Bob Dylan,"To Ramona" [1964, Another Side of Bob Dylan]
"To Ramona", Bob Dylan's "open letter to a wounded wo
man whose fate disturbs him" (Oliver Trager, p. 634) has remained a part of his live repertoire until today: "Well, that's pretty literal. That was just somebody I knew" (Dylan in the "Biograph"-liner notes).
The melody is a simple 3/4 time country waltz and is clearly derived from Rex Griffin's "The Last Letter" (1937):
Why do you treat me as if I were only a friend, What have I done that makes you so distant and cold, Sometimes I wonder if you'll be contented again, Will you be happy when you are withered and old.
I cannot offer you diamonds and mansions so fine I cannot offer you clothes that your young body crave But if you'll say that you long to forever be mine Think of the heartaches all the tears and the sorrow you'll save.
When you are weary and tired of another man's gold When you are lonely remember this letter my own Don't try to answer me though I've suffered anguish untold If you don't love me I just wish you would leave me alone.
While I am writing this letter I think of the past And of the promises that you are breaking so free But to this world I will soon say my farewell at last I will be gone when you read this last letter from me.
Rex Griffin (1912 - 1959, see the bio at artists.CMT) from Alabama started out in the early 1930s as a songwriter and singer firmly rooted in the Jimmie Rodgers tradition. In fact once he was called the missing link between Rodgers and Hank Williams. The latter apparently got "Lovesick Blues" from him. Though Griffin wrote some excellent songs he isn't that well known today. He never had much commercial success but was for example an important influence for Ernest Tubb. Carl Perkins took "Everybody's Tryin' To Be My Baby" from him. He made his last recordings in 1946 and died in 1959 in New Orleans;
"The Last Letter" is one of the saddest Country songs ever, that genre's "most disturbing suicide song, deeply affecting in its plaintive simplicity", conjuring "a mood of utter loneliness unequaled in country music. Griffin's recording [...] features just him and his guitar, emphasizing the aloneness of the singer. There are no instrumental breaks, just a relentless stream of verses expressing the singer's sorrow, accompanied by Griffin's simple strumming. [...] The sparse instrumentation, simple melody and Griffin's plaintive, anguished vocals transform those desperate, forlorn lyrics into something uncomfortably real and immediate. Even now, nearly 60 years after Griffin recorded it, the heartfelt pain expressed in 'The Last Letter' deeply resonates" (Don Yates )
Griffin's recording wasn't such a great hit but it in the following years the song found its way into the repertoire of other singers. The Carter Family performed it over the radio (now available on On Border Radio Vol. 2) , the Blue Sky Boys (1938), Jimmie Davies (1939) and Gene Autry (1940) recorded it soon after Griffin and it has become a Country standard since then. In the early 60s Rambin' Jack Elliott did a fine version on his first LP for Prestige (1961), Willie Nelson included it on Here’s Willie Nelson (1963), Ernest Tubb on his Rex Griffin tribute album Just Call Me Lonesome(1963) and the Blue Sky Boys revived it for their 1964 reunion Live LP In Concert (all links to allmusic.com).
So Dylan surely knew "The Last Letter". Sadly the discussion about Dylan's borrowings has in the last years often degenerated into smearing him for "stealing" a song. But this kind of borrowing and reworking of older melodies was common practice at least until the 60s when among the Folk Revivalists every song from Country, Folk or Blues was thought to be a traditional. Waylon Jennings’ in turn took Dylan's song and used it as a blueprint for "Anita You're Dreaming" (1966)
The lyrics of "To Ramona" are at least distantly related to "The Last Letter" but they are surprisingly close to "My Melancholy Baby", a popular music standard by Ernie Burnett & George A. Norton first published in 1911 (and at first only called "Melancholy")
[...] (Refrain:) Come to me my melancholy baby, Cuddle up and don't be blue All your fears are foolish fancies, may be You know dear, that I'm in love with you. Ev'ry cloud must have a silver lining; Wait until the sun shines through. Smile my honey, dear, while I kiss away each tear, Or else I shall be melancholy too.
This song had also two verses but they were later often left out and today usually only the refrain is known.
"My Melancholy Baby" is one of the "cuddling"-songs that were quite popular in the 1910s: "In the years before World War I, songs were often about young lovers trying to spend some time cuddling close. The new conversational style made lyrics sound like extensions of everyday talk. Many songs were seductive even though the tone was playful rather than passionate [...]. 'My Melancholy Baby' is the most interesting [cuddling song] because of its young man's capacity for empathy. Because the girl is so sad, he invites her to sit close. In the song's most suggestive line, given emphasis through alliteration, he first tells her that her fears 'are foolish fancy' [...] Eventually she sits beside him to cuddle as he attempts to woo her gently ('Come on and smile, my honey dear; while I kiss away each tear') and then concludes with a lyrical twist that appeals to her capacity for empathy: 'Or else I shall be melancholy too'" (Furia & Lasser, p. 7).
In 1915 this song was a hit for Walter van Brunt, then in 1928 for Gene Austin (who, by the way, also recorded a song called "Ramona") and in 1939 for Bing Crosby. Besides that it was performed and recorded by nearly everybody including Bob's favorite "girl from next door" Judy Garland who sang it in A Star Is Born (1954).
"My Melancholy Baby" could have easily have served as a starting-point and model for Bob Dylan when he set out to write "To Ramona". The opening lines are very closely related, Dylan's read like a more "poetical" reshaping of the original words:
Come to my my melancholy baby Cuddle up and don't feel blue [...] Wait until the sun shines through
Ramona, come closer, Shut softly your watery eyes. The pangs of your sadness Shall pass as your senses will rise.
The idea that all her "fears are foolish fancy" is revived a couple of times in "To Ramona":
It's all just a dream, babe, A vacuum, a scheme, babe [...]
You've been fooled into thinking [...]
If you really believe that [...]
And Dylan's final twist "I'll come and be crying to you" looks like an echo of "[...] or else I shall be melancholy, too".
The major difference between these two songs - besides the musical setting - is the writing style. Dylan's tone is still conversational but he uses a much more "poetical" language. His lyrics are much less concise but more elaborate. He is not simply trying to talk a girl out of her sadness and the song is less playful but has a more serious background. With "There's no use in tryin'/T' deal with the dyin'" he incorporates the suicide motif from "The Last Letter". And not at least "To Ramona" offers a darker, less positive outlook. Dylan replaces the optimistic and encouraging idea that "ev'ry cloud must have a silver lining;" with the pessimistic conclusion "deep in my heart I know there's no help I can bring".
Literature & Sources:.
Don Yates, Classic Country Songs: "The Last Letter" by Rex Griffin (Twangin’)