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.

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Unknown said...

The whole issue of legitimacy simply shows a subculture with an inferiority complex, a worry that carpetbagging impostors will invade them, saddle them with inferior goods, and make off with the merchandise. In the case of the early 60s folk revival, 800 words would surely not be enough to analyze: its stepchild relation to the original 1930s Lomax fueled folk movement; its function as a punk precursor (easy for amateurs to perform, reacting against both the romantic big bands of one's parents and the already aging original rock'n'roll stars of one's older siblings); the financial impact of the baby boom hitting their late teens; etc.

Such a strongly identified minority subculture brooks no treason, hence the "Judas" cries when Dylan ignored their labels and plugged in. Thus once again the difference in mindset between music makers and music consumers.

David George Freeman said...

Hello Tony, thank you for another interesting essay. Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box'-to-Die and listen to every version of every song.