Wagon Wheel – Anatomy of a Song

by Lee Gonnella on September 27, 2012


In the Bob Dylan song “Billy”, Billy the Kid is on the run for his life.  He’s near the end of his run and he knows it. What torments him though, is that the man doing the chasing is Pat Garrett, his former close friend and confidant.  The song has a number of lessons,  all learned a bit too late.  When Bob Dylan played the song for director Sam Peckinpah, who was planning on shooting “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” on location in Mexico, Peckinpah immediately cast Dylan into the movie,  as the character Alias.

This twist of fate would take Dylan to Durango, Mexico, where he did his bits for the film, most of which would end up on the cutting room floor.  He also had time to work on the original reason he was involved with the film, to write the soundtrack.  The “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” soundtrack came out of 2 recording sessions in Mexico City in January 1973, and two more sessions in LA a month later.  The soundtrack is just that, a soundtrack for a western movie, and is actually quite excellent.  In between painting soundscapes of the old west through the eyes of an outlaw, were “Billy”, which should have been a hit, and “Knockin on Heaven’s Door”, one of Zimmy’s biggest.

Like any Dylan album, there’s usually leftovers, songs that didn’t make Zimmy’s final cut, and out-takes takes of the songs that did.  And like any Dylan album, they get bootlegged.  There are entire chapters in books devoted to how much Bob detested being the most bootlegged performer in the history of popular music.  Out of the LA sessions came a song, or at least a sketch of a song, called “Rock Me, Mama”.  There are two versions of it on the bootleg I have, the first one being only 1:30 minutes long.  There’s plenty of background noise, and Bob’s vocals are so muddled it’s hard to tell what he’s singing.  But the rhythm is all there,  and the chorus, which is pretty much the whole song, is solid.  A single acoustic guitar and a cowboy boot stomping out a simple beat.  The second version comes in at a hair under 2 minutes, and it’s a lot better.  Most of the the noise is gone, there’s  some light background singing, and Bob’s vocals are much clearer.  The boot keeps right on tapping away.  A very nice moment that makes sitting through 6 versions of “Billy” kinda worth it.  Both versions can be found on youtube. Here’s #2, and keep in mind as you listen, this is the better take…

It’s a sweet little tune, and it probably would have ended up being one of those Dylan songs like “Wallflower” that get covered by a variety of artists.  The only problem of course, is it wasn’t really a song yet.  Ketch Secor was a high-school kid/Dylan fanatic from Virginia when he came across the song, and wrote verses around Dylan’s “Rock me, Mama” chorus. They tell the story of a young man hitch-hiking his way down the Eastern seaboard to meet his gal in Raleigh.  It’s not an easy trip, and if Hell were the town right before Raleigh, the guy would have gladly walked straight through it.

Ketch Secor moved around a bit himself, and never stopped playing and singing music.  By 2001, the band he’d founded, Old Crow Medicine Show, were receiving standing O’s from The Grand Ole Opry stage of the Ryman Auditorium, as well as playing every major music festival in the country.  In 2003, Secor wanted to include his version of “Rock Me,  Mama'”, now re-titled as “Wagon Wheel”, on an OCMS album.  It turned out that Dylan had copyrighted “Rock Me, Mama”, and had credited the phrase “Rock Me, Mama'” to Mississippi bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. Crudup, who had written several hits, including ‘That’s All Right” for Elvis, was screwed out of record-sale royalties for most of his life, and resorted to farm labor and bootlegging to support his family.  Real bootlegging, that is.  Crudup, it turns out, had gotten the “Rock Me, Mama” phrase from Big Bill Broonzy. Broonzy, also from the South, made his way to Chicago in 1920,  where he was a prolific songwriter, with over 300 copyrighted songs in his lifetime.

Secor got in touch with Dylan’s people and proposed a co-writing agreement for “Wagon Wheel”.  Dylan obviously liked what he heard, an agreement was reached, and the song was cut.  Fast forward about 10 years and “Wagon Wheel” is Old Crow Medicine Show’s top-selling song on iTunes, the band’s signature song, and a certified Gold record.

It’s also been covered by a number of people, but this young man sings it superbly…..

I could have included this on my Unknown Tribute to Zimmy a couple of weeks back, but technically, with over 100,000 views, the young man is at least somewhat known.

The film, “Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid” somewhat bombed after being edited against Peckinpah’s wishes.  Peckinpah never forgave Hollywood for ruining what he thought would be one of the great westerns.  He died, bitter and drunk, in 1984, at only 59 years old. The movie was re-released in it’s 124 minute entirety in the late 1988. and is now considered a classic.  For Dylan fans, it’s always had a cult following, and would lead Dylan into his own film-making project, “Renaldo and Clara”, and another outlaw tale, “Romance in Durango”.

As for Ketch Secor, aside from being a world-class musician and member of Old Crow Medicine Show, you gotta think that co-write with Bob Dylan looks pretty nice on his resume.

As you were….






Elizabeth September 27, 2012 at 11:53 pm

I first heard this song when my daughter shared it with me after discovering it on campus at the university she attends in N. Carolina. Apparently pretty popular in these parts for obvious reasons. 🙂
Loved learning the history of this song…keep it coming Lee!

jim January 25, 2013 at 8:58 pm

Are you sure Pat Garrett and Billy were friends, or is that just part of the legend?

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