#1256: Copper Kettle by Bob Dylan
Robert Allen Zimmerman was born in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1941. In his childhood he took up piano and guitar. He was fond of poetry as well as music, especially Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. In university he studied the poetry of Dylan Thomas. When he began to perform folk music in public, Zimmerman chose the name Bob Dylan as a tribute to Dylan Thomas. He moved to New York City and hung out in Greenwich Village, playing in folk clubs. In 1962 he released a self-titled album that reached #13 on the UK albums chart. However, back in North America the album got little notice. But when he released The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in May 1963. One of the tracks from the album was “Blowin’ In The Wind”, a #2 hit for two weeks for Peter, Paul and Mary on the Billboard Hot 100 in August ’63. President John F. Kennedy has signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the USSR on August 5, 1963. And on September 23, by a vote of 80-19, the United States Senate approved the treaty. “Blowin’ In The Wind” was on the Hot 100 throughout the push to ratify the treaty.
Other tracks from his second album included “Girl From The North Country” which became a Top Ten hit for Tom Northcott in Vancouver in 1968. “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” was praised by music critics as an epic achievement. Dylan said to Studs Terkel on the radio in 1963 “No, it’s not atomic rain, it’s just a hard rain. It isn’t the fallout rain. I mean some sort of end that’s just gotta happen … In the last verse, when I say, ‘the pellets of poison are flooding the waters’, that means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers.” The song was sung by Dylan ahead of the Cuban Missile Crisis and was emblematic of a growing anti-establishment view among the younger generation. As was his “Masters Of War” in which he sang of the military leaders “… a world war can be won, you want me to believe.” The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan topped the UK album charts for two weeks in May 1964.
Dylan also recorded outtakes that were not included in the final version of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. One of these was “The Death of Emmett Till”, a ballad about the the murder of Emmett Till. Till was a 14-year-old African-American who was killed on August 28, 1955, by Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, reportedly after flirting with a white woman. In the song’s lyrics, Dylan recounts the murder and trial. Till was abducted by Bryant and Milam. They took him away and beat and mutilated him before shooting him in the head and sinking his body in the Tallahatchie River. Bob Dylan first sang the song on the Cynthia Gooding radio show in New York City called Folksinger’s Choice in 1962. One other outtake of note Bob Dylan recorded was his “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”. The song took aim at anti-communist paranoia, in this case expressed in the John Birch Society.
Bob Dylan’s third studio album, released in 1964, was The Times They Are a-Changin’. The title track climbed to #9 as a single by Dylan on the UK pop chart. The song was covered by many recording artists including The Seekers. Another track from the album, “With God On Our Side”, offered a critique of people who think the divine picks favorites when countries go to war.
That same year Dylan released his fourth album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, featured “All I Really Want To Do” and “My Back Pages“, both covered by The Byrds. Another track, “It Ain’t Me Babe” was covered by The Turtles. Just seven months later, in March 1965, Dylan released his fifth studio album titled Bringing It All Back Home. It became his second #1 album on the UK charts. It featured “Subterranean Homesick Blues” which climbed to #38 on CKLG’s Silver Dollar Survey in Vancouver (BC). Another track titled “Mr. Tambourine Man” was a #1 hit for The Byrds in 1965. And five months later Dylan released Highway 61 Revisited. The album featured “Like A Rolling Stone” which climbed to #1 on the Cashbox Pop Singles chart in the USA on September 18, 1965.
In 1966 Bob Dylan’s seventh studio album, Blonde On Blonde, became his third Top Ten album in the USA. It featured his second Top Ten hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”. In between his sixth and seventh studio albums, Dylan released the single “Positively Fourth Street”, another Top Ten hit for him in the USA.
Dylan had a near fatal motorcycle accident in 1966. He recovered in 1967 and released a greatest hits album. At the end of the year he released John Wesley Harding. The album contained “All Along The Watchtower” which was successfully covered by Jimi Hendrix, a #6 charting song in Vancouver (BC). In 1969 Dylan released his ninth studio album, Nashville Skyline. It featured the single releases “I Threw It All Away”, a #2 hit in Vancouver (BC), and “Lay Lady Lay”, a #7 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 that never charted in Vancouver.
In 1970 Bob Dylan released his tenth studio album in eight years, Self Portrait. It contained the single release “Copper Kettle”.
“Copper Kettle” was written by Alfred Frank Beddoe. He was “discovered” by Pete Seeger after applying for work at People’s Songs, Inc. in 1946. “Copper Kettle” captures an idyllic backwoods existence, where moonshine is equated not only with pleasure but with tax resistance. Appalachian farmers who struggled to make their living off the land would routinely siphon off a percentage of their corn in order to distill whiskey. Everything produced would then be hidden from the government in order to avoid the whiskey tax of 1791.
The Whiskey Rebellion (also known as the Whiskey Insurrection) was a tax protest in the United States beginning in 1791 and ending in 1794, ultimately under the command of American Revolutionary war veteran Major James McFarlane. Nicknamed the “whiskey tax,” it was the first tax imposed on a domestic product by the newly formed federal government. It became law in 1791 under President George Washington, and was intended to generate revenue for the war debt incurred during the Revolutionary War. The tax applied to all distilled spirits, but American whiskey was by far the country’s most popular distilled beverage in the 18th century, so the excise became widely known as a “whiskey tax.”
Throughout Western Pennsylvania counties, protesters used violence and intimidation to prevent federal officials from collecting the tax. Resistance came to a climax in July 1794, when a U.S. marshal arrived in western Pennsylvania to serve writs to distillers who had not paid the excise. The alarm was raised, and more than 500 armed men attacked the fortified home of tax inspector General John Neville. Washington responded by sending peace commissioners to western Pennsylvania to negotiate with the rebels, while at the same time calling on governors to send a militia force to enforce the tax. Washington himself rode at the head of an army to suppress the insurgency, with 13,000 militiamen provided by the governors of Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The rebels all went home before the arrival of the army, and there was no confrontation. About 20 men were arrested, but all were later acquitted or pardoned. Most distillers in nearby Kentucky were found to be all but impossible to tax—in the next six years, over 175 distillers from Kentucky were convicted of violating the tax law. The whiskey tax was repealed in 1802 under President Thomas Jefferson, after the federal government found the tax almost impossible to collect.
“Copper Kettle” was popularized by Joan Baez who recorded the song on her best-selling 1962 live album Joan Baez in Concert, Part 1. Also in 1962 Canadian folksinger Gordon Lightfoot was part of a folk duo named the Two-Tones who recorded “Copper Kettle” on their album Two-Tones at the Village Corner. Other recordings of “Copper Kettle” include those by Tony Joe White, Bobby Womack and Chet Atkins. In 2012 a musical titled “Copper Kettle” featured the song Clinton Heylin, author of Bob Dylan: Behind The Shades Revisited writes of Dylan’s cover of the song, “‘Copper Kettle’…strike[s] all the right chords…being one of the most affecting performances in Dylan’s entire official canon.”
“Copper Kettle” peaked at #16 in Vancouver (BC), #17 in Los Angeles and #18 in Tucson (AZ). It also made the Top 20 in San Bernardino (CA). “Copper Kettle” was the B-side to “Wigwam”.
Next, Bob Dylan released his eleventh studio album titled New Morning. The album was the sixth and final chart-topping release on the UK album chart. The album included “If Not For You” which was recorded subsequently by George Harrison, and became a Top 30 hit for Olivia Newton-John in 1971. Two years later Dylan released his twelfth studio album titled Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. The single from the album, “Knocking On Heaven’s Door”, climbed to #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #15 on CKLG in Vancouver (BC).
Through the 1970s Bob Dylan released eleven studio albums, one greatest hits album and two live albums. Among the songs he recorded, one of the most enduring is “Hurricane” about the trial and imprisonment of African-American middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Carter and a man named John Artis had been charged with a triple murder at the Lafayette Grill in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1966. The following year Carter and Artis were found guilty of the murders, which were widely reported as racially motivated. In the years that followed, a substantial amount of controversy emerged over the case, ranging from allegations of faulty evidence and questionable eyewitness testimony to an unfair trial.
In his autobiography, Carter maintained his innocence, and after reading it, Dylan visited him in Rahway State Prison in Woodbridge Township, New Jersey. Bob Dylan’s song brought the case of “Hurricane” Carter’s case before the public. Dylan gave several concerts to fundraise for Carter, who was convicted a second time at a re-trial. At a third trial in 1985 Federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey ruled that Carter had not received a fair trial and overturned the conviction, resulting in Carter’s release and the granting of a writ of habeas corpus to Carter, commenting that the prosecution had been “based on racism rather than reason and concealment rather than disclosure.”
Over his career Bob Dylan has released 38 studio albums, his most recent being Triplicate in 2017. He’s also released 13 live albums, 14 bootleg albums and 19 compilation albums.
In 2016 Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. On December 10, Patty Smith sang “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” when she accepted the prize in Sweden in Dylan’s absence, due to prior commitments. Possibly overcome by nerves she sang “I saw the babe that was just bleedin’”, the wrong words to the second verse and became unable to continue. She stopped, and asked the conductor to start the verse over. Then she said to the audience “I’m sorry. I apologize. I’m so nervous.” Then she resumed the song, which earned her sustained applause at the end.
October 19, 2019
“Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” JFK Library.org.
Tony Attwood, Girl From the North Country: the Meaning of the Lyrics and the Music, bob-dylan.org.uk, London, UK, July 18, 2015
William Grimes, “Suze Rotolo, a Face, With Bob Dylan, of 60s Music, Is Dead at 67,” New York Times, March 1, 2011.
Alan Light, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’: Inside His First Classic,” Rolling Stone, May 27, 2016.
Clinton Heylin, Bob Dylan: Behind The Shades Revisited, (HarperCollins, 2003), 314.
“Whiskey Rebellion,” History.com, September 13, 2019.
Jack Dallas, David Beddoe, Copper Kettle-A Musical Comedy, Dramatists Guild, New York City Music Marathon, April 16, 2012.
Geoffrey Robertson, “Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter’s Life Story is a Warning to us About Racism and Revenge,” Guardian, April 21, 2014.
Ben Sisario, Alexandra Alter and Sewell Chan, “Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize, Redefining Boundaries of Literature,” New York Times, October 13, 2016.
“Patti Smith Performs Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall“, Nobel Prize for Literature, Stockholm Concert Hall, Stockholm, Sweden, December 10, 2016.
Amanda Petrusich,”A Transcendent Patti Smith Accepts Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize,” New Yorker, December 10, 2016.
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