A Closer Look At Old Crow Medicine Show's 'Wagon Wheel'

It's only when I try to learn to play a song that I really get into all its nuances. The coincidence of hearing 2 bands - Ahab and Manran - separately covering 'Wagon Wheel' at Heb Celt Fest and then my daughter posting a link to the OCMS original and she and her friends raving about it had me reaching for a guitar... and some thoughts about why it's such a great song follow.

 

But confession time first: I hadn't made the Dylan connection before. I've got a copy of the Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid out-take 'Rock Me Mama' sitting on my shelf on the generally wonderful Genuine Bootleg Series Disc Two - and the joys of YouTube mean you can hear it here. It's the same chorus, reordered so the 'wind and the rain' comes first, coupled with some extremely sketchy verses - and none of the bounce and flair of the OCMS fiddle part. 

 

Anyway, OCMS's Ketch Secor decided to make something better out of Dylan's sow's ear and added three verses packed with evocative and sometimes autobiographical imagery. He's a Virginia boy who went to college in New Hampshire and upstate New York before forming the band and moving to North Carolina. 

 

What do they say?

 

The first verse sets the scene beautifully:

 

Headed down south to the land of the pines                         

And I'm thumbing my way into North Caroline                        

Staring up the road, pray to God                                          

I see headlights.

I made it down the coast in seventeen hours,

Picking me a bouquet of dogwood flowers

And I'm a-hoping for Raleigh,

I can see my baby tonight. 

 

It's a long haul - six or seven hundred miles - and the uncertainties of hitch hiking, particularly now it's dark, don't sound a lot of fun. The image of staring out, looking for headlights is very visual. The 'bouquet' sets up a potential romantic reason for the journey, which the chorus apparently confirms - but dogwood is just the local flora ('the southeastern United States [are] particularly rich in native species', Wikipedia confirms). 

 

Then we have the chorus:

 

So rock me mama like a wagon wheel

Rock me mama anyway you feel

Hey, mama rock me. 

Rock me mama like the wind and the rain

Rock me mama like a south-bound train

Hey, mama rock me.

 

In a lot of ways it's generic blues imagery - wind, rain and south-bound trains are pretty common features of traditional songs. The typical Dylan twist is to replace the old blues phrase of 'roll me like a wagon wheel' with 'rock' - which is not what wheels usually do, but hey this is rock 'n' roll now... And the other Dylan twist is to add that lovely, drawn out, yearning 'heyyyyy' fading down a semitone with the chord change. It's hardly complex, but the song just wouldn't be the same without it.

 

Verse two takes us back to where the singer's journey started:

 

Running from the cold up in New England,

I was born to be a fiddler in an old-time stringband.

My baby plays the guitar,

I pick a banjo now.

Oh, the north country winters keep a-getting me now.

Lost my money playing poker so I had to up and leave

But I ain't a-turning back

To living that old life no more. 

 

An interesting turn: this is decidedly not a straightforward love song. The singer's woman may be waiting in Raleigh but the reasons he is on the road are that he's fed up with the weather, wants to make music and has run out of money... The way Secor crams extra syllables into the second lines of the stanzas helps build momentum nicely. The final couplet emphasises determination to make a definitive change - this is a significant journey that is underway. 

 

On to verse three, and it's an odd one:

 

Walking to the south out of Roanoke

I caught a trucker out of Philly,

Had a nice long toke.

But he's a headed west from the Cumberland Gap

To Johnson City, Tennessee.

And I gotta get a move on before the sun

I hear my baby calling my name

And I know that she's the only one

And if I die in Raleigh

At least I will die free.

 

He's made it to Virginia, but he's on foot... and when he does get a lift it's heading off in the wrong direction, through the Appalachians. Then, suddenly, a bit of romance - 'she's the only one' - immediately followed by the apparently inexplicable final couplet 'If I die in Raleigh at least I will die free'. Who has suggested he might die and what and where is the alternative of some sort of slavery he is avoiding? In context it's a nice rousing end to the song and calms thing down effectively after the splendid syllable-cramming of the lines before it. But what is he on about?

 

I have an explanation, though I don't think it's what the writer had in mind. If you head through the Cumberland Gap to Johnson City, you're on the road to Nashville... is the singer deliberately refusing the siren call of Music City where the siren Philly trucker, spliff in hand, would take him? Isn't that the obvious place for the 'old time stringband' to base themselves? Maybe it's a conscious bid to be different and 'free', even if their career might 'die'?

 

But of course, in real life, OCMS quickly moved to Nashville and are still based there, in rude health...

 

It's a great song, but what is he talking about at the end?! 

 

(From Eden On The Line)

Views: 17065

Comment by Mark W. Lennon on July 27, 2011 at 4:42pm
wow...that is the first time i'd heard dylan's sketch, i have chills up my neck. Thanks! Such a great song...
Comment by Roy Peak on July 27, 2011 at 4:49pm

Great song, but sadly becoming overplayed. I've played it in 4 separate bands myself! (And never my idea, either) and think of at least 4 more bands I've heard perform the song just this year alone.

I regularly run sound at a local venue and just last week the main act did "Wagon Wheel" for their soundcheck. I jokingly told them we had a "strict No "Wagon Wheel" policy here," and they thought I was serious!

Comment by Derek on July 27, 2011 at 6:15pm
Roy, it's because that song is easy.  If you do it right, you can roll right into John Denver's "Country Roads."
Comment by Mr Edyoulis on July 27, 2011 at 10:41pm

I like your interpretation of the protagonist foregoing Nashville on ethical grounds. However I think he just wants to get laid and would head to Oshkosh if that's where his baby was cribbed.

 

The song is getting overplayed, I agree.  But it makes a great singalong.

 

The "bouquet of dogwood flowers" line gets me every time.  Brilliant imagery.

Comment by Roy Peak on July 28, 2011 at 4:20am
Derek, yeah, sure it's so easy I can play it without thinking about it. But the song definitely connects with people. I liked it the first time I heard a local band play it, a few months later and I was playing it with that same band. Another band I was in  played it on the suggestion of the singer's daughter, so the song definitely crosses generational boundaries. And guess what--I still have never heard the OCMS original.
Comment by Hector Calavera on July 29, 2011 at 3:17am
Comment by Hector Calavera on July 29, 2011 at 3:20am

 

Wagon Wheel is a good song to teach confidence in strumming to a beginner....But it can get old.

 

Dig this identical chord progression on Social Distortions song "Prison Bound" above........If you want a darker feel mix this song into your repetoire...If you can play WW, you can play Prison Bound.

Comment by Allan Sizemore on July 29, 2011 at 6:26am
It has sadly turned into the hippie "Freebird". I started playing it years ago (2004) when no one knew who OCMS was, and now it gets yelled out every show. We DO have a strict NO WAGON WHEEL policy. Unless a really cute little girl wants to get up and sing it, then we may relent....
Comment by Peter Wrench on July 29, 2011 at 6:49am

Thanks for all the comments. These songs get hackneyed for a reason, of course - and there's quite a lot going on on top of a very simple structure here.

Incidentally, there's another conversation to be had about great song that have the same chord progression in the chorus as in the verse. How about 'You Ain't Going Nowhere' and 'Louisiana 1927' for starters?

Comment by Allan Sizemore on July 29, 2011 at 9:08am

Lord, there would too many of those to count! Almost all bluegrass....Fast Train to Georgia, etc.

 

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.