony, and after three days in the pokey, he got the DTs and started banging his head against the bars of the jail cell, until he lost consciousness. He never woke up. He was all of 28 years old, gone too soon.

Here’s a man who crammed a lot of living in those 28 years, and as promised, he starts this song off with a variation of the same floating verse Charlie Poole used 18 years earlier.

That’s me playing the violin.

[“Rye Whiskey” — Harry Choates]

Bob Dylan
A little song about rye whiskey by the short-lived Harry Choates.

You can find Part 2 of the “Whiskey” transcription here!



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Fred Bals

Corporate Storyteller. Tech enthusiast. Mini Cooper fanboy. One-time chronicler of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour. Husband of Peggy. Human of Lily Rose.