Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl

Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl

‘The world that I knew, it has vanished and gone,’ sang Eliza Carthy during Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl, a special concert at the Liverpool Philharmonic this week that marked the centennial of the songwriter and Communist activist’s birth. It was a marvellous evening of passionate songs of politics and love which caused me to reflect on the significance of MacColl’s songs in our changed times. Continue reading “Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl”

Donovan at the Phil: disappointing and bizarre

Donovan at the Phil: disappointing and bizarre

I was so disappointed by Donovan’s concert at the Liverpool Phil a couple of weeks back that I couldn’t summon up the enthusiasm to write about. For the record, though, the following review by Del Pike pretty much sums up how three of us sitting on the front row (myself, and friends Joe and Annette) felt about it. Continue reading “Donovan at the Phil: disappointing and bizarre”

John Renbourn: buckets of tears

John Renbourn: buckets of tears

Tomorrow evening I was planning on seeing John Renbourn play at the Floral Pavilion, New Brighton, one stop on a tour he was doing with guitarist Wizz Jones. This morning I opened the paper to learn that he was dead.

John Renbourn
John Renbourn in the sixties

With Bert Jansch, John Renbourn co-founded Pentangle in 1967, the brilliant band of musicians which burst traditional categories, fusing folk, blues, jazz and medieval British music into a rhythmic, shimmering sound that has not aged.

When I arrived in Liverpool as a raw university fresher in September 1967 I was absorbing music (as you do at that age) from all directions.  That summer had been the summer of love and Sgt Pepper, Dylan had taken us beyond folk-protest into the wild mercury sounds of Blonde on Blonde, and that month’s number one was Scott McKenzie’s ‘San Francisco (Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair)’.

Constantly shimmering in the background were the sounds of folk music – the weekly university folk club sessions were packed back then, with singers like Tom Paxton dropping in.  And sometime in that first year, along with the Incredible String Band and Roy Harper, in the Student Union’s Mountford Hall, I saw Pentangle on their first national tour.  Their blend of folk, blues and jazz reflected the experimental, boundary-breaking nature of the times.

Bert Jansch died some three years ago; now Renbourn is dead too. He was due to play with Wizz Jones in Glasgow on Wednesday night but he failed to turn up. Concerned friends alerted the police who found him at his home in Hawick, Roxburghshire on Thursday morning.  It seems that he had died from a heart attack.

Renbourn was a brilliant guitarist whose tastes in music were eclectic and jumped boundaries, fusing British and Celtic folk with blues, jazz, renaissance and medieval music, and classical guitar.

John Renbourn
John Renbourn

Born and raised in Torquay, Renbourn began playing guitar at an early age. He recently appeared on BBC 6 Music where he described growing up in a musical house in an interview with Cerys Matthews:

My family all played something… there’s a picture of me when I was about five playing on the banjo, so I went through all kids of stuff, all sorts of music. It was just in the early 60s that I was faced with the terrible dilemma of having to get a job, and finding myself preferring to travel and play.

At first Renbourn was drawn to skiffle, the style that became popular as part of the emerging folk music revival in the fifties. In 1964 he left home to study classical guitar in Guildford. There, he began his performing career with an rhythm and blues band called Hogsnort Rupert and the Famous Porkestra. But he was soon drawn to the acoustic blues, playing in Soho blues and folk clubs, where he met many other musicians, including Paul Simon, Davey Graham, and – most importantly – Bert Jansch.

‘I started out trying to play like Big Bill Broonzy’, Renbourn once said, and the Broonzy influence can be heard distictly on his first, eponymous, album.  But, listening to that album, there were already signs of Renbourn’s guitar-picking brilliance –  and of the diversity of his interests, with his arrangement of John Donne’s Elizabethan poem, ‘Go and catch a falling star’, later performed by Pentangle:

Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

In 1966 John recorded Bert and John with Bert Jansch, now regarded as a classic album  in which jazz and folk elements mingle with blues. Take, for example, ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, written by Charles Mingus in memory of Lester Young:

In 1967, a Danish film crew documented the folk music scene in London. Among the artists featured were Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, filmed shortly before they formed Pentangle:

In 1967 Renbourn and Jansch founded Pentangle, a group whose eclectic interests and experimentation reflected the atmosphere of late-1960s rock and psychedelia, attracting an audience from the rock scene along with the folk crowd. In addition to the two guitarists, the band featured Jacqui McShee on vocals, Danny Thompson on bass and Terry Cox on drums. They remained together until 1978, with Renbourn and Jansch continuing to release solo albums.

The double album Sweet Child remains one of my all-time favourites; it still sounds fresh and exploratory 50 years later. ‘If you choose the right album and the right age, it’ll keep on educating you for the rest of your life. Sweet Child is one of those records’, remarked Pete Paphides in a Guardian tribute. And it’s true: here were entrees to the world of blues (Furry Lewis’ ‘Turn Your Money Green’), traditional folk (‘Watch The Stars’, ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’), contemporary folk (Anne Briggs’ ‘The Time Has Come’), medieval dance music (‘Brentzel Gay’, ‘La Rotta’) and jazz (Mingus’ ‘Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat’ and Haitian Fight Song’ and Terry Cox’s tribute to Moondog).

Pentangle: ‘Travelling Song’

Pentangle: ‘Hunting Song’, from a BBC special in 1970  (’13th century rock’n’roll’)

Pentangle: ‘No Love Is Sorrow’ from Live at French TV, 1972

Pentangle: ‘House Carpenter’ (John plays sitar while Bert plays banjo)

Pentangle: ‘In Time’, BBC, 1970

Pentangle: ‘I Got a Feeling’, BBC, 1970

John Renbourn has continued to record and perform live in a variety of styles and contexts.  In the mid-1980s he went back to university to study composition at Dartington College of Arts. Since then, he has focused mainly on writing classical music, while still performing in folk settings. Since 2012 he has toured with Wizz Jones, playing a mixture of solo and duo material. He also appeared on Jones’s album Lucky the Man.

John Renbourn: Live at Letterkenny Arts Centre, 2013 (30 minutes)

John Renbourn: ‘Little Niles’, Toronto, 1990

John Renbourn and Wizz Jones: ‘Buckets of Rain’, The Vortex, London, November 2014

Life is sad
Life is a bust
All ya can do is do what you must

Buckets of rain
Buckets of tears
Got all them buckets comin’ out of my ears

John Renbourn outside his ome, The Snoot, Hawick, Roxburghshire
John Renbourn outside his home, The Snoot, Hawick, Roxburghshire

See also

Thea Gilmore at the Epstein: covers and old favourites

Thea Gilmore at the Epstein: covers and old favourites

Thea Gilmore

Thea Gilmore seemed surprised that so many people had turned up to see her – enough to fill the Epstein Theatre – on the same night that Dolly Parton was doing her thing down at the Arena.  But Thea’s fans are nothing if not loyal: when she asked how many members of the audience had previously attended one of her gigs, the response was pretty well unanimous. For myself, as the links at the foot of this post reveal, I’ve seen her on several occasions now, and been a fan of her music since the late nineties.

Indeed, Thea was in reflective mood last night, musing over the fact that it’s been 17 years now since she recorded her first album – at the age of 17. With no new album to promote, she was free, she said, to play what she liked, and to range over her extensive back catalogue.  So what we got was a selection of old favourites and some classic cover versions.  No-one, I think, does cover versions as good as Thea’s, except, perhaps, Bruce Springsteen.

As usual, her husband and producer Nigel Stonier accompanied her on guitar and keyboards (he had also opened the show with a supporting set of numbers from his new album – the best of which was an old song, now re-worked, ‘Messin’ With Fire, which he originally wrote with the jazz vocalist Clare Teal. Apart from Stonier, Thea’s current band makes an unusual line-up – in addition to Stonier, there’s Liz Hanks on cello and Susannah Simmons on violin.  Oh, and 7-year old son Egan on fiddle for a couple of numbers at the end.

Thea opened with two numbers from 2002’s Songs from the Gutter – ‘And We’ll Dance, taken at a much faster pace than on the album, and ‘Tear It All Down’.  Then came a superb cluster of songs – ‘Old Soul’, one of my absolute favourite Thea Gilmore songs, followed by the superb version of ‘All You Need Is Love’ which she recorded for a Mojo magazine cover mount. Slowed-down and with all the orchestration stripped out, it’s a brilliant interpretation.  She sang it at the Hillsborough Justice gathering before the new inquest began; after singing it at the Epstein she said how nervous she felt singing it in this city.  She needn’t have worried.

After that came ‘This Road’, the beautiful song from last years Regardless album which, as Thea explained, she wrote as an expression of love for her children: ‘this road is the only one worth walking’.

Two more outstanding moments were interpretations of songs by others –  David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ and an exquisite reading of George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’.

We left the Epstein fired up by a great concert, with the rousing choruses of the final encore, ‘Are You Ready’, ringing in our ears.


And We’ll Dance
Tear It All Down
Old Soul
Beautiful Hopeful
All You Need is Love
This Road
Josef’s Train
The Man Who Sold the World
Goodbye Old England (For Victor)
To the Bone
Start As We Mean To Go On
Love Came Looking For Me
You’re the Radio
Are You Ready

See also

Blessed be the Nation: the story sung by Pete Seeger

Blessed be the Nation: the story sung by Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, photo by Anthony Pepitone (Wikipedia)

Pete Seeger, photo by Anthony Pepitone (Wikipedia)

Following the death of Pete Seeger I came across reviews of an album put out in 1998 by Appleseed Recordings, an idealistic independent music label set up by Jim Musselman, a lawyer and activist who once worked with  Ralph Nader.  Musselman has devoted the label to releasing socially conscious contemporary and traditional folk and roots music by established and lesser-known musicians.  On the Appleseed website, Musselman speaks of the years when he worked with Ralph Nader:

I travelled the country for eight years, criss-crossing America in a Guthrie-esque way, seeing the nation and its citizens up close, learning the best ways to listen and to communicate. When I was organizing local communities to fight back against multinational corporations, I would start our open public meetings with a song, figuring that unifying people in singing was an important first step to unifying them in political action.

In 1997, for Appleseed’s first major project, Musselman approached numerous well-known musicians, along with writer Studs Terkel with a request to each record a song written, adapted or performed by Pete Seeger for a tribute album to highlight Seeger’s musical contributions and his tradition of mixing songs and political activism. The resulting  double CD Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger was the one I stumbled across as I followed internet references to Seeger in the days after his death.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone cover

It’s a terrific album from which you gain a holistic sense of the man and the causes he embraced. Jim Musselman also did a great job choosing songs from Seeger’s vast repertoire and matching each tune with an artist ‘based on either the philosophical fit between the artist and the message of the song and/or their unique musical style’, as he writes in the accompanying booklet. As an example of this approach, take the opening track – ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ – sung by Irish songwriter and peace activist Tommy Sands with Bosnian Vedran Smailovic (‘the Cellist of Sarejevo).  Bear in mind that this was recorded in 1997, before the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland and only months after the lifting of the siege of Sarejevo.

The album includes 37 versions of Seeger-related songs specially recorded by luminaries such as Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Billy Bragg, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Ani DiFranco and many others.  The material is wonderful, every song reinforcing the picture of Seeger as both an interpreter of musical tradition and as a crusader for social justice.  The performances are first-rate, with many highlights. Bruce Springsteen’s gentle reading of ‘We Shall Overcome’, for example, precedes the version he recorded for his album, The Seeger Sessions many years later, while Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt offer a lilting reggae-inflected account of ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine’.  There are the songs that reflect Seeger’s later commitment to environmental issues and his campaign (entirely successful) to clean up his beloved, polluted Hudson river, such as ‘Sailing Down My Golden River’.

Lisa Kalvelage report

A remarkable, if less musical interlude comes with Ani DiFranco singing ‘My Name Is Lisa Kalvelage’, Pete’s adaptation of the words spoken in May 1966 by Lisa Kalvelage, one of four women who stopped a shipment of napalm to Vietnam by standing on a loading platform and refusing to move. Seeger’s words come from the statement she made in court after being arrested. Kalvelage likened her protest to lessons she learned from being raised in Nazi Germany – never to keep silent:

If you live in a democratic country where the government is you, you cannot say, ‘I followed orders,’ ” she told a reporter. “If you recognize that something is wrong, you have to speak out to set it straight.

But the words I really wanted to pass on in this post come from one of the two recitations on the album by the late Studs Terkel. It’s a reading of ‘Blessed Be The Nation’, verses Seeger left on a rock on an island where he had camped with his youngest daughter.  He elaborates in the CD booklet:

In 1964 I took my youngest daughter canoeing on a beautiful lake in Maine.  We camped on a little island and were dismayed to see the beach littered with bottles and cans.  We picked ’em all up.  I had a marker with me and wrote this graffiti on a flat stone.  I never wrote a tune, but someone else can try.

Seeger never put music to these words.  I’d like to share them here:

Cursed be the nation of any size or shape,
Whose citizens behave like naked apes,
And drop their litter where they please,
Just like we did when we swung from trees.

But blessed be the nation and blessed be the prize,
When citizens of any shape or size
Can speak their mind for any reason
Without being jailed or accused of treason.

Cursed be the nation without equal education,
Where good schools are something that we ration,
Where the wealthiest get the best that is able,
And the poor are left with crumbs from the table.

Blessed be the nation that keeps its waters clean,
Where an end to pollution is not just a dream,
Where factories don’t blow poisonous smoke,
And we can breath the air without having to choke.

Cursed be the nation where all play to win,
And too much is made of the colour of the skin,
Where we do not see each other as sister and brother,
But as being threats to each other.

Blessed be the nation with health care for all,
Where there’s a helping hand for those who fall,
Where compassion is in fashion every year,
And people, not profits, is what we hold dear.

There’s a recording of Studs Terkel reading the words on YouTube:

In another song on the album – ‘False from True’, sung by Guy Davis – Seeger ruefully observes the limits of protest in song.  But, as he remarks in the verse, he continued to sing our story for as long as he had breath within.  For that we can be thankful, for the words continue, inspiring succeeding generations:

No song I can sing will make a politician change his mind,
No song I can sing will take the gun from a hate-filled man;
But I promise you, and you, brothers and sisters of every skin,
I’ll sing your story while I’ve breath within.

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