Hung as a Thief: The First Bob Dylan Appropriations — “The Drunkard’s Son” and “Little Buddy”
“Do you think there will ever be a time when you’ll be hung as a thief?”
“You weren’t supposed to say that.” ~ Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, 1965
Whether you call it quoting, borrowing, sampling, reworking, or the dreaded P-word, preparing to write about Bob Dylan’s many appropriations is akin to grabbing your testicles when stepping into a mine field.
If they pick up the story, the media will ignore much of whatever you say in favor of eye-grabbing headlines prominently featuring “PLAGIARISM!” Dylan fans and critics alike will attack you. Even the Big Bubba of Rebellion himself could weigh in with an opinion. In a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone where he seemed to be channeling a dyspeptic bluesman, Dylan responded to a question about “not citing his sources clearly” with…
“Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff… Fuck ’em. I’ll see them all in their graves.”
Yet, wussies and pussies aside, from the teenager hand-copying song lyrics so he could impress girls, to the 70-year-old cribbing lines from an online study guide for his Nobel lecture, digging into Dylan’s sources can be a fascinating and enlightening exercise.
In the Spring of 2009, Christie’s Auction House announced the upcoming auction of a poem titled “Little Buddy,” a work submitted to his camp newspaper in 1957 by 16-year-old Bobby Zimmerman, who would later become Bob Dylan.
“Bob Dylan’s social consciousness and artistry were evident in a poem he penned about a little dog who met a tragic end,” gushed the lead for The Washington Post. “It’s a very early example of his brilliance,” the article quotes a Christie’s “pop culture specialist,” who goes on to say, “It comes from the mind of a teenager (with) some very interesting thoughts kind of percolating in his brain.”
The verses memorializing the death of a boy’s pet bordered more on doggerel than brilliance, and rather than coming from the percolating mind of a teenager, they had come from the music of Hank Snow, the Yodeling Ranger, who recorded “Little Buddy” about a decade before Bobby Zimmerman started attending Herzl Camp on the shores of Devils Lake in Webster, Wisconsin.
“In the summer of 1957, I was a camp counselor at Herzl. On the first day, we welcomed the campers who arrived almost exclusively by bus or car. An unusual event was the arrival of several campers on two motorcycles from Hibbing, Minnesota. One of the motorcycle campers was Robert Zimmerman, guitar slung over his shoulder… Already known as a rebel, rumor had it that Robert Zimmerman had received his motorcycle as a parental gift for agreeing to attend Herzl Camp….” ~ Joel Unowsky
By 1957, Dylan had been spending his summers at Herzl Camp for four years, although the motorcycle bribe made a good story. Herzl Camp’s aim was “to bring a child closer to Jewish life and the Jewish people… to prepare the child to absorb the content and values of modern Palestine… to enlist the child’s interest and help in building of the Jewish national homeland.” Camp sessions were offered for children ages 12 and up with “athletics, waterfront activities, recreation, music, dancing, cultural and creative events” as well as the chance to meet members of the opposite sex who were also of the Jewish faith.
Although remembering nothing about its submission, Lisa Heilicher, a fellow Herzl camper and editor of the camp newspaper, the Herzl Herald, kept the handwritten transcription of “Little Buddy” for some fifty-two odd years before offering it up to help Herzl raise funds.
“I kept it with all of my stuff that I collected from camp,” Heilicher said in an interview. “When I realized how famous he had become, I put it in a piece of plastic and stuck it in an encyclopedia under the letter ‘Z’ for Zimmerman.”
“Do what you want with it,” Dylan reportedly told camp officials, possibly with tongue firmly in cheek, when contacted for his okay to sell the piece.
Broken hearted and so sad
Big blue eyes all covered with tears
Was a picture of sorrow to see
Kneeling close to the side
Of his pal and only pride
A little lad, these words he told me…” ~ “Little Buddy” by Bobby Zimmerman
Broken hearted and so sad, golden curls all wet with tears,
’twas a picture of sorrow to see.
Kneeling close to the side of his pal and only pride,
A little lad these words he told me… ~ “Little Buddy” by Hank Snow
The same day that Christie’s announced that “Little Buddy” would be going on the auction block, a Dylan fan who saw the transcription and was familiar with the Snow song pointed out online that Dylan’s poem, “Little Buddy” was in fact Hank Snow’s song, “Little Buddy.” The fan would later go on to email Christie’s who, in turn, would issue an embarrassed retraction a few days later, correcting the auction description to read, “Handwritten lyrics to the Hank Snow song Little Buddy by the teenage Bob Dylan as a camper at Herzl Camp in Northwestern Wisconsin in the mid-1950s for publication in the camp newspaper, The Herzl Herald.”
As Christie’s statement to the press disingenuously maintained, “Little Buddy” was still one of the earliest known transcriptions in Bob Dylan’s hand, if not an actual “Bob Dylan lyric,” as originally described.
The “Little Buddy” transcript eventually auctioned off for $12,500, including buyer’s premium, a nice contribution to the rehabbing of cabins at Herzl Camp.
“The Drunkard’s Son”
Whatever name you want to call the rose, the “Little Buddy” transcript is an interesting document for those exploring the beginnings of Dylan’s appropriations. “Little Buddy” appears to be the second transcription he made as a young man of a Hank Snow song. The first was “The Drunkard’s Son,” an even more lugubrious tune than “Little Buddy” with a sentiment closer to Victorian times than 1947, which is when Snow originally released it on the Bluebird label. “The Drunkard’s Son” was re-released in April 1950 on the RCA Victor label as the B-side of “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight” and is probably another record that Bobby Zimmerman owned.
I happened to wander one day
And there on the rafters ‘neath shavings and chips
A drunkard’s poor little boy lay… ”The Drunkard’s Son” ~ Hank Snow
Dylan’s transcription of “The Drunkard’s Son” appeared in a 1992 edition of the Dylan fanzine ISIS. Writer Derek Barker notes in an article accompanying the photocopy of the holograph that, “I received two pages of text which are said to be an original poem by Bobby Zimmerman…”
Without providing other details about the poem’s provenance, Barker dated the manuscript circa 1952-’55, making the young author somewhere between 11 and 14.
The transcription was first thought — just like “Little Buddy” — to be an early example of a Dylan attempt at poetry, apparently used by the young Bobby Zimmerman to woo a girl he was sweet on.
In an old dusty attic
In a little house, I happened to wander one day
And there in the rafters, mid shavings and chips
A drunkard’s poor little boy lay… “The Drunkard’s Son” ~ Bobby Zimmerman
After the manuscript was published in ISIS, a correspondent pointed out that the young Zimmerman’s “Drunkard’s Son,” was actually Hank Snow’s “Drunkard’s Son,” almost exactly paralleling the “Little Buddy” story seventeen years later.
While I suspect that if we looked through Bobby Zimmerman’s record collection we would find a wealth of Hank Snow 78s and 45s, we know for a certainty that at least one Hank Snow LP was part of that collection.
Clinton Heylin, in Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades (reissued in 2003 as Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited), quotes Dylan as remarking that he had owned the 1960 LP “Hank Snow Sings Jimmie Rodgers’ Songs,” an album that impressed Dylan so much that he was still calling it “different from the norm” in 1997.
Heylin also mentions the Bobby Zimmerman “The Drunkard’s Son” holograph in his book, but confuses it with a Jimmie Rodgers song, “The Drunkard’s Child,” claiming that Dylan’s version is modeled after the Rodgers piece, which it isn’t, and shares similar opening lines, which it doesn’t.
My father is a drunkard my mother she is dead
And I am just an orphan child no place to lay my head
All through this world I wander they drive me from their door
Someday I’ll find a welcome on heaven’s golden shore… “The Drunkard’s Child,” ~ Jimmie Rodgers
Adding to the confusion, Heylin then goes on to paraphrase the closing lines “I’m hiding with Jesus, who I’ll always be by / And my mother, who I love so well,” which are indeed from Dylan’s (and Snow’s) “The Drunkard’s Son,” but don’t appear in Rodgers’ 1930 song, “The Drunkard’s Child.”
Apparently unaware that “The Drunkard’s Son” was a near word-for-word transcription of Hank Snow’s song, Heylin may have conflated it with Rodgers’ “The Drunkard’s Child“ because of the similarities in the titles. In a weird coincidence, Snow covered “The Drunkard’s Child” in 1959, putting it on his “theme” LP, When Tragedy Struck, an album which also included “Little Buddy,” just to bring us full circle, and probably yet another Hank Snow record that could be found in Bobby Zimmerman’s collection.
All art begins with imitation, Aristotle states in his Poetics, and all artists learning their craft model themselves on the artists who come before them. Look back into the past, to Minnesota in the 1950s, and maybe you’d find a boy in his room laboriously copying out the lyrics to Hank Snow songs as they played on his turntable. Looking down at the words, trying to figure out why they moved him, why they would move other listeners…
Figuring out how he could do it himself.
Have a comment or question? Email me at email@example.com
Like this article? You might also like: