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Mr. Wilentz will be posting extra features on Bob Dylan in America, in no particular order.
Before Blonde on Blonde: Charlie McCoy and the Escorts
The chapter on Blonde on Blonde tells of how, after some frustrating recording sessions in New York over the fall and winter of 1965-66, Dylan, accompanied by Al Kooper and Robbie Robertson, pulled up stakes for Nashville, where the record’s producer, Bob Johnston, invited in some of the city’s best young sidemen. Among them were the virtuosi Charlie McCoy on harmonica, Wayne Moss on guitar, and Kenny Buttrey on drums.
Apart from playing session work, all three were members of a band, Charlie McCoy and the Escorts, that had the reputation as Nashville’s tightest weekend rock and r&b group. It’s easy enough to hear why, from this clip. (I can’t tell if the video is anything special — it’s pretty obviously not a film from an Escorts dance – but the music is what counts.)
The Escorts also included some other Nashville virtuosi: Bill Sturdivant on baritone sax, Bill Atkins on trumpet, and Jimmy Miller on tenor sax.
As for the New Yorkers, Kooper was playing with the legendary New York ’60s band the Blues Project, while Robertson was, of course, playing with the Hawks. Robertson was not, though, the only member of the Hawks who appeared on Blonde on Blonde. Among those musicians uncredited on the album was Rick Danko, who played bass on the only track from the New York sessions that made the cut, “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later).” Also performing on that track were two veterans, like Kooper, of the Highway 61 Revisited sessions, Paul Griffin (who plays an astonishing piano) and the drummer Bobby Gregg.
Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and Dylan’s
In 1961, Dylan remarked that “if I’m on stage, my idol — even my biggest idol when I’m on stage — the one that’s running through my head all the time, is Charlie Chaplin.”
So it wasn’t completely surprising when, forty-five years later, Dylan gave an album of his new songs the same title as one of Chaplin’s masterpieces, Modern Times.
From Bob Dylan in America:
“At the very least, [the album] delivered a tribute to Chaplin and to the Chaplin film of the same name, in which the much-misunderstood Tramp tries to survive in a harsh new world of heavy industrial mass production. The film ends with the Tramp in a cabaret, pantomiming and improvising a song whose words he has lost — and makes a big hit. The very last shot is of the hero and his beloved orphan girl (played by Paulette Goddard), having eluded the police who wanted to arrest her on a vagrancy charge, walking straight into the dawn, full of doubt but hardly hopeless….It is one of the countless images in Chaplin’s films that could easily have turned up in a Dylan song….”
Here’s the last nine minutes or so of Chaplin’s movie:
The chapter explores numerous musical connections on the album as well, including the background to “Nettie Moore.” Dylan’s song plainly owes something to “The Little White Cottage; or Gentle Nettie Moore,” first published in 1857, and uses its first two lines: “Oh, I miss you Nettie Moore/And my happiness is o’er.” And in modern minstrel style, he mixes that song with a myriad of other musical and literary references and influences all across Modern Times, from Papa Charlie Jackson to Bing Crosby. But the presiding spirit on the album still seems to be Chaplin’s, the spirit of the the beset, resourceful little vagabond who keeps on keeping on.
“Blind Willie McTell” and “The Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues”
The chapter entitled “Many Martyrs Fell,” combines the story of the great bluesman songster Blind Willie McTell with that of Dylan’s evolution from the late 1970s and early 1980s, culminating in the recording of his masterpiece, “Blind Willie McTell” in 1983.
One theme in the chapter concerns McTell’s reworking of earlier songs to create his own. One of his finest compositions, the epic “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues,” clearly echoes the classic “St. James Infirmary” — as does Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell.” Yet McTell also must have listened closely to any number of recordings of crapshooters’ laments performed and recorded by various jazz and blues artists. Above all, he must have heard “The Dying Crap Shooter’s Blues,” recorded by the relatively obscure blues singer, Martha Copland, in 1927 — five years before McTell said he wrote the song out of three separate tunes.
Here is McTell’s version, as provided by the good folks at We7.
The only known portrait of Copeland is the one that appears on the first volume of the Document Records release of her complete recordings. Her birthdate is unknown. She began recording with OKeh in 1923, and appeared in a production of the famous Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake musical revue, Shuffle Along.
The tangled story of influence and innovation, involving McTell and Dylan, leads to the recording of the version of “Blind Willie McTell” best known to Dylan fans, at the Power Station in New York, on May 5, 1983. Although nobody there knew it in at the time, it would have been, as near as anybody can tell, Blind Willie McTell’s eightieth birthday. By then, McTell had been dead for nearly a quarter of a century.
For more on Dylan’s song and the recording of it, look online for a book excerpt posted on The Daily Beast.
Children of Paradise: The Rolling Thunder Revue
The chapter in Bob Dylan in America on the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975 takes off from one of the tour’s performances, In New Haven, Connecticut. It interweaves a description of that show with accounts of the various influences on Dylan’s songwriting and performance during what he had forecast to his friend Roger McGuinn as something like a circus.
One influence that Dylan mentioned at the time was the film Children of Paradise (Les enfants du paradis), by the French director Marcel Carné, released in 1945. Set in Paris during the period of the July Monarchy (from 1830 to 1848), the film tells the story of the rise to stardom of the mime, Baptiste Dubureau (played by Jean-Louis Barrault), and his complicated entanglement with a beautiful courtsean, Garance (played by Arletty).
This English-language trailer for the film gives a sense of its ambiance — and shows Barrault performing in Pierrot whiteface, wearing his flower-bedecked broad-brimmed hat.
The Rolling Thunder chapter explores some of the possible connections, not just with the revue itself but with Renaldo and Clara, the four-hour film that Dylan later made out of footage shot during the tour.
Dylan’s appearing in whiteface may be the best remembered feature of the tour. But he and his assortment of Rolling Thunderers also played some extraordinary music. As it happened, Dylan sang “Tangled Up in Blue” for the first time in concert at the New Haven show. A key to the song, Dylan has said, lies in its pronouns — and, from the start, Dylan in concert played around with pronouns and much else, to produce a song that was the same as the one he’d recorded on Blood on the Tracks, but different as well. Listen closely to this version, filmed during the tour:
From the very start, the lyrics shift slightly — and everything is different. The singer isn’t lying in bed wondering if the woman had changed, if her hair was still red; she is lying in bed wondering. The singer isn’t standing on the side of the road; some other guy is. It’s still a song of frustrated and abandoned love, but the twists take different turns.
Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, and the Beat Generation
In 1975, amid the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg visited Jack Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, Massachusetts. Ginsberg read from “54th Chorus” of Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, which Dylan told him he had first encountered in 1959 in St. Paul.
Dylan’s connection with Beat writing — and, after the two men met in 1963, with Allen Ginsberg — was crucial to his art, especially as he moved well beyond the limits of the folk revival. The Beat scene had thrived, especially in New York and San Francisco, in the latter half of the 1950s, spurred by the publication of Ginsberg’s “Howl” in 1956, and of Kerouac’s On the Road a year later. The Beat writers had already been hard at it for years, going back to the mid-1940s — long before the coining of the term “Beat Generation” — when Ginsberg and Kerouac and a small group of friends, including William S. Burroughs and Lucien Carr, began formulating what Carr called the “New Vision,” heavily influenced by the writings of Arthur Rimbaud and William Blake.
By the time Dylan arrived in New York in 1961, the Beats had become famous — and, in the mainstream press and literary reviews, notorious. But the Beats’ bohemia, far more than its reputation allowed, could be a simple place of simple pleasures. An amazing, silent clip made in 1959 shows Ginsberg, Kerouac, Carr and some other pals strolling, chatting, and horsing around on 9th Street, in what was about to become known as New York’s East Village.
This was about the time that the photographer Robert Frank, joined by the filmmaker Alfred Leslie, made the legendary Beat film, “Pull My Daisy.” Based on a play that Kerouac had written called “The Beat Generation,” the film featured, among others, Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, David Amram (who also wrote the jazzy musical score), the painter Alice Neel, and Frank’s son, Pablo. (The silent clip includes shots of young Pablo, as well as of his mother, Frank’s wife, Mary.)
By the time Ginsberg and Dylan met at the end of 1963, the Beat scene had begun to fade, and Dylan was in artistic flux. Soon, Dylan would be writing “My Back Pages” and “Chimes of Freedom,” while Ginsberg in time became a hero to the emerging hippie youth culture.
In 1965, Ginsberg was invited to Prague, where he was named the King of May (Kral Majales) as part of a revived student festival that the Communists had been suppressing for twenty years. Ginsberg received his crown, but was duly kicked out of Czechoslovakia for what the authorities called immoral behavior. Ginsberg related the tale in his fine poem, “Kral Majales,” which he wrote on the jet that took him from Prague to London.
The day after he arrived in London, Ginsberg turned up in Dylan’s hotel room in the Savoy Hotel, where the singer was staying while on a concert tour of England. The moment appeared fleetingly in D.A. Pennebaker’s great cinéma verité documentary of the tour, Dont Look Back.
Soon after he returned to the United States, Ginsberg was filmed reciting his new poem about Prague at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s legendary Beat bookstore in San Francisco, City Lights Books.
Seated next to Ginsberg is the famous Neal Cassady, the “secret hero” of “Howl,” immortalized as Dean Moriarty in On the Road.
The chapter on Ginsberg in Bob Dylan in America relates the vagaries of Dylan’s and Ginsberg’s connection, which lasted until Ginsberg died in 1997. Dylan’s example moved Ginsberg closer to rock and roll, as a form of democratic art — and though he would never become a rock star, Ginsberg undertook experiments in merging his verse with rock music.
In October 1995, Ginsberg recited his political poem, “The Ballad of the Skeletons,” at Royal Albert Hall in London — accompanied by Paul McCartney.
Two years later, in New Brunswick, Canada, Dylan dedicated a performance of what he called Ginsberg’s favorite song of his, “Desolation Row,” on the night after Ginsberg died.
“Lone Pilgrim,” Malibu, CA, May 1993
In his quirky liner notes to World Gone Wrong, Bob Dylan described “Lone Pilgrim” (he slightly clipped the song’s original title, “The Lone Pilgrim”) and said what he thought the song meant: “the lunacy of trying to fool the self is set aside at some given point. salvation & the needs of mankind are prominent & hegemony takes a breathing spell.” It’s a very modern reading of a very old song – and an unsettled reading. Hegemonic technology has reached the point, Dylan went on to say, where virtual reality can wipe out and supplant the truth; and, sooner or later, it will. When that happens, “look out!” Dylan wrote, “there wont be songs like these anymore. factually there aren’t any now.”
A decade after he recorded “Blind Willie McTell,” Dylan was still thinking about salvation, humanity, and old songs, but now with a sense that those songs — which could keep the world’s power and greed at bay — were doomed; and that he might be one of the dwindling last generation of singers to remember and sing them; and that all he can do in the face of that knowledge is to sing them anyway. And for the benediction to World Gone Wrong, Dylan chose an old song of death, spiritual rebirth, and consolation that appeared in the most venerable collection of Anglo-American song, The Sacred Harp.
Bob Dylan in America‘s chapter on “Lone Pilgrim” is the second of two devoted to the interlude in Dylan’s career in the early to mid-1990s, when he paused, refreshed his art by revisiting his roots, recorded Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, and righted a career that at times seemed to spin out of control over the previous decade.
The chapter tells the basic history of The Sacred Harp, and how it grew out of the shape-note (or fasola) singing that began in New England before the American Revolution, and became especially popular in the uplands South before the Civil War. It starts with the curious story of William Walker and Benjamin Franklin White, whose musical enterprise and rivalry created two of the most successful hymnals in American history, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion and The Sacred Harp.
“The Lone Pilgrim” is one of numerous hymns that appeared in both collections, but is best known for the version in The Sacred Harp, the more popular of the two. It has a fascinating story, too, beginning with the visit of a travelling clergyman to the grave of one Joseph Thomas, a poet and popular itinerant preacher during the decades after the War of 1812, who, dressed in all-white raiment, preached a gospel of love and reconciliation throughout the eastern United States until his untimely death in 1835 in Johnsonburg, New Jersey. Because of his vestments, Thomas became known as the White Pilgrim; and when Brother John Ellis composed a poem of reflection after visiting Thomas’s tomb, he gave it that simple title. Only later, when put to music in roughly the form presented in The Sacred Harp, did the lyrics lose their direct connection to Thomas and become a hymn to any lone pilgrim who has gone to his reward.
Sung today at shape-note music gatherings throughout the South (and in places as far-flung as Waldoboro, Maine and Brooklyn, New York), “The Lone Pilgrim” sounds much as it did more than a century and a half ago, as sung from The Sacred Harp.
Dylan says he adapted his version from one he heard on an old Doc Watson album. But as he performs the song on World Gone Wrong, he approaches it very differently.
From Bob Dylan in America:
“Far more successfully than Watson, Dylan enters and inhabits the song’s core, offering a breathing spell from what he called inhumane modern technocratic convention – and offering consolation. The itinerant ‘I,’ who sings the first three lines, suddenly becomes another ‘I,’ the man who died and yet who lives, and who now gently speaks. This second ‘I’ once wandered too, as compelled by his Master (or master), but (and here Dylan’s voice swells just slightly) he “met the con-taaaaa jun ‘n’ saannk to the tomb.” His far-off ‘companion’ and children should not weep now that he is gone. (Dylan does not sing the word ‘gone,’ so much as he exhales it). ‘I’ is free at last of earthly tempests; his rested soul has achieved the Lord’s many mansions and he is calm; and anyway he is not really gone, not completely, at least for the length of this song.
Coming at the conclusion of an album of old ballads and blues about strange happenings, about men no longer able to do their women right because the world is going wrong, about rounders, gamblers, six-gun shooters, a blue-eyed blue-bellied Boston boy cut down by Johnny Reb, and more, ‘Lone Pilgrim’ is a reprieve, a coming to rest, a ghost note of a different order; and it is also a benediction. Dylan had found a new use for a fasola standard from the Sacred Harp, a song inspired by a godly, white-robed minister of charity, decency, and redemption – and a compiler of hymns — in an America convulsed by religious awakenings. The song, as he describes and performs it, might even have been a gloss on one of the White Pilgrim’s poems: ‘Let me arise above the fame,/ Of riches and renown,/ Above in earthly monarch’s name,/To an immortal crown.’
Having first listened to Dylan sing ‘Lone Pilgrim’ when my father fell ill in 1994, and then over and over during the months after he died, his rendering still brings solace that came from the last place, and the last performer, I’d have expected it from. I have always been struck by the last two lines and the very last word, which is also the last word on World Gone Wrong: ‘The same hand that led me through scenes most severe/Has kindly assisted me home.’ For that performance — of a song that few except for Dylan’s most passionate fans remember – I will always feel a gratitude that is completely personal. But all of that aside, it is clear that with ‘Lone Pilgrim’ and World Gone Wrong, Dylan had reached the end of the beginning of his own artistic reawakening and, assisted by the kind Master, had reached a place that at least felt more like home.”
Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland, Bob Dylan, and the World of the Popular Front
As it turns out, more than you would imagine.
Accounts of Dylan’s musical background invariably spend a good deal of time discussing Dylan’s early musical hero, Woody Guthrie, and the radical folk song milieu of groups like the Almanac Singers of the 1940s(which included, among others, Pete Seeger, Agnes “Sis” Cunningham, and Guthrie).
This approach makes sense, but it has become overly familiar and almost rote. Merely describing how Dylan and the folk revival of the early 1960s grew out of the left-wing hootenannies of the Dust Bowl era and later slights the influence of the much larger cultural and political spirit, initially associated with the Communist Party and its so-called Popular Front efforts to broaden its political appeal in the mid-1930s. That spirit pervaded American life during the 1940s – Bob Dylan’s formative boyhood years.
[Note: Clip may take time to download]
In order to take a fuller and fresher look at this important part of Dylan’s cultural background, I decided to focus on Popular Front music seemingly very different from Guthrie’s ballads and talking blues – Copland’s orchestral compositions. The links are now largely forgotten, but Copland belonged to leftist musical circles in New York in the mid-1930s that also included some of the major figures in what was becoming the world of folk music collecting, among them Pete Seeger’s father, the musicologist Charles Seeger. (In 1934, the elder Seeger, a friend of Copland’s wrote a rave review of Copland’s early work in the Communist Party newspaper, Daily Worker.)
Copland’s beloved compositions of the late 1930s and 1940s, including Billy the Kid and Rodeo, contained some of the same leftist political and cultural impulses that drove the forerunners of the folk music revival of the 1960s. Dylan, meanwhile, grew up in a 1940s America where Copland was becoming the living embodiment of serious American music. The broader cultural mood that Copland represented deeply influenced Dylan’s work.
Dylan himself eventually, if tacitly, acknowledged his connection to Copland during his concert performances following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when he began opening his shows with taped renditions of Copland’s “Hoe-Down” from Rodeo. That connection takes us directly back to the world of the Popular Front – for Copland, composing in 1942, borrowed the melody from a version of the old fiddle tune, “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” recorded by the pioneering leftist folklorist, Alan Lomax, in 1937, as performed by the eastern Kentucky fiddler, William Hamilton Stepp.
Bob Dylan in America examines many more such connections, showing how Copland and his most beloved work from the 1940s bespoke a kind of classical music counterpoint of the left-wing folk music of the time, and then elaborating how the young Dylan fed off of the remnants of that larger Popular Front culture.
The book also discusses another figure in Copland’s Popular Front America: New York leftist composer and good friend of Copland’s, Marc Blitzstein, who wrote in a different musical vein, most famously his musical play, The Cradle Will Rock, of 1937. In 1963, Dylan happened upon a performance of a musical revue of the work of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, called Brecht on Brecht. The revue had originated the year before with the great singer Lotte Lenya (Weill’s widow) performing “Pirate Jenny,” the show-stopping song from The Threepenny Opera. The song (though he heard it performed by a different singer), knocked Dylan for a loop; he went home listened over and over to the original cast album of Threepenny (with Lenya singing “Pirate Jenny”); and, by his own account, his lyrical style changed profoundly. The change was most immediately noticeable in his song, “When the Ship Comes In.”
[Note: Clip make take time to download.]
The words Dylan heard were an English translation of the German original, as rendered by Marc Blitzstein.
These larger connections are at times quite startling, especially during the mid-1930s, when shared leftist politics brought together in New York a wide range of composers and musicians not usually associated with one another. Thereafter, many of the connections are elliptical and very difficult to pin down. They sometimes involve not direct influence but shared affinities and artistic similarities recognized only in retrospect.
Yet they all speak to Dylan’s career, and illuminate his artistic achievement, in ways that Guthrie’s and Seeger’s work alone do not. The most important of these connections leads back to Aaron Copland and his circle of politically radical composers in the mid-1930s. And insofar as Dylan’s career has in part involved translating the materials of American popular song into a new kind of high popular art – challenging, yet accessible to ordinary listeners — his aspirations and achievements are not dissimilar to Copland’s.