Scrambled eggs and burning bread

Chris JonesIf you’re a songwriter, you may still have the original pad of paper you wrote the rough drafts of your songs on. Remember that even some of the songs we consider masterpieces probably had some temporary filler lines or lines that were ultimately replaced with something better. Paul McCartney has said that before one of the pop classics of all time, Yesterday, had any lyrics at all, Paul inserted the phrase “scrambled eggs.”

If you’re less comfortable than Paul is with people seeing your temporary lines that may have been nothing more than placeholders until you thought of something, it might be a good idea to lock your originals away in a safe somewhere. Someone may collect them someday and put them on display for all to see your equivalent of “scrambled eggs.” I’ve just gone ahead and used my own rough drafts for kindling or crumpled them up and put in the walls for extra insulation. I’m taking no chances.

I spoke recently with the bluegrass researcher, scholar, and part time butcher Peter Van Kip about a new project he’s working on which he hopes will eventually lead to a book of the original drafts of some of our best-loved bluegrass songs (and a few we’re not that fond of). I spoke with Mr. Van Kip at his tastefully-decorated duplex, and he was somewhat evasive about how these documents were obtained. He kept changing the subject and bringing up the Greek bailout deal.
He was kind enough, though, to let me see some of the material and write a few things down, so I could share with you a few of the surprising lines in the very first written versions of some of our most familiar bluegrass songs.

Here are just a few of them. The original lines that were later revised are in italics:

The original first verse of Roll in my Sweet Baby’s Arms:

I ain’t gonna work on the railroad
Ain’t gonna work on the farm
I’ll lay around the shack till the mail train gets back
Or till I’ve lost all feeling in my arm

(I don’t think they ever did find a good rhyme for “farm” there so they just decided to reinforce the title and borrow “and roll in my sweet baby’s arms” from the chorus.  It obviously worked out just fine.)

Jimmie Rodgers’ original notes for the song The Mule Skinner Blues were quite a find. Originally the song was structured quite differently. Here’s one of the verses:

I’m an old mule skinner down old Kentucky way (hey hey)
I can make any mule listen, or I won’t accept your pay (hey hey)
But don’t expect it to listen like a German Shepherd would 
This is still a mule we’re talking about (hey hey)

Partly because of this verse, the whole four-line structure of this song was scrapped and a yodel was just inserted as a third and final line in every verse, and Blue Yodel #8 was born. The awkward phrase “fire extinguisher” was also eliminated from Jimmie’s “burning bread” verse.

I was excited to see that someone had unearthed Manfred Mann’s original Fox on the Run draft. This was the original second verse:

We’ll take a glass of wine to fortify our souls
We’ll talk about the world and friends we used to know
I once knew a girl who danced across the floor
She used to be a vegan, now she’s a carnivore

These last two lines were later changed, as you may know, to two lines no one’s ever understood.

I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow looked a little different when it was a work in progress:

I am a man of constant sorrow
I’ve seen trouble all through my days
I’ll bid farewell to old Kentucky
That state just rubbed me the wrong way

The last verse seemed particularly unfinished:

Maybe your friends think I’m just a stranger
A face you never will see no more
Well guess what? I think your friends are strangers
So there! Nyaah nyaah nyaah nyaah!

The song Wagon Wheel turns out to be exactly the same as it was in its first draft.