Perhaps Bob Dylan didn’t want to embarrass Georgia’s Governor. He and The Band would not play “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” on the night of Jan. 21, 1974. Gov. Jimmy Carter would be in the audience that night. He and his family would be seated in the 6th row of Atlanta’s Omni Coliseum. Carter had proven to be an open minded sort, one that would appreciate the humor of “Rainy Day Women.” But consider the geography. It’s the Deep South.
Atlanta, Georgia’s capital, was then striving for recognition as the world’s next great city. The people of Atlanta wanted to be thought of as removed from the unpleasantness of Southern history. They wanted to be regarded as sophisticated and progressive. Maynard Jackson had just been sworn in as the city’s first black mayor. That was different than being elected the first black mayor of East St. Louis, Illinois or Gary, Indiana. Atlanta was the home of Fortune 500 companies and an international airport — a city on its way up. But it was still in the Deep South. Atlanta dealt with all that its geography implied. For example, it would be another two years before the state legislature allowed restaurants and bars in Atlanta to serve adult beverages on Sundays.
Governor Carter had to deal with that state legislature. That working relationship, with Lester Maddox serving as the state’s lieutenant governor, was rarely smooth. Jimmy Carter also planned to run for President of the United States in 1976. Surely he didn’t want to field questions about being in the audience when Dylan sang, “Everybody must get stoned,” as the crowd cheered along. The conservatives in government and the media would never let him hear the end of it, especially since he was hosting Bob Dylan and The Band at the Governor’s Mansion after the concert.
The next night at the Omni, Dylan and The Band played “Rainy Day Women,” as they would at the following 23 shows of the ’74 tour, including the three in Los Angeles on Feb. 13 and 14. Songs from the Los Angeles shows would be recorded and featured on the live album, Before The Flood, to be released in June.
For years, crowds have reacted like gleeful children when Dylan declares, “everybody must get stoned,” just as they do when Neil Young sings, “And I felt like getting high,” in “After The Goldrush.” But as with Young’s song, there’s a lot more happening in “Rainy Day Women” than passing a joint.
The opening track of Dylan’s ’66 Blonde On Blonde album, “Rainy Day Women” sounds at once nostalgic and boldly new. There’s audacity in the lyrics and merrymaking in the music.
Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin writes in his book, Revolution In The Air, The Songs Of Bob Dylan, 1957-1973, that “it was actually not Dylan’s idea to turn the song into a revivalist sing-along.” Heylin then quotes from legendary Dylan keyboardist Al Kooper’s book, Backstage Passes, about the recording of the song.
Kooper writes,”Dylan was teachin’ us (the) song one night when (producer) Bob Johnston suggested it would sound great Salvation Army style. Dylan thought it over and said it might work. But where would we get hornplayers at this hour? ‘Not to worry,’ says Charlie McCoy and grabs the phone. It’s 4:30 a.m. when he makes the call….at 5 a.m. in walks a trombone player….He sat down and learned the song, they cut three takes and at 5:30 he was out of the door and gone.”
The song rollicks and rambles. The sound produced is like a Salvation Army band that’s had a few beers before playing by the red kettle. The music captivates, and though Dylan sings of darker circumstances than the raucous playing suggests, the convivial atmosphere in the song is front and center. In his book, No Direction Home, the late New York Times critic Robert Shelton perceived just that, as he wrote, “‘Rainy Day Women’ is an outburst of sheer joy.”
Shelton went on to note Dylan’s “drollness triggered a drug-song controversy so feverish” that Dylan had to issue a denial, “I never have and never will write a drug song.” Time, in its July 1 issue, observed, “In the shifting, multi-level jargon of teenagers, to ‘get stoned’ does not mean to get drunk but to get high on drugs.” Time went on to report that a “rainy day woman…is a marijuana cigarette.”
In his book on the poetry of Bob Dylan’s songs, Like A Complete Unknown, John Hinchey elaborates on the lyrical content. He contends “Rainy Day Women” is “one of Dylan’s most cherished simplicities.” He goes on to say that “I think it’s even simpler – and much more unsettling – than has been recognized. There is no double entendre: smoking pot is just one more way in which ‘they’ stone us, one more way in which we – who are our own worst ‘they’ – happily and haplessly stone ourselves. ‘They,’ in the last analysis, are the demons of desire.”
Hinchey believes “the song’s Everyboy figure is a defenseless innocent, but his innocence is also innocuous, a tedious banality itching for its own demise. When his persecutors find him, he is already restively ‘walkin’ on the floor’ and ‘walkin’ to the door.’ Riding in his car, playing his guitar, or trying to make a buck, he is tempting fate, looking for a way to lose his precious innocence.” He says the song is “Dylan’s own version of the myth of the fortunate fall.” The proclamation — “Everybody must get stoned” — “both announces a common fate and makes a universal promise. Everybody gets to come to the party.”
The party hosted by Gov. Jimmy Carter after the first Bob Dylan concert in Atlanta was reportedly pleasant with the usual light conversation taking place. But nearly three years later, in the pages of the November ’76 Playboy, Jimmy Carter elaborated more on what he and Dylan discussed. In a very wide-ranging interview that became a campaign crisis, Carter remembered, “The night he came, we had a chance to talk about his music and about changing times and pent-up emotions in young people. He said he didn’t have any inclination to change the world, that he wasn’t crusading and that his personal feelings were apparently compatible with the yearnings of an entire generation. We also talked about Israel, which he had a strong interest in. But that’s my only contact with Bob Dylan, that night.”
Carter is a devoted Christian, a Sunday School teacher for most of his adult life. He might have enjoyed discussing “Rainy Day Women” as Dylan, according to Clinton Heylin and others, used a scriptural reference for the song’s title. Proverbs 27:15* reads “A continual dripping on a rainy day and a contentious woman are alike.” Harper’s Bible Commentary reports that the verse addresses “nagging wives.” State legislators who found nothing to agree on with Carter, never mind Dylan, would have certainly found inspiration in that verse.
In the Playboy interview, Carter noted how Georgia had lessened the penalties for the use of marijuana during his term as governor. He said he “tried to shift the emphasis of law enforcement away from victimless crimes.” That sort of approach was not widely embraced in a state in which the Southern Baptist Convention was influential. And that influence still permeates Georgia’s political landscape.
Carter was a member of a Southern Baptist church in his hometown of Plains, Georgia, but he had always been an unconventional Baptist. He enjoyed his scotch in the evenings. Perhaps one night he might have been sipping as he listened to “Rainy Day Women” by Bob Dylan and The Band on Before The Flood. It probably sounds like the version they would have played the night he saw them in concert at the Omni. The live recording, featuring Dylan’s excited vocals, Robbie Robertson’s snappy guitar work and Carter’s scotch surely combined for a spirited evening.
*Revised Standard Version