Dylan’s American music history lecture – illustrated

Dylan’s American music history lecture – illustrated

Last month Bob Dylan spoke at a benefit in his honour, organised by the MusiCares Foundation, an offshoot of the organisation that puts on the annual Grammy awards which provides medical care for musicians in need. They were honouring Bob Dylan as their Person of the Year, and, unusually, he spoke at length about the formative influences on his music. Continue reading “Dylan’s American music history lecture – illustrated”

Songs of Freedom: the Selma playlist

Songs of Freedom: the <em>Selma</em> playlist

Watching Ava DuVernay’s film Selma which takes as its subject the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches brought back memories of how, as a teenager growing up in a Cheshire village at the time, the Civil Rights Movement and the music associated with it played a key part in the awakening of my political consciousness.  Reading or hearing on the radio about the marchers, their dignity and bravery, and the murders and brutality inflicted upon black Americans in the South, had a deeply radicalising effect on me.

The anthems sung by the likes of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez, and the electrifying assertions of black pride from soul artists such as Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke just added to the intensity of my feelings. And it wasn’t just me, of course; in the way of these things, the ideas and methods seeded in the civil rights movement spread on the wind – to the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, to South Africa, and to student activists throughout the world. Continue reading “Songs of Freedom: the Selma playlist”

Transmitting Andy Warhol: can’t tell them apart at all

Transmitting Andy Warhol: can’t tell them apart at all

Andy Warhol looks a scream
Hang him on my wall
Andy Warhol, Silver Screen
Can’t tell them apart at all
David Bowie

He was one of the stupidest people I’d ever met in my life. He had nothing to say.
– Robert Hughes

Walking around Transmitting Andy Warhol at Tate Liverpool, I realised I haven’t got much time for Warhol.  Oh, I get what he was saying, and I know about his impact on the art world.  But looking around this small but well-chosen selection of his work I cannot find one work that really moves or inspires me, nothing that reflects the beauty or the mystery in the world, or speaks to the realities of daily life as experienced by most people now, in our time of austerity. Continue reading “Transmitting Andy Warhol: can’t tell them apart at all”

50 years today: On the pavement, thinking about the government

50 years today: On the pavement, thinking about the government

Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government

Bringing It All Back Home was the record where most of us encountered Dylan electrified for the first time, dropping the needle onto the run-in track and hearing for the first time the strum of Dylan’s acoustic guitar rapidly joined by the electric guitar, bass and drums that drive the hard-rocking ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. It was a revelation.  It was a revolution, says Richard Williams marking the 50th anniversary of the recording in today’s Guardian. Continue reading “50 years today: On the pavement, thinking about the government”

Inside Llewyn Davis: a complete unknown

Inside Llewyn Davis: a complete unknown

Inside Llewyn Davis 2

Llewyn Davis: he ain’t no Bob Dylan

Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coen brothers’ bleakest films, a tragicomedy which places most of the emphasis on the tragedy.  Against the backdrop of the Greenwich Village folk scene of early 1960s New York, it presents glimpses from a week in the sorry life of a hapless folk singer who gets up the nose of everyone he encounters.  ‘Everything you touch turns to shit, like King Midas’s idiot brother’, yells fellow folk singer Jean (played by Carey Mulligan).

The Coens have taken great pains to ensure that period detail is meticulous (haircuts, beards, duffel coats and shelved vinyl lps, for instance) and both the acting and the musical performances are spot on.  But – I just didn’t get it.  What was the point of making the film, I wondered as we left the cinema. What was inside Llewyn Davis?

In the end, I concluded, the answer was – nothing.  Despite the occasional brief flicker of concern or purpose, Llewyn is empty: there’s nothing there – no real concern for others, nor even that much for himself.  No vision.  Which is perhaps why the film’s final scene features Bob Dylan launching into ‘Farewell’, a song that would be one of his first studio recordings, with the gritty intensity that will sweep Davis and the rest of the folk scene into oblivion.  Here is a guy who has a vision and who knows exactly where he’s going.

It’s not that Llewyn lacks talent: he plays reasonable guitar and sings traditional songs with emotion and some depth of feeling. But he’s on the cusp of a musical revolution – one in which Dylan will lead the charge, ushering in the era  of the singer-songwriter, radically refashioning elements of folk music into electrified poetry – and Llewyn can’t see the nose in front of his face.

We first encounter Llewyn (a convincing performance by Oscar Isaac) being beaten up in a back alley behind a bar where he’s been singing – with admirable sincerity – a happy ditty entitled ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’, (‘Wouldn’t mind the hangin’, except for layin’ in the grave so long’).  Llewyn has nowhere permanent to lay his head, constantly scrounging a night or two on the sofa of some friend or acquaintance.  Chief amongst these are Mitch and Lillian Gorfein, a couple of middle-aged, middle-class Upper West Side liberals and folk music fans whose cat Llewyn loses and whose hospitality he abuses outrageously. Another crash pad is the apartment of married folk singing duo Jean and Jim (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake). Jean is angry because she is pregnant and doesn’t know whether the father is Llewyn or Jim, and wants an abortion.

Inside Llewyn Davis 1

The Coens take songs and personalities from the era of the folk revival and shuffle them so that they are recognisable, but slightly out of sync. Reviewers have reckoned that Llewyn is, loosely at least, based on the character of Dave Van Ronk, but it’s the Dylan character who performs the song Van Ron recorded as ‘Dink’s Song’. Another character is Al Cody, a GI who sings sings one of Tom Paxton’s best-known songs, ‘The Last Thing on my Mind’. Paxton did indeed serve in the army in the early sixties, visiting Greenwich Village at the weekends.  In one scene Cody forms a threesome with Jean and Jim to sing ‘500 Miles’ in a convincing echo of Peter Paul and Mary.

At one point Llewyn hitches a ride to Chicago with a bitter, junkie jazz saxophonist (an entertaining, if cartoonish performance by John Goodman: ‘Folk singer? I thought you said you were a musician!’). In Chicago he tries, and fails, to interest impresario Bud Grossman in a contract.  Like the real-life Albert Grossman, Bud operates a kind of folk nightclub called Gate of Horn. In the 1960s Grossman would, of course, move to New York to become the mogul of the folk revival, first creating Peter, Paul and Mary, then managing Dylan’s transformation from guitar-strumming folkie to rock poet.

This is all fascinating, but ultimately less than satisfying. The Coens depict Greenwich Village in the early 60s as a cold, dismal place and Llewyn as an empty, depressed and unhappy character. I’ve enjoyed many films of the Coen Brothers, but this one, with its deftly-drawn but unsympathetic main character, left me feeling empty.  When you’ve spent 90 minutes inside Llewyn’s head, you certainly know, as someone once observed, how it feels ‘to be on your own, with no direction home, like a complete unknown’.


See also

Pete Seeger: he surrounded hate and forced it to surrender

Pete Seeger: he surrounded hate and forced it to surrender

Pete Seeger

‘He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad can kick your ass.’

Four years ago, Pete Seeger celebrated his 90th birthday party with a sell-out concert at Madison Square Garden.  Characteristically, it was a fundraiser for a campaign to which he’d dedicated years of his life: cleaning up New York’s Hudson River.  That night, Bruce Springsteen introduced Seeger with these words:

He’s gonna look a lot like your granddad that wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad can kick your ass. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country’s illusions about itself.

And that’s the truth.  Pete Seeger, who died yesterday aged 94, opposed McCarthyism, and worked tirelessly on behalf of civil rights movement, making his first trip south at the invitation of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1956. One of the seminal political events in his life, and the one which solidified his intent to make actively combating racism a lifelong pursuit, was the 1949 Peekskill race riots. In this video, Seeger recounts his experiences:

Seeger is the only singer in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who was convicted of contempt of Congress. In 1955, he refused to testify about his past membership in the Communist Party. He had quit the party in 1949 though, he later admitted, should have left much earlier. ‘It was stupid of me not to…I thought Stalin was the brave secretary Stalin and had no idea how cruel a leader he was’.  His conviction was overturned on appeal in 1961, but Seeger continued to be blacklisted by American TV networks until 1967. CBS censored parts of his anti-Vietnam War song, ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’, when he sang it on the Smothers Brothers’ Comedy Hour.

Poet Carl Sandberg dubbed Pete Seeger ‘America’s tuning fork’, and there’s little doubt that Seeger helped introduce America to its own musical heritage, devoting his life to using the power of song as a force for social change. He went from the top of the pop charts (‘Goodnight Irene’) to the blacklist and was banned from American commercial television for more than 17 years. In his nineties, Seeger continued to invigorate and inspire the musicians – most notably Bruce Springsteen, whose album We Shall Overcome – The Seeger Sessions was a tribute, comprising songs popularized by Seeger. Three years later, Springsteen persuaded Seeger to sing ‘This Land Is Your Land’ with him at Obama’s inaugural concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Seeger sang the two ‘radical’ verses of the Woody Guthrie song that invariably get cut when it is sung in public, or in American schools:

As I was walking – I saw a sign there
And that sign said – no trespassing
But on the other side …. it didn’t say nothing!

Now that side was made for you and me!

In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office – I see my people
And some are grumbling and some are wondering
If this land’s still made for you and me.

He sang the song again last September in one of his last public performances at a Farm Aid concert in Saratoga Springs, New York state.  As well as Guthrie’s ‘radical’ verses, Seeger inserted another verse of his own that protested fracking in New York state – through the decades he has campaigned on environmental issues, leading a successful crusade in the 1970s to clean up New York’s Hudson River, which was so heavily polluted that there was nowhere on its course that was safe to swim in. He built a boat, the Clearwater, that travelled the Hudson River, drawing attention to the polluted condition of the river. He founded the Clearwater organization which supports environmental education programmes in schools and campaigns for tighter environmental laws.

Pete Seeger came from a wealthy, yet highly politicised radical family. He was born at his grandparent’s estate in Patterson, New Jersey in 1919, the son of musicologist Charles Seeger and his wife, Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, a violin teacher. Both parents could trace their ancestors to the Mayflower.

His father was a pacifist during World War I whose pacifism, while teaching music at the University of California, cost him his teaching position.  In the 1930s Pete was attending Harvard, hoping to become a journalist.  In 1936, at  a folk song and dance festival he heard a five string banjo for the first time and his life was changed forever.  By 1938 he was passing out leaflets for Spanish civil war relief on the Harvard campus and had joined the Young Communist League. He left Harvard in the spring of 1938 without taking his exams.

He went to New York where he found work with the Archives of American Folk Music. Seeger sought out legendary folk song figures including Leadbelly. Inspired by these people and learning much about folk music, he began working with the five string banjo and soon became an accomplished player.

In 1940, Seeger met Woody Guthrie and together they formed the Almanac Singers, a musical collective including Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Sis Cunningham, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry and others. They recorded union songs, such as ‘The Talking Union Blues’ which they wrote as an organizing song, as well as pacifist songs. Drafted into the Army in 1942, the FBI was already building a file on Seeger because of his left-wing activities.

In 1945, after his discharge from the Army, Seeger founded the People’s Songs collective but by 1949 it had gone bankrupt.  On 4 Sepember 1949, Paul Robeson was scheduled to perform with Seeger at the Lakeland Picnic Grounds in Peekskill.  A large mob of anti-communist vigilantes stormed the venue, attacking performers and members of the audience. While trying to drive away from the scene, Seeger’s car was attacked by vigilantes. His wife Toshi and their three year old son Danny were injured by flying glass.

In the late 1940s, Seeger and Lee Hays wrote ‘If I Had a Hammer’. In 1950 Seeger, Hays, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert formed the Weavers. They achieved great success, especially with their recording of the Leadbelly tune ‘Goodnight Irene’.

However, blacklisting in the McCarthy era put paid to commercial success for the Weavers. During the 1950s Seeger occasionally performed with the Weavers but mainly paid the bills with his appearances on the college circuit, and with recordings for Folkways Records (including albums of songs for children, two of which our daughter would play repeatedly when young).

In 1956, after writing ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ Seeger, Arthur Miller and six others were indicted for contempt of Congress by the House of Representatives. He was found guilty of contempt in 1961 and sentenced to ten years in prison. He was released from prison in 1962 when his case was dismissed on a technicality.

During the folk music revival of the early 1960s, the TV networks occasionally invited Seeger to appear on folk music shows like Hootenany, but quickly dropped him when they discovered that he had been blacklisted.

Pete Seeger singing If I Had a Hammer at SNCC rally in Greenwood, MS, 1963

Pete Seeger singing If I Had a Hammer at SNCC rally in Greenwood, MS, 1963

Seeger became involved in the civil rights marches in the South, both as a marcher and as a performer for the marchers. One notable occasion was at Greenwood in Mississippi in the summer of 1963 when there were voter registration drives underway in various communities, one of which was in Greenwood. On 2 July, Seeger performed at a SNCC rally before a small gathering of civil rights workers,  singing ‘If I Had a Hammer’.  Bob Dylan sang ‘Only A Pawn in Their Game’, written following the murder of Medgar Evers less than a month earlier, on 12 June.

Pete Seeger’s version of ‘We Shall Overcome’ became the anthem of the movement.  He discussed the origins of the song in an interview in 2006:

Seeger was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War. In September 1967 he appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS-TV where he was scheduled to sing ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’, an attack on the war, but the song was cut by the network censors.

‘Songs won’t save the planet’, Seeger told his biographer David Dunlap, author of How Can I Keep From Singing? ‘But, then, neither will books or speeches…Songs are sneaky things. They can slip across borders. Proliferate in prisons.” He liked to quote Plato: “Rulers should be careful about what songs are allowed to be sung.’

I have been singing folk songs of America and other lands to people everywhere. I am proud that I never refused to sing to any group of people because I might disagree with some of the ideas of some of the people listening to me. I have sung for rich and poor, for Americans of every possible political and religious opinion and persuasion, of every race, colour, and creed.

Pete Seeger on The Johnny Cash Show in 1970 complete and uncut

It takes a worried man to sing a worried song….

Pete Seeger with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee: ‘Down by the Riverside’

In 2012 Pete recorded a hearty version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’ for an Amnesty International fund-raising album:

surrounded hate and forced it to surrender

‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender’

John Nichols’ closes a fine elegy on The Nation website (which reminds us that Seeger played a banjo inscribed with the message ‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender’) with these words:

He showed us how to do our time with grace, with a sense of history and honour, with a progressive vision for the ages, and a determination to embrace the next great cause because the good fight is never finished. It’s just waiting for a singer to remind us that: ‘The world would never amount to a hill of beans if people didn’t use their imaginations to think of the impossible’.

As I mentioned earlier, the fine biography of Pete Seeger written by David Dunaway is entitled How can I keep from singing? – taking its title from an old 19th century hymn revived and adapted by Pete in the early 1950s

My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear it’s music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness ’round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble sick with fear
And hear their death knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging,
When friends by shame are undefiled
How can I keep from singing?

So long, Pete.  It’s been good to know you.

American Masters: Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (PBS)

Seeger at his home in Beacon, New York state in March 2009

The baton passed to another generation

See also

Pete Seeger

Don’t you know it’s darkest before the dawn
And it’s this thought keeps me moving on
If we could heed these early warnings
The time is now quite early morning
If we could heed these early warnings
The time is now quite early morning

Some say that humankind won’t long endure
But what makes them so doggone sure?
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing

And so keep on while we live
Until we have no, no more to give
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger

So though it’s darkest before the dawn
These thoughts keep us moving on
Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have singing tomorrows
Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have singing tomorrows

Dylan’s Another Self Portrait: why did he throw it all away?

Dylan’s Another Self Portrait: why did he throw it all away?
Dylan in 1971
Dylan in 1971

Well, knock me down with a feather! Dylan produces new album that’s not only melodious and beautifully sung, but revelatory, too, casting new light on a period in his career generally held in low esteem by fans, including myself, and deeply suggestive of something else that might have been.

Plenty has been written in the last week or so about the latest official instalment from Dylan’s unreleased archive, the Bootleg Series (we’re up to volume 10 now), so I won’t recapitulate the whole story here. Suffice it to say that Another Self Portrait (1969-1971) is in some ways the most revelatory of the whole series.

What we have here are alternate and stripped-down versions of songs released on the infamous Self Portrait album and – most spellbinding – songs recorded in the same period but never released – indeed entirely forgotten.  There are two discs, with songs falling roughly into two groups. The first CD mostly comprises songs recorded prior to Self Portrait, and is where you find the real jewels of this set: amidst alternate versions of some of Dylan’s own songs are unreleased versions of traditional songs.  The second CD offers alternate versions of Dylan originals from Self Portrait, New Morning, and Nashville Skyline, plus remastered live recordings from the set performed by Dylan and the Band at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival.  In many cases, the differences in these versions are striking, and make you wonder what the original Self Portrait might have been.

What it might have been was an anthology of American music – blues, folk, old-timey, country and pop tunes – but it came out all wrong, with songs slathered with syrupy strings overdubs and good stuff discarded in favour of some decidedly dodgy recordings – Dylan duetting with himself on the amateurish version of Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer was either a bad joke or a serious loss of judgement.

As much as ordinary mortals can fathom what goes in the mind of Bob Dylan, we know a bit more now about where he was coming from perhaps, having heard a much more spartan version of what this might have been two decades later on the albums Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, and listened to Dylan present his radio show Theme Time Radio on which he celebrated all forms of American music – from jazz and blues, through country and R&B to classic pop of the fifties and sixties.

But back then, at the start of the 70s, was the heyday of the singer-songwriter, and Dylan was regarded as the greatest of them all.  To fill an album with songs written by others was taken as a sign that you had lost your mojo, and were playing a bad joke on your followers. Moreover, Dylan had gained a huge reputation as a protest singer, so we expected any new album to contain lyrics of social criticism.  The worst thing about Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning for many of us back then was the overriding tone of domestic bliss and bucolic rapture.  For Christ’s sake, the cities were burning and there was a war going on: was this the best that the voice of a generation could do?

Dylan hillside

Time passes slowly up here in the mountains
We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains
Catch the wild fishes that float through the stream
Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream

That was New Morning, a rapturous collection, apparently rushed out quickly by Dylan to obliterate the stain on his career represented by Self Portrait (notoriously rejected as ‘shit’ by Greil Marcus in his review for Rolling Stone that basically set the seal on the album’s reputation).  The general interpretation of Self Portrait in subsequent decades has been that it represented a deliberate act of career destruction – he just ‘threw it all away’ in order to get the rest of us off his back. But just as easily it could represent just one more example of Dylan’s legendary misjudgements in the choices he has made about what to put on, or leave off, an album.

As Mark Richardson observes in his thoughtful review for Pitchfork:

Though we’ll never know exactly what he was thinking, the idea of Dylan making a poor album on purpose never made sense. He worked with too many top-shelf musicians that he cared about, and had friends and colleagues investing too much time, to make something that would embarrass them. It seems more likely that the “intentionally bad” storyline was a defence mechanism for a mysterious artist who did, after all, have a pretty hefty ego and was deeply aware of his own talent. So it’s reasonable to conclude that Self Portrait was a strange and all-over-the-place album because, for one reason or another, that’s the kind of album Dylan wanted to make at that time.

Dylan tapes

Whatever the circumstances that led Dylan to release the sickly-sweet, sloppy, sprawling Self Portrait, the artefact delivered to us in 2013 is a different kettle of fish entirely.  Even before considering the tunes themselves, the remixing and the remastering, there is the fact that Dylan sings beautifully, in a voice far removed from the gravelly rasp of later years, a voice tender and expressive and melodious.  Mark Richardson again:

That is where the deep and immense pleasure of this set resides: hearing melodies – some new, some old, some borrowed – performed by a distinctive singer at the height of his powers.

Dylan has seldom recorded more lovely vocals that here on his beautiful unreleased reading of the traditional English folk ballad Pretty Saro, or on alternate versions of such songs as Belle Isle or Copper Kettle, with its bucolic, if not intoxicated, refrain:

You’ll just lay there by the juniper while the moon is bright
Watch them jugs a-filling in the pale moonlight.

Loveliest of all is the remastered, achingly beautiful rendition of Wild Mountain Thyme performed solo at the Isle of Wight.  James Reed,  writing in the Boston Globe, was entranced like me:

The joy of Another Self Portrait is hearing the music for its own merit. This is Dylan at his most tender-hearted, finding his way around songs that clearly made an impression on him. Because so much of the material is traditional or written by others, it allows you to ruminate on Dylan’s interpretive skills.

Anyone who claims Dylan can’t sing, or that he’s not the most soothing of singers, has never heard his previously unreleased version of “Pretty Saro” included here. His voice is soft, delicate, as if it’ll buckle under the weight of the song’s heartache over losing his beloved.

Listening to the album a few times you begin to realise that it’s not only that songs that were messed up on Self Portrait have now had the excess of overdubbed strings removed; it’s the rediscovered ‘lost’ recordings – traditional songs and songs by Dylan’s song-writer contemporaries that astonish, too. Dylan offers tribute to Tom Paxton with his lesser-known tune, Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song, This Evening So Soon is a version of Tell Old Bill by Bob Gibson, an old buddy from the Greenwich Village days, and there’s a great version of Thirsty Boots, written by another overlooked contemporary, Eric Andersen.

Mark Richardson puts it like this in his Pitchfork review:

The real revelations on the first disc are the unreleased versions of songs from the public domain … the songs Dylan grew up with and studied… The versions here of “Railroad Bill”, “Little Sadie”, “Pretty Saro”, and the especially powerful “This Evening So Soon” are brilliant showcases of his ability to inhabit old material and make it his own. And they benefit from the generally spare and acoustic sound. Dylan started his career singing traditional folk songs, but his understanding of them eight years later was far richer.

A picture begins to emerge of the album that might have been: Dylan’s own Anthology of American Music, a foretaste of 1992‘s Good as I Been to You and 1993‘s World Gone WrongSelf Portrait was top-heavy with less than inspiring versions of country and western standards such as I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know (recorded by just about every Country artist going, from Tennessee Ernie Ford by way of Skeeter Davis to Patti Page and Dolly Parton) and two songs written by Boudleaux Bryant, the man who probably wrote more country and western hits than anyone (including ones for Jim Reeves); indeed, the strings and vocal stylings were reminiscent of a distinctly square Jim Reeves LP such as one’s mother might have in her collection.  There were also passable versions of pop songs that Dylan had grown up with in the fifties, such as Blue Moon and the Everly Brothers’ Let It Be Me.

Dylan Portrait session

Imagine, instead, an album that truly lived up to its name: a self portrait of Dylan in the form of an intimate, acoustic session where, along with a handful of trusty musicians (David Bromberg on guitar, Kenny Buttrey drums, Al Kooper organ and piano, Happy Traum banjo, and Charlie McCoy on bass), he presented a showcase of the songs that had informed his musical sensibilities – a blend of blues and country, folk and pop.  Well, we’ve finally got to hear it – or something like it – albeit 40 years later.

Significantly, perhaps, the collection opens with a demo recording of Went to See the Gypsy, Dylan’s lyric apparently inspired by an encounter with Elvis in Las Vegas:

Went to see the gypsy
Stayin’ in a big hotel […]

Outside the lights were shining
On the river of tears
I watched them from the distance
With music in my ears

I went back to see the gypsy
It was nearly early dawn
The gypsy’s door was open wide
But the gypsy was gone

There’s another demo of  When I Paint My Masterpiece, a simple recording of just Dylan and piano, the song best known  through the Band’s superb arrangement with with mandolin and accordion released on Cahoots in 1971.
Other highlights of this magnificent collection for me include the thrilling remastered recording of Dylan and the Band tearing through Highway 61 Revisited at the Isle of Wight; an exuberant alternative take of New Morning with horns; Copper Kettle, stripped of strings with just David Bromberg’s shimmering guitar and Al Kooper’s delicate organ noodles for decoration; a 1971 recording of Only A Hobo with Happy Traum on banjo and harmony vocal that has the feel of an impromptu Greenwich Village coffee house session.

Time passes slowly up here in the mountains
We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains
Catch the wild fishes that float through the stream
Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream

Ain’t no reason to go in a wagon to town
Ain’t no reason to go to the fair
Ain’t no reason to go up, ain’t no reason to go down
Ain’t no reason to go anywhere

Time Passes Slowly probably gives us the clearest sense of where Dylan’s head was at in those days.  It’s represented here in two very different try-out versions: one with a rambunctious overture from Al Kooper, the other a folksy account with George Harrison adding guitar and harmony vocal.  Another rather lovely New Morning alternate take is If Not For You, done solo at the piano with violin accompaniment.
And so it goes on: previously unheard (even un-bootlegged) versions of folk standards such as Pretty Saro, Railroad Bill, Bring Me a Little Water and House Carpenter and Belle Isle that sit well alongside contemporary folk classics like Tom Paxton’s Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song and Eric Andersen’s Thirsty Boots.

Another Self Portrait cover

Mark Richardson, the reviewer for Pitchfork, is clearly of a younger generation than mine, many of whom were perplexed, outraged even, by Self Portrait when it appeared in 1970.  He writes:

Returning to it, it’s hard for those of us a generation or two younger to understand the reaction to it not because it paled in comparison to the greatness that came before, because it obviously did. If you’ve spent any time listening to Bob Dylan’s 1960s catalog, you are still trying to wrap your head around the thought that one person wrote the 56 songs on Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, and Nashville Skyline between 1965 and 1969. Self Portrait, next to these records, in that moment, must have seemed like a joke.

But later generations hear it differently. We’ve discovered Self Portrait in the used bins, torrent downloads, and streaming services alongside records like Street Legal, Saved, Empire Burlesque, Down in the Groove, and Under the Red Sky. And in this broader context, it sounds quite good, another weird and sloppy record from a guy who released a lot of them.

Hearing Self Portrait now, alongside the fantastic music now released on Another Self Portrait, casts Dylan’s efforts in the recording studio at that time in a whole new light, Richardson rightly suggests, arguing that the collection further cements Dylan’s Bootleg Series as one of the most important archival projects in modern pop history.

We’ll probably never know why Dylan, after recording all these wonderful tracks, decided to discard them and release something entirely different. Never mind; 40 years late, we have a gem to treasure

Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand
And rivers that ran through every day
I must have been mad
I never knew what I had
Until I threw it all away

33 Revolutions: Dorian Lynskey’s homage to songs of protest

33 Revolutions: Dorian Lynskey’s homage to songs of protest

Billie Holiday

When I picked up Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs I expected short essays on 33 selected songs.  What you get is a massive tome, clocking in at around 800 pages, that uses 33 songs – from Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939 to Green Day’s’ American Idiot’ in 2004 – as triggers for something more ambitious: nothing less than a social, political and cultural history of the times in which the song was born.

Lynskey is a music writer for the Guardian, whose name first came to my attention when he used to edit the weekly Readers Recommend playlist columns in that paper.  He makes a good job of weaving the stories of the songs into their wider historical and cultural contexts.  I thought I had read all there was to know about about the songs of protest that came out of the struggle for black civil rights in America or the movement against the Vietnam war, but Lynskey’s early chapters covering that period are engrossing, insightful and well-written.

33 Revolutions cover

With a book like this, you can always cite omissions; Lynskey covers his back somewhat by complementing the 33 chosen songs with a phenomenal 30-page appendix listing other songs mentioned in the text – plus another list of 100 songs not mentioned.  manna from heaven for list fanatics and playlist-compilers like me!  But you can still question Lynskey’s decision to begin his survey with ‘Strange Fruit’, first sung by Holiday in 1939. So much came before. Lynskey argues that prior to ‘Strange Fruit’ protest songs ‘had nothing to do with mainstream popular music’ but ‘were designed for specific audiences — picket lines, folk schools, party meetings’.  Well, ‘Strange Fruit’ wasn’t exactly mainstream popular music, and what about (just off the top off my head) ‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times’ (1929) or Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime’ (1932) which, sung by Bing Crosby was about as mainstream as you can get?

Although Lynskey’s account of the development of black American music from the 1960s onwards is excellent – demonstrating how contrasts and contradictions in the music mirrored the emerging gulf between the non-violent tradition of the civil rights movement and more militant black power activism – he is strangely silent for the most part about the significant current of protest in the blues, a music which catered to a mass audience, even if it wasn’t mainstream.  Before Lynskey’s cut-off date this would give you, for example, Lead Belly’s ‘Bourgeois Blues’, Louis Armstrong singing Fats Waller’s ‘What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?’ or Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘Black, Brown and White’, a song he’d been singing to black American audiences for years, but which every record company he had ever sung it for had turned down, finally being recorded on a trip to Paris in 1951.

This little song that I’m singin’ about
People you know it’s true
If you’re black and gotta work for a living
This is what they will say to you
They says if you was white, should be all right
If you was brown, stick around
But as you’s black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back

Nevertheless, Lynskey does a good job within his chosen period, covering often well-trodden ground in a fresh and engaging way.  The 33 chapters are organised into five sections, the early ones dealing with distinct and familiar issues: racial discrimination (‘Strange Fruit’, Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’, James Brown’s ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud’, Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’), poverty (Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’), war (Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’, Country Joe’s ‘Fixin’ To Die’, Plastic Ono Band’s ‘Give Peace a Chance’, Edwin Starr’s ‘War’, and Neil Young’s ‘Ohio’).

Lynskey has largely restricted his survey to American and British examples, though there are workmanlike chapters on Chile (Victor Jara), Nigeria (Fela Kuti) and Jamaican music. There’s nothing from anywhere else: whether the rest of Europe, Africa or the Arab world.  To a degree, I think that’s OK – after all, the book is already 800 pages long!

Where I felt the book began to lose its impetus was in its coverage of the period after the 1980s.  This may partly reflect my own age, experience and musical interests, though I think there are two additional factors.  One is that the later chapters seem to focus less on outstanding songs and more on the scene; they tend to become lists of artists and songs.  The other issue is whether there was, in fact, a golden age of protest songs that ended, say, with punk.

Indeed, Lynskey finished the first edition in 2010 with a rather wistful epilogue, in which he wrote:

I began this book intending to write a history of a still vital form of music. I finished by wondering if I had instead composed a eulogy.

In the 2012 paperback edition he’s qualified that sentiment somewhat, writing:

We have to concede that the era of the mainstream protest song, when it was such a natural part of the pop conversation that even the biggest artists in the world felt moved to write one or two, is over.  Protest music no longer has a clear and undeniable presence…

As he observes, this has a great deal to do with decline in traditional forms of political engagement that inspired the protest songs of the past, as well as the atomisation of music genres, listening habits and means of acquiring music. Despite this, he concludes his new epilogue by reminding us that ‘Pop music, like history, has a habit of springing surprises’.  Maybe it’s worth adding words spoken by Pete Seeger some sixty years ago:

We need thousands of new songs these days: humour, to poke fun at some of the damn foolishness going on in the world; songs of love and faith in mankind and the future; songs to needle our consciences and stir our indignation and anger.

Dorian Lynskey comes from a later generation than either Seeger or me: he was ten when Holly Johnson’s Frankie Goes to Hollywood released ‘Two Tribes’, a song that tapped into fears in the Thatcher-Reagan era of nuclear war. This may account for the attention that Lynskey (quite rightly) gives to Frankie’s disco hit, whose power was enormously enhanced by its accompanying video.

Exhilarated by the record, Lynskey began tuning in to the news and politics, the stuff Holly Johnson was singing about: evidence that though protest songs may not bring about immediate change, they have the habit of seeping into a listener’s consciousness, incubating political and social attitudes for a lifetime.  From my own experience, I can vouch for that. I doubt there were many more significant factors determining my own politics than the anthems of the civil rights movement or Dylan’s early protest songs: they shaped my political consciousness, while later protest songs merely confirmed my views.

Dylan is the touchstone, still: if you ask most people, ‘Off the top of your head, name a protest singer’, most would probably answer, ‘Bob Dylan’.  But as Lynskey points out, all his protest songs were written in less than two years; after that, with a couple of (perhaps ill-chosen) exceptions he’s avoided the genre like the plague. But, man, was he good at it! Discussing ‘Masters of War’, Lynskey observes that the song’s ‘naked contempt’ sets it apart from the ‘sweet reason’ of folk at the time. As Dylan explained decades later, ‘It’s not an anti-war song. It’s speaking against what Eisenhower was calling a military-industrial complex.’ For Lynskey, ‘Masters of War’ is ‘the most evil-sounding protest song Dylan ever recorded’.

‘You’ – yew – he sneers at the warmongers, bringing to bear all of his poisonous rage, ‘you ain’t worth the blood that runs in your veins.’ In the final verse, Dylan tracks his quarry’s coffin to its resting place and stands over it ’till I’m sure that you’re dead’. You imagine that he might clamber down into the grave, crack open the casket and give the corpse a good kick just to be sure. He turns the topic of the military-industrial complex into an ancient horror story in which a wrongdoer is pursued by a vengeful spirit. It is also a form of generational warfare. … He admits he is young, and that there’s a lot he doesn’t know, but he knows enough to damn his targets to hell. ‘I’ve never really written anything like that before,’ said Dylan in the liner notes to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. ‘I don’t sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn’t help it with this one. The song is a sort of striking out, a reaction to the last straw, a feeling of what can you do?’

Lynskey’s observations here are about more than the lyrics; he’s suggesting that the form and the sound of the song can be part of the message, too. Discussing Jimi Hendrix’s spine-tingling rendition of The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, he quotes the Rolling Stone journalist Jon Landau who said that the music should convey the brunt of the meaning. Lynskey points to cases where the form and sound of a song made its meaning ambiguous.  Regarding the Stones’ ‘Street Fighting Man’ he writes, ‘Jagger’s lyrical reservations were obliterated by the music’s exultant menace.  It sounded like revolution, and that was what mattered’.

He makes a similarly acute observation about Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’, refusing to ‘smirk at the knuckleheads’ who didn’t get it.  The official version of ‘Born in the USA’ was misunderstood so widely, Lanskey argues, that Springsteen has to take some of the blame. ‘A song’s meaning does not just reside in its lyrics, but in its melody, its production, its tone of voice’, Lynskey writes.  He brilliantly explains how the original recording of the song was more true to its meaning:

During the Nebraska sessions, Springsteen demoed a song called ‘Born in the USA’, narrated by a maimed and unemployed Vietnam veteran who has ‘nowhere to run’. Alone with his guitar,  Springsteen sings like a man who has nothing, and reiterates the title like it’s a curse rather than a blessing. [Springsteen’s producer] Landau called the acoustic version ‘a dead song’ but what would happen to it later would add more layers of irony to the title than it could bear: it would be murdered by irony. … The words of ‘Born in the USA’ needed to be handled with more care. On the demo, you feel like you’re leaning in to the life story of a broken man; on the single, he’s hollering it at you while riding in a tank. …You don’t hear bleakness and betrayal: you hear a battle cry. Landau thought the original version was too small, but this one is far too big. It is a Trojan horse with the door jammed shut. The subversive lyric cannot get out.

One of the best examples of how Lynskey probes the relationship between the words and the sound, and relates the music to the politcs, can be found in his discussion of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ and Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’ – the two defining black protest songs of 1963. Simone’s song was written in a murderous rage after she heard the news that four black children had been killed when a white racist detonated a bomb that destroyed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Cooke’s song was his response to the murderous response of southern white racists to the Freedom Rides, a wave of violence that began to crack apart the unity of the civil rights movement. All across black America in 1964, patience was wearing thin, as one small incident revealed.  At the end of Martin Luther King’s historic speech to the vast crowds at the Lincoln Memorial, a furious voice from the crowd had yelled: ‘Fuck that dream, Martin! Now, Goddam it, now’

Lynskey puts it in a nutshell:

Simone’s song was ‘Now, Goddam it, now!’ set to music: Cooke’s was ‘I have a a dream’. Gospel preached patience and endurance: keep on. To a Forman or a Carmichael, that kind of faith in the face of lead pipes. and fire hoses made you a sucker.To King and the believers, it represented a quiet strength which refused to be distorted by rage and hatred.

‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ united the pain and loneliness of blues with the redemptive promise of gospel. In Lynskey’s words, ‘It is a statement of faith under almost unendurable pressure. Tellingly, Lynskey notes how Cooke

Sings the title four  times during the song, his conviction increasing each time, like someone testing a rope to see how much weight it can bear. And so he is bruised and battered and brought to his knees but finally, in the last verse, he can sing, ‘I think I’m able to carry on.’ Cooke renders the civil rights struggle as one man’s vacillation between despair and hope, the two emotions doing battle most fiercely in just one word: the extended, wavering long in the final refrain, of ‘it’s been a long, a long time coming’.

‘Mississippi Goddam’ was never recorded in a studio, so the best-known version, recorded on 21 March 1964, allows you to hear the song punctuated by the (mostly white) audience’s reaction. They’ve never heard this song before and they think it’s funny and she tricks them into thinking it’s going to be quite lighthearted.  She gets angrier and angrier, and the chorus becomes more and more hair-raising.  You can just hear the audience freeze; they just don’t know what to do.  They’ve just been hit by something they’ve never heard before.  This is how Lynskey describes it:

‘The name of this tune is ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ said Nina Simone in her unmistakably regal tones, seated at her piano on the stage of Carnegie Hall. ‘And I mean every word of it.’  Simone strikes up a muscular vamp on the piano’ somewhere between jauntiness and hysteria. She announces the title to gales of cosy laughter. She sings the first verse with lusty vigour, then says, ‘This is a show tune but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.’ More laughter, but this time tense and muted. In the next verse, her performance becomes more threatening as she conjures up bad omens of black cats and hound dogs on her trail. You can sense the mirth freezing in the audience’s throats as she climbs the rungs of her disquiet, from personal confusion to religious doubt to volcanic rage. ‘Don’t tell me, I’ll tell you,’ she snaps, and every white person in Carnegie Hall is implicated in that you. ‘Me and my people are just about due’. Her band members chime in as the voice of the establishment -‘Do it slow’ – as her impatience builds and builds, and the song snaps in two. ‘I bet you thought I was kiddin’, didn’t you?’ she says teasingly, and now there is no laughter at all because she is singing of picket lines and school boycotts and segregation and centuries of racist deceit, and her anger is magnificent and shocking:

‘This whole country is full of lies

You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you anymore.’

Even at a distance of over four decades you can almost taste the tension in the air, metallic like electricity or blood.  She smacks the piano keys, extrudes from her mouth a long, ragged Goooodddaaaaaamm, and whoops a final ‘That’s it!’

Fine writing; but to my mind, it’s hard to find the equivalent in the last half of the book.  And the reason for that has to be that the story Lynskey has to tell becomes less heroic: great songs like these just aren’t there.

Lynskey singles out Neil Young’s ‘Ohio’ as doing all the things a topical song should do.  It responds with precision, and is a brilliant, memorable piece of music.  It captures the intense emotion of the moment – you can tell it was written hours after he had read the May 1970 issue of Life magazine that contained a vivid account and shocking photos of of the killing of four students by the Ohio  National Guard during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University.  The song was rush-released so that it came out while people were still feeling the rawness of that emotion.  Says Lynskey: ‘It’s one of those protest songs that whichever way you measure it, it’s not found wanting.  Ohio sets itself a task and executes it perfectly’.

‘If any protest song can be said to have had a tangible effect on its subject matter’, asserts Lynskey, ‘it is ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by the Special AKA’. It was written to raise awareness of Nelson Mandela’s incarceration, and by raising awareness of him, it raised awareness of the anti-apartheid cause in general. The song’s composer, Jerry Dammers, went on to found the lobby group Artists Against Apartheid, while the song (which entered the UK top ten in March 1984) became a part of the revival of the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s which led to sanctions, boycotts and, ultimately, to Mandela’s release.  The song was adopted by the ANC and Mandela later told Dammers that it was very important to him.

Dorian Lynskey’s book is a great read, narrating even those parts of the story with you may already be familiar with verve and insight.  The copious lists at the back of the book will keep mixtape compilers happy for hours and hours.  But when you’ve done with book and playlists, you’re left with the question: has the golden age of protest song passed?

The 33 Songs

1. Billie Holiday Strange Fruit
2. Woody Guthrie This Land is Your Land
3. Pete Seeger We Shall Overcome
4. Bob Dylan Masters of War
5. Nina Simone Mississippi Goddam
6. Country Joe and The Fish Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die Rag
7. James Brown Say It Loud I’m Black and Proud
8. Plastic Ono Band Give Peace a Chance
9. Edwin Starr War
10. Crosby Stills Nash and Young Ohio
11. Gil Scot-Heron The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
12. Stevie Wonder Living For The City
13. Victor Jara Manifesto
14. Fela Kuti and Afrika 70 Zombie
15. Max Romeo and The Upsetters War Ina Babylon
16. The Clash White Riot
17. Carl Bean I Was Born This Way
18. Linton Kwesi Johnson Sonny’s Letter
19. The Dead Kennedys Holiday in Cambodia
20. Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five The Message
21. Crass How Does It Feel
22. Frankie Goes to Hollywood Two Tribes
23. U2 Pride (In The Name of Love)
24. The Special AKA Nelson Mandela
25. Billy Bragg Between the Wars
26. R.E.M. Exhuming McCarthy
27. Public Enemy Fight The Power
28. Huggy Bear Her Jazz
29. The Prodigy Their Law
30. Manic Street Preachers Of Walking Abortion
31. Rage Against The Machine Sleep Now in The Fire
32. Steve Earle John Walkers Blues
33. Green Day American Idiot

See also

Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan

Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan

I don’t think of myself as Bob Dylan.  It’s like Rimbaud said, ‘I is another’.
– Bob Dylan, 1985

A million books have crawled over the minutiae of Bob Dylan’s life, his words, live performances and recordings, and I have read a fair few of them.  But I do believe that Ian Bell’s Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan is the best of them all.  Which is surprising since Bell – former Scottish editor of the Observer and a past winner of the Orwell Prize for political writing – has done no original research, conducted no fresh interviews, or been given access to record company archives.

But what Bell has done – and supremely well – is to sift through all of the voluminous material that the Dylan phenomena has generated over the decades – interviews, biographies, memoirs, articles, web forum debates and bootlegs, as well as the artist’s own words – to produce a book that is insightful, critical (indeed, often sceptical) and analytical.  Bell places Dylan in his entire context: musical, literary, historical, and political. Continue reading “Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan”

Thea Gilmore: on tour in New Brighton

Thea Gilmore: on tour in New Brighton

In the Blue Room of New Brighton’s Floral Pavilion Thea Gilmore was explaining how she and partner Nigel Stonier had, for the last five years, organised a literature and music festival in their home town of Nantwich in Cheshire.  ‘Anyone know the material for a fifth anniversary?’ she asked.  One guy suggested bacon.  ‘Er, no…but you can stay at my house anytime’, she responded.  The answer is wood, and wood became the theme for the concert that Thea and her band gave at this year’s festival: every song had to be wood-related, and it fell to Thea to sing an old German folk song made famous by Elvis Presley.

‘Wooden Heart’, sung solo by Thea midway through Sunday night’s show in New Brighton, was just one of the spine-tingling highlights of a superb concert; to hear it was worth the price of admission alone.  She took the song at a slower pace than Elvis and scoured it clean of the jaunty, tripping rhythm of the original, paring it down to the intimate love song that lies at its core:

Can’t you see
I love you
Please don’t break my heart in two
That’s not hard to do
Cause I don’t have a wooden heart

Gilmore is an accomplished vocalist who can belt out a mean rocker or, as here, infuse a romantic ballad with a sensuous intensity.  She did a creditable job of retaining the original German words sung by Elvis a year after he had completed his military service in Germany:

Muß i’ denn, muß i’ denn
Zum Städtele hinaus,
Städtele hinaus
Und du mein Schatz bleibst hier

(Got to go, got to go,
Got to leave this town,
Leave this town
And you, my dear, stay here.)

Earlier, Thea Gilmore had arrived on stage with her band, comprising guitarist, producer and partner Nigel Stonier, Che Beresford on drums, Alan Knowles on acoustic bass and accordion and Tracy Bell on keyboards.  On two numbers the band was augmented, and its average age considerably reduced, when joined onstage by six year-old Egan – Nigel and Thea’s eldest child – who wielded a child-size violin.

Gilmore had kicked off with ‘Contessa’ from 2008’s Harpo’s Ghost, and there were to be a fair few numbers from the extensive Gilmore back catalogue in the course of the evening – for as she informed us, after tours promoting albums of songs by Dylan and Sandy Denny, she was thrilled to be doing what she likes doing best, singing the songs that she writes herself.  She’d thought long and hard about the songs she really wanted to sing, and had dusted off a fair few which have not been performed for years. She’s halfway through recording a new album, due out in the spring, and at the gigs there is very limited edition EP available, called Beginners – because it’s a sort of taster for the main course to follow. She did two numbers off the EP, and one completely new song which may, or may not, be on the next album.

There were no Dylan covers in this show, but there were two of the previously unpublished Sandy Denny songs that Gilmore was commissioned to set to music, which comprised the album Don’t Stop Singing and were featured in the tribute show that toured the country this summer, The Lady: A Homage to Sandy Denny.  Here she featured ‘Don’t Stop Singing’ and the Olympic summer single ‘London’.

Following the pen-portrait of an unwelcome reminder of a dissolute past in ‘Contessa’, we were treated to Thea’s angry and bitter portrayal of political arrogance  in ‘God’s Got Nothing On You’ before she presented a song off the new EP, ‘Beautiful Hopeful’, all about the tribulations that await young musicians entering today’s music business. A little later Thea talked at some length about the process of making an album: always having too many songs, finding that after a while a dozen or so songs seem to chime together, leaving many more to be sadly cast aside. This was by way of an introduction to one of those songs – ‘The Amazing Floating Man’ – that appears on the new EP.  Thea half-apologetically presented the song as being about the banking crisis; it was a solo a capella performance that lifted the hairs on back of your neck:

Roll up, roll up
For the best show in town
See him balance the books
As the markets crash down
And he never does much
But he does what he can
The Amazing Floating Man

By way of complete contrast (and you do get that with Thea – her songbook displays a tremendous variety of mood and material) we were treated us to a lively performance of the raunchy ‘Teach Me To Be Bad’: as she said, a song that ‘celebrates sex and the little devil in all of us’:

If I were coming off the rails
Dropped my eyes and dropped my dress
Would your moral stand prevail
Or would you fold like all the rest
Ooh ain’t we got fun
Ooh let’s come undone
I said one two well hand me a light
Oh three four I don’t wanna be right

By way of contrast, another new song from the EP, ‘Me By Numbers’ carried the refrain:

I can be a good girl
I can be a queen
I can be a soldier
I can be the thinking man’s dream
I can be a warrior
I can be the eye of the world
But  most of all
I can be a good, good girl

Thea Gilmore grew up in Oxfordshire, her interest in music developing from listening to her father’s record collection, which included Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and The Beatles. She began writing poetry at the age of 15 as a way of coping with the divorce of her parents, and got an early start in the music industry, working in a recording studio and recording her first album Burning Dorothy as a teenager in 1998.  In the following four years she released three more albums that earned her a growing critical reputation, but no chart success. It was around this time that I first discovered her songs: I remember listening repeatedly to Rules for Jokers, her third album that had standout tracks such as ‘This Girl Is Taking Bets’ and ‘Things We Never Said’, on the drive to and from work in 2001.

That album also included a song called ‘Inverigo’ that I could never really figure out: it had a lovely melody, but the meaning of some of the lines, and particularly the title, always puzzled me. On Sunday night, introducing the song to the audience in the Blue Lounge, Thea solved the mystery.  She wrote ‘Inverigo’ in Italy, in the town of the same name; she was there with her partner,  Nigel Stonier, who was recording an album.  Though the trip, for her was ‘little more than a jolly’, at the time she needed to convince a record company that she had songs worth backing.  ‘Inverigo’ was written in the company offices, they liked it, and she got a contract.  After the concert, as Thea signed my copy of her new EP, I explained how that title had mystified me for a decade or more. ‘Well, there you go’, she replied, ‘puzzle solved’.

We are running from storms of our youth into more of the same …
We are free as the wind through the trees or so we are told …

In the last 15 years, Thea Gilmore has produced another ten albums, and has established a reputation as one of Britain’s leading songwriters.  Though they can be a little uneven, each of her albums contains at least one gem that ranks alongside the work of the best lyricists.  Joan Baez recognised her worth, picking up on ‘The Lower Road’ from Liejacker, and recording her version of the song on The Day After Tomorrow, and inviting Thea to join her tour.

After she recorded ‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ for a Dylan covers CD for Uncut Magazine in 2002, the accolades poured in, including one from Bruce Springsteen who, on encountering Gilmore backstage at a 2008 concert, showed his appreciation for the track, calling it ‘one of the great Dylan covers’. For, alongside her own songwriting credentials, Thea Gilmore is also a gifted interpreter of songs written by others.  Some of these are to be found on Loft Music, an album of cover versions she put out in 2004; it includes wonderful interpretations of songs as varied as Pete Shelley’s ‘Ever Fallen in Love’, John Fogerty’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’, the great Phil Ochs song ‘When I’m Gone’, and ‘Buddy Can You Spare a Dime’.  Other favourites include great versions of Pete Burns’ ‘You Spin Me Round’, Yoko Ono’s ‘Listen The Snow Is Falling’ and Springsteen’s ‘Cover Me’.  And then of course there is her album of songs by Sandy Denny, and her recreation of Bob Dylan’s album John Wesley Harding.

I have my own strong favourites from her own compositions; one that I always hope she will sing live is ‘Old Soul’, and she did not disappoint on this occasion.  When we hear a song it may have a personal meaning that can differ from the writer’s original intent.  I listened to ‘Old Soul’ a long time before I became aware that old souls are those that have experienced several previous incarnations from which they have gained greater wisdom.  On this video clip, Thea introduces the song, talking about how it was written while she was pregnant, and how the lyric’s meaning for her was related to the imminent birth of her child:

To complete an evening of great music, Thea returned for the obligatory encore: a rousing rendition of the apocalyptic call to arms, ‘Are You Ready’, with its chorus ‘We will ride, are you ready? reinforced by blistering accordion, before things quietened down with another new song, a hushed ballad ‘Goodbye My Friend’.


  • Contessa
  • Don’t Stop Singing
  • God’s Got Nothing on You
  • Beautiful Hopeful
  • Red White and Black
  • Teach Me To Be Bad
  • The Amazing Floating Man
  • Me By Numbers
  • Old Soul
  • Roll On
  • You’re the Radio
  • Inverigo


  • Are You Ready?
  • Goodbye My Friend

See also

Woody Guthrie: a Liverpool celebration

Woody Guthrie: a Liverpool celebration

A little bit of music history was made in the Rodewald Suite last night.  The event was a celebration of the centennial this year of the birth of Woody Guthrie at which Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, gave an engaging personal talk about her father’s life and music. Organised by Alun Parry, founder of Liverpool’s Woody Guthrie Folk Club that meets on the final Thursday of each month at the Ship and Mitre on Dale Street.  Alun had heard that Nora was touring Europe in 2012 and took a chance on asking if she could fit in a visit to Liverpool.

As Nora explained at one point in the evening, she was eager to come to Liverpool for several reasons, one being that when Woody served in the Merchant Marine during the war he took shore leave several times in Scotland and England, and may (though this is unconfirmed) have stepped ashore in Liverpool.  Another reason was that Liverpool in the 1950s was the city of the ‘Cunard Yanks’, the Liverpudlian seamen who served on the ocean liners and brought back American blues, jazz and R&B records, thus enriching the musical culture of the city.  This was when a certain George Harrison was playing in a band led by Les Stewart that specialised in tunes by Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy – and Woody Guthrie.

But there was another way in which Woody’s songs seeped into the repertoire of Liverpool bands: young musicians like Paul McCartney and John Lennon began messing around with guitars during the skiffle boom, heavily influenced by Lonnie Donegan, probably the most significant popularizer of songs byLeadbelly and Woody Guthrie.  With this in mind, when Nora Guthrie got the invite to Liverpool, she decided to contact Lonnie Donegan’s son, Pete, in London to see if he could make it.  He did – and provided a triumphant ending to a great night.

Alun Parry kicked off the evening with a song of his own, inspired by Woody’s statement in which he summed up the point of his songs:

I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard travelling. … I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood.  I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what colour, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.

Then Nora took the stage to give a presentation, illustrated with family photos, paintings and drawings by Woody, and pages from his notebooks.  He wrote down all his lyrics, she said, because he could not memorize them. She began with the original words of ‘This Land Is Your Land’, written by hand in a school notebook.  ‘This Land’ was, she pointed out, one of the earliest songs he wrote – in 1940, when he was only 27 years old and had just arrived in New York.  But, she asked, how did this song come to be written?

She took us right back to Woody’s beginnings in Oklahoma.  He was born on July 14, 1912 in a ‘typical Wild West town’, Okemah which, as Woody later wrote

was one of the singingest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns and farm towns, because it blossomed out into one of our first Oil Boom Towns.
Bound For Glory

When he was a boy, Okemah was a sleepy farm town where they grew cotton out in the fields. Then as it became an oil boomtown, when he was about 8 years old, all kinds of other people were suddenly in Okemah overnight: a pretty rough and rowdy bunch of people that worked in the oil fields.  The politics were rough, too: Nora noted that Oklahoma was the last state to join the union, and had the most political parties – 14 in all, mostly left-wing (though today Oklahoma is a red state, solid Republican).

Woody’s mother, Nora and his father, Charley were a middle class up and coming couple: Charley was an entrepreneur, a land dealer, young and ambitious.  But the family went through an appalling sequence of tragedies that, suggested Nora, were the foundation of his empathy and compassion – not intellectual but a response to the experiences of his own family life.

Woody Guthrie’s childhood home in Okemah photographed in 1979

When Woody’s father got enough money to build a new house, it burned down before the family could move in. Then his older sister Clara was also burned in a fire and died.  Within two years of that happening his mother was sent away to an insane asylum, while his father lost everything in the Depression.

We now know that Woody’s mother was suffering from Huntingdon’s disease, a neurological disease that causes degeneration of the nerves and eventually leads to loss of control of the body, and death.  But at the time nothing was known about it. People in the town made fun of  the way she behaved. She was a victim of a disease and she was ridiculed for it, and eventually deemed insane.

Woody felt this deeply, argued Nora in her talk. Running through every single song that Woody wrote is a sense of empathy with people who are enduring hard times, whether they are homeless or hungry or whatever. That became the signature and the heart of all of his music, suggested Nora.  She displayed the last photo of Woody’s mother, and drew attention to how she was holding her arms behind her back – literally holding on to her arms to control the Huntingdon’s.

Woody Guthrie in Okemah

Nora suggested that her grandmother had been important to Woody in another way: as she played piano, she would sing old Scots-Irish ballads. These long ballads were very likely the inspiration for the long ballads that he would later write.

In a very short period of time, Woody’s middle-class family life had fallen apart. By age thirteen, he was pretty much on his own with no parents – his father had left for Texas, while he stayed in Okemeh, living in a gang house with a couple of other kids on their own. In his autobiography Bound for Glory he tells of collecting garbage to get by. He was out of school and surviving on his wits.  At this point, Nora said, he wanted to be an artistand he took to painting as a potential career.  All of the art from his early years is gone, Nora said.  One of the only portraits that still survives, to her knowledge, is one that he did of Abraham Lincoln a few years later, when he was in his twenties. It’s an oil painting that’s now at the Smithsonian Institute in the Smithsonian Folkways Collection.

It was very hard to keep that up and pay for a $5 brush and the canvas and the oils.  Then he realized that once you did a painting and you sold it once and you never saw it again, and that dollar you earned for it got spent…He realized with a song you write it once and someone says, ‘Hey, I like that song. Sing it again!’ It was really a funny, very natural understanding that songwriting was a better way to make money in the early days than painting.

After two years in the gang house decided to join his father in Pampa Texas, where he spent most of his time in the public library ‘interested in everything’:

I scratched around in the books. I carried them home by the dozens and armloads, on any subject, I didn’t care which. I wanted to look into everything a little bit, and pick out something, something that would turn me into a human being of some kind – free to work for my own self,  and free to work for everybody.
Bound for Glory

This was when he really start writing, following the principle that ‘all you can write is what you see’.  What he saw first was the terrible impact of the dust storms on that part of Texas:

On the 14th day of April of 1935,
There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky.
You could see that dust storm comin’, the cloud looked deathlike black,
And through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track.

From Oklahoma City to the Arizona line,
Dakota and Nebraska to the lazy Rio Grande,
It fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down,
We thought it was our judgement, we thought it was our doom.

It covered up our fences, it covered up our barns,
It covered up our tractors in this wild and dusty storm.
We loaded our jalopies and piled our families in,
We rattled down that highway to never come back again.
– ‘The Great Dust Storm’

I’ve seen the dust so black that I couldn’t see a thing,
I’ve seen the dust so black that I couldn’t see a thing,
And the wind so cold, boy, it nearly cut your water off.

I seen the wind so high that it blowed my fences down,
I’ve seen the wind so high that it blowed my fences down,
Buried my tractor six feet underground.

Well, it turned my farm into a pile of sand,
Yes, it turned my farm into a pile of sand,
I had to hit that road with a bottle in my hand.
– ‘Dust Bowl Blues’

Dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936, Photo: Arthur Rothstein

Like countless others, Woody left Pampa, Texas in the early 1930s for California to see if he could get work in the fruit orchards
there. When he got to the California border there were roadblocks – they were stopping people from crossing the state line. Nora elaborated:

You get to a state line and they won’t let you cross the border. You are an American citizen, this is your country and they won’t let you cross the border. It’s not another country. This is America and these are American citizens. They wouldn’t let you cross the border unless you had $50 in your pocket. But he was thinking, I’m from Oklahoma. I’m not a foreigner. I’m from Oklahoma. I’ve walked across the desert a thousand miles and you are telling me I can’t come in? He saw families being turned around and being sent back. How in the world are these people going to have $50? They don’t have anything to eat, let alone have $50 in their pockets. Woody writes in the song ‘Do Re Mi’, ‘If you ain’t got that Do Re Mi, well you had better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia and Tennessee.’

Lots of folks back East, they say, is leavin’ home every day,
Beatin’ the hot old dusty way to the California line.
‘Cross the desert sands they roll, gettin’ out of that old dust bowl,
They think they’re goin’ to a sugar bowl, but here’s what they find
Now, the police at the port of entry say,
“You’re number fourteen thousand for today.”

Oh, if you ain’t got the do re mi, folks, you ain’t got the do re mi,
Why, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see;
But believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot
If you ain’t got the do re mi.

When Woody arrived in Los Angeles he soon had a radio show which quickly became a tremendous hit because all of the Okies had come to California, so he had the biggest audience in Los Angeles. He got 10,000 letters a week in fan mail. The producers raised his salary and made his show longer. The same thing happened, Nora said, when he moved to New York. There, too, he soon had a very successful radio show. They were paying him so much that he wrote to Alan Lomax and said, ‘they are giving me money so fast I have to sleep under it’.

Then, Nora said, the producers and the sponsors would say, ‘Tone it down on some of those songs, Woody’.  But the idea of someone telling him how to do a radio show or what songs to sing – he would just walk out. He would just say, ‘I’m not doing this’.

With Woody’s arrival in New York in 1940, Nora finally reached the conclusion to the story of how ‘This Land Is Your Land’ came to be. Woody had hitchhiked from Los Angeles to New York.

All kinds of things are going on. Hundreds of thousands of people in America are displaced because of the Dust Bowl and The Depression. As he is hitchhiking across America – Hollywood is in good shape and New York is in good shape, but from California to New York Island and everything in between, is really not so great. It takes him a month to hitchhike from Los Angeles to New York. In every jukebox at every truck stop and every diner he kept hearing Kate Smith’s hit song ‘God Bless America’. But Woody’s experience was seeing people homeless and hungry. He was seeing people walking across the country because they had lost everything. He saw families travelling on Route 66 who had lost the farm that had been in their family for generations. So as he is hearing ‘God Bless America’ on the radio and the jukeboxes, he is thinking if God blessed America everybody would have a home and food and a job. We would be okay. He said I’m not getting it and I’m not seeing it. He finally got to New York in February 1940 and in the first week he was in a little boarding house on 43rd Street. He looked out the window and saw homeless people, and things were not so good.

So ‘This Land Is Your Land’ was a direct response to ‘God Bless America’ – even to the extent that the original chorus was ‘God blessed America for me’.

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island; 
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters 
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway, 
I saw above me that endless skyway: 
I saw below me that golden valley: 
This land was made for you and me.

I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps 
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts; 
And all around me a voice was sounding: 
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling, 
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling, 
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting: 
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there 
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.” 
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing, 
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, 
By the relief office I seen my people; 
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking 
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me, 
As I go walking that freedom highway; 
Nobody living can ever make me turn back 
This land was made for you and me.

In the melting pot of New York, Woody for the first time was able to forge friendships with black Americans and with radical women. It was there he met Leadbelly and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. It was there, too, he met people like Lee Hayes, Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax. Woody met Lomax when he performed at a ‘Grapes of Wrath Evening’, a benefit for the John Steinbeck committee for Agricultural Workers. Woody Guthrie’s ballad ‘Tom Joad’, recorded in 1940, was directly inspired by John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath and the successful John Ford film adaptation, released in 1940. The seventeen-verse song summarized Tom Joad’s story, concluding:

Wherever little children are hungry and cry,
Wherever people ain’t free.
Wherever men are fightin’ for their rights,
That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma.
That’s where I’m a-gonna be.”

Nora said that after Steinbeck heard Woody’s ballad, he sent him an acerbic note: ‘You little bastard. You said in twelve verses what it took me 500 pages to say’.  She was asked from the floor whether Woody and Steinbeck ever met – she thought not.  But on the Internet, Steinbeck’s son, Thom, is quoted as saying

My father met Woody several times. There was a mutual affinity there for each other’s creative output even though Steinbeck loved all American music. Dad made it very clear to Woody…you don’t just write ‘folk songs’ you write battle hymns.

Steinbeck later wrote, in the 1960s:

Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tyre iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of the people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.
– foreword to Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People (1967)

In New York Woody began work on his autobiography, Bound For Glory, completed with the support of  his second wife Marjorie Mazia, whose disciplined approach came from her job as an instructor at the Martha Graham Dance School (leaving notes on the fridge like ‘finish chapter 5 today!’).  The book was first published in 1943, and I still remember the thrill, as a teenager, of reading Woody’s larger than life narrative told in vivid and energetic dialect.

The cover of the original 1943 edition of Bound For Glory

During the Second World War, Woody joined the Merchant Navy with his friend and singing partner, Cisco Houston.  He washed dishes on a the troop ship which carried troops to the Normandy beach in early July 1944. Later, Woody was routed through London and Glasgow, before returning to the United States. While in London, he went to the BBC where he was given the opportunity to sing on Children’s Hour. After some autobiographical anecdotes, he was recorded singing ‘The Wabash Cannonball’ and ‘900 Miles’.

In 1946 Woody and moved to Mermaid Avenue on Coney Island with Marjorie and his daughter, Cathy. One of their children, Cathy, died as a result of a fire at age four, sending Guthrie into a serious depression.Three other children were born and grew up here – Joady, Arlo and Nora. In her talk, Nora vividly recalled this period of her childhood, when most of the year would be spent on the beach.




Woody with (left to right) Nora, Joady and Arlo, 1951


This was a productive song-writing period in which Woody wrote many songs for children, often inspired by Cathy, songs which he recorded with producer Moses Asch. He also began writing more songs inspired directly from daily newspaper headlines, such as Deportees, his response to a plane crash in 1948 in which 28 Mexican farm workers from Oakland, California being deported back to Mexico, were not named but simply referred to as ‘deporteees’ in press reports:

The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting
The oranges are filed in their creosote dumps
They’re flying ’em back to the Mexico border
To take all their money to wade back again
Goodbye to my Juan, farewell Roselita
Adios mes amigos, Jesus e Maria
You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be deportees

My father’s own father, he waded that river
They took all the money he made in his life
It’s six hundred miles to the Mexico border
And they chased them like rustlers, like outlaws, like thieves
The skyplane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon
The great ball of fire it shook all our hills
Who are these dear friends who are falling like dry leaves?
Radio said, “They are just deportees”

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can raise our good crops?
To fall like dry leaves and rot on out topsoil
And be known by no names except “deportees

In 1947 Cathy died in a fire in the Coney Island apartment, shortly before Marjorie gave birth to Arlo.  Nora movingly recalled how Woody, who looked after the children during the day while Marjorie worked, would record Cathy’s funny and childish remarks in a notebook, one of those now in the Guthrie archives, entitled ‘Cathy Says’.

By the late 1940s, Woody’s health was declining, and his behaviour becoming erratic. In 1952 it was finally determined that he was suffering from Huntington’s disease .  Increasingly unable to control his muscles and bodily functions, Woody was hospitalized from 1956 until 1966.  Nora described how her mother and the children would visit Woody in hospital  every Sunday, until finally the visits became too distressing and it was decided to bring Woody home at weekends.  She talked as well about the first time that the young Bob Dylan turned up at their house to see the songwriter who had inspired him (she turned him away, but Arlo invited him in).  Dylan later wrote (in Chronicles) what Guthrie’s songs meant for him:

The songs themselves were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them.

Woody died on October 3, 1967.  ‘I’m a common-ist’ is how he used to describe himself, believing that people working together were a more powerful force than one.

After Nora Guthrie’s presentation, musicians took to the stage to perform songs by Guthrie and other writers.  Emma Runswick and Josh Cartwright sang  a cracking verse by a poet I’d never heard of before – Aaron Kramer.  ‘In Contempt’ was written in 1950 when people were being jailed for refusal to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee, on charges of being ‘in contempt of Congress’.  The words are as relevant today as when they were written.  Here, for example, they are used as counterpoint to a report on the Israeli ‘security fence’.

Build high build wide your prison walls
That there be room enough for all
Who hold you in contempt build wide
That all the bad be locked inside

 The birds who still insist on song
The sunlit streams still running strong
The flowers a-blazing every hue
All are in contempt of you

When you have seized the gallant few
Whose glory casts a shade on you
How can you now go home with ease
Jangling your heavy dungeon keys

The parents dreaming still of peace
The playful children, the wild geese
Who still must fly the mountains to
All are in contempt of you

When you have seized both moon and sun
And jailed the poems one by one
And trapped each trouble-making breeze
Then you must throw away your keys

So let us hope the day will come
When man adores the rising sun
Empty jails and free to do
With no one in contempt of you

Then it was the turn of Lonnie Donegan’s son, Pete, who gave us powerful renditions of Guthrie’s ‘Grand Coulee Dam’, ‘Vigilante Man’ and ‘Worried Man Blues’, followed by a trio of Leadbelly songs – ‘Rock Island Line’, ‘Goodnight Irene’ and ‘Midnight Special’ (with Nora called on stage to join in the choruses). On these songs, many popularised in Britain in versions by Lonnie Donegan, Pete sounded uncannily like his father.

In a resounding finale, all the night’s performers joined forces for a rousing version of ‘Union Maid’.  It had been a great show – absolutely unmissable.

Centennial poster by Shepard Fairey

See also

Bob Dylan: 50 years of hard travellin’

Fifty years ago today, on 9 March 1962, Bob Dylan’s eponymous debut album was released.  Dylan had arrived in New York only 14 months earlier and was still three months short of his 20th birthday. The songs on Bob Dylan  consisted of familiar folk, blues and gospel material combined with two original compositions. The album made little impact, selling only 5,000 copies in its first year, just enough to break even.  Dylan had been signed to Columbia Records by the legendary producer John Hammond, and some at the company began referring to Dylan as ‘Hammond’s Folly’ suggesting that Dylan’s contract should be ended.

I swung onto my old guitar
Grabbed hold of a subway car
And after a rocking, reeling, rolling ride
I landed up on the downtown side
Greenwich Village

I walked down there and ended up
In one of them coffee-houses on the block
Got on the stage to sing and play
Man there said, “Come back some other day
You sound like a hillbilly
We want folk singers here”

Well, I got a harmonica job, begun to play
Blowin’ my lungs out for a dollar a day
I blowed inside out and upside down
The man there said he loved m’ sound
He was ravin’ about how he loved m’ sound
Dollar a day’s worth

And after weeks and weeks of hangin’ around
I finally got a job in New York town
In a bigger place, bigger money too
Even joined the union and paid m’ dues
– ‘
Talkin’ New York’

Yesterday in an article in The Observer marking the anniversary, Ed Vulliamy wrote:

The immediately astonishing impact of the album, by any measure, is the contrast between the image of the unsmiling but fresh-faced lad in his cap and the depth of feeling and range in the singing between love, rage, sorrow and a fixation with death. The core of the album is ‘Fixin’ To Die’, sung as though he were pleading for the life he is about to lose, such is Dylan’s understanding of the intentions of its author, the great Delta blues master Booker T Washington – aka “Bukka” – White.

This is Dylan performing the song on a radio show and being interviewed by Cynthia Gooding on 11 March 1962:

Assessing the significance of the debut album, Vulliamy notes that

The estimable British writer on Dylan, Michael Gray, argues interestingly that the real value of the album is not only that it showed “more than a hint of a highly distinctive vision”, but also “served as a fine corrective for Greenwich Village: it was the opposite of effete,” he says, “in the context of what was happening at the time – American folk culture all but obliterated, and a stagnating ‘folk’ cult established as if in its place.”

Bruce Eder, reviewing the album for Allmusic, pinpoints what made Dylan’s debut album differ from the rest of the folk revivalists of the time:

A significant portion of the record is possessed by the style and spirit of Woody Guthrie, whose influence as a singer and guitarist hovers over “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Pretty Peggy-O,” as well as the two originals here, the savagely witty “Talkin’ New York” and the poignant “Song to Woody” … But on other songs, one can also hear the influences of Bukka White, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, and Furry Lewis, in the playing and singing, and this is where Dylan departed significantly from most of his contemporaries.  Other white folksingers of the era, including his older contemporaries Eric Von Schmidt and Dave Van Ronk, had incorporated blues in their work, but Dylan’s presentation was more in your face … There’s a punk-like aggressiveness to the singing and playing here. His raspy-voiced delivery and guitar style were modeled largely on Guthrie’s classic ’40s and early-’50s recordings, but the assertiveness of the bluesmen he admires also comes out, making this one of the most powerful records to come out of the folk revival of which it was a part. Within a year of its release, Dylan, initially in tandem with young folk/protest singers like Peter, Paul & Mary and Phil Ochs, would alter the boundaries of that revival beyond recognition, but this album marked the pinnacle of that earlier phase, before it was overshadowed by this artist’s more ambitious subsequent work.

Harold Lepidus at Examiner.com says the album shines even more today:

It has often been dismissed as a minor album, with only one “major” original composition – “Song To Woody.” For many fans, it was a late addition, something the “complete” their collection.  Now, with a half-century of hindsight, the album comes across as a marvel. Dylan, who was twenty at the time, slams through the material with a reckless intensity, like a sort of folk punk, or an acoustic Billy Bragg. What many people don’t realize is that this was virtually unheard of at the time, especially on a major label.

Bob Dylan on a rooftop in New York, 1962

Roland Ellis at Pig River Records adds:

At this time the world had Pete Seeger to gauge the spirit of folk. The family loving, working class, song of the people, serious folk man. Dylan was a new breed – he took what he needed from the traditionals and left their slowly cooked polish at the door, he didn’t take Seeger and co’s folk ideals seriously, and most importantly he possessed a cheek, a personality, and a spark that hadn’t been present on the politically/culturally driven folk records of the past. Folk was serious and selfless music and from the beginning Dylan was something more. He wasn’t interested in passing on old wisdom from gen to gen, he was instead concerned with using this genre and the stories of America in order to deliver something far more introspective and entirely of his own.

It’s ‘Song To Woody’ though that really signifies the arrival of Bob Dylan the songwriter, and really lives on as the lasting landmark from his debut record. Lyrically insightful and adoring of his hero, ‘Song To Woody’ seems to lament the diminished state that Guthrie was in at the time, whilst at the same time reassuring him that it’s okay, someone has arrived to carry the dustbowl into a new world. That new world was indeed stumbling into existence in early 1962, and along with it was a man that would come to embody everything that the children of the revolution wanted from the 1960′s. Cometh the hour and cometh the boy from Minnesota on a freight train constructed in his own mind.

There are almost no Dylan originals on YouTube (his office must be exceedingly diligent in squashing any uploads), but if you search for ‘Song To Woody’, you do find this treasure: in May 1970, shortly after The Beatles broke up, Bob Dylan and George Harrison recorded this version in New York with Charlie Daniels on bass:

Apart from marking the release of his first album, 1962 was significant for young Bob Zimmerman in two other respects.  In August 1962 he legally changed his name to Bob Dylan, while a few weeks earlier he wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’,  the song that would see him break through to a much wider audience.   In Down the Highway, Howard Sounes wrote:

Bob composed ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in a matter of minutes sitting in a cafe across the street from the Gaslight Club. Although he thought ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ special, he did not understand the full significance of what he had done. ‘It was just another song I wrote.’ The melody was uncannily similar to the African-American spiritual ‘No More Auction Block.’ However, borrowing melodies, and even lyrics, was part of the folk tradition and thus perfectly acceptable. A more pertinent criticism of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ concerned the rhetorical lyrics. Many of the most distinguished folk artists in New York were underwhelmed when they first heard the song. There seemed no link between the relentless questions; and, at the end of three verses, none of the questions had been resolved, except to say the answer was blowing in the wind, an image so vague that, arguably, it meant nothing.

Pete Seeger did not regard it highly. ‘ “Blowin’ in the Wind” is not my favorite,’ he says. ‘It’s a little easy.’ Tom Paxton found it almost impossible to learn. ‘I hate the song myself. It’s what I call a grocery-list song where one line has absolutely no relevance to the next line.’ Dave Van Ronk thought it dumb. Still, within a couple of months of Bob performing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ at Gerde’s Folk City, Van Ronk noticed to his surprise that musicians hanging around Washington Square Park had invented irreverent parodies such as, ‘The answer, my friend, is blowin’ out your end.’ As Van Ronk says, ‘If the song is strong enough, without even having been recorded, to start garnering parodies, the song is stronger than I realized.'[His manager], meanwhile, knew Bob had created something extra­ordinary. ‘ “Blowin’ in the Wind” was the key to it all,’ he says. ‘That song made it all happen.’ …

On July 30, 1962, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ the song that was the foundation stone of Bob’s career and a catalyst of the singer-songwriter revolution, was copyrighted to M. Witmark & Sons. The same day, [Dylan’s new manager Albert] Grossman signed what Bob later called ‘a secret deal’ with M. Witmark & Sons giving Grossman fifty percent of Witmark’s share of the publishing income generated by any songwriter he brought to the company. Now Grossman stood to earn a substantial slice of Bob’s publishing fees, over and above the [20 percent] cut he took for managing him. This backhanded deal was one of Bob’s primary com­plaints when he and Grossman were in legal dispute in the 1980s, although in fairness Grossman was getting an enhanced part of Witmark’s share, and not necessarily money Bob himself would have received. Bob claimed indignantly that he had known nothing of Grossman’s fifty percent deal with M. Witmark & Sons (Grossman insisted he had told him). Bob also claimed to have had no idea Grossman was given as much as $100,000 to advance to him for signing with M. Witmark & Sons, of which he received one percent. Bob’s attorneys asserted that Grossman had ‘willfully and maliciously’ concealed vital information. The secretiveness was what angered Bob who was, of course, a very secretive person himself.

However, this was not the end of Grossman’s machinations. The last part of his plan was, in fact, the cleverest. If Peter, Paul and Mary [a group Grossman had created] had a hit with a Bob Dylan-Witmark song, Grossman would earn fourfold. He had his management fee from the two acts, plus his twenty-five per­cent of Peter, Paul and Mary’s recording income from Warner Bros., plus fifty percent of the income Witmark earned from publishing a Dylan song. When Peter, Paul and Mary had a massive hit with ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ and top-forty success with two further songs written by Dylan, Grossman became as rich as Croesus.  Suddenly, money had become very important.

Bob Dylan performing at the Singers Club Christmas Party in London, 22 December 22 1962.

In the first week of October 1962, the Beatles’ first single ‘Love Me Do’ was released, reaching number 17 in the UK charts.  I can clearly remember that, and in my memory the whole Beatles phenomenon precedes my discovery of Dylan.  I’m pretty certain that it was June 1963 before I registered the name of Bob Dylan, when Peter Paul and Mary released their hit version of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.  Then, a couple of months later listening to radio coverage of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, I heard Dylan sing probably for the first time.

Dylan had actually visited London in December 1962,  to appear in a BBC TV drama, The Madhouse on Castle Street. At the end of the play, Dylan performed ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, but I never saw that – we didn’t have a TV at the time. While in London, Dylan performed at several London folk clubs, and learned new songs from British folk singers such as Martin Carthy.  One of the songs he picked up from Carthy was the ballad Lord Randall’, on which Dylan based the tune of  ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’, the standout track on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in May 1963.

Graeme Thomson, in a superb piece on the artsdesk website, ‘Bob Dylan: Fifty Years of Crooked Road‘, writes:

Fifty years ago today Bob Dylan released his first album, Bob Dylan, on Columbia. Within 12 months he was a rising star; twelve months more and he was the voice of the times; a little over a year later he had gone from saviour to Judas. And on it went. For half a century now successive generations have wrestled with Dylan’s mutations; mostly we pick and choose and settle for – at best – a partial understanding. At the age of 70, Dylan’s appeal is still wrapped up in mystery, mischief and contradiction.

Hailed initially as the king of folk-protest thanks to anthems such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, the enduring image of Dylan as the great liberal voice of the Sixties is a clear anomaly within the context of his 50-year career. His social conscience was largely a creative convenience (like most young men he wrote primarily to impress girls, in his case his politically engaged girlfriend Suze Rotolo) which swiftly turned into a millstone. He realised early on that deification by the liberal literati was a short road to fossilisation and swiftly resigned his post; the coruscating “Positively Fourth Street”, released in 1965, still stands as the greatest ever abdication note set to music. Instead, Dylan has preferred to stir the mind, heart and senses with opaque poetry rather than ideology.  […]

Since his critical and creative regeneration in the early Nineties – which began with two wonderful acoustic folk albums, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, and was sealed by the superb Time Out of Mind – Dylan has removed all traces of modernity from his work. His last four records have been composed entirely from the music of the earlier parts of the last century, touching on jazz, swing, country, Fifties rock’n’roll, folk and most often blues. His lyrics nowadays are an incongruous mix of sulphurous End Times impressionism, sly romance and sexual humour, all of which suggests that Dylan is having plenty of fun while simultaneously believing that the world has gone to hell in a handcart.

See also