The Perfect Impressionism of “Dock of the Bay”

Maybe, think of “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding as an expressionist painting. There are suggestions of light and color, without many distinct images or shapes. There is a story, without much plot or narrative. There is imagination, while resonant background and detail information is only sparsely shared. There is atmosphere. There is sound. There is space. There is Otis.

Written by Otis Redding and his guitarist (and future Blues Brother) Steve Cropper, “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay” was recorded in late November, 1967. As many of Redding’s great songs did, “Dock of the Bay” told a story of Otis. How he left his home in George to travel out west, and what he was looking for. What he was hoping to find. What he thought might come next…what might come next.

At first we hear the waves crashing up on the shore along with the bass of Donald “Duck” Dunn. A low half note followed by three higher quarter notes, two of them with a subtle slide up to even higher notes. Even without the sound the waves, we can hear the ocean in Dunn’s bass line. A gentle lull, and then the wave slowly crests, followed by another wave. Another gentle lull and two more waves. Just with those few notes, we can imagine the lazy ocean rocking back and forth until it comes to the shore. The sounds of the ocean fade out, and we hear Al Jackson Jr.’s hi-hat cymbal playing perfectly timed 8th notes accented by a beautiful piano, and we hear the first hear the first ethereal brushstrokes.

Sittin’ in the morning sun
I’ll be sittin’ when the evening comes
Watching the ships roll in
Then I watch them roll away again, yeah

I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooh
I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time

As the chorus begins, we hear the fine guitar work of Steve Cropper. Whereas Dunn’s bass is the sound of the waves, Cropper’s guitar is the sound of the birds flying overhead. As Redding sings “Watchin’ the tide roll away…” we again hear the sounds of the ocean. It’s as if the painting is being created right before our eyes.

Redding had been writing the song while touring. He scribbled ideas on napkins and envelopes, and finally found himself with some time to relax not long after appearing at the Monterey Pop Festival in June, 1967. Renting a house boat in Sausalito, CA he must have heard the waves gently hitting the side of the boat. He must have gazed out at the water, and thought about his wife, his farm in Georgia, and his two young sons. He spent so much of the last few years of his life on the road. Now, with a rare moment of quiet and contemplation, he must have been imagining something more.

“I left my home in Georgia
Headed for the Frisco Bay
Cuz I’ve had nothing to live for
And look like nothing’s gonna come my way

So, I’m just gon’ sit on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooh
I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time”

Bob Dylan released his debut album in 1962. A year later, he released “Blowin’ in the Wind” which was a simple song of peace and protest that challenged us all to think more and do more. Sam Cooke heard “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and in January, 1964 released “A Change is Gonna Come,” a song of protest and introspection. Then, in 1968, Redding released “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay,” a song of introspection and peace. Each of these three songs would be massive hits, but sadly, only Dylan would survive to hear them all. Only Dylan would appreciate how he was able to provide that inspiration to future musical generations. Only Dylan would know.

Sam Cooke was shot and killed two weeks before “A Change is Gonna Come” was released, at the age of 33. Redding died while on tour when his plane crashed in a lake in Madison, WI. He had been working on recording “Dock of the Bay” as long as he could before he absolutely had to leave to perform. Redding and Cropper were working together, and even though the song was not quite finished, Redding had to leave. They said their goodbyes, Otis walked out the door, and Cropper never saw him again. Otis Redding was 26 years old.

Redding wanted to add gospel vocals to the track, but they didn’t do that. Instead, they augmented the sound of the waves with the sound of seagulls, and they included a coda of Redding whistling the melody. Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler did not like all the sound effects, and asked Cropper to turn them way down on the master. Cropper returned the recording to Wexler telling him he made the requested changes (he didn’t), and they released the song. It became the first posthumously released song to ever hit the top of the charts. Certainly, an accolade I would never wish on anyone.

“Looks like nothing’s gonna change
Everything still remains the same
I can’t do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I’ll remain the same, listen”

There is so much promise in this one track. Though Redding’s short career is filled with an amazing number of great soul tracks (“Respect,” “Hard to Handle,” “Mr. Pitful,” “These Arms of Mine,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” and the list goes on and on) he had yet to record anything like “Dock of the Bay,” and it was a direction he wanted to explore further. He wanted to find more ways to combine his soul music with the folk-rock reflection of Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Grateful Dead. He had so much more he wanted to say. He had so much more wanted to do.

“Sittin’ here resting my bones
And this loneliness won’t leave me alone, listen
Two thousand miles I roam
Just to make this dock my home, now

I’m just gon’ sit at the dock of a bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooh
Sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time”

Like an expressionist painting, there is so much we bring to the artwork ourselves. We imagine the cool sea air, and the spray of the waves as they break. We appreciate this rare moment of stillness. We imagine a life, and a body of work, that would never come to be. We create the story.

There are no recordings of Otis Redding singing “Dock of the Bay” live, but this a fine version performed by Justin Timberlake at the White House in 2013, with Steve Cropper on guitar. Timberlake is no Redding, but he does pretty well.

(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay
Written by Steve Cropper and Otis Redding
Performed by Otis Redding
Released January 8, 1968

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: