Saturday, June 15, 2019

Bonus Post: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

A spiritual sequel to Martin Scorsese's 2005 film on Bob Dylan No Direction HomeRolling Thunder Revue follows Dylan on his tour of the East Coast during the fall of 1975. Dylan had been on hiatus from touring since 1966, but in 1974 he came back and toured for a few months with the Band. Those shows were played in large venues and are captured on the Before the Flood live album. The Rolling Thunder Revue would push against the arena rock scene of the 1970s. Spontaneity, variety, and theatricality would be the guiding lights. Besides being a great film featuring amazing music and performance, Rolling Thunder Revue is a stunning vision on the possibilities of art in a time fraught with cynicism and despair.

Scorsese's film mimics the carnival atmosphere of the tour. By piling on layers to the mythology, Scorsese jumbles truth, fiction, and reality together into pop art. A lot of the footage was also used in the Dylan's 1978 film Renaldo and Clara which starred himself and his then wife Sara - who's mysteriously absent in Rolling Thunder. If Renaldo and Clara, a four hour art film, attempted to tell a complex love story in the style of a Dylan song like "Visions of Johanna", Rolling Thunder takes an alternate approach, inviting the audience into the party. The cipher Dylan of Renaldo is reconstituted into a new identity, a swashbuckling troubadour from either an idyllic past or a dystopic future. He's also the man who drives the bus.




Literary allusions populate the film. Allen Ginsberg, a founder of the Beat Movement, joined the tour as a Socrates watching his student overtake the teacher. Dylan and Ginsberg visit the grave of Jack Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts. While the symbolism of the scene may appear a little too on the nose, it was all in the spirit of the Revue. Excursions into kitsch America like the Mayflower Museum or Niagara Falls were done with same sentiment - taking in the entirety of the experience. The Revue evokes On the Road, but also the showbiz savvy of a Bob Hope or Freddie Blassie. 

The band Dylan assembled gave the tour a unique sound and style. Some had a history of within Dylan's orbit like Joan Baez, Bob Neuwirth, and Ramblin' Jack Elliot. Dylan infamously jilted Baez on camera in the 1967 documentary Don't Look Back, but they appear to have mended their relationship here. Others ended in the tour through happenstance. Dylan spotted violinist Scarlet Rivera on the street and invited her to come along. Patti Smith appears at a key moment, sort of providing the overture. Larry "Ratso" Sloman provides comic relief as the sycophantic Rolling Stone reporter. 

Robert Altman's Nashville would make a perfect double bill with Rolling Thunder. Released in 1975, Nashville is a panoramic view of America in the mid 1970s, specifically the country music scene as the Bicentennial beckoned. Ronee Blakely starred in the film and was also part of the Revue. Clearly Scorsese is paying tribute to Altman with all the references to his unverse in Rolling Thunder.

Rolling Thunder treads the line between being a cinematic Rube Goldberg machine and a poignant statement on art and politics in America then and now. Dylan remains as enigmatic as ever in his interview, shedding another layer of skin to reference his 1983 song "Jokerman" as he downplays the importance of the Revue. The film challenges anyone who watches not to be moved by the words and by the rock and roll. Music is the instrument to take on everything from corrosive power structures to the conflicts of the human heart. "Hurricane" and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" are achingly relevant, targeting the systems of injustice. The personal songs "Simple Twist of Fate" and "Tangled Up In Blue" project into the universal.




Dylan rearranged his material from the Sixties into anthemic rock and roll, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna-Fall" gets reworked into a fever dream vision; "Isis" a hallucinatory journey into  a land of pyramids of ice. Dylan's duets with Baez recaptured the spirit of the folk revival of the early Sixties. In a showstopping scene, Joni Mitchell performs a spellbinding version of "Coyote" with Dylan supporting her on guitar. Songs from the 1975 record Blood on the Tracks, also took on a new life through live performance. The energy from the Revue led to the recording of Desire, another classic album in the Dylan canon.


Narrative shenanigans aside, Rolling Thunder Revue points the way to new possibilities. In terms of profit the tour was not a success, while the second leg of the tour in 1976 played bigger venues, but excess and exhaustion set in. For a brief moment the possibilities and the ideal were in harmony - that's the magic the Rolling Thunder manages to conjure.




Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Basement Tapes Raw:The Bootleg Series Vol.11

Release Date: November 4, 2014
The fall of 2014 finally saw the release of the Complete Basement Tapes, close to 50 years since their initial recording. While the complete set consisted of nine discs, the Raw collection was more affordable, featuring 38 tracks considered highlights.

The 1975 release opened a new aspect of Dylan's work that had only been available through bootlegs. Many of the songs had already been covered by other artists, popularized by The Band. The sessions began with Dylan and the Band performing some of their favorite songs, but as the sessions evolved more original work worked its way in. 

Here are some of the new tracks that stood out for me.

Disc 1

Open the Door, Homer - One of the most moving songs from the Basement Tapes: haunting harmonies with poignant lyrics.

One Too Many Mornings - A song that was a staple of Dylan and the Band's live set during their 1966 tour. In this striped down version, Dylan's weary vocal is complimented by Robbie Robertson's guitar. 

Tears of Rage - A dark, strange song that appears to deal with a parent/child tragedy (on the surface anyway). Richard Manuel provides back up vocals, and would sing lead on it for The Band LP in 1968.

I'm Not There -A song that came to prominence in the 2007 Todd Haynes film of the same title. Another dark love song about a mysterious women that has the narrator caught between divine ecstasy and insanity. Griel Marcus wrote at length on how the song is about the failure of language to express the most deep seated of feelings. 

Quinn the Eskimo - The only song from the sessions to produce a Top Ten hit (for Manfred Mann), captures the jocular atmosphere of the sessions.

Disc 2

You Ain't Goin Nowhere - Two different versions appear. The first was an early take with different lyrics that were more grotesque, more gallows humor than warmth. The second version sounds more familiar, a sure fire camp fire song for decades to come. There's a multitude of awesome covers of this one as well!

Goin' to Acapulco - Not to dissimilar from other releases, still one of Dylan's best vocals ever.

900 Miles From My Home - Great folk song, with some nice harmonies from the Band.

Blowin' in the Wind - Dylan revisited one of his early songs and transforms it into lumbering blues piece and transforms into gospel in the fadeout. One of the most unique renditions of the song Dylan has ever performed.

This Wheel's On Fire - Another song full of coded imagery with mystical overtones. Somewhere between counterculture alchemy and millennial apprehension. 

Sign on the Cross - One of the most anticipated Dylan songs to finally get a release. With some heavy Christian themes, a tale of redemption from the colonial days in the wilderness.

A worthwhile collection, but a dream come true for the Basement Tapes completist. With the growing number of releases fro  the Bootleg Collection, the line between musical archaeology and Dylan appreciation starts to blur. Nevertheless, these songs are no longer in the vaults. 

Monday, February 18, 2019

Bob Dylan: Fort Collins Stadium Radio Broadcast, Colorado, May 23rd 1976

A 2017 limited release vinyl for the EU market, the Fort Collins Stadium Radio Broadcast, features material left off Hard Rain live album 1976, as well some extra tracks from the concert. The penultimate show of the second leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue, it was taped for a TV special that aired September 14, 1976 on NBC to disappointing ratings. The album was released on the same day, except four of the tracks from a concert at Fort Worth performed a week before. Although the limited release does contain the full concert, all the material is from that particular show.

Side A

A Hard Rain's A-Gonna-Fall
Blowin' in the Wind
Railroad Boy
Deportee
I Pity the Poor Immigrant 

All five of these tracks did not appear on the original release. Joan Baez contributes background lyrics, all of which have a political bent. A plodding version of "Hard Rain" hints at the exhaustion setting in on the tour, this was actually the closing number. An acoustic version of "Blowin' in the Wind" follows. "Railroad Boy" tells a tragic love story, a song usually credited to Baez. "Deportee" was a Woody Guthrie song dealing with the use of Mexicans for hard labor by wealthy Americans. Here's a verse

Some of us are illega, and others not wanted
Our work contract's out and we have to move on
But it's six hundred miles to that Mexican border
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.


"I Pity the Poor Immigrant" from John Wesley Harding is given a more upbeat arrangement

Side B

Shelter From the Storm
Maggie's Farm
One Too Many Mornings
Mozambique
Idiot Wind

With the exception of "Mozambique" all these tracks appeared on the 1976 Hard Rain release. "Shelter From The Storm" is a far cry from the Blood on the Tracks version, here Dylan is full of anger, hope, and desperation. "Maggie's Farm" features some ferocious guitars. "One Too Many Mornings" is a reworked into a soulful rock ballad accompanied by Scarlet Rivera's violin. "Mozambique" is played at a Ramones style pace. "Idiot Wind" borders on emotionally draining, perhaps the purest expression of that song.

Most critics agreed the excitement of the fall '75 tour had collapsed into excess and backstage drama for the '76 tour. After one last performance in Salt Lake City, Dylan would take a 21 month hiatus from touring. 




Saturday, February 16, 2019

Bob Dylan: The New York Tapes


A limited release from 2015, Bob Dylan: The New York Tapes features some of Dylan's earliest studio recordings as well as his first single for Columbia, "Mixed Up Confusion." Many of these tracks would appear in a more polished form on the debut record Bob Dylan, while others are rare outtakes, including some radio performances from the early 1960s.

Side A

Smokestack Lightening - A blues traditional made famous by Howlin' Wolf.

You're No Good - Another blues recording, would be the first track on the first album.

Roll On, John - Not the tribute to John Lennon that appeared on Tempest, but another blues number.

Talkin' New York - One of Dylan's first originals that's appeared on many releases.

Hard Travelin' - Sounds rough, but features a passionate vocal.

HIghway 51 - The guitar riff sounds like a primordial version of "It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"

Standing on the Highway - A rushed and fragmented Guthrie pastiche. 

Side B

House of the Rising Sun - A favorite from the early days that according to Dave Von Ronk Dylan stole from his repertoire, but the Animals would record the definitive rock version.
Dylan's rough vocals are almost in the grunge style made popular in the 1990s.

Mixed Up Confusion - The first single that features guitar, bass, and drum that never quite took off upon release. Still a fun record with Dylan making an early attempt to stretch his sound.

The Death of Emmett Till - Performed on a radio show, the song's power grows with each verse.

Man of Constant Sorrow - Another standout from the debut record, very much in the Woody Guthrie tradition.

Corrina, Corrina - A bit looser than than the official release on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, always an underrated song.

Song to Woody - Maybe Bob's first great song about saying goodbye his idol and going his own way.

All in all, The New York Tapes presents a vivid portrait of early Dylan emerging as a songwriter and performer. 






Thursday, February 14, 2019

Bonus Post: Bob Dylan in the 80s Volume One

Release Date: March 25, 2014
In 2014 ATO records unveiled a collection of Bob Dylan songs from the 1980s featuring reinterpretations by an assortment of Indie Rock artists. Novelist Jonathan Lethem contributed the liner notes. As Lethem explains, Dylan was a sort of "bad companion" to his fans during the 1980s, as each album left even his most ardent admirers with varying degrees of disappointment. The project was made with the intention of sparking some discussion on Dylan's work during this period.

The decade began with Dylan recording religious music. The born again fervor of Saved (1980) faded into more upbeat Shot of Love (1981). Infidels in 1983 signaled a renewed interest in Judaism and world events. At the same time Infidels became known for what did not appear on it like "Blind WIllie McTell" and "Foot of Pride." Dylan shed his born again image for good with a triumphant appearance on Late Night With David Letterman backed by the L.A. punk band The Plugz. In 1985 Dylan took part in the iconic "We Are the World" session and recorded the excessive Empire Burlesque. He toured with The Grateful Dead and Tom Petty, yet many were wondering if Dylan had much left in the tank after two unremarkable records of mostly covers, Knocked Out Loaded (1986) and Down in the Groove (1988) both flopped with critics. Then Oh Mercy arrived in 1989 to high acclaim, featuring some of Dylan's strongest material in years. So the 1980s were wild ride of different personas combined with the uncomfortable reality of becoming an elder statesman of rock.

The collection begins with "Got My Mind Made Up" from Knocked Out Loaded. Langhorne Slim took a blue grass approach with a primal vocal performance. Built to Spill gave "Jokerman" a post punk treatment that enhances the song's fantastical imagery. Reggie Watts does a complete reworking of "Brownsville Girl" into a Reggae beat box hymn. Craig Finn of The Hold Steady offers a playfully rocking version of "Sweetheart Like You" and even changes the lyrics.

Ivan and Alyosha bring a modern folk sound to "You Changed My Life", an outtake from Shot of Love. A rarity from Dylan's 1987 film Hearts of Fire "Night After Night" gets a 60s pop overhaul from Deertick. "Dark Eyes", the sadly beautiful closing track on Empire Burlesque is wonderfully recreated by Bonnie Prince Charlie with a stirring vocal from Dawn Landes, totally changing the impact of the song. "Waiting to Get Beat", an obscure outtake from Empire, gets a makeover from San Francisco jam band Tea Leaf Green.

Not all the songs are from the 80s, two from Dylan's 1990 LP Under the Red Sky also appear. "Wiggle, Wiggle" with Aaron Freeman and featuring Slash on guitar (who also played on the original) is a tad slight. Blitzen Trapper provide a lo-fi version of "Unbelievable." Singer-Songwriter Elvis Perkins added a fairly standard rendition of "Congratulations" Bob wrote for the Traveling Wilbury's. An instrumental version of "Every Grain of Sand" by Marco Benevento speaks to the song's sense of peace and renewal. Hannah Cohen delivers a dreamy vocal of "Covenant Woman" and Glen Hansard performs a soulful version of "Pressing On."

"Series of Dreams" performed by The Yellowbirds sounds close to Dylan's own version, a tough one to cover since its one his most modern sounding tracks. One of the most inspired moments comes from Lucius in their rousing version of "When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky," reimagined as a New Wave epic of melodic jangle rock. Appropriately, the collection concludes with "Death is Not The End" from Carl Broemel (former member of My Morning Jacket) played as a gentle folk ballad.

Bob Dylan in the 80s is a worthy collection of eclectic interpretations of some of Dylan's lesser discussed work. By now it's passe to claim the decade was a lost one for him. These songs hold up and are amenable to a new generation of artists taking inspiration from their inspiring and sometimes strange power. The spiritual songs sound more secular and the secular ones seem more spiritual. A worthy project, Bob Dylan in the 80s will allow any fan to look at decade in a new light.   

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-1971)

Release Date: August 27, 2013
Another Self-Portrait covers an often neglected era in Dylan's recording career. Between 1969-1971, Dylan released three albums that meant with mostly tepid responses. Nashville Skyline seemed the antithesis of Blonde on Blonde, a 30 minute record featuring Dylan singing in a croon, biding farewell to the amphetamine driven vocals of the mid-60s. Self-Portrait was the first Dylan release of 1970s, a double album of mostly covers, some engaging, others less so. Critics took the bait and declared Dylan finished, but the album aged well, prescient in its lo-fi style that dominated 90s indie rock. New Morning appeared in late 1970, a more focused album of all original material.  

Another Self Portrait is one of my favorites of the bootleg series. The original recordings included on the release sound fresh and vibrant, worthy improvements on the original versions of these songs, many of which were never released. Excerpts from the Isle of Wight concert and demos made with George Harrison are also highlights. The sound on these records weaves between the more "homespun" sound of the early Paul McCartney albums and the ambitious production Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Over Water

These are some of the highlights.

Disc 1

"Pretty Saro" An English traditional that features a a haunting vocal from Dylan.

"Spanish is the Loving Tongue" Set to piano, one of the best renditions of another tradtional, much better than the version on the 1973 "revenge" album released by Columbia (outtakes from Self-Portrait released in response to Dylan's brief time at Asylum records).

"Time Passes Slowly #1" One of the great songs on New Morning, here it sounds like a lost track from the Beatles White Album (George Harrison provided backing vocals).

"Only a Hobo" A song Dylan recorded many times in the very early days, this performance was intended for inclusion on Greatest Hits Vol. II.

"Thirsty Boots" Another pristine recording, a cover of Eric Anderson's 1966 song inspired by the Civil Rights Movement.

"This Evening So Soon" Another outtake from Self-Portrait, focused and well produced.

Disc 2

"If Not For You" Dylan's collaboration with Harrison includes a stately string arrangement. The song appeared on Dylan's New Morning and George's All Things Must Pass.

"Wallflower" A song Dylan passed on to Texan Doug Sahm, Diana Krall's version is also excellent.

"Sign on the Window" A magisterial version of a pivotal track on New Morning, possibly the best indicator of Dylan's state of mind in the early 1970s.

"Tattle O'day" A joyful tune Dylan about a dog with Harrison on guitar. 

"New Morning" The album's title track gets completely re-imagined as a four minute epic with horns reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel's "Keep the Customer Satisfied."

"Went to see the Gypsy" On an electrical piano, Dylan does a lounge act performance of a song about a mythical meeting in Las Vegas. I discussed this one on the podcast Pod Dylan.

"Time Passes Slowly #2" Another exceptional take with Al Kooper on organ.

Conclusion

Another Self Portrait does a great job of shedding light on an often misunderstood period in Dylan's career, the myth being he didn't care about the quality of the albums he was putting out. In many ways these records are a continuation of the Basement Tapes, a blend of traditional songs with new songs, often blurring the line between the two. The production on Another Self-Portrait are far more adventurous than what appeared on the official releases.


Friday, December 21, 2018

Tempest: Shine Your Light

Release Date: September 10, 2012
"We are such stuff that dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep." 

- William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act IV, Scene I

As of this posting, Tempest is the latest album of original songs released by Bob Dylan. Released in the fall of 2012, the collection of ten songs returns to themes familiar to Dylan's late period: time passing, mortality, romance, violence, and the ghosts of history. Does Tempest feel like a final album? One could say that about every Dylan album since Time Out of Mind in 1997, for a time considered Dylan's "death album." For all we know Dylan could release some new songs tomorrow, nevertheless one cannot deny sense of finality floating through Tempest from the title (considered Shakespeare's final play) to the achingly reflective opening track "Duquesne Whistle" to the elegiac tribute written for a contemporary "Roll On John."

Tempest begins with what sounds like calliopes that conjures sights from a distant past, a literary method Ray Bradbury used to great effect in the haunted nostalgia of his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Then "Duquesne Whistle" kicks in for real and we're back in Dylan's America of endless railroads and roving gamblers. The sound of the train "blowing at his Chamber Door" like Poe's raven conjures the past, moments that may have happened yet exist only in dream, "you smiling through the fence at me, just like you always smiled before."

"Soon After Midnight" has easy going doo-wop and late night ambiance, except that part about dragging two-timing Slim's corpse through the mud. "Narrow Way" could be outtake from either Love & Theft or Modern Times with its steady blues rhythm and vortex of emotion, "if can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday." "Long and Wasted Years" tells the story of a failed marriage, one that's lost all meaning except for what it used to be. "Pay in Blood" was rated the best rock song of the year by Rolling Stone. Uncompromising in its old world values, Dylan sings "I pay in blood, but not my own." Here Dylan's the unrepentant judge/prophet/outlaw archetype, he's been through hell, "but what good did it do?"

With "Scarlet Town" starting off the second half of the record, the tone of Tempest begins to shift with Dylan leaning towards an omniscient perspective. Now Dylan's the storyteller, the songs are full of references to ancient poetry. Thematically, the songs take on greater weight.

"Scarlet Town" has inspired the most analysis of all the tracks on Tempest, a song that must be important to Dylan since he's played it live over 300 times. "Desolation Row" comes up as an immediate comparison, as the places Dylan describes are in stasis. Musically, the mournful strings recall "Ain't Talkin'." Life goes on, but moves slowly and sadly: 

In Scarlet Town you fight your father's foes
Up on the hill a chilly wind blows
You fight em' on high and you fight em down in
You fight em with whisky, morphine, and gin

The town's full of the good, the bad, and the ugly wading through the quagmire of an eternal conflict going on since before recorded memory. Lyrically "Scarlet Town" is rich with metaphor and open to many interpretations. For myself, the song conjures the Graham Greene novel The Power and the Glory, dealing with spiritual dearth in a fallen paradise. "Scarlet Town" could be a purgatory, "I'm staying up late and I'm making amends/while the smile of heaven descends." It may not the be the type of place to visit , you don't have to, you're already there. 

"Early Roman Kings" lifts a Muddy Waters riff from "Mannish Boy" in a song about Bronze Age gangsters. "Tin Angel" returns to Dylan's fascination with complex love triangles prevalent in songs like "Visions of Johanna" and "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts." "Tin Angel" is a lengthy 9 minute song of a shadowy triangle that ends in bloody violence. I like the hypnotic melody, but the narrative gets convoluted.

For those who survived the Jacobean theatrics "Tin Angel," the last two songs are surprisingly sentimental. "Tempest" retells the sinking of the Titanic, a historical tragedy Dylan referenced on "Desolation Row," imagining Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain's tower. "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues" gave a comical account of a shipwreck. Dylan positions the Titanic's sinking as the precursor to 20th Century chaos:

It was the fourteenth day of April
Over the Waves she road
Sailing into tomorrow
To a Golden Age Foretold

A cinematic account follows with characters appearing, mostly archetypes from previous Dylan songs and one that came before him. The definitive film about the Titanic, A Night to Remember, came out in 1958 when Dylan was in High School, the 1997 James Cameron film Titanic is also referenced.

"Roll on John" eulogizes the life of John Lennon, a key figure in Dylan's life and the 20th century. Many have speculated on the influence Dylan and Lennon had on each other. If Dylan had a musical soulmate in the Beatles it would be George Harrison since they recorded and wrote songs together many times, most notably in The Traveling Wilburys. 

Dylan and Lennon spent time together occasionally in the 1970s and would sometimes attend each other's concerts. In 1980 Lennon recorded a demo titled "Serve Yourself" when he parodied Dylan's Christian song "Gotta Serve Somebody." Lennon's murder in 1980 shook up the rock community and I'm sure Dylan felt the loss. Despite the slights Dylan always spoke kindly of Lennon. Despite their differences in style and temperament, Dylan, the survivor, pays homage to a friend and friendly rival. A connection bound by fate.

Thus ends Tempest, a weighty record with a bit of everything. Tempest may not have the sonic punch of Love & Theft nor the rollicking sweep of Modern Times, it's the words that are placed front and center. The songs are less grounded in Americana, concerned more with the convergence of mythology, history, and literature.




Sunday, November 18, 2018

Bob Dylan: In Concert Brandeis University 1963

Release Date: April 11, 2011
A tape of a Bob Dylan concert performed on May 10, 1963 at Brandeis University was found among the belongings of Rolling Stone co-founder Ralph Gleason and the quality was good enough for Columbia to release it as an album. In a few months The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan LP would be released and propel Dylan to fame. A wonderful historical artifact, the record provides insight into Dylan's early performing style, specifically, his blending of humorous and serious material. 

The first side begins with "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance," which would appear on the Freewheelin' LP. "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" was performed much to the college crowd's amusement, a song Dylan planned to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show but walked off when the CBS requested a less controversial song. The Midwest Gothic "Ballad of Hollis Brown" followed. The first set closed with the stunning "Masters of War."

The second set features Cold War themed "Talkin' World War III Blues,", the introspective "Bob Dylan's Dream," and the comical "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues." 

With Dylan about to reach a national audience, the set featured his early folk influences and newer compositions that addressed contemporary concerns.



Friday, November 16, 2018

The Bootleg Series Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964

Release Date, October 19, 2010
The Witmark Demos were recorded by Bob Dylan from 1962-1964 for the Leeds and Witmark publishing companies. These recordings were never intended for public consumption, but were produced to attract other artists to Dylan's original material. And it reaped major benefits. Dylan's early career got a major boost when his song "Blowin' in the Wind" became a smash hit for Peter, Paul, and Mary. While some of the performances are pedestrian at times, they're a crucial artifacts that dosument Dylan's development as a songwriter.

Two versions of "Man on the Street" appear, an early Woody Guthrie pastiche inspired by New York street scenes.  "Hard Times in New York Town" is a jaunty composition about life in New York sung in a 1930s cadence. "Poor Boy Blues" is about a young person struggling to survive in the city, the type character that would be on the receiving end of "Like A Rolling Stone." "Ballad for a Friend" laments the loss of someone close who bought it on a Utah highway. A tall tale song, "Rambling, Gambling Willie" is about a gambler who's exploits were known all over, he gave all his winnings to the sick and poor and meets a tragic end. 

"Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues" was based on an actual incident Dylan read about in The New York Herald-Tribune. A ship overloaded due to counterfeit tickets, Dylan spun the incident as a series of tragicomic imagery told from the point of view of a hapless survivor. The version here is improvised, cluing us into Dylan's early performing style, although "Bear Picnic" was left off his debut album with Columbia, Bob Dylan. According to Clinton Heylin, "Standing on the Highway" was a reworking of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads," an artist Columbia producer John Hammond brought to Dylan's attention. 

The early recording of "Blowin in the Wind" is the sound of history in the making, one he would perform over 1500 times live (and counting). "Long Ago, Far Away" has a drive to it, the lyrics are similar in theme to "Blowin' in the Wind," but sang with more anger and irony. Dylan's direct, almost child like vocal, gives it power. "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna-Fall" displays his ability to create memorable imagery. "Tomorrow is a Long Time" was an early love song. 

"The Death of Emmett Till" dealt with the brutal murder of a 17 year old African-American man from Chicago who was visiting relatives in the South. It was claimed Till whistled at a white woman, which was grounds for justifiable homicide in the Jim Crow South. Dylan's concern with social justice is at the forefront of his compositions from this era, an issue he would return to many times. The first four verses retell the awful crime and its aftermath, while the last two address the listener. 

"Let Me Die in My Footsteps," proselytizes existentialism towards the nuclear threat. "Hollis Brown" would appear on The Times They Are-a-Changin' LP, a tragic tale set in Dylan's Minnesota. 

"Quit Your Low Down Ways," "Baby, I'm in the Mood For You," "Bound to Lose, Bound to To Win," "All Over You", and  "I'd Hate to be you on that dreadful day" are all nods to the blues. "Long Time Gone" has a Western flavor. "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" lampoons Cold War paranoia, a stand by of Dylan's early concert repertoire. "Masters of War" prophesied the coming of Vietnam. "Oxford Town" commented on Civil Rights, specifically the ordeal of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. "Farewell," another folk standard, would be immortalized at the end of Inside Llewyn Davis

Disc Two begins with "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," sounding very similar to the Freewheelin' version. "Walkin Down the Line," features a jaunty guitar and harmonica. "I Shall be Free" was always an early favorite of mine, a comical snapshot of the early 1960s. "Bob Dylan's Blues" and "Bob Dylan's Dream" both continue in the Guthrie condition. "Boots of Spanish Leather" was another stunning early composition written about Suze Rotolo, the version on this disc is especially striking. "Girl From the North Country" appears in a more subdued performance. More folk and spiritual ballads appear including: "Gypsy Lou," "Seven Curses," "Whatcha Gonna Do," and "Ain't Gonna Grieve." "Hero Blues" sounds like an early version of "Black Crow Blues" from Another Side of Bob Dylan.

"John Brown" never appeared on an album, but Dylan resurrected it in the late 1980s, his striking performance for the 1994 MTV Unplugged special is a highlight. "Only A Hobo" is another 1930s tune Dylan sings with wistful defiance. A piano accompanied version "When the Ship Comes In" is another masterpiece Dylan wrote, one that will always be relevant. A priceless early version of "The Times They Are-A-Changin" also on piano follows. Although less quoted, "Paths of Victory," also invokes the Civil Rights Movement. "Guess I'm Doing Fine" sounds like a classic Hank Williams record.

"Baby Let Me Follow You Down" appears minus the talking introduction. Disc Two ends with piano versions of "Mama, You've Been On My Mind," "Mr. Tambourine Man," and "I'll Keep It With Mine." 

The Witmark Demos are essential listening for anyone interested in Dylan's development as a songwriter, as he moved away from the early influences and discovered his own voice.



Works Consulted

Heylin, Clinton. Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1957-1973. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2012.

Untold Dylan - https://bob-dylan.org.uk/


Thursday, July 5, 2018

Christmas In The Heart: Mid-Century Oasis

Release Date: October 13, 2009
When Dylan released Christmas in the Heart many wondered if it was serious. Was he cajoling the public by releasing a mostly kitsch collection of Christmas carols? Considering his recent immersion in the American songbook, the answer is a clear No! In actuality, the album signaled the next era of Dylan's career. The majority of the fifteen carols are from the middle of the 20th century, including four traditional songs rooted in Christianity. The sweet nostalgia spirit on these songs evoke an endearing retro warmth of holidays long gone by. 

The festivities open with "Here Comes Santa Claus," a hit for Gene Autry back in 1947. The mood is light hearted and nostalgic. "Do You Hear What I Hear" was written during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 by Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker, a plea for peace that became a staple for Christmas seasons to come  -written around the same time as "Blowin' in the Wind." Dylan's performance is dramatic with production value projecting grandeur and majesty.

On "Winter Wonderland" Dylan delights in the subversive subtext of the song, backed by a coed choir. "I'll Be Home For Christmas" was a hit for the Christmas season of 1944, a quintessential World War II song and certainly one Dylan heard on the radio as a youngster. "The Christmas Song" written by Mel Torme and Bob Wells and most famously performed by Nat King Cole also calls back the WWII era. "Have Yourself a Merry Christmas" debuted in 1944, a hit from the film Meet Me in St Louis. "Silver Bells" originated from the 1950 Bob Hope comedy The Lemon Drop Kid. "Little Drummer Boy" is another perennial favorite. Check out the Norman Rockwell/psychedelia video for Dylan's version.




Novelty Christmas songs also get their due. "Christmas Blues" was once performed Dean Martin for all the Christmas lonely hearts. "Christmas Island" pays tribute to Christmas in Hawaii, a 1946 chart topper for the Andrew Sisters. Perhaps "Must Be Santa" is the most obscure track on the album, one with an interesting recording history, a German drinking song that Mitch Miller performed in 1960 and made popular by the Texas Band Brave Combo. Dylan made it into one of his best music videos - and added some of his own lyrics.




The traditional songs on Christmas in the Heart include "Hark, The Herald Angels Sing," "The First Noel," O, Come All Ye Faithful," and O Little Town of Bethlehem" are less compelling than the other tracks, but provide substance. 

Dylan's fascination with the American song book was no passing phase, for the past decade he's worked on keeping the standards alive and introduce them to a new generation mostly unfamiliar with pre-rock and roll culture. 

All proceeds from the Christmas in the Heart were donated to charities dedicated to ending hunger.