All The Tired Horses
“The singing is hypnotic enough to lure sailors to their deaths, and the instrumentation is pleasant enough. But Dylan’s nowhere to be seen, obviously. So forget this song.”
– Time Magazine, 2011
Bob Dylan: Seriously, if I want to find out anything, I’m not going to read Time Magazine… I’m not going to read any of these magazines. I mean, ’cause they’ve just got too much to lose by printing the truth! You know that.
–What is really the truth?
BD: Well, really the truth is just a plain picture.
– Don’t Look Back, 1965
In The Saddle
The needle dropped and, through a light crackle, women began to sing. An acoustic guitar played simple chords then a string section came in, followed by an organ and…and…horns…
I kept waiting for Bob Dylan to start singing and the words to change…but it just kept going. I thought it was great.
I was lucky. I had only just discovered Dylan and had no preconceptions, had read no reviews.
I had Freewheelin’, Nashville Skyline, John Wesley Harding and Desire. I had the open mind of a kid and simply listened.
Over the following 34 years, I have played this particular song fairly regularly, always enjoying it but remaining slightly puzzled and amused by it.
I would find myself wandering through different landscapes while it played, picturing these tired horses and inventing scenarios and vistas.
It seemed an odd and very funny idea – to begin an album called Self Portrait with a song that has only one line, sung by someone else.
Then, a week ago, I heard it without the overdubs on Another Self Portrait and it sparked off my curiosity – to find out where it came from.
All The Tired Horses began life on March 5, 1970, in Studio B, Columbia Recording Studios, New York, at the final Self Portrait session.The subsequent studio sessions were purely for over-dubs.
If the cue sheets reflect the order in which the songs were recorded, then it was the last song to be taped.
Present at the session were Al Kooper (guitar, organ and piano), Emanuel Green (violin), Alvin Rogers (drums), Stu Woods (bass) and David Bromberg (guitar).
According to the booklet that accompanies the Bootleg Series Volume 10: Another Self Portrait (the vinyl set), the guitars are played by Bob Dylan and David Bromberg, with Al Kooper on piano and Hilda Harris, Albertine Robinson, and Maeretha Stewart on vocals.
I have always loved the sound of the acoustic guitar which follows the women’s voices. It sounds to me like a fairly big bodied Gibson, but that is just a guess. It’s such a full, rich and lovely tone coming through.
After the basic tracks were recorded in New York City, the tapes were flown to Nashville, Tennessee for overdubbing.
The first overdubs were added on 11th March 1970, at Columbia Music Row Studios in Nashville, at some point between 10 in the morning and 1.30 in the afternoon.
At this session were Charlie McCoy (guitar) and Kenneth Buttrey (drums).
Stallion or Gelding
(depending on your view)
The second and third overdub sessions for the song were on 17 & 30 March 1970 and these appear to be where the majority of the strings were added, as the players present on those days were:
Bill Walker (leader, arranger), with Bill Pursell (piano)., Gene A. Mullins (baritone horn), Rex Peer (trombone), Dennis A. Good (trombone), Frank C. Smith (trombone), Martha McCrory (cello), Byron T. Bach (cello), Gary van Osdale (viola), Lillian V. Hunt (violin), Sheldon Kurland (violin), Martin Katahn (violin), Marvin D. Chanty (violin), Brenton Banks (violin), George Binkley (violin), Solie I. Fott (violin), Barry McDonald (violin), Dolores Edgin, Carol Montgomery, June Page (background vocals) and then Charles E. Daniels (guitar), Karl T Himmel (sax, clarinet, trombone) and Bob Moore (bass).
The Blind Horse That leads You Around
“The evolution of song is like a snake with its tail in its mouth. That’s evolution. That’s what it is. As soon as you’re there, you find your tail.” – Bob Dylan to Paul Zollo, 1991.
I have read that because ‘riding’ sounds like ‘writing’, the song could be about Dylan’s struggle to write new material at the time.
It sounds plausible, given the comments of Roger McGuinn – “I asked him if he had any material to spare and he said no, that he was kind of hard up, that he hadn’t been writing as much as he used to”, and Al Kooper’s assertion that the three songs he wrote for Archibald Macleish’s play, Scratch, seemed to spark off a creative breakthrough – “…that got him writing a little more.”
Other theories include it being a musical wink to Donovan’s ‘Writer In The Sun’ from his 1967 Mellow Yellow album, which includes the line “I ponder the moon in a silver spoon” and a chorus of:
“And here I sit
The retired writer in the sun
The retired writer in the sun and I’m blue
The retired writer in the sun.”
Or a lullaby, along the lines of ‘All the Pretty Ponies in the Yard’…
One of my favourite theories is that Horses In The Sun is an acronym for HITS – as in hits of ‘recreational’ drugs! This particular theory, I found on a Wu-Tang Clan site.
Personally, I have always thought it was bemoaning the way that work (writing another album, fame, fans) got in the way of his family life.
The ‘tired horses in the sun’ are the pressures of work which stop him having fun (going ridin’).
At the time (1970), he was father to five young children and so probably wanted to enjoy his kids, rather than having to write songs for an album he was contractually obliged to produce.
I think its simplicity is absolutely brilliant, and the snippet on Another Self Portrait, is a real treat – hearing those beautiful voices so clear and intimate – but I will always prefer the original album version.
From the Horse’s Mouth
“It’s a great album. There’s a lot of damn good music there. People just didn’t listen at first.”
– Anthony Scaduto, 1971
“The reason that album was put out [was] so people would just at that time stop buying my records…and they did.”
– Bob Dylan, 1981
“I said, “Well, fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to. They’ll see it, and they’ll listen, and they’ll say, “Well, let’s get on to the next person. He ain’t sayin’ it no more. He ain’t given’ us what we want”, you know? They’ll go on to somebody else.
I knew somebody who had some paints and a square canvas, and I did the cover up in about five minutes. And I said, “Well, I’m gonna call this album Self Portrait.”
– to Kurt Loder, Rolling Stone, 1984
“It was an expression,” he said. He indicated that if the album had come from Presley or The Everly Brothers, who veered toward the middle of the road, it wouldn’t have shocked so many.”
– Robert Shelton, 1986
“I released one album–a double one–where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it.”
– Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Volume One, 2004
The Copyright Hurdles
Originally, the song was copyrighted (words and music) to Bob Dylan and Big Sky Music on 24th August, 1970.
At the time, Albert Grossman owned 50% of Dylan’s Songwriting catalogue (with Dwarf, Witmark and Big Sky).
At some point in 1979, Dylan ceased paying Grossman, who took legal action in 1981.
On 12th October, 1987, Dylan paid 2 million dollars to the estate of Albert Grossman, and on 13th October 1988, the copyright belonged solely to Bob Dylan/Big Sky Music.
On 30th April, 1998, a transfer of copyright and security agreement was assigned to Bob Dylan/Big Sky Music and Sara Dylan/Phantom Music.
If a horse gets tired and hot from the sun his body temperature rises, his heart can beat in an irregular pattern, or ‘thump’; his flanks ‘cave in’ and his skin loses elasticity. The horse will need rest and plenty of water. If the horse is dark haired, his coat may be cropped but not too short, as he may become sunburned.
A Nagging Feeling…
Romance In Durango
Soon the horse will take us to Durango
Cat’s In The Well
The cat’s in the well, the horse is going bumpety bump
The cat’s in the well, and the horse is going bumpety bump
Under The Red Sky
This is the blind horse that leads you around
He gave a string of horses
Man In The Long Black Coat
Somebody is out there beating a dead horse
Only A Hobo
To wait for your future like a horse that’s gone lame
Get on your horse and ride away
You’re A Big Girl Now
But what’s the sense of changing horses in midstream?
Baby, I’m In The Mood For You
Sometimes I’m in the mood, I’m gonna sleep in my pony’s stall
I hitched up my pony to a post on the right
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
I met a young child beside a dead pony
Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie
And you feel the reins from yer pony are slippin’
I had a pony, her name was Lucifer
I had a pony, her name was Lucifer
She broke her leg and needed shooting
I swear it hurt me more than it coulda hurted her
I got a new pony, she knows how to fox-trot, lope and pace
Well, I got a new pony, she knows how to fox-trot, lope and pace
She got great big hind legs
Long black shaggy hair hangin’ in her face.
All The Tried Sources
Thanks, once again, to Dag Braathen.