Monday, May 20, 2013

Covered: Wagon Wheel

Well, Bob Dylan's song, "Wagon Wheel" has hit #1 of the country charts, via Hootie (a.k.a. Darius Rucker). It's been a long, strange trip so let's review (and don't forget to weigh in on the song in the COMMENTS section when you're done!):

Gittin' Started

Back in 2001, Ketch Secor, of string-band revivalists Old Crow Medicine Show, took an unreleased fragment from Bob Dylan's soundtrack to the 1973 film, Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, originally called. "Rock Me, Mama", added his own verses to it, and created the 2st century standard, "Wagon Wheel".

Secor revised Dylan's rough draft to tell a story of a pivotal point in his own life, in a manner both particular and universal. The on-going, cross-genre appeal of "Wagon Wheel" today is a reminder just how effectively older idioms can express contemporary experiences.

In November 2011, Secor, celebrating the song's reaching gold status, considered its origins in the blue tradition, " So, from Big Bill to Big Boy to Bob and on down to me, “Wagon Wheel” has become a true American folksong, borrowed, half-stolen, and sung out far and wide."

The First Wheel: The Blues and Mr. D.

How much of Dylan's original fragment comes from blues sources is unclear, at least to this listener. Ethno-musicological battles are best left to rock-critics-turned-blues-scholars like Greil Marcus, who hold the blues tradition as their rightful territory. While the wagon wheel is a well-established blues trope, the Broonzy version, often credited as the direct forbear, has different chords, melody, tempo and, where you can hear them, lyrics. So while Dylan may have begun by riffing on this blues standard, what he came up with was a new, if incomplete, thing. It's that new thing, with its indelible hook, that OCMS's Secor picked up and ran with.

Big Bill Broonzy "Rock Me Baby"

Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup  "Rock Me, Mama"

Bob Dylan "Rock Me, Mama"

And, for an alternate take on history, Jason Webley and Rev. Peyton tried to cover Dylan's version as closely as possible:

The Second Wheel: Old Crows and Under Grads

Despite the song being a product of the Internet age, it took a few years for this song to spread to others who exist in the same musical Twilight Zone, between darkness and light, ancient and modern, popular and acclaimed and enter the lexicon of the indie-folk elite, including Scotland's Bodega, England's Mumford & Sons and upstate New Yorkers (and OCMS allies) The Felice Brothers.

Old Crow Medicine Show "Wagon Wheel (live)"

Bodega  "Wagon Wheel"

Mumford & Sons "Wagon Wheel"

Felice Bros. "Wagon Wheel"

The Third Wheel: Out of the Indie Rut

Eventually,  the song crept into the repertoire of both blues artists (Matt Anderson and Shane Dwight) and mainstream country aspirants like Jeremy McComb Jason Lee Wilson (both of whom altered the beloved-by-college audiences 'had a nice long toke' line in their own special way.) and Nathan Carter from Ireland.

Jeremey McComb  "Wagon Wheel"

Shane Dwight  "Wagon Wheel"

Nathan Carter  "Wagon Wheel"

Jason Lee Wilson   "Wagon Wheel"

Matt Anderson   "Wagon Wheel"

The Fourth Wheel: Punk It Up

Likely via former teenage anarchist, Tom Gabel (now Laura Jane Grace) of Against Me!, the song entered the punk vernacular. Gabel's versions, solo or with the band, both cleave close to the accepted style of the song. Scranton, Pennsylvania's The Mezingers add a bit of bite, newer Chicago punk band, The Fuckers dive bomb the song and Indiana ska'ers Green Room Rockers go at it in a two-tone style.

Tom Gabel   "Wagon Wheel"

Against Me    "Wagon Wheel"

The Mezingers  "Wagon Wheel"

The Fuckers  "Wagon Wheel"

Green Room Rockers "Wagon Wheel"

The Fifth Wheel: WTF DIY?!?

The often humourless Wikipedia has designated the song, "the new "Free Bird"" and boy does YouTube ever bear that charge out.  Literally dozens of homebrew takes on the song are on tap for your consumption and believe me the variations are plentiful enough to make you woozy. Interestingly, one of this sort of amateur pick-up version is what inspired Mr. Rucker to tackle the song.

A cappela  "Wagon Wheel"

Bluegrass  "Wagon Wheel"

Rock and/or Roll   "Wagon Wheel"

Nervousteen-core   "Wagon Wheel"

One Man Band    "Wagon Wheel"

and  oh so many more...

So love it or hate it, give us your view on "Wagon Wheel" and whose version is the best in the COMMENTS section!


  1. Interesting piece jeffen, thanks. I had no idea so many versions exist, the only one I've heard is Old Crow's. I prefer theirs to Hootie's. He'll always be Hootie to me. I didn't know the original was by Dylan. Here's strike three- I never heard of the "Nervousteen-core" movement until now either....

  2. If I've only invented one new genre, I'll feel my life's work is done!

  3. Had totally forgot about this song until I heard Rucker's version on the radio. I love Rucker's take on it. Bonus: Co-written by Dylan! No wonder I love it ;)

  4. Very nice post.

    Personally, I dont care for dylan nor his style of music but a lot of people seems to like it.

    Listening through the takes was very interesting.

    1. Don't care of Dylan or his style? Greatest composer and songwriter of the twentieth century.

    2. I would not not agree with that.
      There's a saying about a billions of flies and what they eat and the fact that just because they are such an overwhelming majority, shit is good.

      At least Dylan is an actual artist and not some record-label corporate stooge or boy-band.
      I'll give him that.

      But music is like art.
      Tastes differ.

      That's just one of the things that makes music, and this post, interesting. :)

    3. Bob has many different styles of music, you don't care for ANY of them, Hakan? How about his songwriting?

  5. The first time I heard it, two guys you don't know, Clay Wisner and David Nelson, were wailing on WW in a conference room at a Metodist youth camp in Alabama and I thought the song transcendent. I've heard it half a million times since then and I still get it, and, even better, everybody else does now, too.
    There's nothing wrong with "Free Bird" either.
    Corrolary realization: Old Crow Medicine Show = Kingston Trio.


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