‘Where I’m Bound, I Can’t Tell . . .’

Originally posted December 4, 2007

The first time I heard Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” it was in an interesting setting. Not in terms of physical place: The basement rec room was a pleasant place to spend some hours, but its decor was pretty standard for the early 1970s. I was thinking about its musical setting, as I heard the song, one of Dylan’s earliest recorded tracks, dropped in between two of his later tracks on his Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, a 1971 release.

The album opener was Dylan’s recent single, “Watching The River Flow,” produced by Leon Russell, and the third track on Side One of the album was “Lay, Lady, Lay,” Dylan’s 1969 hit from his countryish Nashville Skyline album. Nestled between the two tracks was “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” recorded and released on Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, in 1963. It was an interesting place to find one of the longest surviving songs of Dylan’s career – a career just less than ten years old but already lengthy give the standards of the era, a time when the idea of creating a career out of being a popular musician was just being invented. (It’s worth recalling that Elvis Presley’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, maneuvered Elvis into his long string of mediocre movies because he could not envision any performer creating a lengthy career as primarily a musical performer. Simplifying a good deal, until the Beatles and Dylan, no mainstream pop/rock performer had really done that.)

I’ve always found “Don’t Think Twice” to be one of Dylan’s prettiest songs and one of the gentlest among his songs that chronicle and catalog the myriad ways we treat and deal with the ones we love. In Dylan’s written universe, the subject and object of love can be savaged, can be adored with reservations, can be worshipped and can be dismissed without hesitation. I’m sure there are other instances that one can find in the Dylan oeuvre, but “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is one of the few lyrics in which the loved one is forgiven with gentleness and grace as the singer heads down the road:

“I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind.
“You coulda done better, but I don’t mind.
“You just kinda wasted my precious time,
“But don’t think twice, it’s all right.”

The only other Dylan love lyric that comes immediately to mind with that level of grace expressed is “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” from 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. In that case, however, the singer is the one who will be left behind, while the singer of “Don’t Think Twice” is the one who is leaving. There’s a difference there, subtle though it may be.

Hearing the song for the first time bracketed by two recent hits for Dylan – “Watching The River Flow” didn’t make the Billboard Top 40 but peaked at No. 31 on the Cash Box Top 100 in the summer of 1971, and “Lay, Lady, Lay” reached No. 7 on the Billboard Top 40 during the summer of 1969 – instead of in its original setting on Freewheelin’, gave the song a different sensibility that I might otherwise not have found in it. I didn’t fully appreciate Dylan’s folkie origins at the time, but the context in which I heard “Don’t Think Twice” placed it squarely into the singer/songwriter milieu of the early 1970s. And it became one of my favorite tracks on the two-disc Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, both for its wordplay and for Dylan’s gentle performance.

It’s a song that’s been covered many times. All-Music Guide lists nearly two hundred CDs on which one can find one version or another. Among those who have covered the song are Joan Baez, Bobby Bare, Brook Benton, Johnny Cash, Bobby Darin, Nick Drake, José Feliciano, Bryan Ferry, the Indigo Girls, Waylon Jennings, Melanie, Elvis, Billy Paul, Jerry Reed, the Seekers and the Four Seasons. I’ve heard some of those versions, but not nearly all of them.

Still, I doubt that any of those performances of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” will top the version that Eric Clapton provided in 1992 during the celebration of Dylan’s thirty years in the recording industry. With a house band made up of the surviving members of Booker T & the MG’s, guitarist G.E. Smith and drummers Jim Keltner and Anton Figg, Clapton pulls the song apart and puts it back together as the blues. AMG rightly calls it “one of the most electrifying performances of his life.”

Bob Dylan – “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” [1963]

Eric Clapton – “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” [1992]

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