elmergantry

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

Tag: Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan and the ‘Folk Process’ 2

Further to my post yesterday, what I am arguing for here is that a degree of rigour be used when employing terms like the ‘folk process’. In this regard, it is important to remember here that it was coined by Charles Seeger specifically in relation to folk music and that it was a contribution to a broader debate about the existence of variant forms of individual ballads in different countries. It was also primarily designed to refer to the oral transmission of such ballads and their subsequent adaptation to local circumstances when they reached new areas.

In recent debates, this concept is often linked in a loose way with vague references to ‘postmodernism’ etc, but this is a dangerous conflation (in my view) of two distinct ideas…

By definition, most folk songs can hardly be ‘postmodern’ since they pre-date ‘modernity’ and the author can hardly die when one does not exist or at least can never be traced…

However, it does seem to me that some of Dylan’s early songs can fit well within the definition of the ‘folk process’, loosely defined, as, for example, with the re-working of ‘Lord Randal’ into ‘A Hard Rain’…

But this type of definition becomes far slippier if we move to a song like ‘When the deal goes down’, which is a re-working of a conveniently out-of-copyright Bing Crosby song ‘Where the Blue of the Night’ which also includes (again) conveniently out of copyright lines from the poet, Henry Timrod:

It seems to me that if I were, say, to record a version of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ set to the tune of ‘Yellow Submarine’, this would hardly be an example of the ‘Folk Process’..

Indeed, Dylan’s recent writing methods have struck me as being much closer to unacknowledged borrowing than it is to any version of that ‘process’. It also strikes me as being more related to a dearth of genuine inspiration than to the creative adaptation which lay at the heart of the transmission of the old ballads.

Bob Dylan and the ‘Folk Process’

In recent times, there has been an interesting debate around the question of Bob Dylan’s song writing methods and its relationship to the ‘folk process.’ It seems to me, however, that much of this debate fails to address the ambivalence of Dylan’s position in this respect.

In a sense he has walked both sides of the street in this debate, from his early days as a ‘folksinger’ to his later role as the progenitor of the idea of the individual singer-songwriter and the heir to the “Romantic’ tradition of the ‘lone’ genius on the lines of a Shelley, a Byron or a Rimbaud…

In the Scorsese documentary, Dylan again walk this fine line: at one point, stating that nothing he had dome was really all that new, while at another describing himself as a ‘musical expeditionary’, tracing a new path…

It is, however, important to note here that the ‘folk process’ in its true form, really belonged to a period before ‘copyright’, when music was seen more as the property of a particular community than of any one individual. Indeed, one definition of a folk song that I have seen was that it is ‘a song which no one has written’. Folksongs then were an organic part of everyday life, with music being used while working, to spread news, to celebrate community occasions, etc etc. In a sense, especially before recorded music, singers expressed their individuality through their way of singing melodies which were part of a common stock and did not, as we have seen, belong to any single individual.

For example, it has been argued that before recording came along every performance of a particular song was different and idiosyncrasies were then an essential element in distinguishing a performer’s style. As a result, even when new songs or melodies were introduced into a community, they were then adapted to the local style, so, in Ireland, for example, there was a distinctive type of fiddle playing associated with County Sligo.

However, once the idea of the ‘individual genius’ emerges, and, with it, the idea of music as a ‘commodity’ which can be copyrighted and commercialised in a way that had not previously been done, then the ‘folk process’, as it had previously existed comes under a great deal of strain. In one sense, Dylan himself was an important figure in this process, as his success led many others to pursue careers as ‘singer -songwriters’, a development which Dave Van Ronk argues was a key part in the decline of folk music in the USA. This fact created an ambivalence which Dylan has never really resolved and which continues to be a source of controversy ever since…

Will return to this subject soon…

Some Thoughts on Bob Dylan

At a market here in Sydney recently, I managed to score a copy of ‘More Greatest Hits’ – an album which I had not heard in many years (it has, of course, been superseded by far more comprehensive compilations like ‘Biograph’) but which has a special resonance for me. It was the first Dylan album I ever owned – my late father giving it to me as a birthday present in ’76.

Realised I have been listening to many of the songs on it regularly for some 37 years now and that the best of them (like ‘Don’t Think Twice’, “Maggie’s Farm’, “She belongs to me’ and ‘It’s all over now Baby Blue”) still continue to yield new riches…

To my mind, Dylan is, by a long way, the greatest American songwriter of the last fifty years – and if my criticisms of his recent work here sometimes seem harsh, it is because I am judging it by the standards which he has set…

Dylan Criticism and a Sense of Proportion

The Irish historian Joseph lee once claimed that Patrick Pearse, one of the leaders of the ‘Easter Rising’ in 1916, has been a victim of being both ‘mindlessly adored and mindlessly reviled’. At a lower pitch, it npow seems to me that Bob Dylan’s recent work has suffered something of the same fate.

From a point where fine albums like Street Legal and Shot of Love were subjected to an over-the-top critical bashing, we seem to have reached a point where even the most inconsenquential Dylan track is suddenly an overlooked masterpiece and can only be discussed in the most hyperbolic terms…

in my opinion, this situation is almost as unhealthy for the artist as the first. What seems to be missing in both is a sense of proportion and a sense of the broader context of Dylan’s work.

I also happen to come from the school of thought which sees ‘Self Portait’ as a very minor work in the broader Dylan canon. While it may have some historic importance as a transitional work, the effect of time will leave it at best as little more than a footnote or a curiousity (along with the outtakes from it) within his broader output. I feel the same way about Tempest, which was one of Dylan’s poorest efforts, to date…

With these caveats in mind, there are some beautiful cover versions of traditional songs on ‘Another Self Portrait’. What stands out for me in the best of these is the care, respect and attention Dylan gives to their lyrics and a few of them are among the best vocal performances in his entire career.

Will single out for mention here the beautiful ‘Copper Kettle’ and ‘Pretty Saro’ and the magnificent ‘Tattie O’Day”. Of these, ‘Pretty Saro’ is available on ‘You Tube’ at:

Bob Dylan, Paul Clayton

Listening to ‘Another Self Portrait’, it also struck me that Paul Clayton’s shadow is one of those that hangs most heavily over it. While many commentators have mentioned Dylan’s cover versions of songs by Greenwich Village contemporaries like Tom Paxton and Eric Andersen, few have noticed this fact…

On a quick count, at least four songs on it have Clayton connections. These are
1. ‘Little Sadie’ which Clayton recorded on his album, Wanted For Murder: Songs of Outlaws and Desperados
2. ‘Spanish is the Loving Tongue’, which is on the album Folk Singer
3. ‘Railroad Bill’, which is on Clayton’s early album, Folksongs and Ballads of Virginia
4. ‘House Carpenter’, which is on Cumberland Mountain Folksongs.

On the extended version, there is also, of course, a version of ‘Gotta Travel On’.

For completion’s sake, here is a later (1992) Dylan version of ‘Polly Vaughan’ – a version which lyrically at least, stays close to the Clayton version, Polly Von, which appeared on Bay state Ballads (and is one of my favourite Clayton performances):

When saying that Another Self Portrait was not an essential purchase in my last post, I meant this in comparison to earlier volumes in the Bootleg series, which included songs of the quality of ‘Blind Willie McTell’, ‘Series of dreams’, etc. and what will presumably emerge from those covering the ‘Blood on the tracks’ period. It is well worth buying but ultimately does not substantially enhance Dylan’s stature in the way earlier releases in the series have done…

Another Self Portrait Bob Dylan

After reading some of the over-hyped reviews of this cd, was expecting to be much more impressed by it than I have been…

While there are some gems here (like ‘Pretty Saro’, ‘Copper Kettle’, ‘Sign on the Window’, ‘Tattle O’Day’. ‘If Dogs run free’ and fine versions of ‘Highway 61 Revisited (with the Band) and of Eric Andersen’s “Thirsty Boots’, there is also some pretty thin gruel…

For instance, Dylan’s version of ‘House Carpenter’ here is a very poor one indeed especially when compared with the superb version already available on ‘Biograph’.

But what I found really disappointing, especially, as I had been looking forward to it, is the disengaged version of Little Sadie that appears here. There are several vastly superior versions available by other artists – among whom I would recommend Mark Lanegan’s:

Or John Renbourn’s:

My feeling now is that ‘Another Self Portrait’ would have been improved by greater quality control and is hardly an essential Dylan purchase, in any real sense…

Phil Ochs’ Last Stand

A link to Phil Ochs singing ‘The Blue and the Grey’ at Gerde’s in 1975 –
http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/irving%20gordon

This was his last public performance, I think. Bob was also there that night – and part of this gig is in Reynaldo & Clara (there is a short clip showing Ochs taking the stage & borrowing Bob’s hat here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOg5dK6EnuE).

The existence of this clip may also mean that Ochs’ performance of ‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune’ on the same night is out there somewhere…

Ten Neglected Nuggets

Here is a list of ten neglected nuggets which I originally posted on Michael Gray’s ‘outakes’ site:

Paul Clayton: Spanish Ladies. Beautifully understated version from his classic album of sea shanties.

Barry Moore: Lonesome Robin. Nothing Barry Moore has done subsequently is as magical as this cover of a Bob Coltman song.

Freddie White: Parting Glass. Great Irish singer makes a classic song his own.

Bob Dylan: Rank Strangers to me. The dross surrounding it means this cover has never got the credit that it deserves.
http://www.ultratop.be/en/showitem.asp?interpret=Bob+Dylan&titel=Rank+Strangers+To+Me&cat=s [Sample]

Eric Andersen; Dance of Love and Death. A fine song from an excellent songwriter, whose voice has gained an added grit and resonance with age.

Lou Reed; Think it Over. Proposed to my wife with this one…

Robert Wyatt, Shipbuilding: Maggie Thatcher’s death brought me back to this great, great version…

Kevin Coyne, House on the Hill: One of the best…

The Replacements, Sadly Beautiful: Great song by one of Jakob Dylan’s favourite songwriters..

Phil Ochs: The Scorpion Departs but Never Returns. great song from a greatly neglected songwriter.

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 is  at least equal to one of the greatest and most enduring  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…