By Mike Johnson (kiwipoet)
Please note that the original posting of this article contained the wrong copy of “Masters of War”. This was entirely the mistake of the publisher (Tony Attwood). Mike sent the correct recording – I got them confused. My sincere apologies to Mike and all readers.
Bob Dylan’s harmonica playing is as distinctive and controversial as everything else he does, and has come in for more than its fair share of savaging. In my first post on the subject, I argued that, on the songs it is used, Dylan’s harmonica is not merely decorative but integral to the music, and can extend the emotional range and impact of the song. Indeed, it can shape our response to the song, and our understanding of it.
My approach has been roughly chronological, from the very early songs, in which Dylan developed what I have called a ‘peppering’ technique in which many apparently random notes are played very fast, to a slower, more focused style with a sustained emotional intensity. I’d got to 1995 and the magnificently spooky Prague concert version of ‘Man in the Long Black Coat.’ My plan was to zoom on quickly into the 21st Century, when a new harmonica sound emerges and some of Dylan’s best harp playing can be heard.
In practice, however, I find it difficult to move on from that watershed year, 1995, without touching on three more outstanding performances. Commenting on my first article, a reader mentioned a gut-wrenching performance of ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ from 1984. That reminded me of the Prague performance from 1995, and just how exquisite and emotionally sensitive Dylan’s harp work has been on this song over the years. I think we’re dealing with two merging forms of harmonica playing here, the first belonging to the quiet, more acoustic Dylan, and coming to the fore in love songs, the second a ‘blues harp’ sound more fitted to stadium rock. 1995 was a very acoustic year in which the more intimate Dylan comes across strongly. The vocal here is tender, almost bruised, and the harmonica ending brings out the emotional fragility inherent in the lyrics. This one is for Robert. Enjoy!
‘It’s all over Now, Baby Blue’ is another song from the same era as ‘It Ain’t me, Babe’ that has often featured the harmonica, although none, I would suggest, as emotionally far reaching as this one from the Prague concert (see link below).
Listening to these two performances leads us to a reflection on the nature of Dylan’s lyrics, and how they relate to the music and the vocalization. In an article I did on mishearing Dylan, a correspondent suggested an analogy with Shakespeare’s First Folio, the first collected version of his plays, in regard to the official lyrics on the Bob Dylan website. The analogy is apt.
The First Folio written editions were mostly actors’ scripts, never intended to be set in concrete, but adaptable stepping stones towards the actual performance. Dylan’s lyrics are similar in that they may contain possibilities of meaning, and potential emotional valences, but one of these potentials has to crystallize into a performance in real time, not the abstract space of the printed page. In other words, the lyric is something like a template, quite open-ended, which has to take on the emotional colour and overall significance from the manner in which it is performed.
For example, if ‘It’s all over Now’ is performed in a strident, declarative, in-your-face manner it might almost be classed as one of Dylan’s put-down songs: get yourself together and piss off! But sung the way he does at Prague, the song, all through the vocal, skirts the edges of heartbreak, and when the harmonica takes over, the mood is pushed into outright heartbreak. There’s been a lot of tedious speculation as to whether this song is for Joan Baez (do we really care?), or was written as a farewell to the protest movement (ho-hum), but what these speculations might obscure is that ‘It’s all over Now’ is a break-up song, which implies heart-break, finality, the end of love. It is love’s last song.
Suddenly the lyrics don’t sound so tough any more, and we wonder if he’s exhorting himself to get a new life as much as the ‘you’ he’s addressing. Listen to how Dylan lifts his voice in the last verse, how the harmonica takes over from where the voice leaves off, lays bare the real heartbreak and gives unrestrained voice to grief. Dylan can’t cry onstage, but his harmonica can, and boy it sure does, and how painful it is at the end as he repeats the same notes over and over, like one of those protracted goodbyes everybody hates but sometimes you just can’t escape. Just one more goodbye…one more… all the way to emotional exhaustion:
[Unfortunately we once more have to deal, not just with a rather annoying crowd at the beginning, but sound distortions as with ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’. More unfortunately, while the distortion doesn’t hit Dylan’s voice so much, it grievously affects the harmonica, giving it a blurred edge. Again, you have to listen through the distractions to what must be one of Dylan’s finest ever performances. If anyone in Sony Music is reading this*, and wondering what do for further official Dylan bootlegs, a digitally remastered Prague concert and some other material from that year would go down a treat!]
Just about everything I’ve said about ‘It’s all over Now’ can be said of ‘It ain’t me, Babe’. Behind the brash disavowals lies the spectre of grief. The lyrics may lay claim to ‘No, no no,’ but the harmonica solo tells a more nuanced story. And yet those tender nuances are inherent in lyrics steeped in tenderness:
‘Go lightly from the ledge, Babe Everything inside is made of stone’
You need lyrics of this genius to sustain, and underpin this whimsical, tender harmonica performance, as if the instrument itself is learning to ‘go lightly’, to skip across those almost unstated griefs:
As we leave 1995, we have to pause for this compelling ‘Masters of War’. My old jazz cat friends would talk about, phrasing, and timing, and syncopation. Yes, it’s all here. Dylan can let rip with this song, and turn it into a howling rocker, but this performance it’s all restraint, a sense of holding back that emotion, which just breaks through the voice here and here, until we get to the harp, where we get a sharper, more trenchant comment. And if you should happen to be jazz cat, listen to the way the guitar and harmonica surge back and forward in a syncopated manner, while Dylan’s vocal and harmonica phrasing drive the song forward. Hard to find better Dylan performance than this:
Dylan’s harp work is often at it’s best in his acoustic moods, but right from the beginning of his electric sound he liked to work the harmonica in for a few bluesy blasts between verses. ‘Pledging my Time’ on Blonde on Blonde is a good example. That urban bluesy sound enables Dylan to adapt the instrument to stadium rock. This 1996 performance of ‘Drifters Escape’ has a sense of business-as-usual, another day at the office on the NET about it as the song settles into a chuggy beat, until the harmonica kicks in between verses and kicks the song along. By the time we get to the harmonica solo at the end, Dylan has warmed up and the performance has moved from chugging to rockin’. For brilliance of harp playing, listen how he takes off towards the end into a little jazzy riff that cuts across the rhythm of the song.
Slipping forward to the year 2000, we find two outstanding harmonica performances, again in the acoustic mode. ‘Girl from the North Country’ is one of the purest of Dylan’s love songs; I mean untouched by bitterness, or back-biting, or some like sting in the tail. But it can be given a very nostalgic spin, or driven to a lumbering, maudlin weariness as in Dylan and Johnny Cash’s duet version. In the following performance, the mood is upbeat, and while the vocal is sensitive and restrained, the bouncy harmonica solo at the end lifts the song into a celebration. It’s a perky, jazzy, cheeky performance, and the audience loves it.
There has always been a Celtic feel to ‘Gates of Eden’, and never more so than in this warmly received 2000 performance. As with Rank Strangers (see Master Harpist 1), at first I didn’t quite understand what I was hearing. A low wailing sound away in the Celtic mists, maybe like a the lonely sound of a bagpipe playing a single moaning note over an ancient battlefield:
‘Of war and peace The truth just twists Its curfew gull just glides’
Then it falls into place. It’s the harmonica! and what a haunting edge it gives the song. More fey sounds, friends! At first I thought it might be under recorded, but on reflection the balance is just right; the harmonica is supposed to be heard behind the sound, to creep up on us from a distance, a musical lament on the human condition.
It is said that Dylan ignores his audience. Not true. In this performance he’s playing the audience as much as the song. There is much of that magic that can spring up between audience and performer here.
That’s it for now. In my third installment of Bob Dylan: Master Harpist, I’ll be look at how Dylan’s harmonica play evolved when he switched from the guitar to the keyboard.
*Quite amazingly and unbelievably yes, we know that sometimes they are – Tony