From the Green Pastures of Harvard University: The Story Behind “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” by Bob Dylan

Columbia Records released Bob Dylan’s eponymous debut album with little fanfare. Record producer John Hammond discovered the folk singer at a rehearsal session for singer/songwriter Carolyn Hester in 1961. Dylan was the harmonica player, and Hammond decided to sign the singer on the spot. An audition recording session was arranged. Not everyone at Columbia agreed Dylan was destined for success when a five-year contract was extended to the young singer.

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As Dylan performed a two-week run at Gerde’s Folk City in 1961 in New York’s Greenwich Village, he began gathering songs to include on an album. Ultimately, only two songs would be penned by Dylan. The bulk of the album consisted of traditional, blues, and country tunes. When Hammond and Dylan entered Columbia’s 7th Avenue Studio in November 1961, many songs were recorded in one take. Dylan resisted requests for second attempts, telling Hammond he couldn’t see himself singing the same song twice. Let’s take a look at the story behind one of those songs, “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” by Bob Dylan.

The Spoken Intro

Dylan has been criticized over the years for not crediting the origin of the songs he sings. On this one, he stated it right at the beginning of the recording, “I first heard this from Ric von Schmidt. He lives in Cambridge. Ric is a blues guitar player. I met him one day on the green pastures of the Harvard University.”

Baby, let me follow you down, baby let me follow you down
Well, I’ll do anything in this God-almighty world
If you just let me follow you down

The Song’s Origin

However, the song’s origins go back much further. In 1935, the State Street Boys recorded it as “Don’t Tear My Clothes.” The group included guitarist Big Bill Broonzy and the harmonica of Jazz Gillum. The following year, Washboard Sam recorded a version. In 1937, the Harlem Hamfats covered it. Rosetta Howard adapted it as “Let Your Linen Hang Low,” and Blind Boy Fuller cut it as “Mama Let Me Lay It On You.” It was the latter version Eric Von Schmidt heard when he recorded it as “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.” Von Schmidt attributes three-quarters of his version to Reverend Gary Davis, whose “Please Baby” contains a very similar melody. Dave Van Ronk played the song regularly in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village in the early ’60s as well.

I’ll buy you a diamond ring, I’ll buy you a wedding gown
Well, I’ll do anything in this God-almighty world
If you just let me follow you down

Three Sessions

The album was recorded in three afternoon sessions from November 20-22, 1961. Five of the songs were completed in one take.  Hammond joked that it cost $402 to record.

Can I come home with you, baby can I come home with you
Well, I’ll do anything in this God-almighty world
If you just let me come home with you

Dylan Changed the Chords

Dylan watched other performers in the coffee shops of the East Village and began expanding his repertoire. In 1994, Von Schmidt wrote in his book Baby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years: “He was soaking up material in those days—like a sponge and a half. Later, somebody said, “Hey, Bob’s put one of your songs on his album. They were talking about ‘Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,’ which had a spoken introduction saying he first heard it from me. The tune was the same, and the chords were real pretty, but they weren’t the same. I don’t know if he changed them or if he’d heard a different version from Van Ronk. He also did Van Ronk’s version of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ on that record which pissed Dave off. They weren’t getting along at the time of those sessions.”

In 1963, the publisher Whitmark & Sons copyrighted the song under Dylan’s name. This was a bold move, considering Dylan announces in the introduction where he learned the song.

I’ll buy you a broken twine, honey, just for you to climb
Yes, I’ll do anything in this God-almighty world
If you just once drive me out of my mind

The Album Didn’t Chart… at First

Dylan’s first album failed to reach the charts in America. It eventually peaked at No. 13 in the UK after his popularity surged several years later. When he began recording more of his original songs, other artists began interpreting them and Dylan gained notoriety as a songwriter. When they designed the album cover, to keep the Columbia Records’ logo from being obscured by the guitar, Dylan’s photo was reversed. Without the use of other musicians, the recording costs were low. This made the low sales easier for Columbia to accept. Starting with his second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, every Dylan release would reach the Billboard charts.

I’ll buy you a serpent skirt, I’ll buy you a velvet shirt
Yes, I’ll do anything in this God-almighty world
If you just don’t make me hurt

The Last Waltz

As Dylan wrote more originals, he rarely performed songs from his first album onstage. “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” was not released as a single, but it was popular among Dylan’s fans. He regularly included it in his concert appearances through his 1966 World Tour. In 1976, Dylan dusted it off again and performed it as part of a medley with “Forever Young” at The Band’s Last Waltz concert.

Baby let me follow you down, baby let me follow you down
Well, I’ll do anything in this God-almighty world
If you just let me follow you down

Other Versions

Other recordings of the different versions of “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” have been cut by Smokey Hogg, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Little Richard, Carl Sonny Leyland, Etta James, James Cotton, Mance Lipscomb, Jackie De Shannon, The Jackals, Roky Erickson, Robyn Hitchcock, Bryan Ferry, Hot Tuna, Marianne Faithful, and Cat Power.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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