Song of the Day #776: ‘Let Me Die In My Footsteps’ – Bob Dylan

So after last week’s look at Bob Dylan’s 2009 Christmas album, I now jump 47 years back in time to a 1962 track that a young Dylan recorded for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan but wound up not including on the album.

Dylan’s Bootleg Series, which includes eight released volumes and a ninth due next month, is an extraordinary supplement to his catalog of live and studio albums. Dylan has treasure troves of unreleased material, much of which tops his official output, and it’s a treat to see those songs so lovingly resurrected.

Today’s track is an early Dylan “finger-pointin'” song written against the backdrop of the Cold War. Dylan explained his inspiration for this song in an interview for the liner notes of Freewheelin’:

“I was going through some town and they were making this bomb shelter right outside of town, one of these sort of Coliseum-type things and there were construction workers and everything. I was there for about an hour, just looking at them build, and I just wrote the song in my head back then, but I carried it with me for two years until I finally wrote it down. As I watched them building, it struck me sort of funny that they would concentrate so much on digging a hole underground when there were so many other things they should do in life. If nothing else, they could look at the sky, and walk around and live a little bit, instead of doing this immoral thing.”

His message about not letting the fear of war keep you from living a full life certainly resounds today under very different circumstances. How many people today could benefit from realizing that “instead of learning to live they are learning to die?”

I will not go down under the ground
’Cause somebody tells me that death’s comin’ ’round
An’ I will not carry myself down to die
When I go to my grave my head will be high
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

There’s been rumors of war and wars that have been
The meaning of life has been lost in the wind
And some people thinkin’ that the end is close by
’Stead of learnin’ to live they are learnin’ to die
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

I don’t know if I’m smart but I think I can see
When someone is pullin’ the wool over me
And if this war comes and death’s all around
Let me die on this land ’fore I die underground
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

There’s always been people that have to cause fear
They’ve been talking of the war now for many long years
I have read all their statements and I’ve not said a word
But now Lawd God, let my poor voice be heard
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

If I had rubies and riches and crowns
I’d buy the whole world and change things around
I’d throw all the guns and the tanks in the sea
For they are mistakes of a past history
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

Let me drink from the waters where the mountain streams flood
Let the smell of wildflowers flow free through my blood
Let me sleep in your meadows with the green grassy leaves
Let me walk down the highway with my brother in peace
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

Go out in your country where the land meets the sun
See the craters and the canyons where the waterfalls run
Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho
Let every state in this union seep down deep in your souls
And you’ll die in your footsteps
Before you go down under the ground

17 thoughts on “Song of the Day #776: ‘Let Me Die In My Footsteps’ – Bob Dylan

  1. Amy says:

    I love reading Dylan’s poems/songs. What a master of lyrics he is.
    Does he give any indication in interviews supporting these bootleg releases why particular songs never made the cut to appear on an official release at the time?

    This song certainly seems like a natural fit next to the music he recorded on those early albums, no? In fact, this may be one of the songs I like best of any you’ve featured over these many Dylan weekends. It’s a pity only fervent Dylan fans have ever had a chance to hear it…. until now 🙂 Thanks for featuring it. This is a special song, one that resonates powerfully in the age of the war on terrorism. I’m truly loving it.

  2. pegclifton says:

    Wonderful lyrics! I remember as a child people talking about building bomb shelters; it was a scary time, and we’re in scary times now. I’m with Amy, “truly loving it” (the song that is) 🙂

  3. Dana says:

    I agree, this is a wonderful song. And, see, this is what confounds me about you – in a world of limited time and priorities, when you find yourself in the mood to listen to Dylan, why would you EVER reach for his Christmas album or any of the dozen or so lesser tier albums from the 80’s when you have this volume of incredibly rich material from which to choose?

  4. Clay says:

    Under that logic, I could sell back 3/4 of my CD collection. I get different things from different albums (by any artist) and I like having a variety to choose from.

  5. Dana says:

    Well, I’m not sure you would need to sell back the CDs, but selling them back is very different than reaching for them when you are in the mood to hear an artist. Frankly, for me, if I were in the mood to hear Dylan (or Costello, Billy Joel, Lyle Lovett, etc….) I find it actually burden relieving to be able to reach for the best albums those artists have to offer and to leave the lesser ones on the shelf.

  6. Clay says:

    Well, sure, I do the same thing. I listen to Songs for Silverman far more than Way to Normal and Imperial Bedroom more than Mighty Like a Rose.

    At the same time, I find that if I constantly listen to the same (great) albums, they start to lose a little something. Dipping into other albums in an artist’s catalog keeps it all fresh.

  7. Dana says:

    I keep it fresh by moving on to other artists, not by listening to albums that just aren’t really all that good or compelling by the artist I otherwise want to hear.

  8. Amy says:

    hate to interrupt the daily debate, but can you answer my question?
    Did (does) he ever discuss why a song such as this one didn’t find its way on to an official album?

  9. Clay says:

    Amy, Dylan is notorious for leaving wonderful songs off of his albums (even songs that are generally considered better than anything on the album). But I haven’t turned up any commentary from him on why he does so, beyond a stray “wasn’t a good fit” or something like that.

    Dana, you’re trying to comprehend the mind of a completist, which is difficult if you aren’t one. Although I suspect you’re a completist when it comes to certain artists. Don’t you own and occasionally listen to Billy Joel albums that are markedly inferior to his best work?

    Also, a “mediocre” album isn’t necessarily full of mediocre songs. If I never listened to Empire Burlesque, I never would have heard ‘Dark Eyes,’ one of Dylan’s best songs (and one I didn’t even know before getting that album).

    Finally, and this goes back to the completist thing, when you’re a hardcore fan of an artist, you want to understand and appreciate the breadth and depth of his or her career, including the highs and lows. I’ll own everything Ben Folds, Aimee Mann, Lucinda Williams, Costello, Dylan, etc. put out because I like the idea of owning their careers, in a sense.

  10. pegclifton says:

    That reminds me of us and Sinatra. From the 1950’s through the end of his career, Dad bought, and then when we were together-we bought every single album he recorded. We wanted to “own his career” as Clay put it. There were lots of songs that we didn’t like as much, and we did play the albums we liked the best over and over; but we had to have them all. We haven’t done that with any other artist though.

  11. Dana says:

    Oh, I understand being a completist in terms of owning everything an artist has done (and, of course, giving at least a couple of listens to everything). I did that with Billy Joel and tried to do it with Elvis Costello. But, again, there is a difference between owning everything and returning to the inferior albums when you are in the mood to hear that particular artist.

    Certainly at one time, I burned a hole in every Billy Joel album, even the lesser ones–but I was much younger then and had more time to listen to music generally. Now, with the time constraints of being a husband, father, lawyer, Scrabble player :), etc….if I have a hankering to hear Costello or Joel, I tend to reach for the good/great stuff–which I believe is what you do as well.

    So, in that vein, it’s hard for me to really imagine you being in a Dylan mood and, after the newness and exploration wears off, listening to that croaky Xmas album when you have dozens of far better Dylan albums from which to choose.

  12. Clay says:

    My pattern with most new albums is to listen to them a lot when they’re released and then set them aside to return to occasionally. I haven’t listened to the Christmas album all the way through since last Christmas. But I’ll pull it out again this holiday season, I’m sure.

  13. Dana says:

    And oh what a joyful Christmas moment that will be for your family:)

  14. Clay says:

    Oh, the family will be nowhere near! 🙂

  15. Carl says:

    I love this song, Dylans delivery is perfectly measured and controlled. but if i had to chose one song from this marvellous first cd of the “bootleg series” it would undoubtebly be “Moonshiner”, which is a masterpiece, i would say it is in the top five dylan performances ever, spine tingling stuff. shame you didnt feature it here. i enjoy your blog, big it up!

  16. Clay says:

    Thanks, Carl. Actually, I featured ‘Moonshiner’ about two years ago just a couple of months into the Song of the Day series. Here’s that post. I agree, that’s a true masterpiece.

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