BOB DYLAN AT 70.

AN APPRECIATION




No timeline on the mythic decade that was the 1960’s would be complete without acknowledging the influence of Bob Dylan. While people can (and should) debate whether Dylan or the Beatles played the stronger and more lasting role in shaping pop culture, even those favoring the Beatles would be forced to acknowledge that Dylan had as much, if not more, of a musical impact on the Beatles than vice versa.
In any event, the Beatles candle, bright though it was, burned itself out far too soon. Dylan, on the other hand, continues to write and perform, a staggering accomplishment in longevity for any performer.

When Dylan first burst upon the folk scene in the early 60’s, many of us schooled in the lore of folk music saw him adopting the persona of his acknowledged role model, folk balladeer Woody Guthrie. It was clear—at least to me—that Dylan (né Zimmerman) was pretending to be someone that he wasn’t. The problem, of course, was that he was so good at it. No less an authority than Folklore Center owner and folk guru, Israel G. Young, said that Dylan was “so goddamn real, it’s unbelievable.”
1 I thought that Dylan was all too believable, and was doing a number on the elders of folk community, who saw him as the second coming of Guthrie. Just a few years later, “Sing Out" magazine (the folk music “bible”) editor, Irwin Silber wrote his famous “open letter” to Dylan, bemoaning the fact that Dylan was turning his back on (topical/political) folk music and turning inward.2 Good as Dylan was as a “protest” folksinger (a category he always rejected), the best was (very much) yet to come. As for my own youthful skepticism as to Dylan’s public face, I can now chalk much of it up to professional (or amateur) jealousy. Looking back on it almost fifty years later, I’m simply glad to be breathing the same air he does.

Bob Dylan turned 70 on May 24th. As a Dylan contemporary (he’s exactly a month my senior), I’ve had the good fortune to listen to him over the years and, indeed, his music forms a backdrop to anyone who came of age in that tumultuous time. (While I’ve often explained our thirty-day age difference as the reason why his is the greater talent, I have no similar excuse for Paul Simon, who will not turn 70 until the fall.) There are many books on Dylan, including one of his own writing.
3 Rather than delve into Dylanology, I am taking the easier (though still daunting) task of subjectively choosing the twenty-five of his songs that mean the most to me. In doing so, I won’t ignore the ones that enjoyed the most popularity or airplay, but I won’t choose them simply for that reason. The luxury of this, or any subjective analysis, is that it gives me the right to be wrong. There are actually some songs that did not make the list that I prefer over some that did, but I did make certain concessions to the importance or impact of a given song (over my simply liking to hear it).

That said, I would apply this caveat to my compendium. I fully expect you to agree with some of my choices, and disagree with others. All I ask is that you give some thought to those of my selections that didn’t spring as quickly to your mind as they did to mine. The choices, by the way, are in no particular order, at least none that I could rationalize. What you may notice (as I certainly did) is the prodigious talent that is reflected in the Dylan catalogue, even as selectively excerpted by me. I’ve also taken the liberty of indicating my favorite recording (or performance) of each song. Die-hard Dylan aficionados often prefer his idiosyncratic renditions of his songs to any of the so-called “covers.” While no lesser a music authority than “Rolling Stone” magazine has ranked Dylan’s voice as one of the best in rock history,
4 I have found his vocal gifts to be inconsistent at best. But as with good scotch, Dylan is an acquired taste, and one that I have grown to appreciate with age.

1. “Blowing in the Wind”
While hardly the first song written by Dylan, this 1962 folk anthem is arguably his most famous and influential. The authenticity of its provenance was doubted from the outset. Newsweek Magazine questioned its authorship, and many found “proof” of this when Dylan included the old Negro spiritual “No More Auction Block” in his “Biograph” Box Set.
5 On this, two points should be made. One (and perhaps the most important) is that Dylan is greatly influenced by the folk tradition. Not unlike Woody Guthrie, Dylan was derivative, more in melody than lyrics. (Guthrie, in point of fact, rarely wrote an original tune, mining gems from traditional folk and country sources. Dylan is far more original as a musician.) Secondly, “Blowing in the Wind” is strikingly different from “Auction Block” (a song about the slave trade) in that it poses questions with which we are still struggling as a society. At the time Dylan wrote it, few people were raising such questions in popular song. “Blowing in the Wind” was (and remains) a challenge to our society to bring itself into compliance with its great promise.
Favorite Version: Peter, Paul & Mary.
6

2. “Mr. Tambourine Man”
The first time I heard the Byrd’s version of this song early in 1965, I recognized it as an—as yet unheard—Dylan composition. Led by former folkie (Chad Mitchell Trio guitarist and banjo player) Roger McGuinn, the Byrds had opened the door to a new sound. Although the constraints of pop singles permitted but one stanza of this masterpiece, the impact of the song was staggering. There is no group I can recall which was as influential as the Byrds in moving the musical nerve center of the country from folk music to folk-rock. In so doing, they paved the way for the next generation of singer-songwriters and groups. Arguably, this was the first “folk-rock” song. When Columbia heard its success, they added electric instruments and drums to the track of a little-known acoustic song called “The Sound of Silence” by a then-little known folk group, and Simon & Garfunkel were born. The influence of the Byrds on the music world is worthy of an article of its own. Suffice to say, groups like Crosby, Still & Nash, The Mamas and the Papas, and The Eagles owe much of their audience to roads paved by the Byrds. Although McGuinn’s electric 12-string guitar introduction is as familiar to my generation as any riff I can recall, the song really takes shape when you hear their full (four stanza) version. (I’ve referenced this in footnote #7.) When the last stanza issues the plea, “let me forget about today until tomorrow,” it is nothing short of a secular prayer.
Favorite Version: The Byrds.
7 Close runner-up: Bob Dylan’s version, featuring the ringing guitar of Bruce Langhorne. 3rd Place and very honorable Mention: Judy Collins.8


3. “Like a Rolling Stone”
This was Dylan’s first big hit as a singer. While “Mr. Tambourine Man” struck first, it was the Byrds’s iconic rendition that first charted. Here, the Dylan version was the hit, and was about as original a number as I’d ever heard. While clearly rock n’ roll, it was a far cry from not only “doo wop,” but of anything that came before. And once it hit, nothing was the same. In one of Dylan’s best interviews (with Playboy’s Ron Rosenbaum), Dylan identified the sound best captured on “Bringing it All Back Home,” and “Highway 61 Revisited” as that “thin, that wild mercury sound.”
9 Dylan might as well added “Blonde on Blonde,” as those three 1965-66 albums are really of one piece. If Dylan’s oeuvre was limited to those three albums alone, his place in rock history would be secure. Close to half the songs included on my top 25 are drawn from the high quality of those three albums. While Dylan feels that the song “I Want You” best exemplified “that wild mercury sound”” I have not included it here, as the song (apart from the instrumental virtuosity of lead guitarist Al Kooper) has never really done anything for me.  When “Like a Rolling Stone,” rhetorically asks of its heroine “How does it Feel?” that refrain became a tag line for much of my generation. There was a disconnectedness, or anomie associated with those times, and “Like a Rolling Stone” gave voice to the fears and uncertainties which were hidden under masks of youthful hauteur and entitlement. The things we once smugly mocked or ignored had come back to haunt us; viz: “You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns when they all did tricks for you. You never understood that it ain’t no good, you shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you,” and later, “you used to be so amused at Napoleon in rags and the language that he used, look at him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse, when you ain’t got nothin’ you’ve got nothin’ to lose.”  Favorite Version: Dylan’s got this one, loud and clear.



4. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”
Written while Dylan was still in his acoustic phase, this was, in my view, the kind of song that set him apart from his many peers. There were other singer/songwriters on the folk scene at the same time Dylan made his own presence felt. Among the best were Tom Paxton and (the late) Phil Ochs. While both were (and Paxton, who is still writing and performing, still is), very talented artists, songs such as “Hattie Carroll” raised the bar to that of a higher art form. Rather than simply write about (an) injustice, Dylan chose to tell this (mostly true) story from the perspective of the well-meaning liberals who are prepared to shed their tears over this senseless tragedy he is describing. Slowly building his story of wealth and privilege as contrasted with the have-nots who wait upon them, Dylan cautioned his audience, “now ain’t the time for your tears,” even as he made his (mounting) case. Finally, when the judge (in his “courtroom of honor”) hands down his sentence of six-months to the man who had “killed for no reason, who just happened to feel that way without warning,” the listeners feel as if we’ve been kicked in the stomach. Now, Dylan tells us, “bury the rag deep in your face, now is the time for your tears.” While Dylan never wanted to be regarded as a “protest singer” (even when he was considered one), this remains, in my view, the best song of that type ever written.

By the way, you may (like me) have been among those puzzled by the meaning of the lines “You who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears…” which precede the clearer words “take the rag way from your face, now ain’t the time for your tears.” Not to worry, you’re not alone. Some years ago, while preparing the song for a show I was doing, I had a correspondence with noted “Dylanologist” Eyolf Ostrem as to the meaning of “Hattie Carroll.”
10 That it is a marvelous song is one thing on which we clearly agreed. Ostrem believes that Dylan is addressing people who are “too rational” to have a true emotional response to the tragedy of Hattie Carroll’s death. If that is true, I wonder, why are they so anxious to cry? Good as Dylan is, the meanings he may or may not have intended can range from the clear to the obscure. Sometimes, lyricists just like the way things sound and “feel” to them. While people who “philosophize disgrace” may well be the thinkers who rationally expound on just what constitutes disgraceful behavior, they could also be those who rationalize the acts of others in a (too) non-judgmental manner. Which act was worse; the wanton (although not intentional) act of a rich white man whose sailing cane happens to hit and kill a poor black servant, or the judge—who speaks for society—in assessing the severity of the offense so lightly as to mete out a mere six-month sentence? While this may dispose of the “philosophizing disgrace” part, what meaning can we ascribe to the words “criticize all fears?” Here, I think Ostrem is onto something. People who criticize all fears are rational to a fault, and would seek to view prejudice rationally—i.e. fear of the different, a fear no rational, or unprejudiced person would feel.  Boston University professor and poetry critic Christopher Ricks is arguably Dylan’s most fervent and distinguished academic champion. He has even authored a short book analyzing Dylan’s lyrics as a poet.11 Like Ostrem, he believes that Dylan has betrayed neither anger nor sentimentality in telling the story of Hattie Carroll’s “lonesome” death. He goes further than most in parsing Dylan’s rhymes as “masculine” or “feminine” and the pivotal verbs in the refrain (“philosophize” and “criticize”) as “intransitive” and “transitive,” respectively. I suspect that even Dylan would smile at this degree of analysis into the scanning of his verses. Be that as it may, Ricks, too, believes that Dylan is taking to task those who (in “philosophizing disgrace”) are acting dispassionately, because the events don’t really impinge on their lives. But, once again, if that were so, why would such rational people be so quick to cry? The best I can come up with to rationalize this interpretation is that Dylan may be saying to the super-rational who never know when to react emotionally, even you who philosophize…don’t cry just yet. The time will come when you can—and should—show emotion.

Be that as it may, I’m willing to split the difference, and say that perhaps Dylan simply means that, while anything can be rationalized—even sentiment—sometimes we should appreciate the injustice (i.e. society’s valuing the taking of a black life by a white person less seriously than the reverse) as the real tragedy, and feel it rather than rationalize and “understand” it. I think that much of Dylan’s lyrics are meant to be felt and absorbed, rather than be analyzed too closely. This is something Messrs. Ostrem and Ricks may have been guilty of, and perhaps I run that risk as well. That said, I have devoted this much space to “Hattie Carroll,” because I think it the very best of Dylan’s “protest songs.” (I know, Bob has disavowed being a “protest” singer, but you know what I mean). He’s written some very good ones, such as “Only a Pawn in their Game,” “Long ago, far away,” “Who Killed Davey Moore?” and better known ones, like “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” (and, of course, “Blowing in the Wind”), but “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” in my view, stands head and shoulders above the rest. It is wonderfully constructed and understated.
Favorite Version: Once again, Dylan’s spare, original acoustic studio version. Check out his slight pause before he details the sentence handed out by the judge, who is, after all, a metaphor for society. Second Place: Judy Collins, “In Concert,” Elektra, 1964.

 

   

           

Footnotes:

1. Quotation on poster for first Dylan concert appearance in New York City. Carnegie Recital Hall, November 4, 1961.
2. “An Open Letter to Bob Dylan” Sing Out magazine, November 1964.
3. “Chronicles, Vol. 1” by Bob Dylan, October 5, 2004 © Simon & Schuster
4. Rolling Stone magazine, November 12, 2008. Dylan was ranked #7.
5. Wikipedia and “Blowing in the Wind.”
6. P, P & M’s version sold a million copies and hit #2 on the charts in July, 1964. See their album “In the Wind,” Warner Brothers © 1963. Their rendition, while deceptively simple is beautifully played, and its harmonies reflect a complex, and dramatic arrangement. (Most idiotic criticism of “Blowing in the Wind”: some would-be music critic said that Dylan (playing in the key of “C”) was “wrong” in going to a (major) “F” chord on the word “wind,” instead of A minor.” It was, after all, Dylan’s song. That said, if you prefer going to the relative minor—as many do—do so, but let Bob play it the way he wants.
7. On this version, you can hear Roger McGuinn and former Byrds Chris Hillman and David Crosby (plus Bob Dylan) do the full song on the 1999 Roy Orbison tribute. It can be found on the “Final Approach” CD on the excellent “The Byrds” 4-CD Box Set.
8. Judy Collins 5th Album. Elektra Records ©1965
9. See Playboy Interview, March, 1978 with Ron Rosenbaum. This is an excellent interviewer and interview. Fortunately, Dylan, by 1978 was a bit more mature and past the stage where he felt he had to “do a number” on the interviewer. Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews; Edited by Jonathan Cott. © 2006 Wenner Books, NY.
10. Eyolf Ostrem is both a perceptive analyst of Dylan’s music as well as someone who provides guitar chords and tablature for Dylan’s songs. He has made an enormous contribution to understanding Dylan’s music, and we are all much in his debt. See “Things Twice,” By Eyolf Ostrem, p.171
11. Visions of Sin, by Christopher Ricks, Ecco Books, © 2003

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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