By Tony Attwood
Apparently Talkin New York came out of an uncompleted Dylan song “NYC Blues”, and it is the first Dylan talking blues to make it onto an album. It was written, I think, just after “Song to Woodie” the other Dylan composition on the first album, composed probably after he had left New York following his first attempt to get work there.
I’m not at all sure that this is the complete list of Bob’s talking blues, but a quick review suggests to me these are the songs in this format that got recorded:
- Talkin New York
- Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues.
- Talkin Hava Negeilah blues
- Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues
- Talking World War III Blues
- I shall be free number 10
Those six span 1961 to 1964 but I have a feeling I have missed something – just as I missed New York until now. If you could fill in any others I’d be grateful.
Coming back to it after many years of not listening to Talkin New York, it feels fresh, funny, interesting… but still feels to me much more of a song that would be great in performance rather than being something I want to hear each time when I play the LP all the way through (and yes, I still have that original LP.) And for me that is the main point about the talking blues – it is still good fun in live performance, but once you know it off by heart it lacks something to pull me back in. And that something of course is a melody.
Talking blues goes way back to the mid 1920s when music was almost totally live performance, although oddly (given what I have just said about it being a form of music suitable for live performance) there is a recording of Chris Bouchillon’s talking blues available – probably the first (or at least one of the first) talking blues of all. The quality is very poor – but then it comes from the earliest days of these sorts of recording. But even if you can only take a few seconds of listening it is worth it just for the historical context.
Over the years the format didn’t change too much. Woody Guthrie’s Talking Blues ends
Mama’s in the kitchen fixin’ the yeast
Papa’s in the bedroom greasin’ his feets
Sister’s in the cellar squeezin’ up the hops
Brother’s at the window just a-watchin’ for the cops
Drinkin’ home brew … makes you happy.
and the fact that Guthrie recorded so many talking blues must have attracted Dylan to the form. And it gives him a chance to explore the notion of expressing a spot of irony:
“Man there said, “Come back some other day
You sound like a hillbilly
We want folk singers here”
and then more irony
He was ravin’ about how he loved m’ sound
Dollar a day’s worth
and some social concerns
A lot of people don’t have much food on their table
But they got a lot of forks ’n’ knives
And they gotta cut somethin’
and setting up another joke
So long, New York
Howdy, East Orange
which leads neatly into the East Orange discourse, which fortunately we still have available…
So yes, I do still find Bob’s “Talkin New York” entertaining, witty and fun, and when I first heard it as a youngster I was completely taken by it, having no idea that it came from a rich tradition. So once more a million thanks to Bob to introducing me to that tradition (I don’t think we ever really had it in England).
But that’s not quite the end. For after Loudon Wainwright III was called the ‘new Bob Dylan’ he recorded ‘Talkin’ New Bob Dylan’ in 1992, at the time of Bob turning 50.
It’s a bit more fun…
But to return to Bob. “Talkin New York” is funny and clever and very mature for a young song writer. And that is not the first time I have thought that in reviewing Dylan’s early songs. “Ballad for a Friend” which turned up the following year is, for me, an absolutely incredible piece of writing, and I have often wondered where such maturity came from.
Now being reminded that I had not included Talkin New York in the chronology of Dylan songs, I once more can see an incredible maturity of writing – although of a very different kind – in this talking blues.
It really does show a very natural talent just bursting to get out – and as we quickly found – travelling in every direction at once.
What else is on the site
1: Over 450 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order below on this page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.
2: The Chronology. We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums. The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site. We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year. The index to the chronologies is here.
3: Bob Dylan’s themes. We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions. There is an index here. A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that here.
4: The Discussion Group We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
5: Bob Dylan’s creativity. We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further. The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.
And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.