elmergantry

' I've lost the power I had to distinguish between what to ignite and what to extinguish' – Rowland S. Howard

Category: Tempest

Dylan & His Sources

Further to yesterday’s post, I would like to illustrate some of the changes in Dylan’s writing methods by taking one example from Dylan’s early career (‘Hard Rain’) and a more recent example (‘Rollin & Tumblin’).

To do so, we will first look at the source material from which Dylan derived the song. In the case of ‘Hard Rain’, it is well known that Dylan based its structure on the old English ballad Lord Randal (or “Lord Randall’, as it is sometimes known). There are also a large number of variants of this song – its history is discussed here:

http://www.pteratunes.org.uk/Music/Music/Lyrics/LordRandal.html

Here is the great Irish sean-nos (old style) singer, Joe Heaney’s version of the song:

For comparison’s sake, here is Martin Carthy’s version (which is probably the version from which Dylan derived ‘Hard Rain’):

This is the version which can be found on YouTube, but I must admit I much prefer his unaccompanied version, which can be found on his album, ‘Because it’s there’. There is also the unfortunate use of the word ‘mummy’ here…

Here, finally, is “Hard Rain” itself. in the version from the Concert for Bangla Desh:

What is striking here is that while Dylan has adopted the basic skeleton of ‘Lord Randall’, the two songs atre strikingly different. Indeed, through his own particular genius, Dylan has written a song which isĀ  at least equal to one of the greatest and most enduringĀ  ballads ever written.

Tomorrow, we will look at ‘Rollin & Tumblin’ and the steep decline that it shows in Dylan’s songwriting…

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Hell is Open and All the Devils are Here – 3

This represents my attempt to give a considered judgement on ‘Tempest’..

To do this requires a brief historical introduction, I think.

As Bob himself has admiited in Chronicles, he went through a severe creative slump which ran, say, from the early to late 1980s. This was succeeded by a revival of sorts which saw him release two fine, if rather low-key albums, in 89 and 90 (‘Oh Mercy‘ and ‘Under the Red Sky‘).

Then Dylan made the two albums of folk covers, which – to my mind – were vital to his recovering his creative spark. Making them, Bob re-engaged with what had drawn him into music in the first place…

This paved the way for what I would regard as his last masterpiece, Time Out of Mind. Time Out of Mind had that coherence of mood and vision which all truly great albums share (like say, Astral Weeks by Morrison, Marjory Razorblades by Kevin Coyne or Pink Moon by Nick Drake.).

While I thought ‘Love and Theft’ was a fine album (with a number of great songs) I thought it lacked that coherence…

After Love & Theft, however, Dylan’s albums became even more ‘grab-bag’. There was also an increased reliance on unacknowledged borrowings from other people’s work. And, whereas in the past, Dylan had transformed his source material into completely new works of art (for example, ‘Hard Rain’ sounds very little like ‘Lord Randal’ in its finished form: ‘Chimes of Freedom’ may be modelled partly on ‘Trinity Bells’ but is a infinitely superior and very different song to it, and even ‘Blowing in the wind’ does not really resemble ‘Auction block’ to that great a degree), nowadays Dylan’s borrowings added very little to their sources & were, more often than not, markedly inferior to them.

In terms of his lyrics, it seemms to me that Dylan was again suffering from a form of writer’s block. To cover that, he was now using a form of re-arranging lines drawn from old blues and folk songs and 19th century American poetry, often with little regard to any kind of structural coherence or, indeed, any form of real meaning at all…

‘Tempest’ seemed to me to mark a high-point in this process – combining these kind of careless, often sloppy lyrics, with leaden arrangements makes it, I think, easily the worst album Dylan has ever made…

I set out wanting to like the album, but I was put off – not so much its mediocrity (every artist is entitled to an off day) but by the the air of meanspiritedness and artistic dishonesty that hangs over it…

‘Hell is empty and all the devils are here’: Some Thoughts on Bob Dylan’s Tempest – 2

Was, by chance, reading an old article, ‘A Storyteller’s Shoptalk’ by the great Raymond Carver (what a pity Dylan recent work wasn’t influenced by him rather than the vastly over-rated and mid-numbingly tedious novels of Cormac McCarthy). In it, Carver argues that:

“Some writers have a bunch of talent; I don’t know any writers who are without it. But a unique and exact way of looking at things, and finding the right context for expressing that way of looking, that’s something else. ”The World According to Garp” is of course the marvelous world according to John Irving. There is another world according to Flannery O’Connor, and others according to William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. There are worlds according to Cheever, Updike, Singer, Stanley Elkin, Ann Beattie, Cynthia Ozick, Donald Barthelme, Mary Robison, William Kittredge, Barry Hannah. Every great, or even every very good writer, makes the world over according to his own specifications.”

It is precisely this sense of a genuine individual vision that I find lacking in Dylan’s current work…

Funnily enough, recently went to an exhibition of Francis Bacon’s paintings here in Sydney & each painting had that hallmark of a strikingly original take on the world (even when, funnily enough, they were clearly influenced by or based on other people’s work)…

At the same time, I have been reading Yukio Mishima’s novel Spring Snow and (disliking his politics as intensely as I do) throughout it, I had the sense of a great artist being true to his particular, perhaps slightly warped, view of the world…

The sense I have now is that where Dylan’s borrowings were once the spark, as it were,which drove the creation of intensely individual works, nowadays they serve to cover (what in Tempest’s case, at least) appears to be a dearth of real inspiration on his own part…