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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Mark Laskowski said...

Interesting idea for a blog. I just happened across it today somehow.

Kind of self indulgent (I suppose that's the point with so many blogs, or at least it's the outcome, if not the intention) and not the product of a lot of thought it seems to me.

For example: Why does his notable pronunciation of "Greenwich" suggest his talent to you? And if it does, why accuse him of sounding like a five year old? Is that suggestive of talent? For my money, I've always figured it to be a deliberate mispronunciation on Dylan's part because he's somewhat assuming the persona of a trifle green, midwest hick hitting the bit time in NYC. That may be why you feel it suggests his talent, but you don't say so. That's lazy.

Unknown said...

Harsh comment, bro! I like the idea for the blog as well as the product. Surely you're right that Dylan chose his pronunciation of "Greenwich" to emphasize the song's "out of town hick hits the Big Apple" persona. It also seems likely to be a tribute to a former time in his own life that he really didn't know how to pronounce the word.

Moose said...

Check out Bob Dylan's Greenwich Village. Two new York songs on there, one from Pete Seeger and another from lead belly. I forget lyrics at the moment but some inspiration likely came from there as well.

Folk Dope said...

His timing and delivery for those tongue-in-cheek lines at the end of the verses is just perfect. Excellent restraint.

"You sound like a hill-billy...........
we want folk singers here"

I hadn't played this song in long while but I was researching his early talkin' blues for an article. I began to notice subtle details that set it apart from others like "Talkin World War III Blues". Not an easy song to perform, his future potential shines through.

Folk Dope

David George Freeman said...

Hello there Tony, Thank you for posting this interesting analysis. When you have had enough writing come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to Every Version of Every song