"I first heard this from Ric von Schmidt.
Ric's a blues guitar player.
I met him one day in the...
green pastures of Harvard University..."
Dylan performed this song throughout his career up to 1989 (additional officially released versions can be found on Live 1966, The Witmark Demos and Warner Brothers' The Last Waltz, where the song is credited to Reverend Gary Davis).
Baby Let Me Follow You Down (Garden City, 1979), Eric recalls:
Dylan came up once. It was Huck Finn hat time, before he made his first record... We played croquet... and Dylan was absolutely the worst player I have ever seen. He was having a ball, giggling like mad. A little spastic gnome. He could not connect the mallet with the ball!
We went driving around looking for people to join the party, playing harmonica duets all the time. When we got to my apartment he wasn't much interested in playing; he wanted to listen. So I played "He Was A Friend Of Mine," "Wasn't That A Mighty Storm, " "Baby, Let Me Lay It On You, " "Acne," and a couple of others. It was something the way 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 "...in the green fields [sic] of Harvard University." 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....
The label on the record lists "R. Von Schmidt" as the composer but Witmark had copyrighted it under Dylan's name. I figured it was a good plug for me, so what the hell.
The next time I saw Bob he said, "Hey, man, that's your song" or something like that. And sure enough, a little later I got a contract signed by him listing us as co-composers. It was to become effective when I signed it....
So I wrote Witmark and gave them the "facts," but explained that if we co-wrote the moment I signed the contract, then we co-wrote it when the record was released and royalties should start from there. Geno [Foreman] wasn't around at the time, and I figured I could split them with him at a later date.
They wrote back a nice note thanking me for my trouble and saying that I was quite right, I didn't have a claim to the song, and they were honoring "a prior copyright. " I figured they were talking about Blind Boy Fuller's heirs or something, but they were talking about Dylan's copyright. Apparently they turned around with the "facts" I had supplied them and used them to void that copyright.
Eric von Schmidt and Jim Rooney, Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, Garden City, 1979, p. 75.
A 1993 article by Larry Jaffee in SongTalk: The songwriters newspaper 3 (2): 13 (1993), kindly provided by Rudi Schmid, Integrative Biology, UC Berkeley (firstname.lastname@example.org) went into further details:
[] signifies Rudi Schmid's insertions;
 signifies insertions actually in article.
Witness the strange case of "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," a song that Bob Dylan included on his [] debut album [[Bob Dylan]] on Columbia Records. Von Schmidt, now 61 years old, shared all the messy, convoluted details with SongTalk in a phone conversation from his Connecticut home.
While Von Schmidt still plays music (in the spring of 1992 he toured Italy with his partner Linda Clifford), he primarily makes his living through writing children's and history books and painting.
Dylan came to Von Schmidt's home one evening in 1960 to jam, when Eric performed for him a version of "Baby Let Me Lay It On You," which he thought was "a Blind Boy Fuller song that I had learned from another white guy, Geno Foreman."
The song later ended up on Dylan's debut album as "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down." The chords Dylan used on his song, Von Schmidt also believed, came from a Dave Van Ronk song.
"The way I played it was as close as I could get to Geno Foreman's version, which I assumed was Blind Boy Fuller, but I never heard him play this thing."In any case, what Dylan ended up playing on the album "was not what he heard from me," Von Schmidt noted. "There is a long history to who indeed wrote this song and who has what part of the copyright," he adds.
Von Schmidt pointed out that listeners often misunderstood Dylan's spoken introduction:
"What Dylan said is not that 'I learned this song from Eric Von Schmidt,' it's that he 'first heard' it from me. But that was confusing enough to the Columbia people when they made the record. They indeed listed me (in 1962) as the author on the record's stamp, which is about as close you can [[get]] if you are going to launch a lawsuit."
"What finally broke the whole thing to some kind of completion [[is]] when [film director Martin] Scorcese did The Last Waltz, in which Dylan performed 'Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.'" ...
"What finally happened was that Manny Greenhill, who had been my manager back in the folkie days, also managed Gary Davis. He sat Gary down and asked. 'What songs did you write?' Aside from the 'Star Spangled Banner' and maybe 'Moonlight Becomes You,' it was every song that anybody heard of, Gary Davis wrote. One of them as 'Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.'"Von Schmidt thinks there may be some justification to Davis's contention because Davis and Fuller were both from Durham, NC.
"Blind Boy Fuller probably learned more from Gary than the other way around. ..."
Von Schmidt once heard Davis flay the song, and it was close enough for him to believe that he was its author.
[[Although Von Schmidt is credited on Dylan's albums, he]] ... has never received any royalties, despite the recognition. After Dylan's second album ..., Columbia wrote a letter to Von Schmidt, informing him that from that time on, Dylan and he would share the composition of "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down."
"So I wrote back, 'If indeed Dylan and I are co-authors of this thing, why are you starting to pay me now, instead of when the record first came out?" But in my letter back, I was scrupulously honest, when I heard the song, that I though it was a Blind Boy Fuller song, that I changed it a little bit, and Dylan had changed it a little bit.But Von Schmidt doesn't hold any hard feelings towards Dylan, who he calls the "best PR man I ever had." "Sometimes I think I'd like to learn his version of it."
I got this wonderful letter back [from Columbia] ... that said: 'You're quite right, Eric, you have no rights to this song' .... They didn't know who did have rights to it, but they knew I didn't have rights to it. That was that. I never got a dime."
Von Schmidt still plays it his way.
Eric von Schmidt, Baby Let Me Lay It On You (Live, Torino, Italy, April 26, 1994)
EARLY VARIANTS IN MY OWN COLLECTION:
Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe, Can I Do It For You - Part 1 (February 21, 1930)
Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe, Can I Do It For You - Part 2 (February 21, 1930)
Walter Coleman, Mama Let Me Lay It On You (February 08, 1936)
Walter Coleman, Mama Let Me Lay It On You (June 03, 1936)
Blind Boy Fuller, Mama Let Me Lay It On You (April 29, 1936)
Blind Boy Fuller, Mama Let Me Lay It On You No. 2 (April 05, 1938)
Alan Balfour lists the following chronology of variants (dates in British fashion -- dd/mm/yyyy):
21/2/1930 Memphis Minnie Can I Do It For You [see links above]
10/1/1935 State Street Boys Don't Tear My Clothes
8/2/1936 Walter Coleman Mama Let Me Lay It On You [see links above]
27/3/36 Sheik Johnson Baby Let Me Lay It On You
29/4/1936 Blind Boy Fuller Mama Let Me Lay It On You [see links above]
11/5/1936 Georgia White Daddy Let Me Lay It On You
26/6/36 Washboard Sam Don't You Tear My Clothes
26/l/37 Chicago Black Swans Don't You Tear My Clothes No.2
26/1/37 Billy and Mary Mack Don't You Tear My Clothes No.2
26/1/37 State Street Boys Don't You Tear My Clothes No.2
12/5/37 Harlem Hamfats Baby Don't You Tear My Clothes
25/1/38 Red Nelson Don't Tear My Clothes No.3
23/12/52 Smokey Hogg Baby Don't You Tear My Clothes
1957 Professor Longhair Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand
1959 Snooks Eaglin Don't You Tear My Clothes
Recordings in bold letters or with hyperlinks can be accessed/downloaded from this post.
If anybody has any of the missing variants, please make them available and provide the link in a commentary to this post.