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Ferdinand the Imposter

by Sadavid

Copyright © 2005 Sadavid.

See also Kyle Sheehan's interpretation of "Ferdinand."

I. Acknowledgements – and a Caveat

For better or worse, it was reading the delightful articles about Band songs by Peter Viney on this site that got me thinking I might attempt something similar.

I am profoundly grateful to Jan Høiberg for the vision, genius and effort he has invested in creating and nurturing this site.

Many thanks to Tale, who I believe was the first to transcribe the lyrics.

In his article on “We Can Talk,” Peter Viney mentions the distinction between analysis and interpretation of lyrics. I am mindful that there is a constituency that cannot stomach either.1 If you are one of those that just like to dig the tunes without picking them apart, you are advised to read no further.

II. The Artifact

“Ferdinand the Imposter” (3:59) is the last of the nine bonus tracks on Capitol’s August 2000 remastered CD reissue of Music from Big Pink.

The producer’s note2 in the booklet implies that the source was a tape many generations removed from the original. The art and science of remastering have yielded a track that’s listenable, but the overall sound remains murky and there is distracting crackling on the loudest lead vocal passages. It sounds like a bootleg, which suits its mysterious origins and its status as a recording that for thirty-odd years was more heard-about than heard.

It’s not clear when or where this track was recorded. Harm Van Sleen, in the aptly titled “The Basement Tape: Mixed Up Confusion?,” mentions three known recorded versions of the song. One version was on a tape – reputedly put into circulation by Garth Hudson – of songs that all seem to be from a single session. That tape’s version of “Orange Juice Blues” was subsequently released on the Across the Great Divide box set where it was credited to The Band’s demo session for Albert Grossman at Columbia Studio E on September 5, 1967.

This may be the evidence for the well-hedged statement in Rob Bowman’s liner notes:

Although definitive information does not exist in Capitol’s files or on the tape boxes and everybody’s memory is a little bit hazy at this late date... Ferdinand the Imposter most likely hails from the Grossman-produced demo session.

At the time of that session, Levon Helm had not yet returned from the Southern sabbatical he began when he left the Bob Dylan tour (after a concert in Washington, D.C. 28 November 1965). Therefore, if this track was taped at that session, we should hear a four-piece arrangement. Dave Hopkins in his review of the remasters raises the reasonable objection that this arrangement features piano, organ, guitar, bass and drums, suggesting either overdubbing (unlikely for a rough demo) or a post-reunion recording date.

The song is credited to “Robertson.” As far as I know, the song has never been performed in public nor covered by any other artist.

III. The Arrangement

I hear the default Hawks / Band line-up. As a test of the likeliest alternative, I floated a theory that would move Richard to drums and have Garth handle both piano and organ (without overdubs). Then I called in my brother, who makes his living playing keyboards. Even allowing for the Hudson Factor, he wouldn't buy the theory. Has to be two guys, he said, pointing in particular to the final bars.

Robbie confines himself mostly to strumming the chords. The acoustic guitar lurks at the bottom of the mix for the most part, but surfaces to define the beat in the choruses, a duty split with the piano. The guitar is also prominent in the brief intro, with a repeated pair of chords that mimic the clang of a big church bell.

Garth signals the end of the intro with a whimsical little phrase on a flute stop, and provides a sort of flute countermelody elsewhere in the song. Of course he mixes it up some – a touch of fairground here, a Festival wash there.

Rick’s bass sounds fine, and so does his playing. Although it must be one of the first takes of the song, there’s nothing at all tentative about this performance. Rick’s lead vocal is just as confident, although “confident” seems a word at odds with the sort of perplexed vulnerability that is his signature sound. He's got the "plaintive" knob turned up pretty close to 10 here.

Levon's in there hand-in-glove with the bass, the snare bringing that marching-band strut to the bass's swagger. I like the attention-grabbing double accent just before the “Doukhobor” line, and the way the drums work with the vocal through the following line.

Richard's backing vocals are a pure delight, and illustrate something The Band does very effectively – an instrument within a given song will be varied in timbre, used percussively, used melodically, with and against the other voices in a way that is not obtrusive yet ensures that the arrangement is never predictable. Here Richard sings bass, falsetto, harmony, he scats, he doubles the lead vocal, and I guess he plays a little piano at the same time. Listen to the pretty way he takes the word "along" in the choruses and just floats it off into the air...

IV. The Lyrics

Robert Wilonsky says “Ferdinand” “is as close to soused and sloppy as The Band ever got,” but I suspect he was thinking of one of the other versions, where Rick over-carefully enunciates every consonant. Rick’s diction on the (now) official version is more natural while remaining characteristically careful – but the smeary sonics still conspire to befuddle transcription. Standing on the shoulders of Tale (and acknowledging that there are lyrical differences between versions), this is my best effort:

Ferdinand standing in the tower
Think of how to get deflowered
Empress knows it’ll cost her
Ferdinand to be the imposter
Came to me to make a deal
Dressed like General Butterfield
I couldn’t wait to thank him for
The stuffed birds and rubber door

Donated to him from the poor
It’s just his game
And he carries no shame
But he done nobody wrong
He knew he didn’t belong
But he went along
Looking to see if there’s somebody
Else he’d like to be

Ben and the barber, Luke and me
Passed out tickets cautiously
To see the burning of the soup
Down at Lucy’s chicken coop
And of course Ferdinand
Start out doing Charlie Chan
Batless capless hunky small
He says he’s gonna do ’em all

A voice just said he’s not for real
But it’s just his game
And he carries no shame
But he done nobody wrong
He knew he didn’t belong
But he went along
Looking to see if there’s somebody
Else he’d like to be
Mainly free

It’s a hard cold road to hoe
To be somebody that you don’t even know
But he’s friendly
Yes he’s kind
I can’t help wondering
Why they’d want to change his mind

I got a message in the mail
Ferdinand was thrown in jail
I left the snow with Abigail
And went on down to fix his bail
(They)’d locked him in a gunny sack
His hands were tied behind his back
He claimed he was a Doukhobor
But they never heard of that in Baltimore

The police said he’d better go home
And he went back low
Back to the snow
But still he done nobody wrong
He just didn’t belong
But he went along
Looking to see if there’s somebody
Else he’d like to be
Mainly free

V. Analysis, interpretation and explication: leaps of logic, pretzel logic and shameless speculation

The song takes the form of a character sketch in three anecdotes, corresponding to the three verses. Each chorus provides a kind of moral commentary on the events of the preceding verse.

1. The Title

‘Ferdinand’ is an uncommon name in modern North America. It sounds exotic, old-world and vaguely Spanish. Ask someone to identify a Ferdinand and they’ll likely reach back to Magellan or “the Ferdinand-and-Isabella Ferdinand.” They might come up with Shakespeare’s The Tempest, whose Ferdinand is an imposter – of sorts – and is so called by his father-in-law-to-be (I, ii). More likely, they’ll recall that genuine pop culture icon, Ferdinand the Bull, from Munro Leaf’s 1936 children’s book The Story of Ferdinand, illustrated by Robert Lawson.3

On the trail of Ferdinand’s identity, I began with a clue from Greil Marcus. If it hadn’t been for the unusually thorough index to his Mystery Train, I would have missed it, buried as it was in this note to the section on Randy Newman:

Much beloved for such masterpieces of white doo-wop as ‘Come Softly to Me,’ ‘Mr. Blue,’ and ‘(He’s) The Great Impostor’ (like the Band’s ‘Ferdinand the Impostor,’ inspired by the exploits of Ferdinand Demarest), the Fleetwoods vanished from sight almost immediately.
-Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music fourth revised edition (New York: Plume, 1997), p. 245

Ah, ha! – Ferdinand Demarest.

Well, not precisely. Although the family name had been “anglicized” from its French Canadian original “Desmarais,” it ended not as “Demarest,” but as “Demara”:

Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr. (1921-1982) was a sort of serial careerist: he held responsible positions in religious, academic and medical institutions, often with remarkable success considering that his nom du jour and his credentials were invariably phoney. Famously, he was busted for pretending to be a Korean War naval surgeon, but not because his doctoring was bad.

Demara was played by Tony Curtis in the 1961 film The Great Impostor, adapted by Robert Crichton from his 1959 book of the same title. The book is out of print, but the first few chapters are available online. On the evidence of those chapters – and rather sad and sordid they are – there is no correspondence that I can perceive between the events of Demara’s life and those of “Ferdinand the Imposter.”

As I write this, the local video-rental shop is hawking Catch Me If You Can; more or less a next-generation Great Impostor and proof of a continuing appetite for such stories. After all, self-invention is the great American theme,4 and imposters like Demara and Catch Me’s Frank Abagnale, Jr. represent self-invention taken to its logical extreme.

Combine the flavor of the name “Ferdinand” and our fascination with imposters, and the title “Ferdinand the Imposter” suggests some swashbuckling counterculture epic, some American picaresque. Panama Red rides the borderland with Peyote Rouge, saddlebags filled with Acapulco Gold. But the song strikes me as a smaller, more personal tale. There’s the first person narration, for one thing: these are anecdotes, not legends. And there’s the half-apologetic “but... but... but” of the chorus, that asks us not to celebrate or mythologize, but... to understand.

2. Verse One

The curtain lifts on Ferdinand standing – a nice internal rhyme that hooks the ear – in a tower. What sort of tower, we’re not told. A bell tower, maybe, on the strength of those Robbie B. Goode opening chords. A tower is a symbol of power, and a powerful symbol. In a lyric, the word serves notice that something important is going on – think of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” or Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song.”

What’s going on here is surely important to Ferdinand – he’s about to lose his virginity. “Deflowered” is economical (it’s the only single word for the event, I think) and pretty funny when applied, as it almost never is, to a male. It’s an acknowledgement of Ferdinand’s innocence and also carries a connotation of ravishment that suggests he’s in for a wild ride. At the same time, the crucial small substitution of “get” for the commonplace “be” works a change on the phrase “get laid” that is also pretty funny.

“Ferdinand standing in the tower.” Could that tower refer to the physical manifestation of his sexual excitement? It could – and don’t forget that a stallion or bull offered for breeding is advertised as “standing at stud.” The opening couplet is an elegant joke, so subtly constructed that you don’t even know it is a joke until you hit that one-word tripwire punch line.5

Empress, I assume, is the prospective deflowerer. “It’ll cost her” because: a) sex is her trade; and b) Ferdinand drives a hard bargain. Empress is aware of Ferdinand’s deal with the narrator – a deal that Ferdinand has settled with very questionable barter. That deal may be related to the present transaction (i.e. the narrator is brokering the defloration) or not; the salient point is that Ferdinand has paid with rubbish – stuffed birds and a rubber door – so useless that even the poor have cast it off. “I couldn’t wait to thank him” is sarcasm, and is a wonderfully droll and backward way of making the point.

Now, the cost to Empress could be – say – an emotional cost, and nothing in the lyric directly identifies her as a hooker. But this detail of Greil Marcus’s note on the 1959 Roulette Records album Ronnie Hawkins is suggestive:

Also memorable was “Odessa,” a tribute to the Hawks’ favorite whore (who perhaps reappears as “Bessie” in the Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek”).
-Mystery Train, p.210 (See also Peter Viney, “Little Bessie and Big Mama” from his article on “Up On Cripple Creek.”)

I don’t think it’s a stretch to accept that in some creative genesis Odessa begat Bessie Smith begat Little Bessie. I mean here the Bessie Smith of “Bessie Smith,” who may or may not be the historical Bessie Smith who was (and remains) “Empress of the Blues.”

In other words, the Empress we meet in “Ferdinand” is another one of Caledonia’s cousins with those double-s (as in “pussy”) names. Empress is a hooker.

A Very Long Digression on General Butterfield

The word “hooker,” incidentally, has a folk etymology that traces it back to the Civil War Union General “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Combative with foe and friend alike, Joe was entrusted early in the war with the defence of Washington, where one of his actions was to concentrate the city’s prostitutes into a single district. It is unclear whether this was more for the protection of the citizens or for the convenience of the troops: Hooker was always well-liked by the rank and file, and his later headquarters was described as “a combination of bar-room and brothel.”

Major General Hooker was appointed in January 1863 (by Abraham Lincoln, with considerable misgivings) to command the Army of the Potomac. His great test as a commander came when he faced Robert E. Lee across the Rappahannock at the Battle of Chancellorsville (1-3 May 1863).

Hooker’s Commander of Cavalry in that campaign was Brigadier General George Stoneman, he of Virgil Caine’s bitter memory in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

Hooker’s Chief of Staff was one Major General Daniel Adams Butterfield.

General Butterfield (1831-1901) was born in Utica, New York. A graduate of Union College in Schenectady, he also studied law and was in business in New York City when he volunteered for service at the outbreak of war. He has been credited with composing the bugle call “Taps,” though he himself claimed only the arranger’s credit. He continued in business after the war,6 with something of a sideline as a sort of Master of Ceremonial for such events as General Sherman’s 1891 funeral. Butterfield probably had a hand in arranging his own obsequies – his grave at West Point Military Academy boasts the most ornate memorial in that institution’s cemetery despite the fact that he was not an alumnus.7 A posthumous imposter, if you will.

Butterfield is not the most famous of Civil War generals, and the line “dressed like General Butterfield” probably conveys very little to most listeners. My first impression was that Ferdinand had adopted some elaborate military costume as an expression of his eccentricity – a style choice that was to become common enough among the citizens of Woodstock Nation.8

My second impression was that this line might somehow be a reference to Paul Butterfield, the renowned blues harmonica (“harp”) player and bandleader. The Band / Butterfield connections are many: Paul and Mike Bloomfield had taken “Levon and Robbie on a guided tour of the clubs on Chicago’s South Side;”9 shortly afterward, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band played the ’65 Newport Folk Festival (where Bob Dylan borrowed Butterfield’s rhythm section, plus Bloomfield, when he “went electric”) and signed with Albert Grossman.

Paul Butterfield moved to Woodstock sometime in the late ’60s. It is easy to imagine a scenario in which one of the locals, upon meeting him, might ask, “Any relation to General Butterfield?”10 Utica is after all only 93 miles from Woodstock as the crow flies; Schenectady is a mere 53 miles away. “Butterfield” may not retain quite the resonance in upstate New York that “Lee” strikes in Tennessee, but the name may not be entirely forgotten either.

Imagine the young Hawks pouncing on a tidbit like that. Paul would have become “General” instantly and forever.11

Or “Daniel,” for variety.

I am convinced Robbie had Paul-as-Daniel in mind when he came to write “Daniel and The Sacred Harp” some three years after “Ferdinand.”12 For all the artful bafflegab about his study of the shape-note tradition (see Peter Viney’s article, “Daniel & The Sacred Harp”), surely Robbie was aware that blues harp players play “cross harp,” five and one-half steps down from the instrument’s nominal key.

Cross harp – Sacred Cross – Sacred Harp.

And I think it significant that it is Levon who begins “Daniel”’s story:

I heard of this famous harp years ago,
Back in my hometown

The “famous harp” of Levon’s childhood belonged to Sonny Boy Williamson:13

From the age of nine, the question around my house was always "Where's Levon"? Well, if it was a Saturday afternoon, everybody knew that I was downtown with the good people of Marvell, Arkansas watching Sonny Boy and his King Biscuit Entertainers performing outdoors on a makeshift stage. Or maybe I hitched a ride to nearby Helena so I could visit KFFA studios and see my blues heroes, Sonny Boy, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Robert Nighthawk, Pinetop Perkins, Memphis Slim, "Peck" Curtis and anybody else who happened to be passing through as they broadcast the legendary King Biscuit Time radio show.
-Levon Helm, “The MusicRazor, February 2004

The next lines from “Daniel and The Sacred Harp” wryly acknowledge Paul’s signal achievement in becoming arguably the first white player to be recognized as a blues master, a recognition earned in the very lion’s den of the black blues clubs of Chicago’s South and West Sides:14

But I sure never thought old Daniel’d be the one
To come and bring it around
Tell me, Daniel, how the harp
Came into your possession -
Are you one of the chosen few
Who will march in the procession?

And Daniel said:
“This sacred harp was handed down
from father unto son,
and me not being related,
I could never be the one”

When you consider that Paul was a middle-class white kid, the “me not being related” stands as a model of tongue-in-cheek understatement.

Paradoxically, Paul was able to shoulder Sonny Boy's legacy, to take up the sacred harp (despite the disadvantage of his advantaged birth), precisely because he refused to acknowledge that he “could never be the one.” His story is testament not only to his courage and determination, but also to a music so powerful that it can inspire such efforts.

A music so powerful you’d sell your soul to make it, as Daniel does in the song.

Did Paul Butterfield sell his soul to play the blues? Well, he certainly sold his birthright. He was a nice middle-class kid who could have stayed in his nice middle-class college and gone on to have a nice middle-class job, family and future. As things turned out, his career never fulfilled its early promise, and he came to know illness, addiction, estrangement and early death.15 With hindsight, you could say that Paul squandered all his silver in his pursuit of the sacred harp, but I wouldn't necessarily claim Robbie had this in mind at the time of composition.

As for a midnight meeting with Mr. Scratch, no Robert Johnson myth has attached itself to Butterfield. He learned to play much as Robbie Robertson did: with dogged and desperate determination to achieve that Holy Grail, that sacred sound. Michael Erlewine quotes Paul’s brother Peter:

He listened to records, and he went places, but he also spent an awful lot of time, by himself, playing. He'd play outdoors. There's a place called The Point in Hyde Park, a promontory of land that sticks out into Lake Michigan, and I can remember him out there for hours playing. He was just playing all the time... It was a very solitary effort. It was all internal, like he had a particular sound he wanted to get and he just worked to get it.16

In “Ferdinand the Imposter,” the reference to “Butterfield” is primarily, I think, a nod of recognition and affection to a fellow musician, a kindred spirit and a friend; a gesture that would later be repeated and extended in “Daniel and the Sacred Harp.”

3. Verse Two

Ben and the barber, Luke and me
Passed out tickets cautiously
To see the burning of the soup
Down at Lucy’s chicken coop

It could be “Benny the barber” or even “Benny ‘The Barber,’” a fitting appellation for a denizen of the Hawks’ demimonde of “pimps, whores, rounders and flakeouts.”17 Perhaps someone who, like Sonny Boy, was known to carry a cut-throat razor as an aid to negotiation.18 A fellow named “Ben Pike” shows up a couple of years later as the bearer of bad tidings in The Band’s “Look Out, Cleveland.” Is he the town barber, who picks up all the news? Luke may be “The Weight”’s “ol’ Luke … waitin’ on the Judgment Day;” identified by Levon as the one-time Hawk, Jimmy Ray “Luke” Paulman.19

Lucy, of course, I take to be another in the Odessa / Bessie / Empress line. “Chicken coop” fits neatly, then – if you will accept it as a name analogous to that of the famous Chicken Ranch in La Grange, also known as “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” “The burning of the soup” means nothing specific to me, but the context suggests it is some sort of spectacle, or at least an event to be witnessed – (metaphorical) tickets are required for admission, after all. But they are distributed “cautiously,” presumably so as to limit the guest list to the worthy, the discreet, or both. So – an exclusive event at Lucy’s place. Discretion required. Could something clandestine be in the air? Is that smoke from the burning soup, or just the pot? I hear a definite smile in Rick’s voice on this line.

And of course Ferdinand
Start out doing Charlie Chan
Batless capless hunky small
He says he’s gonna do ’em all

I don’t have much faith in my transcription here, because it is tough to discern a narrative line in this. There may be a play on different meanings of the verb “to do.” “Doing Charlie Chan” may mean that our imposter (as impersonator) is performing an impression of the film detective (as in, “Eddie Murphy does a great Richard Pryor.”) On the other hand, given the nature of the establishment and Ferdinand’s new-found talents, his boast that “he’s gonna do ’em all” suggests a use in the sexual sense (as in, “‘Do me, big boy,’ she moaned.”) It is also possible that Ferdinand is “outdoing” Charlie Chan, but in what sense? The “batless capless” line is inscrutable; possibly these are adjectival nouns, in-group nicknames for Ferdinand’s prospective conquests.

I think there is a general implication that Ferdinand behaved badly, expressed in the narrator’s affectionately exasperated “of course,” and when the voice in the chorus complains, “he’s not for real.”

4. Verse Three

I got a message in the mail
Ferdinand was thrown in jail
I left the snow with Abigail
And went on down to fix his bail

This seems straightforward. In response to information received, the narrator and one Abigail travel south to Baltimore to secure Ferdinand’s release from custody. Ferdinand has obviously been behaving badly again, but the specifics of his transgression are not revealed.

The name “Abigail” has an upstanding, Puritan ring; she sounds like just the sort of person you would want riding shotgun on a diplomatic mission to the cop shop. Nary a hint of serpentine, original-sin hissing sibilants here. And it rhymes.

I looked it up, and it happens that the original Abigail (1 Samuel 25) was indeed a diplomat: after her husband, the “churlish and evil” Nabal, had insulted David’s delegation, she interceded with David and prevented him from slaughtering all of the men of Nabal’s household. Nabal died of his own nastiness, more or less, and David, knowing talent when he saw it, took Abigail to wife.20

He claimed he was a Doukhobor
But they never heard of that in Baltimore

For others who may not have heard of the Doukhobors, Douglas Brown’s note21 appended to the lyrics posted on this site is a good beginning; a more comprehensive introduction may be found here. I spent my childhood on the Canadian prairies in the 1960s, and I can’t remember a time when I had not heard of them.22 From this perspective, I take these lines as a sly example of the great Canadian joke, by which I mean the venerable tradition of mocking the ignorance of our neighbours to the south.23

In a posting24 to the (late, lamented) The Band Guestbook, “Bill” picks up on Douglas Brown’s association of the Doukhobors with “scandalous parades of public nudity:”

Presumably some old Canadian chum of the Hawks/Band was caught running around naked in some US city - not necessarily Baltimore, which may have been chose[n] because it ‘rhymes’ with Doukhobour . . . . Some years later, the Guess Who would sing about Albert Flasher; perhaps Ferd and Ab were related?

The “flasher” idea hangs together with the previous verses: Ferdinand, obsessed with his new toy, has been apprehended for standing (ahem!) around in public, playing matador with the flaps of the requisite raincoat. Or he may have been coatless as well as capless, in the best full-Monty tradition of the Doukhobor fringe group Sons of Freedom. Either way, his claim of immunity on religious grounds is as creative as it is specious – and somehow funnier for the fact that the flatfoots don’t know what he’s talking about.

(They)’d locked him in a gunny sack
His hands were tied behind his back

The rough gunny sack could be poet-ese for one of those scratchy army blankets that cops and firemen always have on hand for the naked or otherwise needful. But consider – Ferdinand is locked in the sack. Now picture his arms crossed in front before they are tied in the back. Picture a canvas “sack,” with buckles. Picture a straitjacket. Rick is nearly overcome with emotion by the time he gets to the “back.” And you have to wonder if cops keep straitjackets on hand, on the shelf above the blankets. Probably not. Think back to the words of the bridge:

But he’s friendly
Yes he’s kind
I can’t help wondering
Why they’d want to change his mind

It seems likely that we have moved beyond the commonplace meaning of “change his mind;” we are now in the territory where the mind itself is the target of change. We’re on the psych ward, in the loony bin, on the funny farm, in a rubber room (with, no doubt, a rubber door).

And maybe the locale has significance beyond its rhymeability. Baltimore is home to the second oldest psychiatric hospital in the US, and to the Johns Hopkins University and teaching hospital, a world leader in theoretical and applied neuroscience.25 Perhaps the jail story is a racy bad-boy metaphor for the real mission of collecting Ferdinand following some course of psychiatric treatment.

Treatment for what? We’re way out on a limb here (on a tree where only shrinks have any business), but “he went back low” would be consistent with a mood-stabilizing dose of lithium prescribed for the manic episode that ended in a gunny sack. And mania would be consistent with Ferdinand’s grandiosity and sexual adventurism (“he says he’s gonna do ‘em all”).

5. The Chorus(es) and Bridge

Whatever the clinical label for Ferdinand’s difficulties might be,26 his behaviour is such that the narrator is compelled to excuse it: “it’s just his game / and he carries no shame” – presumably because “he done nobody wrong.”

“He carries no shame” is an odd formula. I think the sense is “he’s not to blame,” which would be a more conventional way to express the same thing. A case could probably be made that the phrase is congruent with classic Robertsonian themes of guilt (hence shame) and obligation (carried, like the load in “The Weight.”)

I hear “he’s not for real” as a put-down, couched in the hip slang of the time. There is no indication of whose “voice” is speaking (where are the proper nouns now?); I suspect it belongs to one of the fashionable young ladies at the soup-burning, speaking with all the snobbery of the alpha clique. There is a double irony here. The mantra of the times was ‘do your own thing,’ but regardless of the era, none are so conformist as the young. And the voice speaks oracular truth: Ferdinand is troubled precisely because he feels “he’s not for real.” He lacks a sense of self-identity and is shopping for one, “looking to see if there’s somebody / else he’d like to be.” Ferdinand knows he doesn’t belong with the fast crowd at the coop, nor indeed with Empress in the tower; but his more fundamental and pressing problem is the feeling of not belonging in his own skin.

This is made explicit in the bridge. Rick hits these lines hard:

It’s a hard cold road to hoe
To be somebody that you don’t even know

“A hard row to hoe” is a standard expression for a difficult task. The jocular substitution of “road” for “row” has venerable antecedents, and “a hard road” is itself a conventional metaphor for the journey that is life. Musicians have an understandable affinity for this metaphor – I think particularly of John Mayall’s 1967 “A Hard Road,” but there are also Jimmy Cliff’s “Hard Road to Travel” from the same year, and many other examples.27

“Cold” I think describes both the emotional flatness (“lack of affect,” in shrink-speak) exhibited by those that don't know themselves (because emotion is denied the context necessary for its expression) and more especially, the world’s indifference to their plight.

What I find really remarkable is the empathy that these lines reveal. Political correctness did not hold sway in 1967; I know twelve-year-olds were then cheerfully calling each other “ree-tard” as an insult, and I don’t think the general run of 24-year-olds was much more evolved than that. But here is Robbie Robertson clearly engaged in the attempt to understand and express what it might be like to live with an affliction that makes you a stranger to yourself. In this context, Douglas Brown’s comment on Robbie’s awareness of the Doukhobors is pertinent:

It is another instance, by the way, of Robertson being conscious of a marginalized “underdog” group, and of revealing something about his own identity, or identities, indirectly through detail.

It is an argument that applies as much to Ferdinand as to the Doukhobors. Marginalized? Ferdinand is the quintessential outsider: his defining characteristic is that he doesn’t belong – and he knows it.

Perhaps the empathy should not be so surprising. Robbie’s origins as a Jewish-Mohawk half-breed stepson dropout carny made him something of an “outsider” poster boy himself. He spoke of feeling “awkward and inadequate” around his relatives on summer visits to the Six Nations Reserve,28 and occasionally regretted his early decision to swim outside the mainstream:

We’d play these schools in the South, and these kids would be going to their dances and everything and... it looked kind of silly, but they were my age, and I was missing this.
-Hoskyns, p. 61

And no doubt Robbie knew what it was to feel like an imposter. His stage fright (if that’s what it was) at The Band’s first concert might speak to this; for me the pertinent mental picture is of a fifteen-year-old Robbie in Broadway’s Brill Building as Ronnie Hawkins’s song consultant, head cocked judiciously as Lieber and Stoller demo their latest opus. I bet that head was awful busy inside.

Well, we all feel like imposters from time to time. Most of us find the feeling distinctly uncomfortable. An odd few – the Demaras and Abagnales of this world – get a rush from it, and a career path. For Ferdinand it is inescapable hell; his whole attention is bent on the quest to be “somebody else,” but authentically, not as a confidence trick.

And he’d like to be “mainly free.” Which is another odd formula. “Namely, free” would make more sense, and the “mainly” might be just the result of an accidental transposition of syllables that also makes the line a little easier to sing. Or it might be a recognition that even “normal” people (not to mention the Sons of Freedom) do not enjoy freedom without limits of some kind.

As a purely personal reaction, the “mainly free” always reminds me29 of the lines from Roger McGuinn’s “Ballad of Easy Rider” (as sung by Sandy Denny with Fairport Convention): “all he wanted was just to be free / and that’s the way it turned out to be.” A pretty tune with a chilling message, when you recall how Easy Rider ended. I wouldn’t want to press the comparison very far, but there’s something decidedly chilling – or chilly, anyway – in “Ferdinand” as well. A couple of mentions of snow, a hard, cold road,30 and those clanging chords – sometimes when I hear “he went back low / back to the snow” I see a coffin being lowered in a snow-covered Ontario churchyard. Are these tales at a wake, an “Elegy for an Imposter”?

While there is something sad in the song, in the end I think it is more heroic than elegiac. What the song mostly conveys to me, beneath its colorful anecdotes, is a sense of enormous admiration for Ferdinand’s courage: pushing in where he wasn’t wanted, pushing one foot after the other, seeking for a self down that hard, cold road.

VI. Concluding queries

1. Who’ll buy his nurs’ry rhyme?

The Band wasn’t quite finished with imposters. The “young faith healer” fronting Stage Fright’s “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” is a charlatan and a “woman stealer” into the bargain. We get the story from the victim’s point of view in “Ruben Remus” from The Basement Tapes. “Is Mister Remus still your friend?” he demands, standing on correctness in his refusal to grant the interloper the false honorific: “Ruben Remus ain’t no doctor!”

Where you been so long, Ferdinand?

It is a natural question: why wasn’t “Ferdinand the Imposter” developed beyond the demo stage and included on The Band’s debut album? One or more of these considerations could have been in play:

  1. If Ferdinand was modeled on a real person, Robbie (and, possibly, others in The Band) might have felt too close to the story for comfort. As Rob Bowman observes in his notes to the Stage Fright remaster, prior to that album the characters in Robbie’s songs were “always several significant steps away from conveying anything overtly personal or autobiographical about Robertson or The Band.”

  2. “Ferdinand” is similar to “The Weight” in that both feature oddly-named characters moving through a bizarre, enigmatic narrative. The two songs may have been judged to be too similar, and “The Weight” is a better song.

  3. “Ferdinand” has a weak melody. See 2).

“Ferdinand the Imposter” almost made it onto The Basement Tapes in 1975. Surely that’s Ferdinand on the cover, just behind Robbie’s tuning keys. Not capless this time (he’s sporting a sporty checked number at a rakish angle), but he is wearing the jacket.31


  1. See, for example, the beginning of Robert Wilonsky’s article on this site.

  2. “Anomalies exist in the sound quality of If I Lose, Orange Juice Blues and Ferdinand the Imposter. These tracks were mastered from the best possible sources available. They appear here for their historical value only.”

  3. Disneyfied in 1938 as Ferdinand the Bull.

  4. Just ask Huck Finn, trapped on a raft with “the late Dauphin” and the Duke of Bridgewater (or was it ‘Bilgewater’?). Ask Hibbing’s Robert Zimmerman – or Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (formerly Brooklyn’s Elliott Adnopoz), whose persona Zimmerman put on like a suit of clothes on his way to becoming Bob Dylan. Or Woody Guthrie, the cloth the suit was cut from. In an interview on the television show 60 Minutes (5 December 2004), Ed Bradley tried to draw Dylan out on the decision to change his name. “You call yourself what you wanna call yourself,” Dylan shrugged, “this is the land of the free.”

  5. If you’re still thinking about Ferdinand the Bull at this point, you may recall that he was obsessive about flowers but disinterested in the normal bully pursuits.

  6. Notably with the American Express Company which his father John (of Butterfield & Wasson and the Butterfield Overland Stage Company) had co-founded in a merger with rivals Wells & Co. and Livingston, Fargo & Co.

  7. A regulation was later imposed to limit the size of memorials in the cemetery (Karen Fralen, “The West Point Cemetary”).

  8. Originally an ironic demonstration of protest and a challenge to the military-industrial complex, militaria became just another element of fashion – one that culminated in the “uniform” worn by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “Woodstock Nation” is the title of Abbie Hoffman’s 1969 “talk-rock album.”

  9. Barney Hoskyns, Across the Great Divide: The Band and America, Penguin Books, London, 1994, p. 84.

  10. Maybe they are related. They look as though they could be, and the General did study law. Paul’s father was a lawyer, and there were legal Butterfields in Chicago at least as far back as 1844.

  11. Unlike Daniel, Paul never served in the military; his response to receiving his draft notice is related by Nick Gravenites in Part 4 of “Bad Talkin’ Bluesman:” “He finally found a waitress that he knew that would marry him, and they quickly got together and got blood tests and a license, and, with me as the best man, trained down to city hall and did the deed. Without this girl's help, he'd have been known as Corporal Butterfield because, as a married man, he was exempt from the draft and the killing fields of Viet Nam.”

  12. And some five years after that incredible year of 1965, during which the Hawks jammed with Sonny Boy, Robbie jammed with Butterfield’s band in Chicago, some of that band played behind Dylan at Newport, Robbie and Levon backed Dylan at Forest Hills and the Hollywood Bowl, Dylan and the Hawks began their tour, and Levon later included himself out of that tour.

  13. Speaking of imposters, this gentleman’s real name was Aleck “Rice” Miller. The original Sonny Boy Williamson was an established Chicago harp player; Miller simply assumed his name. Charles Sawyer writes that this was a ruse of the owners of KWEM in West Helena when the man who eventually became known as Sonny Boy Williamson II was broadcasting on that station for the health tonic Hadacol.

  14. See Charles Sawyer’s book proposal “Blues With A Feeling.”

  15. As did Michael Bloomfield, who was born into considerable wealth.

  16. Did Butterfield resume this “solitary effort” in Woodstock? Daniel took the harp and went high on the hill / And he blew across the meadow like a whippoorwill. Imagining Paul blowing into the wide open spaces, I recall that there was a segment in his concert act when the band would fade to silence, leaving him alone in the spotlight for an extended solo on unamplified harp.

  17. Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music fourth revised edition (New York: Plume, 1997), p. 44. Marcus quotes Garth Hudson’s phrase describing the Hawks’ audience.

  18. The straight razor is also the equalizer of choice for Patch, the character played by Robbie Robertson in the movie Carny.

  19. Ronnie Hawkins characterizes Paulman as a man “too lazy to work” as quoted by Hoskyns, p. 35.

  20. David’s turn of phrase as recorded in the King James Version of this passage is intriguing: he twice describes the males of Nabal’s house as they “that pisseth against the wall.” Maybe that was Ferdinand’s misdemeanour.

  21. Originally posted to The Band Guestbook Wed Dec 5 05:43:03 CET 2001

  22. I thought “Ferdinand the Imposter” surely exhibited the only reference to Doukhobors in popular song. It turns out that Malvina Reynolds penned a ditty entitled “Do As The Doukhobors Do.” It is available, sung by Pete Seeger, on The Best of Broadside 1962-1988.

  23. A tradition still alive in the 21st century and exploited in the TV spot “Talking to Americans.”

  24. Wed Dec 5 21:30:26 CET 2001

  25. Incidentally, fans of “Get Up, Jake” may be interested to know that one of General Hooker’s dispatches (12 November 1861) mentions the side-wheeler USS Baltimore, which ferried men and materiel across the Potomac. Even more incidentally, fans of “Acadian Driftwood” may be interested to know that a Baltimore of a century earlier was among the escorts to the fleet deporting the Acadians. (“On the 29 Oct. 1755 the Fleet sailed from the Rendezvous in the Bason of Mines under the Convoy of His Majesty's Ships.”)

  26. Borderline Personality Disorder might fit.

  27. Including Daniel Decatur Emmett’s “Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel,” which (with new lyrics by Anonymous) became the Civil War commentary “Richmond is a Hard Road to Travel.”

  28. Hoskyns, p.11. “I was feeling like a stranger in a strange land” Robbie was later to whisper (in “Somewhere Down the Crazy River”) in what I think is an evocation of the feelings he’d had as a sixteen-year-old apprentice Hawk disembarking from the bus into the steam of the Mississippi Delta.

  29. The “Ballad” was written later than “Ferdinand,” of course, and I’m not suggesting either composition influenced the other.

  30. Such as the one the Sons of Freedom walked?

  31. The Mighty Quinn also made it to the photo session but not onto the record.

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