Sunday, June 29, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #...oh, wait

Even though nobody's reading this blog right now, I still feel the need to post that I'm going to be on the road for a couple days and won't be updating until I get Internet access back (hopefully Wednesday, probably Thursday). I should've had an entry up today, but too much has been going on. I'm not abandoning this blog, not by any means - but starting next week, things might be a little different. We'll see how it goes.

At any rate, why not go to and learn how to play some of the songs on Bob Dylan? You, too, might one day end up being a folk music phenomenon! Read more!

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #8: Gospel Plow

Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

- Luke 9:62

Don't look back - something might be gaining on you.
- Satchel Paige


Sometimes I wonder about music criticism. Not always, but sometimes. One thing I tend to wonder about is one of the most common criticisms levied upon a band - the idea of stagnation. After all, it is said, creativity is best used in moving ever forward, in blazing new trails, stretching out the powers of one's muse, and not in simply playing the same songs and repeating the same power chords and lyrical themes until Kingdom come. A band I like quite a bit, Oasis, has been repeatedly castigated for this, especially since their stock began to dip after 1997's monolithic disaster Be Here Now, Rumours with half the charm, twice the guitars, and none of the in-band fucking and songs about said in-band fucking. Oasis' albums since then, despite the occasional production tricks and the increasing percentage of songs not by Noel Gallagher, have borne the stamp of a group that is perfectly willing to stay with what they like doing, thank you very much, and have no particular desire to do any of that "branching out" stuff your, well, Beatles of the world did.

But is that entirely such a bad thing? After all, let's imagine, say, AC/DC attempting to do something new after 30-odd years of balls-out rocking. Say, an album of country standards, or some Interpol-like post-punk wrangling, or something like that Fiery Furnaces album with the grandmother doing vocals. Would that float your boat? How do you think something like that might turn out? I think you have a pretty good idea, and you're already hurrying to push that brutal image out of your brain before it infects your mind like a Trojan virus. I mean, it might be amusing in a train-wreck kind of way (not like an actual train-wreck; you get what I mean, I hope), but that's really about the limits of enjoyment you'd get.

The point I'm trying to make is that, for some musicians, carving out a niche for yourself and riding that niche for all its worth is not necessarily a bad thing. Look, there are literally hundreds of bands out there, and many of them are willing and able to push creative boundaries, find new ways to wrangle notes out of a guitar or a piano, come up with brand new chords and crazy tunings, and keep music progressing at the same steady rate it has progressed since some jackass wearing a jester's hat played a lute for a king somewhere. Some bands won't make that kind of change, or know that they can't, and that's okay. If the music is good, or good enough, I think they can get a free pass.

And then there's Bob Dylan, who's never been shy of remaking himself and the music he creates practically with every album. I think that guys like Dylan, and Bowie, and Elvis Costello are why critics always gnash their teeth and rend their garments when a Ryan Adams records something that represents, at very best, a lateral move. After all, they argue, the great musicians can change, so if you can't, you're just not on that level. And they do have a point, of course, but they also want to make it like that kind of forward-thinking ability is something that can be harnessed or plucked from the air, or even something that just comes from practice, maaaaaan. It's not. Only a select few have been able to leap from genre to genre with hardly a look back, and even then there are the occasional missteps (Young Americans springs to mind). The hardest thing in the world for a person to do is to do something different with your life. Many people don't have to, and even more people don't want to. And if you think I'm talking from personal experience, well, you probably know me. Bob Dylan's versatility and willingness to do things differently make him great, and also make him very, very different from everybody else.


So we get another traditional, and another song about Heaven and Jesus, this time more upbeat than some of the album's more dirge-like material. After a short musical intro that features Dylan practicing his breath control on the harmonica, Dylan launches into a Gospel-inspired tune that asks us to "keep (our) hand on that plow, hold on". The verse that inspired that chorus, quoted above, is Jesus' way of saying "keep your eye on the prize, kid - you look back, you're dead meat" - funny enough, "Gospel Plow" has been rewritten as "Keep Your Eyes On The Prize", a song Bruce Springsteen has covered. It's a pretty simple sentiment, and Dylan delivers it with the same confidence he's displayed for much of this album (vocal affectations included).

As you might imagine, the lyrics brought to mind the little mini-screed above, and it's really not that hard to think of Jesus telling us to just plow ahead (forgive the turn of phrase) and never think about the past. The verse before it, for context, has a potential follower of Jesus saying "I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home", prompting Jesus' response about the plow. And, as anybody that's ever received that kind of advice before can attest, it does seem rather harsh; after all, who among us doesn't have attachments and loved ones and accumulated habits that are hard to say goodbye to? Still, saying goodbye and moving on, much like those emotional attachments we have, is a universal trait that we all go through, and sometimes (to quote Angela from The Office) you just gotta grow a pair. Jesus' way of saying that, I will say, is somewhat more eloquent.
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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #7: Highway 51 Blues


The real-life Highway 51 is a massive stretch of road that cuts across six states and (in a way) serves as a pretty good demarcation line between what you'd consider the East and the Midwest. The states it cuts hardest through are Wisconsin, Illinois, and - this seems important - Mississippi, as well as running through Memphis (where part of the highway is Elvis Presley Boulevard). It doesn't exactly have the heft of a Route 66 or I-95, but what the hell - I-95, as far as I know, doesn't have a song written about it.

Highway 51 doesn't cut through the Mississippi Delta, but that doesn't matter - it doesn't seem hard to imagine any number of bluesmen, packed into cramped cars and shaky buses and whatever means of transportation they could get their hands on, traveling up that highway to Memphis or Louisville or, hell, even Chicago, looking for a place to stay and a place to play. Everyone's friend Wikipedia has a partial listing of musicians labeled as "Delta blues" players, and anybody with even a passing knowledge of the blues would recognize a name or two there. There are two names, in particular, that fit in well with this blog: Charley Patton, who (God willing) I will deal more in-depth with down the line, and Bukka White, who wrote Bob Dylan highlight "Fixin' To Die". And then there's a fellow named Curtis Jones, who isn't the most well-known blues musician there is, but has lasting fame for coining the phrase "Tin Pan Alley", as well as writing the very song this blog post is about.

Jones didn't come from Mississippi (he was born in Naples, Texas), but the significance of Highway 51 could not have been lost on him. Hell, he mentions in the song that the highway runs up to Wisconsin, which is where it comes to an end; I wouldn't doubt that he'd taken that ride up once or twice in his lifetime. It must've seemed mythical to him - rising out of Mississippi and the abject poverty most of us associate with that state and heading towards the bright lights of Chicago and the not quite as bright lights of Milwaukee, where money could actually be made for playing a guitar and singing about death and heartache and being dead broke. He couches his admiration for the road in a song about meeting his baby on a house that sits along the road, but it's Highway 51 that's the star of the song - he knows it like the back of his hand, and he wants to be buried there when he dies. That road probably held far more promise, romance, and mystery to him than any woman ever could.


A state over from Wisconsin and the end of the northern part of Highway 51, Bob Dylan might have taken a journey or two from Hibbing down that road, maybe to Madison, maybe to Chicago, maybe even to Memphis. Whether or not he did is immaterial - either he or Tom Hammond or whoever else was helping mold Dylan's debut must've known about this song and its mythical tale, and gave it to Bob to sing. I wouldn't doubt that Bob knew about it as well, given the student of the blues he's been for his whole life. I wonder if he felt honored to sing the song, to wrap his voice around the lyrics, maybe to close his eyes and think about a beat-up Ford winging south "way down to no man's land", to the Delta and to hardship and to where the blues really came from. And maybe he felt an extra kinship just in singing those words, in evoking that highway, and in bringing up the memories of countless men with guitars, releasing their pain with every strum and croaked-out word.

If nothing else, that would account for Dylan's vocal performance - even on an album where he artificially adds grit to his voice, he seems to really be pushing himself here, slicing his way through the lyrics, the words fraught with emotion, either spat out like bullets or stretched unnaturally. The guitar playing matches his intensity, every string getting a workout (and, interestingly, the opening chords of the song seem to echo Dylan's later "It's Alright, Ma" - actually, I should probably have that the other way around). It feels like Dylan really wants to make sure he gets this one right, even more than some of the other songs, that he wanted the listener to shake his head and go "wowee, that kid sure did nail that song!" Maybe he did - maybe he wouldn't have felt right otherwise.
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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #6: Pretty Peggy-O


Songs like these, as much as any of the true classic originals or the world-famous albums, tell us a lot about Bob Dylan and the world he's constructed for himself. "Pretty Peggy-O" has a pretty rich history, starting as a Scottish folk song about love unrequited and heartbreak and all that good stuff and slowly mutating into a Civil War Dixie song about, well, love unrequited and heartbreak and all that good stuff. As you might imagine, a song with that kind of pedigree (not to mention a sweet, charming melody) would be popular amongst folk musicians, and it shouldn't be much of a surprise that Dylan would appropriate it (excuse me, "trad. arrange" it) for his debut album. If nothing else, it's a nice respite from the heavier blues stuff, even if the lieutenant pining for Peggy-O does kick it in the end.

But it isn't just the fact that Dylan played the song on his debut that gives "Pretty Peggy-O" some heft in Dylan's career. It's the fact that, a good many years later, Dylan would pull the song out of mothballs and play it on stage that lends the song an additional dimension. Dylan, for those of you that might not know (and I doubt there will be many that read this damn thing), liked to pull out obscure folk songs to play during his concerts in the late-90s and early 2000s, often as the opening tune; I wonder why he more or less has stopped doing that. There are plenty of reasons why he'd use up a slot he could play one of HIS own obscurities in for these kinds of songs, of course - partially in tribute to the songs that influenced him in his formative years, partially in tribute (maybe) to the Grateful Dead, who peppered their setlists with traditionals as well (including, surprise, "Pretty Peggy-O"), partially because the songs are fun and easy to play and serve as showcases for his always-talented bands, and partially because he's Bob Dylan and can do whatever the hell he pleases. They serve both as strong tunes and as history lessons, a way for Bob to say "this is what I listened to when I was your age, you whippersnappers". Plus, you know, sometimes he just wants a six-minute breather before he plays "Like A Rolling Stone" for the millionth time.


Having only been familiar with the live version of "Pretty Peggy-O" (a stately version with bubbling guitars and Dylan's strangely comforting sandpaper growl of a voice), I was surprised to hear just how exciting the Bob Dylan version is. Starting with a cheeky spoken word intro ("I've been around this whole country/But I never yet found Fennario" - sure you have), Dylan basically chugs his way through the song, adding "woo-hoo"s for emphasis and quite possibly nearly snickering at one point. His harmonica playing, in particular, is rather energetic, full of trilling notes and as simplistic as you'd expect from a man his age (it doesn't help that it sounds out of tune). Dylan, for whatever reason, seems to LIKE playing this song, and it shows in the performance.

The lyrics don't particularly make sense to me - so, okay, this army troop's marching to a town called Fennario, then the captain falls in love with a woman, but I guess she runs away or something, and then the lieutenant's in a rodeo, and then the captain dies pining for Peggy-O and is buried in Louisiana...hmm. Not exactly "A Farewell To Arms", is it? I suppose the lyrics aren't the point, when you can hear just how much fun Bob's having blowing away on his harp, snapping off the "o"s at the end of every verse (the way he says "back-io", almost like he's trying to cram it into one syllable, is a hoot), and wailing away on his guitar. Another highlight of the album, then. I guess it's not hard to see why Bob would revisit the song.

AUDIO BONUS: From fabled bootleg Bathed In A Stream of Pure Heat, here's "Pretty Peggy-O" from Albany, NY on April 18th, 1997. Gotta love Bob on solo guitar! Read more!

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #5: Fixin' To Die

Now we're talking. Whoever handed this song to Bob for his first album must've known something, because this is one of the real highlights of the debut. It's an honest to God blues song, full of death and gloom and Jesus and all that good stuff. Dylan practically sneers his way through this song, stretching out syllables through clenched teeth and pushing his throat nodes to their very limits. I will admit that there's something of a disconnect in hearing a young man talk about dying and who will feed his kids, but somehow he pulls it off.

Two points I wanted to discuss on this song:

1. The disconnect in hearing a young man (a VERY young man, actually) talk about dying and raising his kids is, truly, staggering, and makes me wonder about an issue that runs through this entire album - that is, the idea of legitimacy in music. We're all aware, I think, about how strong the idea of being legit and real plays into hip-hop (for instance, Vanilla Ice's misbegotten career, or Jay-Z's "I showed you your first Tec on tour with Large Professor/Then I heard your album 'bout your Tec on the dresser"), but history has sort of cast aside how strong the idea of legitimacy was in the folk movement of the 1960s. The career of Dylan himself, or at least the one he had up until 1966, showed how strong feelings were on those issues - why else would he be so vociferously booed at Newport 1965, if his performance wasn't viewed as a loud middle finger to everything he supposedly stood for? And his first album, made up of two originals and a list of carefully chosen traditionals, blues, and gospel songs, smacks of being aimed directly at an audience that wouldn't give you a second listen unless you were only playing traditionals, blues, and gospel songs. That Bob Dylan ended up flopping seems besides the point, especially given what a success his very next album would become.

This, then, makes you wonder WHY the idea of legitimacy would be tied so inextricably to playing those traditionals, and why Tom Hammond felt nobody would take Bob Dylan seriously unless he was singing old songs primarily written by African-American men who often came from the most dire of circumstances. There's something kind of odd about the whole thing, especially since the element of race plays so strongly. I wrote a review for the new album by Duffy for Treble (cheap plug - in which I very briefly touched on the issue of legitimacy in the white female soul singer genre, and quite frankly, the 800 words I'm allotted for a review wouldn't begin to scrape the surface of the issue. Maybe I'm overstating things, and Hammond simply thought Dylan needed to have product on the market while his songwriting skills were still developing. But I doubt it.

2. I'll touch on this more when I get to "House of the Rising Sun", but Dave Van Ronk's influence has been noted in re: Dylan's early music, and (as Wikipedia notes) an influence on Dylan's version of "Fixin' To Die". For now, I'll simply reiterate a point I previously made about how different Dylan sounds here than basically the entire rest of his catalog, and leave it at that. Read more!

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #4: Man of Constant Sorrow


Most of you, I'm sure, have only heard one version of this song, and it's probably not going to be this one. I've always wondered what traditional folk fans must've thought when the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack blew up in 2001, a year after the movie was released. After all, this was a genre that, for all intents and purposes, no longer retained any commercial value, and all of a sudden this soundtrack to a Coen Brothers movie entirely comprised of old standards and blues songs rockets up the charts and spawns a surprising hit single that actually received airplay on non-country stations. Did those people think "wow, what a crazy fluke; at least now some people will appreciate the musicians that actually record this kind of music"? Or did any of them truly believe a new folk renaissance was coming? For their sake, I truly hope it was the former.

At any rate, it's always funny how certain things manage to take hold of our national consciousness without any warning and causing a massive wave of adoration, an often equally massive backlash, and (inevitably) a host of imitators trying to steal them blind. And, in most cases, the imitators and copycats tend to destroy the original's power and ability to stun and amaze - the easiest benchmark to see when a trend has run its course is when the mainstream has bent it to its will. I remember it happening with Pulp Fiction, it happened with Saturday Night Live, and has been happening since time immemorial.

For whatever reason, that didn't really happen with folk music in 2002. There were a few more copies of Allison Krause & Union Station sold, I'm sure, but when "I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow" stopped getting airplay and the soundtrack stopped selling, that was really that. O Brother, Where Art Thou? has more or less receded from memory (and with good reason - it's funny and charming, but hardly a major Coen Brothers effort), and lovers of traditional music have returned to their yellowed copies of Broadside and Chambers Brothers vinyls. Maybe that's for the best. It would be maybe a little too meta and weird for the American consciousness to absorb a form of art that is already so inured with American consciousness - granted, the "old weird America" Greil Marcus wrote about, as opposed to the modern, weird America we live in. Or maybe it's too much to expect wood-chopping songs to make a real comeback.


So, for whatever reason, this was a song that Dylan really seemed to hold in high esteem around the time of the recording and release of his first album. It shows up on the legendary Minnesota party tape, recorded in the apartment of (girl)friend Bonnie Beecher in 1961. Of course, it's one of the songs on his debut. And he chose it to perform on his first-ever TV performance, a show called "Folk Songs And More Folk Songs" that aired in March of 1963. That's a lot of venues for this song to show up, and a lot of important ones from a historical standpoint.

Then the song disappeared from his repertoire, only to reappear in (you're not going to believe this) - 2002, right around the time the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack was at its commercial peak. I wanted to find an mp3 of one of the performances to link to here, but my memory tells me not to bother, as the arrangement is very close to the O Brother version and loses its novelty very quickly. It's kind of amusing that Dylan, a trendsetter for many years, would dust off one of his oldest recorded songs and give it a runthrough in a manner markedly different from his debut. He does have a puckish sense of humor.

The Bob Dylan version is far more laid-back, as you'd imagine, really as much a showcase for his harmonica skills as anything else. Actually, comparing it with the more famous O Brother version, Bob's version is a real disappointment, and not just because the O Brother version is so fantastic. Dylan makes an odd artistic choice in stretching out certain words in the first and third lines of the verses, which kills a lot of the narrative tension in the song. And, for whatever reason, the lyrics are quite different, maybe closer to the original (except he changes the place he left from Kentucky to Colorado), but not as poetic or interesting as the more famous version. The last verse, in particular, is head-scratchingly mundane: "I'm going back to Colorado/The place that I started from/If I had known how bad you'd treat me honey/I never would have come". He manages to turn something heart-tugging and emotionally resonant (even for a blues song) into a crappy kiss-off. Thanks, Young Bob!

As a bonus/apology for not finding the 2002 live version, here's the video of "Man of Constant Sorrow" as performed on TV in 1963 (and used in Scorcese's No Direction Home). It sounds exactly like the album version, so if you've never heard Bob Dylan, well, now you kind of have. Enjoy!

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Sunday, June 8, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #3: In My Time Of Dyin'

Well, I knew this moment would come - I've reached my first song where I am struggling to find something to write about. I'm embarrassed to find that it would come on the THIRD SONG of my journey, but then my opinions about this album have already been expressed, and this is a prime example of my qualms re: Bob Dylan. When I'd decided to tackle this project chronologically (starting with the debut and working my way to the most recent album), I always assumed that this album would be amongst the hardest to write about, followed by the early-90s folk albums and, well, all the bad ones. So I'm basically reaping what I sowed. This is an album that doesn't lend to much interpretation, and this is a song that might lend to even less.

I mean, what can I really say? "In My Time of Dyin'" is a traditional gospel song originally translated to blues by Blind Willie Johnson, "arranged" by Dylan, and sung with a gritty bravado that belies his twenty years. The song's been covered many times (deferring to Dylan's version, mainly because he got there first), most notably by Led Zeppelin, whose version on "Physical Graffiti" lasts about a billion years. The lyrics are about dying and Jesus, themes all too familiar in blues music. The guitar playing features some bottle-neck slides, but nothing any Robert Johnson fan can't work out with a little practice. I'm sure I'm not saying anything new in this paragraph.

It IS interesting to consider why this song, rather than any other number of blues and gospel songs out there, got the nod for Dylan's debut. In an earlier post I made mention of the need for legitimacy in the folk community, and I think this song would've been considered a natural choice - originally performed by a blues legend, lyrically gripping, and relatively easy to finger-pick. It's meant to be a showcase, and it succeeds on that level. Somewhat tellingly, Dylan would drop the song from his live repertoire as he gained more experience and wrote more songs, showing that when he didn't need the song anymore, it was gone.

Still, there's a power and energy here not always found on the debut, and it's eye-opening to hear Dylan tear into the song. "In My Time Of Dyin'" is a definite highlight of Bob Dylan, and deserves the attention that it's received through the Dylan-copping cover versions. Thank the Lord this version isn't eleven goddamn minutes long. Read more!

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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #2: Talkin' New York


I've always found talking blues kind of cool. For one thing, much like Motown-style pop, Hank Williams-style country, and (ironically) protest music, talking blues is a style of music that more or less does not exist anymore.* For another (and this is far nerdier), talking blues represent a weird link to that most ancient form of entertainment - oral poetry. Say whatever you want about the Homeric epic poems**, but one thing that most high school and college kids who have to read the damn things tend to forget is that they were not meant to be written down, but memorized and recited to crowds of people. Even with the occasional narrative trick employed to make memorizing easier, like the repeated phrases and the episodic format, it seems almost impossible to believe a single person could keep that much story straight in their heads, let alone recite it in an entertaining fashion. Imagine having to memorize and recite the script of every episode of "Band of Brothers", and that should give you a general idea.

* although the style still does - I believe the kids call it "rapping", har har
**I think they're pretty awesome, myself. If anybody ever filmed The Iliad the way the poem was actually composed, it'd run about 12 hours and earn an easy R rating, if not NC-17. There are Hong Kong action movies with less gore and bloodshed.

Anyway, as most people that read this probably know, oral poetry would take on many different forms as the concept spread across the world, most notably in the English/Welsh/Irish "Bard" style. And, wouldn't you know it, many of the bards would be accompanied by some sort of musician, playing a lute or whatever the hell they played back then. This, in turn, would morph into English music-hall, which would be taken to America and turned into vaudeville, and then into the blues, which would lead to rock and roll. The talking blues, in a weird way, is as close as American music would get to the ancient styles of oral poetic tradition.*

*which would make "A Boy Named Sue" the Odyssey of talking blues, and I am all for that

Of course, that relative adherence to classical tradition is what would end up marginalizing the style of talking blues, even through any number of revivals (including Dylan's). After all, the modern music listener has been trained to expect singing in their music*, and there is something aurally jarring about hearing somebody sorta half-sing, half-talk their way through an entire story.** There's something novel about the concept, sure (and there are plenty of novelty talking blues out there), but not something particularly entertaining, at least not to us. We want our songs to sound like songs, not like an audiobook set to music. Most talking blues songs are fun for a listen or two, but that's really as far as their entertainment value goes.

*to which I must make the requisite Dylan/"singing" joke - again, har har
**never mind that most epic poets would consider talking blues performers pussies


It should come as no surprise that Bob Dylan, a man who's spent nearly every waking moment of his life in the public eye carefully crafting and maintaining his legend, would include a song on his debut album that basically gives us his version of an origin story. Backed by three of the most basic guitar chords imaginable (and, of course, the same three chords he'd use in the much better "Talking World War III Blues"), Dylan immediately starts off his story with a cinematic bang: "Rambling out of the wild west/Leaving the towns I love the best/Thought I'd seen some ups and downs/'Till I come to New York town". Right there is the image of Dylan, the restless troubador, guitar slung on his back, moseying out of the badlands and into the big city with the bright lights. We know that's crap, but it shore does paint a purty picture, don't it?

This is one of two actual Dylan-penned songs on the album, and there's actually a few turns of phrase that suggest Dylan's talent in between all the folky cliches and tall tales and the way he pronounces "Greenwich Village" as "Green-witch", much the way a five year old might.. I like the straightforwardness of "somebody could freeze right to the bone.../I froze right to the bone", and the wit of "A lot of people don't have much food on their table/But they got a lot of forks and knives/And they gotta cut something". The end "So long, New York/Howdy, East Orange" amuses, as well. That's really it, though - between the part about paying Union dues, the little tribute to his idol Woody's "Pretty Boy Floyd", and the decidedly uninspiring tale of playing coffeehouses in New York (which, I'm sure, separated him from the billion other young folk singers trying to make it there), there isn't much to this song. Kind of a shame, too - I always expected his origin story to be a little more exciting.
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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #1: She's/You're No Good


I've never heard Bob Dylan before. I mean, there's "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down", which pops up on Biograph, but that's the only song I've ever heard from Bob Dylan's debut album. To be honest, this isn't something that particularly bothers me.

Bob Dylan has always occupied a weird place in Dylan's legend for me. Leaving aside the fact that it's his debut album, I've never really seen any selling points in its favor. It's one of a handful of Dylan albums that sounds more beholden to established musical styles (although I do understand this was a deliberate move) without establishing any distinctive voice. I mean, there IS a distinctive voice - Bob's - but I hope you get what I mean. This is an album of traditionals, played and sung traditionally. The joke John Hammond (producer of the album) made is that this album cost $402 to record, and it's a wonder that it actually cost more.

I will also admit that Dylan's folk period is the one I find least interesting musically. I mean, I love the acoustic albums, and I could listen to "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" or "I Don't Believe You" any time, but for the most part I have trouble playing Freewheelin' or Another Side all the way through without losing patience.* This could be my own ADD-driven failing; I don't dispute that Freewheelin' is a stone cold classic or that Another Side doesn't have some great songs. I think what it comes down to re: me and Bob Dylan is that Dylan's catalog is stuffed to the brim with incredibly original and aurally interesting music, and the idea of hunkering down with a collection of traditionals and a few decent originals doesn't hold much interest for me.

* and that's even BEFORE I get to "Ballad in Plain D"


This is not to say, of course, that there isn't some interest to be had in listening to this album. I'm of the opinion that EVERY Dylan album has at least some interest; even the much-maligned Self-Portrait has the beautiful "Copper Kettle" on it, as well as some songs that defy belief*. And Dylan's first album, in that respect, has interest simply in the place in time that it occupied, and how it's very much a product of those times. You get flashes of Dylan's later genius in spots, and the songs themselves are performed well, but my main interest in the album is purely from a historical standpoint (as opposed to Freewheelin', a mere year and album later - think of that! - which is interesting from both a historical and musical standpoint).

*"All The Tired Horses" in a good way, "In Search of Little Sadie" in a very, VERY bad way

It is impossible, in my opinion, to make too much of or overstate the fact that Dylan made this album when he was 20 years old*. I don't simply mean this from the standpoint of "what were YOU doing when you were 20?" (although it would probably embarrass many of us to answer that question), but also from the fact that the odds against any sort of success for Dylan, in any capacity, were stacked against him from the beginning. Think about it - a kid from Minnesota bullshits his way into the inner circle of the burgeoning folk music movement, gets a number of gigs at clubs around the Village in New York (the epicenter of a lot of things, let alone the folk scene), meets a Columbia bigwig at a private party, and somehow lands a contract with one of America's biggest record labels, all within the span of about a year...and still, that was absolutely no guarantee of success in the public market.

*and he looks all 20 years of it on the cover, even though he's dressed up like a Greenwich Village sherpa - talk about your baby faces

Of course, he had talent from the start, and that talent is evident in his performing style and the way (even then) he instantly synthesized all sorts of stuff he was listening to into a style that could maybe, possibly, kinda-sorta be called his own. One of Dylan's great strengths throughout his career was the way he could pull together all sorts of disparate threads of musicality (blues, Eastern influences, folk, etc.) and create music that not only reflected those threads, but bore his own stamp of originality. There are precious few musicians/bands that can do that. On top of that, Dylan just absorbed records in his youth, and you can pick up all sorts of tricks along the way through simple osmosis. I think it's fair to say that Dylan, although he might not have become Dylan, probably would've had a nice little niche career as a folk singer and an exemplary arranger of traditional songs if he'd chosen to stay on that course. That he didn't do that, of course, is why I have the chance to write this blog, and for that I'm eternally grateful.


I suppose I've been ignoring the actual reason behind this post, but I wanted to get all the extracurriculars out of the way before actually delving into this baby. "You're No Good", as it's listed on Dylan's website (I think other places list it as "She's No Good"), clocks in at a super short 1:40, and pretty much serves as introduction to what we're gonna get here. A cover of a song by one-man band Jesse Fuller (who wrote the really great "San Francisco Bay Blues"), the lyrics are standard blues "mean woman" territory, and Dylan doesn't try to do too much with the song.

One thing that really threw me off is how different Bob sounds here. I mean, honestly, for a man whose voice changed more times than seemingly possible in his career, it's startling to hear him, this young, actually trying to sound old. He's forcing his voice to do things it probably shouldn't, adopting a husky growl that actually made me think of Springsteen at times (although Dylan's timbre isn't nearly as deep as Bruce's, and that's probably for the best). Everybody talks about Woody Guthrie's influence on early Dylan, but Woody never sounded as growly and raspy as Dylan does on this song.

Maybe part of it has to do with the tempo - Bob more or less spits this song out and hammers away on the guitar, accounting for the brevity of the song's running time. His harmonica solo is blasted out in sharp notes, a far cry from the workouts we'll get later in his career. I don't know for sure if that's how Fuller performed it, but it seems likely that Bob saw that the song (which is kind of lightweight, to be honest) would work better performed machine-gun style, and so he did. That makes the song a pleasant listen, at least, and gets things settled for what comes next.

One other note - why was this song recorded in stereo? Was there something really exceptional to be had in separating one guitar and one voice? Or is this just another example of the "fake stereo" that can make listening to Beatles records occasionally jarring? Either way, it just seems odd, that's all.
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