Thursday, July 23, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #126: Alberta #1

NB: From now on, I will be posting a link to the Greil Marcus Self Portrait review at the top of every post of this series. Take a look at it; it'll help with the posts. Trust me.

Perhaps I'm wrong and I've already forgotten something, but I believe this is the first studio track where Dylan has other singers offering backup vocals behind him. This will soon become more common in Dylan's music (especially on the next album, New Morning), but here it's a bit of a shock. That's really the only shocking thing about this number; apparently a traditional Bob adopted as his own (if GM's review is to be believed), "Alberta #1" is a sleepy little number that mainly showcases Bob's post-country singing voice and some quiet harmonica work, but not too much else. It's a fine song, if I can damn it with faint praise. I do find its presence here interesting in the sense that on an album named Self Portrait (I'm going to make much of this in the future, if you didn't already suspect as much), Dylan's chosen to include a traditional song he's now stated as his own song, much as he did on his first album. That's a sly bit of self-awareness right there.

So in the second portion of this review, Marcus relates a tale of a (possibly, maybe even probably) apocryphal radio DJ who's spinning the record and not getting anybody calling in to hear more cuts off what is usually a huge draw in a new Dylan album. Eventually he ends up conducting a poll of his listeners to determine whether or not the album deserves to be played any more that night. Whether or not the story's true, there probably were a few DJs who played this album (back in the days when you were allowed to do this sort of thing) to a rather baffled audience, and found themselves just as baffled by the lack of feedback about the whole thing. This was BOB DYLAN, after all, and not only was his new album a big ol' mishmash of...well, who even knows what to call this stuff, but there was nothing that really hit you the way any of his classic songs did, especially when coming out of transistor radio speakers. His best songs of the Electric Trilogy era practically leaped out of the speakers, grabbed you by the collar, and dared you to listen to them. These songs, on the other hand, sorta leaned back in a rocking chair, lit up a pipe, and said "well, you can listen if you wanna, no big whoop". That doesn't really work for the radio.

What I like most about this particular anecdote, though, is how it portrays something that basically never happens in radio anymore. I had a chat with one of my friends about a week ago, after one of my favorite DC radio stations flipped formats to sports talk, where we debated whether or not radio was a dying industry. Whether or not it is (I believe it is, he felt quite the opposite), there's no denying that the industry has changed in ways that clearly are not for the best, and that the tribulations of the music industry have a lot to do with that. There are some readers who might remember, or may have even heard, when a few Northeast radio stations played the acetates of Glyn Johns' original mix of The Beatles' Get Back, the album that would eventually become Let It Be. And these were major stations, by the way, stations that played popular music and basically decided to air an album that had yet to see official release. I'm not saying it's a good thing to broadcast bootlegs like this, but if it'd happened today the stations would've received massive FCC fines and may even have faced license issues, not to mention the fact that the album would've been chopped up over several long commercial breaks, live reads, traffic reports, and so on. That, basically, is what modern radio is today.

Much in the same way that the "event album" has more or less disappeared with the rise of file sharing, the splintering of popular music, and the decreasing in outlets for music videos to really boost the album's exposure (I mean, putting your song in a commercial just isn't the same thing, I'm sorry), the idea of radio as a way to really break an album is more or less disappearing as well. Popular music radio has always been single-driven, of course, but there were still outlets where entire album sides could be spun for those that couldn't afford record players or just wanted to hear an album before plunking down a few bucks for it, and there were still DJs committed to playing music in this format and giving artists the attention they deserved beyond a 5-second backsell en route to another 40 straight minutes of classic rock or whatever. That was the environment where an album like Self Portrait could be spun the whole way through at night, and where the DJ could talk to his listeners about what they were hearing. That sort of thing builds a communal experience. That communal experience is going the way of the dinosaur, I believe, or at least when it comes to music.

It doesn't really matter, in the end, whether or not Self Portrait was worthy of the airing that that DJ gave it that night, even compared to the worthiness of Dylan's classic albums. What does matter is that there was a forum for that album to be aired, and for people to call in, ask for a track to be re-aired, and maybe share a thought or two about what he or she was hearing. Maybe that will come back some day, beyond the fringes of college radio or outside the grip of major commercial entities that only care about ad revenue and sticking to the playlist and so on. I'd like to believe that this will happen. I'm sure I'm just being naive.

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J├╝rgen Kloss said...


"Alberta" is a Folk Revival standard (first printed in a book published in 1944, so it may not be that old) that had been recorded by everyone from Bob Gibson to Blues Project, from Odetta (as "Roberta") to Pernell Roberts and it had also been printed in "Sing Out!", the Folk song magazine that most likely was a major source and inspiration for Dylan when he recorded "Self Portrait".

Bob Dylan adapted only the lyrics of "Alberta" but wrote a new melody (and I think it was copyrighted correctly as trad./new music by Bob Dylan).

Bill said...

What's really interesting (if true) is that the DJ felt that he could be candid about what he was hearing. That's not happening again.

johnny t said...

At the risk of completely over-analyzing Dylan's music and lyrics...

I see some significance in how that the album was named Self Portrait and that he book-ended it with "Alberta". The first lyric goes "Alberta, let your hair hang low..." Is there something in the similarity between the names Robert and Alberta? Someone already mentioned that the song had previously been recorded as "Roberta". I see this album as an expression of Bob "letting his hair hang low" and playing music that he enjoyed without trying to be some kind of counterculture prophet. He's basically saying "This is the music I like and the music I like to play." He's not Abbie Hoffman and he's not interested in freaking out the mainstream. Instead, he's a guy who enjoys soft country music and the occasional silly pop fluff.

Of course such an album would be poorly received. How could it not be? The fans probably wanted another Blonde on Blonde and they instead got Nashville Skyline Part 2.

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