Editor's Log Wagon Wheel Rock Me

Polkadate: May 2018. The editor explores a phenomenon in the music world where a particular song becomes so popular that it crosses most lines of musical styles yet retains its original form with only a few minor alterations mostly in instrumentation. For example, Yesterday by The Beatles and has been recorded by over 4,000 different artists ranging from Daffy Duck to Tammy Wynette to Frank Sinatra. Proud Mary by Creedence Clearwater Revival is another song that has been covered by almost every band in the 1960s and 70s, and is now a staple for retro music groups.

The latest song popping up all over the radio dial initially on “country” stations is Wagon Wheel, a come-out-of-nowhere song with a major nod to old-time string/ country music sound performed by a former pop star who happens to be African-American.

The song, Wagon Wheel, was not one of those, as John Prine (the Mark Twain of American songwriting) described, “Perfectly crafted popular hit song [that] never use the wrong rhyme.” Nor was it written specifically to be a star vehicle for a particular artist.

The melody and chorus of Wagon Wheel was devised by Bob Dylan in 1973, while recording the soundtrack to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Dylan was pulling a marathon recording session improvising melodies and lyrics on the spot for the movie. One of these was a catchy little tune, with typical Dylanesqemumbled lyrics, but a clear chorus in which Dylan and his backup singers, Rita Coolidge, Kris Kristofferson, and Roger McGuinn, chanted, "So rock me mama like a wagon wheel, Rock me mama any way you feel Hey mama rock me…."

After two very raw takes, Dylan tagged it Rock Me Mama, and then the partial song was abandoned; and the soundtrack was completed with the classic Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door being the lead track. A Rolling Stone magazine reporter, Chet Flippo, documented the session and never mentioned it. In a much later interview, Dylan attributed the “Rock Me Mama” part to Mississippi blues artist, Arthur Crudup. Crudup had written That’s All Right (Mama), the song of which launched Elvis’ career.

Dylan forgot about the unfinished song, however when you’re in the studio with Bob Dylan, the recording tape runs continuously to capture any spontaneous music. The tapes made it out of the studio, and onto a bootleg album. Bootlegs are recordings sold or traded that the musician has no input, control over, and receives no income. Usually the quality is below par and only of interest to a hardcore fan.

Dylan imitators passed the song around as a curiosity; it’s catchy little melody being easy and fun to play. Ninth-grader, Chris “Critter” Fuqua, from Virginia, was in London, England vacationing with his family when he picked up the bootleg Dylan album with Rock Me, Mama on it. He brought it back home and shared it with his best friend, Ketch Secor. Secor described the song as "not so much a song as a sketch, crudely recorded featuring most prominently a stomping boot, the candy-coated chorus, and a mumbled verse that was hard to make out." The two friends started playing acoustic music together and when they were 17 added a mostly instrumental Rock Me, Mama to their repertoire.

The melody’s earworm quality kept going through Secor's mind. An earworm is a song or melody that sticks in your head. While attending school in New Hampshire, Secor was homesick for his girlfriend in Virginia and decided to write lyrics to the tune running through his head. It describes him hitchhiking back to Virginia.

Fuqua and Secor reunited after school and formed a band called The Old Crow Medicine Show, with an old-timey string band sound. In 1998, they started busking on street corners in New York state and Canada, winning audiences along the way with their boundless energy and spirit. In North Carolina they caught the attention of folk icon Doc Watson while playing in front of a pharmacy. He invited the band to play at his festival, MerleFest, helping to launch their career. Shortly thereafter the band was hired to entertain crowds between shows at the Grand Ole Opry. If you’re wondering what a string band is; this band has two banjos, a dobro, a fiddle, an upright bass, and a six-string acoustic guitar. Oh yeah, one of the audience favorites was a song they had renamed Wagon Wheel.


This exposure led to record contracts and when it came time to record Wagon Wheel, Secor contacted Dylan’s people and explained they had taken a Dylan melody and put words to it. Anticipating a possible “cease and desist” order, Dylan himself said he liked what they did, and they agreed on a 50/50 sharing of future monies. The band performed the song at Dylan’s 60th Birthday Tribute in Nashville in 2001. In 2004 the song was finally “officially” released on a CD.

Being a devout American roots music band, the powerful star-making machines of major record companies were not behind them with massive publicity campaigns to ensure sales. The band kept going on tour with little financial security, but word of mouth, public radio, and the few radio stations that actually played music that wasn’t “perfectly crafted popular hit songs never [that] use the wrong rhyme” slowly increased the band’s popularity. Secor reflected: “What's great about Wagon Wheel is that it has grown organically. The popularity of it was all based on word of mouth. There was no radio airplay for it.”

It took nine years before the CD reached the million-selling mark. By contrast Taylor Swift’s latest CD sold a million in four days thanks to massive marketing and hype. This editor is fairly certain that few people in the future will be singing anything off of Swift’s CD, but there will be a smile on their face when Wagon Wheel resurfaces in their mind.

Secor commented that “it sort of existed separately from the world of things that are on the radio. Wagon Wheel has made it around the camp fires and the jam sessions and the parking lot scenes, in a way that songs of this decade or the last decade tend not to. When you go to a drum circle at a camp fire, you'll hear songs that are 40 years old that a kid just learned, like The Weight by The Band, and then you're going to hear Wagon Wheel.”

The Medicine Show kept on releasing new music, but the requests were for Wagon Wheel. The popularity of the song, at least in music circles, had crossed the Atlantic. A young musician living in Ireland, Nathan Carter, had been struggling with his career. He heard it played around the song-swapping gatherings. In 2012, he recorded and released his version of Wagon Wheel, which became the highest-selling song ever in Ireland. The video on You Tube is a fun romp with a nice button accordion solo complementing the Irish fiddle.

Darius Rucker had achieved fame and fortune as a founder and leader of the pop group, Hootie and the Blowfish in the mid-1990s, when he decided to solo. That didn’t work out, i.e. singing Burger King commercials did not match his previous world-touring success. Rucker turned to country and found modest success, despite being a former rocker and an African-American. In 2010, he became the first Black artist to perform at the Grand Ole Opry since Charlie Pride in 1973.

Rucker kept plugging along, getting awards, and number one country songs and then: “My wife and I were watching my daughter [at a school function] and the faculty band gets up and they play Wagon Wheel. I'm sitting in the audience, and they get to the middle of the chorus, and I turned to my wife, and I go, 'I've got to cut this song.'” He had heard the song several years back, but “didn’t get it.” He thought it was a bluegrass song, however the school's use of drums and steel guitar changed its sound to country which he dug.

Anyway, he went into the studio and the vocal group Lady Antebellum was added to bolster the vocals. When released, the song took country music and pop music charts by storm. Grammy and CMA Song of the Year for 2013 awards were bestowed on Rucker. The record company’s official music video, was concerned that that the primarily white country audience would have reservations

(i.e., not buying the CD) of this black man singing about missing his white girlfriend (in reality, his wife). They hired the actors from the huge hit country TV show Duck Dynasty as supporting cast members. Rucker’s version has sold over four million copies and still sells.

The music journalists' inspection of this song started shedding more mainstream light on the Old Crow Medicine Show, and their sales and bookings increased. They appeared as a main act on the Grand Ole Opry and mid-way through Wagon Wheel, Darius Rucker joined them onstage for a great collaboration.

A large corporation (Taste of Country) that owns over 310 radio stations (and they all play music that their computer models say you will love and buy) announced that Wagon Wheel was the 17th most popular song of the century, of course there are still 82 more years to go. New Zealand rugby teams play it prior to games and political candidates have ripped off the song and inserted their own lyrics, with a vice-president contender playing it on harmonica at a rally. Bands as diverse as the Six String Soldiers (U.S. Army Field Band), the Austin Ukulele Society, and Czech & Then Some have recorded it. By the way, hearing 60+ ukuleles and 60+ voices singing is awesome, and on the CATS version there is some mighty fine piano and steel guitar playing giving it the country flavor. The popularity of the song, has actually gone too far in some instances. Folk music festivals and some clubs have banned the song, after the Darius Rucker version became inescapable on the radio due to a certain large corporation required it to be played frequently on its 310 channels. There can be too much of a good thing.

Beware of what they may tell you on the radio, not every MAJOR BREATHROUGH in Country (or any kind of) music is an overnight success. It took Wagon Wheel 40 years, but it is the type of song that will be around 40 more years on down the road.

And there are good things, of course, due to Bob Dylan’s generosity of sharing the writing credits and the Nashville music promotion machine. Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua are not playing on street corners and crashing at friend’s apartments anymore, and most importantly, the public also has a fun song to which they can all sing along.

So rock me mama like a wagon wheel

Rock me mama any way 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….

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