If this wasn’t the first Dylan song I learned, it was close. I got into Dylan late — I’m probably one of the few kids of my generation who was a Woody Guthrie nut before I ever heard, or even heard of, Bob Dylan, and I clearly remember the first time I heard him, at least knowingly: It was in Woods Hole, and my father brought home Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, and put it on, and we listened to “Rainy Day Women,” and I thought it was lousy. I said, “He’s a terrible singer!” My dad said, “But you like Woody Guthrie…” and I said, “Woody Guthrie’s a great singer! He doesn’t sound anything like Woody Guthrie.”
I was probably nine or ten years old, and soon changed my tune, and over the next few years I learned a lot of Dylan’s — and yes, before some smart-aleck chimes in, he did come up with some original tunes, though he also copped quite a few from hither and yon, including much of this one. He adapted “Don’t Think Twice” from a song compiled and reworked by Paul Clayton, called, “Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons When I’m Gone” — which it took me years to track down (actually, Peter Keane found the record), but now is on YouTube. Dylan’s song is better, by a long shot, but the lineage is obvious, and Dylan eventually paid Clayton something for it.
That story gets more complicated, because Clayton himself had adapted the song from earlier sources, mining a song called “Who’s Gonna Buy You Chickens When I’m Gone,” and Dylan’s transformation was shortly transformed yet again by Johnny Cash, into one of his biggest hits of the 1960s, “Understand Your Man” — and when that song hit the Top 40 in 1964, Dylan and Clayton were driving out to California together, apparently the best of friends.
Dylan is quoted in the liner notes to Freewheelin’ saying he approached this song differently from “most city singers” (presumably starting with Peter, Paul, and Mary): “A lot of people…make it sort of a love song — slow and easy-going. But it isn’t a love song. It’s a statement that maybe you can say to make yourself feel better.” Indeed, it is one of his numerous bitter songs to ex- or soon-to-be-ex-girlfriends, a theme he apparently found particularly inspirational. I’ve tended to like my ex-girlfriends, and find the lyric kind of snarky if I think about it too much… but it’s so well written that mostly I just try to do it justice.
There’s one story I have to add out of courtesy to my old traveling partner Jasper Winn, a fine writer and musician, epic traveler, terrific horseman, and author of Paddle, about making the circuit of Ireland by kayak. We were hitchhiking from Paris to the North Cape of Norway in 1979, and somewhere around Copenhagen we got in an argument about the chords under the second line of this song: Jasper said it went G-Em-A-D7, while I said it went G-Em-C-D7, like the first line. We made a bet, to be settled by the Bob Dylan Song Book, which was where we’d both learned to play it, and found a copy somewhere, and of course I was wrong… and should have paid up promptly, in cash, but instead eventually gave Jasper an old backpack of mine, which really was not equivalent to what I owed, and my shame is deep and eternal.