Posts Tagged ‘Bob Dylan’

‘Spoken not read’

14 December 2016

Bob Dylan, by Kyle Legates

There’s no argument here that Dylan deserved to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, not least because he changed our expectations of the weight that a song could carry. I admired the way in which, in his acceptance speech (read out in Stockholm by the US Ambassador) he both managed to compare himself to Shakespeare while at the same time using this as a shield to deflect the critics who had suggested that the Literature prize should not go to a songwriter.

Near the beginning of the speech, Dylan writes:

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

Of course, this is also a reminder that several playwrights have also won the Nobel Prize since it was created in 1901–Pinter, Dario Fo, Beckett, Pirandello, Eugene O’Neill, Shaw–and that they have also wrestled with the same problems of words-as-performance, without attracting the same opprobrium.

And then, in the speech, he goes off on a little tour, talking about his personal history, the slow way in which confidence and ambition grows with success as a performer, nodding in a clever but flattering way in the direction of the Nobel Committee, before bringing it back to Shakespeare again:

But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.

Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”

So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.

I was lucky enough, years ago, to hear Christopher Ricks do one of his lectures where he dissected several songs; the masterly construction of ‘Boots of Spanish Leather‘, with its alternate male and female rhymes (“made of silver or of golden“), and of ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll‘ (“now is the time for your tears”), contrasted with the thinner material that makes up ‘One Too Many Mornings‘. Ricks became a bit of lightning rod for other critics, partly because he insisted on saying that Dylan was better than Keats, which was a red rag to sections of the English literati. I don’t think that argument was worth spending time on, even then, but the scholarship in his lecture, and much more, eventually found its way into a long critical appraisal of Dylan’s language and lyrics, a quarter of a century later. As Thomas Jones notes in his review in LRB, Ricks’ says of ‘Hattie Carroll’ that ‘Here is a song that could not be written better.’

Ricks, who was an early champion of Dylan’s literary quality, has been vindicated by the Nobel Commitee’s answer to Dylan’s unasked question, and he was in the pages of the Irish Times (scroll down) after the announcement was made.

Some reminders, since one of Dylan’s powers is that of a great reminder.

First, that every artist, insofar as he or she is great as well as original, has had the task of creating the taste by which the art is to be enjoyed (Wordsworth’s conviction). Second, that the art of song is a triple art, a true compound. And it doesn’t make sense to ask which element of a compound is more “important”: the voice, or the music, or the words? (Which is more important in water, the oxygen or the hydrogen?)

But in some ways Roddy Doyle catches the sentiment and the spirit better in the same Irish Times feature:

-I remember when me brother brought home Highway 61 Revisited, when it came ou’, like. Now, I love me music – always did. But, like, ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah’. I mean, there wasn’t much in the lyrics of anny o’ the songs back then. An’ then I heard, ‘They’re paintin’ postcards of the hangin’, they’re paintin’ the passports brown.’ It was amazin’. The start of my life, nearly. Even me da stopped complainin’ about the noise.

The image of Bob Dylan at the top of this post is by Kyle Legates. It is used here, with thanks, under a Creative Commons licence.



White labels and acetate

19 October 2014


In the days when recorded music was on vinyl, there was a kind of pre-release hierarchy. Early pressings – tests and demos – were on acetate; pre-release promo copies (for radio stations and DJs) were “white labels“, and then there were the release versions.

Over at The Space, there’s an intriguing story by the producer Joe Boyd about the impact an unreleased acetate version of Dylan’s Basement Tapes had in London in the late 1960s. By way of a reminder, The Basement Tapes were recorded by Dylan in 1967 at the The Big Pink, near his home in upstate New York with The Band (still then known as The Hawks) but weren’t released in any form until 1975. At the time, Dylan was recovering from the motorcycle accident that had caused the cancellation of the Blonde on Blonde tour. They were musicians exploring, having a good time. They weren’t thinking of releasing them; in fact, the musicians talked about destroying the recordings.

But bootleg tapes got out. In an article in Rolling Stone to mark the release of the complete set of recordings this year the iconic music writer Greil Marcus described – with only a trace of “rock writer luvvie” – how he got hold of a copy:

Marcus remembers getting a call from a stranger in early 1968, asking him to meet on a specific street corner in Berkeley at 2 p.m. sharp. “It was like a dope deal,” he says. “He handed me a cassette he got while working for the Rolling Stones. I invited 15 friends over to hear it. People were cracking up. People were crying. People were shocked.”

A publisher’s test pressing – recorded on acetate – also emerged. This is where Joe Boyd picks up the story. His The Space article is from a collaboration with the John Peel Archive, in which people are given the run of the vast Peel collection and invited to pick a “Record Box” from it. One of Boyd’s selections is this publisher’s demo, and it turns out that there was only one copy in the UK, at a London music store.

And in turn the bands who had success with songs from the “basement tapes” recordings – Manfred Mann, Julie Driscoll, and Fairport Convention – made the pilgrimage to the shop to listen. Boyd (who I’ve written about before) picks up the story:

All of a sudden there were these whispers going around Soho in London that there was a demo at Feldmans Music on Charing Cross Road, just up the road from Dobells record store, and you could go in there, they wouldn’t give you a copy, but you could go in there and listen to the demo, Julie Driscoll covered ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ from this demo, Manfred Mann covered ‘Quinn the Eskimo’ [‘The Mighty Quinn’] from this demo, Fairport Convention covered ‘Million Dollar Bash’. I remember that day, we all went in and crowded into this tiny listening booth, the professional manager from Feldmans came out, took this record out and put it on the turntable.

Of course, we can hear almost anything now, if we have an internet connection. This is a story from a different world, when music was both more expensive and often hard to find. And maybe it had a different meaning as a result.

The image of the tracklist is from the John Peel Archive, and is used with thanks. The whole of Joe Boyd’s Music Box is worth listening to; there’s much strange and evocative stuff there. Disclosure: I’m doing a piece of work for The Space at present.

The blues and the whites

13 December 2013

Watching a fine documentary about the blues guitarist Bill Broonzy on BBC4, I realised for the the first time how political he was.

Two examples. Invited to play in the Spirituals to Swing concert at the Carnegie Hall in 1938 with jazz and blues luminaries such as Count Basie, Joe Turner, Jimmy Rushing and Sonny Terry, he sang a version of “Just a dream” in which he imagined, in front of a well-heeled largely white audience, of being invited to the White House to meet the President. At a time when much of the US was still segregationist, this was incendiary stuff, in the same way that ‘Only in America’ was flammable 30 years later. But he saved himself from lynching by the construction: it was ‘just a dream’.

Broonzy served in the US Army in World War I but like other black soldiers who served (in both wars) he returned to the US to find that nothing had changed, that America was as racist as ever. His response was to write “When will I be called a man”:

When I was born into this world, this is what happened to me
I was never called a man, and now I’m fifty-three
I wonder when,
I wonder when,
I wonder when will I get to be called a man

To a whole people used to being routinely addressed as “boy” throughout their adult life, the meaning would have been obvious. As indeed it was when Dylan wrote that innocuous-sounding line – innocuous, at least, to British ears – about “How many roads must a man walk down before they’ll call him a man”, 40 years later.

Given how well schooled Dylan was in the history of American folk and country blues, it seems unlikely that he didn’t know he was quoting from Broonzy. I’m not the first person to make this connection. And as I’ve mentioned here before, “Blowing in the wind” ended up being an inspiration for Sam Cooke to write “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which in turn opened the way for a whole generation of black political music during the 60s and 70s. Culture’s always flowing, finding a way to make its own connections.

Scarborough fair

7 March 2010

One of the pleasures of Empire and Love, the recent record by The Imagined Village – in which producer Simon Emmerson collaborates with a number of fine folk musicians, among them Martin and Eliza Carthy and Chris Wood – is hearing Martin Carthy reclaim ‘Scarborough Fair’, the traditional English song which he taught to Paul Simon in the 1960s, and became one of Simon and Garfunkel’s most distinctive successes.

Simon and Garfunkel claimed authorship of the S&G version (which they combined with Canticle, an updating of an earlier S&G song), even though they would still have collected their publishing royalties had they used the more honest “Traditional, arranged by” credit. Carthy was so incensed that he didn’t talk to Simon for thirty years, though was eventually reconciled when Paul Simon invited him to duet the song in a London concert in 2000. The story is that the publishing company was to blame for the false credit.

Carthy’s original version already had the distinctive patterns which the Simon and Garfunkel turned into a rich filigree, and in turn The Imagined Village reclaim the Englishness of the song, but in an arrangement which is distinctively modern, from an England of the 21st century. (The Imagined Village’s version, with vocals by Chris Wood, is at the top of the post – Simon and Garfunkel’s can be found below).

The distinction between theft and hommage is always worth investigating. Dylan – who also learned the song from Carthy in the 1960s – uses a part of the lyric in the chorus of his song Girl From The North Country: “Remember me to one who lives there, she once was a true love of mine”. More famously, he took the whole tune from Nottamun Town for another song – but then did write a whole new lyric to create Masters of War. (If you want to compare the songs, Fairport’s version of Nottamun Town is also on Youtube.)

Girl From The North Country is clearly ‘fair use’, while Masters of War represents creative use of a traditional tune in the public domain. Indeed, any folk music historian would recognise this – new words, old tune – as a familiar pattern. (Dylan had some problems on Masters of War because the musical arrangement he used was associated with the singer Jean Ritchie).  And Scarborough Fair, the English ballad we know today, is almost certainly a reversioning of an earlier Scottish song, The Elfin Knight. As James Boyle explains in his chapter ‘I Got a Mashup‘, in The Public Domain, our culture develops and reinvents itself by borrowing.

Highway 61: Dylan’s blues record

30 July 2009


You never quite know what you’re going to get with the American music writer Greil Marcus, although I’m a fan: Mystery Train re-shaped the way I thought about American music when I was younger, and Lipstick Traces is a work of genius,  one of the great books of the 20th century. Some of the rest is more patchy, although in all of his writing there are virtuoso passages of improvisation which are worth the cover price.

So it proves with Like A Rolling Stone, which uses the song as a way into the moment when Dylan re-invented himself as a performer, and also, Marcus suggests, when American culture was also on the turn. For me the improvisation is a section – only a few pages – which links the song and the record, Highway 61 Revisited, to the American blues tradition. Other writers (such as Michael Gray) have demonstrated Dylan’s deep knowledge of country blues, and when I went back to listen to the record I realised, I think for the first time, that the very obvious blues-inflected songs on there (Tombstone Blues, It Takes A Lot To Laugh, for example), aren’t easy fillers but are about setting the tone. The guitarist Martin Simpson has made this connection brilliantly in his ‘medley’ which links the country blues “Highway 61” and “Highway 61 Revisited“, and which is worth nine minutes of anyone’s time over on You Tube. And of course Greil Marcus takes us on a lively detour along this iconic American road, the ‘Blues Highway‘.

Some aspects of the “Rolling Stone” session are worn smooth with repetition. Al Kooper sometimes resists questions about how at 21 he inveigled himself into playing keyboards on it (well, when the facts become legend…). It does seem clear from Marcus’ appendix that there was really only one good version in the fifteen or so takes, and on another day the song could easily have become one of those well-bootlegged ‘interesting failures’ of Dylan’s career.

There are other curiosities too. Tom Wilson, the producer, was fired by CBS after the Rolling Stone session for reasons which remain unclear, but may have been to do with colour, and his place taken for the rest of the recording by Bob Johnston. Johnston seems to had a fair deal of propriety, certainly by the standards of the music industry; when the first sleeves came back Wilson was not credited as the producer on Like A Rolling Stone, and Johnston sent the sleeves back so this could be corrected (his name is still there on the latest CDs). Is the sound different on the other  songs? Marcus thinks so – Johnston pursued a more ‘ensemble’ sound, whereas Wilson looked for clarity between the instruments, and going back to the record afresh it is possible to imagine that Johnston made the tonne of the record ‘dirtier’ – in fact, more bluesy.