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Bob Dylan, Carolyn Dennis, Creole girls and The Lakes of Pontchartrain


So handsome was my Creole girl on the lakes of Pontchartrain

You’re welcome here kind stranger, our house is very plain
But we never turn a stranger out on the lakes of Pontchartrain

-Trad

I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

-Bob Dylan

A great performance of the classic ballad Lakes of Pontchartrain by Bob Dylan in Madrid on June 15th, 1989.

This song was a regular part of Dylan’s live repertoire during the late eighties.

Dylan had long been known for his love of black culture and indeed, apparently, black women! He was also in that period recently married to a lady of black/mixed ethnicity, Carolyn Dennis.

Perhaps, consciously or subconsciously, as well as the song’s many other attractions, one of them may have been the fact it allowed Bob sing about the beauty of a lady of colour, a Creole girl … “a dark girl towards me came and I fell in love with a Creole girl on the lakes of Pontchartrain”, “Her hair upon her shoulders in jet black ringlets fell, to try to paint her beauty I’m sure would be in vain, so handsome was my Creole girl on the lakes of Pontchartrain” etc.

Guitarist Billy Cross in the Howard Sounes’ biography “Down the Highway: The Life Of Bob Dylan”, in a passage about the 1978 tour, is quoted as saying “Bob is really into black culture. He loves black women. He likes black music. He likes black style.”

Black paramours of course crop up in numerous Dylan lyrics … “Well, I return to the Queen of Spades and talk with my chambermaid. She knows that I’m not afraid to look at her. She is good to me ….”, (from I want You ), “The night is pitch black, come an’ make my pale face fit into place, ah, please” (from Spanish Harlem Incident), etc.

Carolyn Dennis


In the eighties, Bob had conducted a secretive love affair with one of his backing singers, Carolyn Dennis, with whom he had a daughter and to whom he was married in 1986.

The 2001 Howard Sounes’ biography “Down the Highway: The Life Of Bob Dylan” was the first to unearth the fact that Dylan secretly married Dennis in 1986 after the birth of their daughter Desiree Gabrielle Dennis-Dylan. They would be married from 1986 to 1992.

Carolyn was a backup singer for Dylan from soon after they met in 1978 until 1987.

Dennis’ mother is the singer Madelyn Quebec – a former member of The Raelettes.

During the last two years of her spell in Dylan’s touring band, her mother, Quebec, was also a member of the vocal quartet which was known during that period as The Queens Of Rhythm.

Bob with Carolyn and The Queens Of Rhythm (and some guy!)

Carolyn Dennis is a very enigmatic figure and not much seems to be publicly known about her. Neither are there many pictures of her in circulation. She seem like a very decent sort though.

Their marriage and parenthood was completely unknown to Dylan’s fans and the media until Sounes’ book.

Dennis is quoted as saying, “I have three children, but I’m not going to say which ones are Bob Dylan’s.”

She also, according to her spokesman, had made a pact with her children not to publicize their paternity. “Bob Dylan has eight or nine children,” Dennis says. “We’re not trading on that.”

Bob with Carolyn and The Queens Of Rhythm

A brief yet interesting interview with Carol Dennis was published in December 1992, in the Bruce Springsteen fanzine “Follow That Dream International“. dyl_Ann posted the Bob related section from that interview on allalongthewatchtower which speaks about Carol’s first offer to play with Dylan in 1978 and the fact that she then had no clue who Bob was!!

Q. After getting involved with theatre and working with Stevie Wonder and Burt Bacharach you started your long collaboration with Bob Dylan…

A. Yeah, I went on the road for a couple of weeks with Burt Bacharach doing a tour in South America, and I came back to a surprising phone call from a girl who was dating Mr. Dylan at the time, for him. I have say – as embarrassing as it might be – I didn’t know who he was, because my young life had been so reclusive and so sheltered. So I called and I asked “Who is Bob Dylan? I got a call, they want me to come and audition for this guy named Bob Dylan. Who is he?”. And the Union went “What? Oh My God! In the sixties there was nobody but Bob Dylan and the Beatles!”. It was May 1978 when I first met him and started working for him, did the United States, started recording with him.

Q. After your first tour with him, you had a kind of special role in helping with the vocal parts…

A. Well, I mean, I would call background singers and then, you know, he’d hear them of course, the final decision was his, you know. But he knew that I’d basically bring in what he was after, people that could go after a feeling, that it wasn’t so much standing there with the music and trying to prove how perfectly you could sing, but people who had a story in their voices, when they’d sing there was a feeling there. That feeling comes from life experiences, and that’s what he was after. He wanted his show to have that kind of spontaneous spiritual type of feeling to it, a lot similar to what Bruce is requesting.

Bob with Madelyn Quebec


She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns.“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

Dylan’s interpretation of “The Lakes of Pontchartrain” is typically excellent. He makes the ancient song his own. The rasping performance is wonderful on this clip.
It’s said that Dylan was introduced to the song by Paul Brady who recorded a successful version in 1978. That does not really seem likely though – with Dylan’s encyclopedic knowledge of music (especially folk music), it seems more than probable that Dylan would have been very familiar with the song years earlier.

The great Dylan interpretation of this classic song, sadly, never made its way onto vinyl. Of course, it can be found on numerous live boots though.

You can see the strong influences this amazing song had on some of Dylan’s great works, most obviously on “Shelter From The Storm” from his greatest LP Blood on the Tracks. “Shelter From The Storm” is heavily influenced by the Pontchartrain melody while lyrically, and especially thematically, there are many similarities too.

The Lakes of Pontchartrain is a beautiful lament for some lost moments of idyllic love experienced by a stranger with an exotic lady in a strange land.

Wonderfully crafted poetry of loss entwined with a haunting sumptuous melody make this song as close to perfect as one could ever expect!

The song is an American ballad about an impoverished immigrant (the song is not not explicit about his origin, but it’s thought to be Ireland) who is given shelter by a beautiful Louisiana Creole woman. He falls in love with her and asks her to marry him but, alas, she is already promised to a sailor and must decline the offer. The exact origin of the song is however unknown.

The song is named for, and set on, the shores of Louisiana’s “lakes” of Pontchartrain, which actually is only a single body of water, Lake Pontchartrain! As a geographical aside, Lake Pontchartrain does, however, connect to two other lakes, Lake Borgne to the east and Lake Maurepas to the west, which may explain the plural in the title! Of course too, the phrase “Lakes of Pontchartrain” sounds much more poetic and memorable than “Lake of Pontchartrain.”

Although deemed American, you can see prominent elements in the song’s melody as well as in its lyrical structure and imagery that clearly trace its original heritage back to Irish traditional music and Gaelic language Irish laments.

I first recall hearing this great song, as a kid, performed on some Irish TV show years and years ago by the great Christy Moore in a very sparse acoustic performance. I was so much younger then (I’m older than that now!) but the song had a powerful and long lasting impact.

Among other countless versions of the song are the versions recorded by the great Irish trad group Planxty (with Christy Moore then in tow) on Cold Blow and the Rainy Night in 1974 and by the Irish musician Paul Brady on Welcome Here Kind Stranger in 1978.

Other well known renditions include those by Peter Case, the Be Good Tanyas, and Mark Knopfler performing with the Chieftains on the group’s album The Long Black Veil. Rather oddly, the OTT band Tangerine Dream recorded a version of the song for their 2007 album Madcap’s Flaming Duty.

As mentioned above, the exact origin of the song is unknown, although much of it’s kernel influences are clearly Irish. However, the version closest to that we know today – like all great traditional classics, a composite of numerous earlier variant versions arising from countless influences – is commonly held to have come out of the southern United States in the 19th century.

In the liner notes of Déanta’s album Ready for the Storm, which includes the song, “The Lakes of Pontchartrain” is described as a “traditional Creole love song, which is of Irish origin.”

The liner notes accompanying Planxty’s version state that the tune was probably brought back by soldiers fighting for the British or French armies in Louisiana and Canada in the War of 1812.

Regardless of it’s origins, The Lakes of Pontchartrain is a classic, beautiful, poetic piece of music art that has stood the test of time and that shall still be sung hundreds of years hence!

It was on one fine march morning when I bid New Orleans adieu
And I was on the road to Jackson town my fortunes to renew
I cursed all foreign money, no credit could I gain
Which filled my heart with longing for the lakes of Pontchartrain

I sat on board a railway car beneath the morning sun
And I rode the rails ‘till evening when I lay me down again
Ah strangers they’re no friends to me till a dark girl towards me came
And I fell in love with a Creole girl on the lakes of Pontchartrain

I said my pretty Creole girl my money here is no good
If it weren’t for the alligators, I would sleep out in the woods
You’re welcome here kind stranger, our house is very plain
But we never turn a stranger out on the lakes of Pontchartrain

She took me out to her mama’s house and treated me right well
Her hair upon her shoulders in jet black ringlets fell
To try to paint her beauty I’m sure would be in vain
So handsome was my Creole girl on the lakes of Pontchartrain

I asked her would she marry me and she said it never would be
For she had got a lover and he was off at sea
She said that she would wait for him, that faithful she remained
Waiting for her sailor on the lakes of Pontchartrain

So fair you well my bonny ol’ girl, I may never see you no more
I won’t forget your kindness in that cottage by the shore
At every social gathering a golden glass I drink
And I’ll drink all health to the Creole girl on the lakes of Pontchartrain.

Bob Dylan – Lakes of Pontchartrain Live
Madrid
June 15th, 1989

From: 4thTimeAround

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November 5, 2008 Posted by | Carolyn Dennis, Music_Folk, _BOB DYLAN, _MUSIC, _VIDEO | 3 Comments