Credit Where Due: Bob Dylan, Billy Emerson and “False Prophet”

Why isn’t Billy The Kid Emerson credited on “Rough and Rowdy Ways”?

Credit Where Due: selected music mentioned in this article

Dig into the online ASCAP repertory and you’ll find some crazy stuff there. For example, the co-writers of “Beyond the Horizon,” a song released on Bob Dylan’s 2006 album, ‘Modern Times,” are listed as Robert Dylan, Wilhelm Groz (who wrote under the pseudonym of “Hugh Williams”), and James B. Kennedy.

We all know of “Robert” Dylan. The other two named are the authors of “Red Sails in the Sunset,” a popular classic from 1935. Both writers share 25% of “Beyond the Horizon” royalties, with the original publisher of “Red Sails” receiving another 25%.

“We would go in and listen to the old tunes, taking those grooves and modifying the licks… On some of the tunes he didn’t change the lick. He would look in the control room and say to his manager Jeff [Rosen], “What did you think of that?” He’d reply, “It’s really too close, Bob.” And Bob would say “Aw, **** it!” [laughs] So they paid for those and definitely had to give credit!”
~ David Bianco, recording engineer on the “Together Through Life” recording sessions, (Tape Op Magazine #104)

“Beyond the Horizon” listing in the ASCAP repertory

You wouldn’t learn about Groz and Kennedy from the “Modern Times”” album, nor would you learn anything about the source of “Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum” from 2001’s ‘Love and Theft.’ Fans with an interest in Dylanesque sources know that “Tweedle-Dee’s” music is lifted— nearly directly lifted — from a 1961 song called “Uncle John’s Bongos.” Although Johnnie & Jack’s cover version is better known, “Uncle John’s Bongos” was written by Charles C. Evans, Hal Culpepper, and Norman Blake and originally recorded by their group The Dixielanders slightly ahead of Johnnie & Jack.

But there’s no love or credits on ‘Love and Theft’ for those writers, nor for Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin; Carmen Lombardo; or Nathaniel Shilkret — all composers whose music would find its way onto ‘Love and Theft’ in various forms.

No credit either to Jelly Roll Morton on “Tempest” for providing the foundation — one could say the entire musical house — for Dylan and Robert Hunter’s “Duquesne Whistle” with his 1930 instrumental, “Each Day.” Adding insult to injury, Dylan would later claim in an interview that “Duquesne Whistle“ “… actually started out at as a Fats Waller song, ‘Jitterbug Waltz,’ a 1942 instrumental that bears as little resemblance to “Duquesne Whistle“ as it does to “House of the Rising Sun.”

“That’ll put them in the palm of your hand — they’ll have to take one of those mind-training courses that you do while you sleep to get the meaning of that.”
~ Bob Johnston to Bob Dylan

Fats Waller wasn’t credited on “Tempest” either.

BMI listing for “My Wife’s Home Town,” with Willie Dixon, Bob Dylan, and Robert Hunter as co-authors

On the other hand, the busy Robert Dylan shares SESAC and BMI writing credits with Hunter and one Willie Dixon for “My Wife’s Home Town,” which appeared on “Together Through Life.” According to BMI, Dixon’s estate receives 50% of the royalties for “My Wife’s Home Town,” and unlike many other artists whose music Dylan has appropriated, Willie Dixon is even listed as the song’s co-writer on the album credits.

“Bold work, Willie,” you might say, “for a man who died almost 17 years before the song was written!”

If you compared “My Wife’s Home Town” to, say, Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” or if you knew the litigious crusades of Willie Dixon to protect his music (looking at you, Led Zeppelin), which is still being tirelessly carried on to this day by his Blues Heaven Foundation, the credit starts making more sense.

Dead Presidents and Other Red Hot Songs

Courtesy Scott Warmuth @scottwarmuth1 on Twitter

Willie Dixon also shares writing credits with another BMI artist for a Checker Records B-side that Little Walter released in 1964, “Dead Presidents.”

Dixon and one William Robert Emerson, better known as Billy “The Kid” Emerson, wrote the song — although Emerson isn’t credited on the single’s label — and played on Little Walter’s Chicago recording of “Dead Presidents” that took place February 5, 1963.

Bob Dylan seemed to be listening to more than a few Chess and Sun singles when he was putting together “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” an album filled with references to dead presidents. He gives a shout-out to the Little Walter and his version of “Key to the Highway” in “Murder Most Foul” and there’s a Willie Dixon line from “Dead Presidents” — “I ain’t broke but I’m badly bent” — that makes a guest appearance in slightly different form in Dylan’s “Cross the Rubicon.” And, of course, Billy The Kid shows up, uncredited, when his Sun B-side, “If Lovin’ Was Believing,” makes its appearance as the musical progenitor of “False Prophet.”

“Red Hot” by Billy “The Kid” Emerson

“I could do this whole show and play nothing but Sun records, and here’s one of my favorites. It was originally recorded by an R&B singer named Billy ‘The Kid’ Emerson [“Red Hot” excerpt, Billy Emerson original]. This song was recorded the same year by Billy Lee Riley, I told you his story before, so we’re just going get into it…” [“Red Hot,” Billy Lee Riley version] ~ Bob Dylan, Theme Time Radio Hour, 2008

Bob Dylan offhandedly dismisses or ignores Billy Emerson the two times he’s publicly talked about his love for Emerson’s composition, “Red Hot.” Maybe scriptwriter Eddie Gorodetsky was just having an off day when he wrote Dylan’s intro to the song for the “Heat” episode of “Theme Time Radio Hour.” Eddie G. doesn’t even bother to have Dylan note — after playing a few-second clip from Emerson’s original — that not only did Billy Emerson record “Red Hot” on the Sun label two years before Billy Lee Riley’s version (not “the same year” )— but that Emerson also wrote “Red Hot.”

But, still better service than Bob Dylan’s Musicares speech of 2015 where he praises Billy Lee Riley and “Red Hot” without mentioning Billy Emerson at all.

Of course, the composer of “Red Hot” wasn’t the subject of Dylan’s speechifying that February night in 2015. He made his unusual public appearance to praise the Musicare organization for helping musicians that were ill or down on their luck; specifically for their aid to Billy Lee Riley. And, from any perspective, Riley’s intense rockabilly version of “Red Hot” — a version that “could blast you out of your skull and make you feel happy about it” as Dylan put it in his speech — is much more remarkable than Emerson’s slow-paced R&B original.

Not the first time a cover has superseded the original cut— witness “All Along the Watchtower.” Yet, it’s a bit hard to imagine waxing as lyrical over Jimi Hendrix’s version of “Watchtower” as Dylan does over “Red Hot” without somewhere acknowledging that the song was composed and originally recorded by someone named Bob Dylan.

Then there’s “False Prophet” and “If Lovin’ Was Believing.”

Billy The Kid At Home

Billy “The Kid” Emerson via Sun Records

About a year before Bob Dylan gave his Musicares speech, a Tampa Bay Times reporter visited the Rev. William Emerson at his Tarpon Springs home, finding a fractious 89-year-old who wasn’t much inclined to talk about his R&B career and suspicious about a White boy’s interest in him.

With some reason. There’s a bitter, used flavor of exploitation in the stories Emerson was willing to share. He wrote and recorded “When It Rains, It Really Poursat Sun in 1954, but Sam Phillips wasn’t willing to release Emerson’s single and ending up giving the song to a truck driver who had blown into Memphis and the Sun studios a year earlier.

Ironically, although Elvis Presley did record the song, “When It Rains, It Really Pours” wasn’t released until the mid-’60s, where it was buried in a bad Elvis compilation album. Elvis liked “When It Rains…” enough that he even resurrected it for his 1968 comeback TV special, but it didn’t make the cut past rehearsals.

“I always wondered what would have happened if Sam had released my record as a single.’’ ~Billy Emerson

It wasn’t necessarily bad luck that Billy Emerson had, just not very good luck. He went back to the Sun studios with a song that had novelty hit potential written all over it. But with little promotion from the label, Emerson’s original “Red Hot” went ice-cold and nowhere. Sam later offered “Red Hot” to Billy Lee Riley, who had had a minor hit with “Flyin’ Saucers Rock and Roll” and needed a big follow-up.

“I don’t like to talk about Sam Phillips. I don’t want to say something ugly. I don’t live in that world anymore.” ~ Billy Emerson

Billy Lee Riley’s release of “Red Hot” on Sun

Riley’s version of “Red Hot” was something else, all fire and brimstone, made your hair stand on end. Should have put Riley’s career on booster rockets.

But the not-very-good luck that dogged Billy Emerson seemed to follow along with his songs. Having a major hit on his hands at the same time with Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” Sam Phillips devoted the limited Sun budget to promoting that single. Without Sun flackery pushing it, Riley’s “Red Hot” stalled out, and so did Billy Lee Riley, becoming, as Bob Dylan bemoans in his Musicare’s speech, a one-hit wonder.

If Lovin’ is Believing Sun Record 195

Compared to “When It Rains, It Really Poursand “Red Hot” there’s not that much information to be found about “If Lovin’ is Believing.” Copyrighted on June 17 1954, “Lovin’” became the B-side of Emerson’s first Sun single. Backed by Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm, who Emerson had teamed up with as pianist and sometime singer, “Lovin’” is more notable for Ike’s guitar work than Billy’s vocals. “If Lovin’ is Believing” lurches over a jerky rhythm that threatens to self-destruct at any second” one cryptic review has it, while another takes Emerson to task for giving “an unfeeling performance of a romantic ditty.”

“Lovin’” probably would have remained consigned to the dustbin of musicology, known only to Sun fanatics and fervent Bear Family Record collectors, except for Bob Dylan.

And Still Billy “The Kid” Emerson Remains Uncredited

“Oh, yeah, in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. That certainly is true. It’s true for everybody, but me. I mean, everyone else can do it but not me. There are different rules for me.” ~Bob Dylan, channeling a dyspeptic bluesman, in his infamous “Wussies & Pussies” interview

“False Prophet” single art. The imagery is from “The Shadow” and “Black Mask” pulps, uncredited of course

The first public notice of “False Prophet’s” musical connection to “If Lovin’ is Believing” seems to have been Tom Moon’s May 12, 2020 NPR article: Trickster Treat: Bob Dylan’s New Song Sounds Awfully Old … And Familiar. Moon spends much of his article going through twisty gymnastics explaining why Dylan’s appropriation of “If Lovin’ is Believing” ain’t all that bad, arguing:

  • Both songs are built on a standard blues chord progression used by “gazillions” of artists (Everybody does it).
  • It’s part of the “folk process” (Folkie eminence gris Pete Seeger is trotted out to lend credence to this hoary argument)
  • [While “False Prophet”] “…sits in the same tempo, and key, as Emerson’s song [and] faithfully replicates the rhythm guitar phrase and leans on the same lead guitar line for punctuation.” (You’re not helping your case, Mr. Moon) “… there are crucial tweaks or modifications.” (Aha!)
  • The songs use different lyrics. (Emerson is all about lovin’. Dylan is all about something else, who knows what, but not lovin’. Maybe theftn’.)
  • Dylan’s been doing it for years. (Long-term consistency counts)
  • [Dylan’s appropriation] “sparks interest in long-lost talents like Billy ‘The Kid’ Emerson, bringing his work — which was lovingly collected on the 2009 album Red Hot: The Sun Years,— to a new generation of listeners. (That is, if Bob Dylan had bothered to acknowledge Emerson, or the dozens of other sources he’s used uncredited)
  • It’s “…thievery only by the narrowest definition.” (Not guilty, your Honor!)

About the only argument that Moon misses is one that has become popular on the internet for some Dylan fans, that maybe the memorable slashing guitar work shared by “”Lovin’” and “False Prophet” was created by Ike Turner and not Emerson. Might even be true. But even if it were true, Turner — a control freak of control freaks from all reports — didn’t feel strongly enough about it to demand co-credits with Emerson. The copyright of”Lovin” is assigned to Billy Emerson alone, and he’s the one who deserves the credit.

Moon strangely closes his defense of Dylan by citing Willie Dixon’s “The blues are the roots and the other musics are the fruits.” A strange choice indeed, since Dixon was using the metaphor to explain why people should pay the owners of the trees with roots for the fruits they were enjoying. That’s exactly why Dixon established the Blues Heaven Foundation, which “works to preserve the blues’ legacy and to secure copyrights and royalties for blues musicians who were exploited in the past.(emphasis mine) and the most likely reason why Willie Dixon is credited on “Together Through Life.”

But Billy “The Kid” Emerson remains uncredited on “Rough and Rowdy Ways.”


Reverend William (Billy The Kid) Emerson / 2017. Tampa Bay Times Staff Photo

My problem with Dylan’s appropriations isn’t whether they’re legally or morally plagiarism, or whether he’s following folk tradition or whether “everybody else does it” is an argument better used by two-year-olds. My problem is with Dylan’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge his sources, whether those sources are from music, art, film, or literature.

Except, apparently, when he’s legally compelled to.

‘Love and Theft,’”Modern Times,” “Tempest,” “The Asia Series,” “Chronicles: Volume One.” The cover for “Knocked Out Loaded.” Those are just a few examples. The list is endless. “False Prophet” using the music from “Lovin’” uncredited is just the latest example.

The Rev. William Emerson still resides in Tarpon Springs, Florida. At age 94, he’s reportedly in failing health. While there’s no evidence in BMI or SESAC that Emerson is receiving “False Prophet” royalties, maybe the Dylan organization has privately done the right thing by him, as several writers have hoped online. Maybe.

Yet, Billy “The Kid” Emerson remains uncredited on “Rough and Rowdy Ways.”

Rev. Emerson may not want the credit or royalties. As he said in his 2014 interview, he doesn’t live in that world anymore, and maybe he has no interest in revisiting it. Sam Phillips, Elvis, Billy Lee Riley, now Bob Dylan, dealing with another White man profiting off his music might be a bit too bitter reminder for a man who seems to have made his peace with the past and turned to God.

Accepting royalties or credit is the Rev. Emerson’s choice. One can hope Bob Dylan will offer him the opportunity to make that choice.

Written by

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.

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