Bob Dylan: Master Harpist part 3 (with music to amaze you again and again)

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

‘The harmonicas play
the skeleton keys and the rain’

Towards the end of 2002 Dylan put down the guitar, got in behind the keyboards and changed his sound forever. Dylan and his guitar; they’d been inseparable for forty years, a part of his ever shifting persona. It was a radical move, at least as radical as moving from the acoustic to the electric guitar.

Increasingly in the late 1990s, Dylan’s sound had been dominated by his punky Stratocaster with, I have to say, mixed results. ‘He’s no Eric Clapton’, his detractors crowed, and you can see the truth of that on a You Tube clip of Dylan and Clapton playing ‘Crossroads’ together in 1999; Dylan’s stubborn banging away on one note hardly matches the smooth and fluid Clapton.

For our present purposes, however, one of the consequences of abandoning the guitar was to bring the harmonica within easy reach. At some point in the 1980s Dylan abandoned the neck brace that enabled him to play guitar and harmonica at the same time, which meant that in order to play the little instrument he had to either put down the guitar or sling it awkwardly over his back. There’s a somewhat comical incident on the Johnny Carson show in 1984 when Dylan gets halfway through ‘Jokerman’, puts down his guitar and wanders around the set looking for his harps!

Behind the keyboards, however, he can sit the harmonica just above the keys where he can pick it up and put it down at will. From this possibility he developed the technique of playing the harmonica with his left hand while vamping away on the piano with his right.

You can hear the early fruits of this collaboration between the harmonica and piano in this late 2002 performance of ‘Love Minus Zero No Limit’. He’s feeling his way through this gentle song, and the effects are not spectacular, but it signals a new era in Dylan’s performances. He will play the piano from 2002 to 2006 at which point he switches from piano to organ.

By all accounts, 2003 was an uneven year in terms of performance, but gave rise to some wonderful harmonica work. The band created a raw, rough and ready sound that year.

A Dylan compiler dubbed his collection for 2003 as ‘Piano Blues and Bar Room Ballads’, which captures that sound, as if you’d just walked in off the street into some joint, maybe in the late 1930s, and some old guy is banging away on the piano and blasting the place out with his harp.

This rocking performance of Desolation Row shows Dylan’s piano to advantage, the way he anticipates the beat in order to drive the song along, and knocks us back with a short but powerful harmonica solo in the middle. Blues without restraint.

Starting with long, clear notes, towards the end, by overlapping two or three notes, the master harpist makes it sound as if two or three harmonicas suddenly join in. All this brilliance, and the right hand never misses a beat on the piano. Take a moment too, to appreciate Dylan’s rough but forceful vocal. What a gem. Play it effing loud!

‘Senor’ from the album Street Legal in 1978 has never been a particularly easy song to perform given its slow, potentially dirge-like movement, a weariness that affects other songs on the album too, like ‘Love In Vain’.

‘Senor’ has always reminded me of that famous quote by Henry Thoreau, ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ Weary desperation, perhaps, in the case of this song, coupled with a powerful yearning to break free. A desire to cut through the repetitive false and phoney to the real and the true. The problem with the song may be that while the lyrics build to a shattering conclusion from the borderlands of despair

‘let’s overturn these tables
disconnect these cables
this place don’t make sense to me no more’

the music has nowhere to go but into an elegiac fade out, from the last shouted line to a final dying fall. Clip-clopping into the sunset, perhaps.

If we slip back to 1995 for a moment, we can hear Dylan grappling with the issue of how to end the song by using the harmonica to up the ante and cut through some of the drear, but, good as the harp work is, the song still seems to lumber to a somewhat grandiose ending not much more effective than the old fade out:

In 2003 Dylan found a more radical solution, again with the harmonica, which he leaves to one side, no mid-song solo, until after the last lines, not shouted this time but understated, before launching into a virtuoso piece of harp work which turns Thoreau’s dictum from ‘quiet desperation’ to screaming desperation, and the song ends with a cumulative movement of anguish and claustrophobic panic. The master harpist makes that little instrument shriek as if Robert Johnson’s hellhounds had their teeth in him. We could ask for a better recording, to bring the harp forward a bit, but hardly for a better performance!

All through writing this Master Harpist series something of a dialogue with jazz cat friends of mine has been running through my head, and has surfaced from time to time. Dylan can’t play the harmonica was their absolute assurance, and they were wrong, but not only can Dylan play the instrument, he can play it like a jazz cat himself. More like a jazz cat than a blues man. Take this 2003 performance of ‘Floater’, for example.

We’ve entered another joint but this time we’ve time-slipped ten years back to the 1920s, the F Scot Fitzgerald days, summer days and summer nights, with gangsters and tough talk, but also with a pastoral twist, glimpses of an idealised childhood. A touch of Normal Rockwell in the images conjured. Our old guy with his piano have moved in down the road from Al Jolson.

Here we don’t find the harmonica solo in the middle, or at the end, but as a prelude, a way of introducing the song, establishing its mood, which is bright and breezy with a touch of nostalgia.

My argument along the way here is that Dylan uses his harp to amplify emotional valences or potentials in a song. With ‘Floater’ he uses it to capture the sound of an era, his introductory solo reminding me of way some of those old trumpet players like Louis Armstrong used a mute to give that loud instrument more subtle tones. If we heard this solo played note-for-note on a muted trumpet, I doubt that Bob Dylan would be the first name to jump into our heads.

It’s fair to say that none of the live performances of ‘Drifter’s Escape’ capture the plaintive quality of the 1967 studio recording, yet the song made the transition to stadium rock, and sounds pretty good when pushed along. The 2003 recording is a bit messy, really; it’s getting late for the old guy in the joint with his piano, band and harp. He leaves the harp to last minute, quite literally, but still manages rip through three choruses, kick-arsing the song into the stratosphere. It’s one hell of escape the drifter makes in this performance.

I can’t pass over 2003 without stopping for a listen to this crowd-pleasing, foot-stomping, harmonica-wailing ‘Tangled Up In Blue’. This song as a showcase for Dylan’s harmonica needs a separate article, one I’ll write as a postscript to this Master Harpist series, but it belongs here as well. We’re treated not only to an extended harmonica ending, in which Dylan pulls out all the stops, but a bouncy harmonica intro leading us lightly into the song before Dylan sits at the piano, which begins to duck and dive, driving the song forward into the vocals.

There’s a warm-up harmonica solo before the last verse, and in the finale we hear that harmonica see-sawing back and forward across the rhythm, doing its own celebratory dance. The harmonica celebrates liberation by liberating itself from the strictures of the beat and doing a butterfly frolic.

Once again we find Dylan wowing his audience. Wish I’d been there!

The fruitful collaboration between the piano and the harmonica continued through to 2006. This recording from 2005 of ‘Million Miles’ raises once more the whole question of Dylan’s jazz influences, and the role of the harmonica in bringing that jazzy strain into Dylan’s music.

This music is rooted the jazz sounds of the late 1940s, maybe, early 50s, an echo of the big band era spliced with some modern sounding guitar work. Underpinned by a honky-tonk effect piano (under-recorded), Dylan’s harp solo before the last verse doesn’t hit a lot of different notes but rather plays with the song’s timing in ways I don’t quite understand, staggering the note, holding it, withholding it – it’s all about timing. Another ‘mute trumpet’ solo.

It feels almost haphazard, the lyrics feel improvised, the music delightfully casual – but it’s utterly accomplished.

In 2006 Dylan switched from the piano to the organ, and a new sound emerged which once more ruffled feathers. We’d got used to his percussive, anticipatory piano style, all those wonderful piano blues and bar-room ballads, now we had to deal with a kind of rinky-dink organ grinder style of keyboard work that was not to everybody’s taste. There were moments when the music sounded close to burlesque, and the Dylan bashing press ran tales of people walking out of Dylan concerts in droves and so on.

Also, during the organ grinder period Dylan’s voice appeared to deteriorate to a hoarse croak. Given that later, in 2014, Dylan the crooner was to miraculously emerge, capable of easing his way through old standards like ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’, hitting the high notes without difficulty, I am tempted to think that much of the hoarse croak was a deliberate vocal strategy. As someone commented at the time, Dylan has finally got the voice he’s always wanted. He finally began to sound like some old engine that broke its driving wheel.

I’ll leave this post with a taste of things of come in Master Harpist 4. A droll version of an underrated song, ‘Under the Red Sky’. The harmonica does the prelude, several choruses, tuning us into the light, irreverent mood of the song. Sadly, from my point of view, the harmonica doesn’t return in the instrumental break. Dylan rinky-dinks on the organ, pleasant, foot-tapping, but not much more.

However beware! That opening harp solo into might lull us with its casual, bouncy gaiety, its whimsical touches, but there’s a dark tone in Dylan’s vocal delivery that takes us beyond the little throw-away song the harp might have set us up for!

See you next time around!

Kia Ora!

You will, I am sure, also enjoy…

Bob Dylan: Master Harpist part one

Bob Dylan: Master Harpist part two



  1. Aways appreciate an article that focuses on the musical aspects of Dylan’s songs since my ear understands what you’re saying even if I’m unlearned in the techniques of music production.

    What kind of mood the words of a song are meant to convey is supported by the composition of the music. Some
    analysts assert thar the words be chosen by Dylan merely to enhance the sound, but more often than not there’s an intended meaning rendered to them by the syntax as well.

    A lot depends on which is created first – the lyrics or the music – or if together – I should think.

    But heck, what do I know about all that goes into creating a an appealing work of art? (lol)

  2. Larry, I’ve read somewhere that Dylan does most of his composing on the piano, but who knows? Occasionally you get a song like ‘Changing of the Guards’ which sounds like the lyrics were written first, as the music at times seems superimposed on the lyrics, but most of the time it sounds as if the music and lyrics have kind of arrived together.

    Certainly Dylan does a lot of writing and revising on the page, evidence for that in the booklet that goes with More Blood More Tracks and Trouble No More. More often, I recon, the sound is there to enhance the words, not the other way around. It’s when they enhance each other that you get the most exciting Dylan!

  3. Brilliant again. The “mute trumpet” solo is a perfect description as is your ” to capture the sound of an era”. I have not heard that before and it is spot on. You articulate very clearly indeed why the music and voice is as important as the unrivalled words. I also love the passion and excitement you demonstrate in listening to these magical performances which is surely what the art is about. Again, what terrific performances you have selected…the second ‘Senor ‘ is amazing and as great as the album version is, with the added drama of the wonderful female backing singers and the mournful saxophone, this live version is as great. Incidentally, I have always loved the album version’s tentative ending. ‘ Tangled up in Blue’ above is simply breathtaking and shows that the performance is most important. I also tend to agree that the hoarse croak was deliberate and this caused more controversy when many veteran Dylan fans, and not just the Dylan bashing press, became hostile. Some changes ( like your lovely organ grinder ) are too much for some Dylan fans and his wonderful interpretation of Sinatra inspired songs have angered many despite the greatness of his singing. Thank you for demonstrating how important the harmonica is to Dylan’s art.

  4. Adding my two bits just to endorse what Mr. Ford has already said (in the first post of this series). The sheer ‘musicality’ of Dylan’s work, across the years, is woefully underrated. Wonder if others have observed that, during his live performances, whenever (even the suggestion of) the harp rising to his lips occurs, the audience automatically quietens? Much like Miles Davis, Dylan has figured out that less is more! Thank you Mr. Johnson for this insightful series. Enjoyed it tremendously.

  5. Another inspired instalment with more great harmonica performances, thanks. The importance of the harmonica to the songs can also be seen by the fact that his most iconic albums, and many of his most iconic songs, have wonderful harmonica playing. Some albums considered to be on the next level of excellence such as ‘Planet Waves’, ‘Oh Mercy’ and ‘Infidels’ also have great harmonica throughout the album. ‘Shooting Star’ , ‘Jokerman’ or ‘Wedding Song ‘ would be inferior songs without their beautiful harmonica breaks. The so called comeback album ‘Time out of Mind ‘ has the standout song ‘Tryin’ to get to Heaven’ with the terrific harmonica breaks taking the song to another level.

  6. These wonderful performances sent me searching for a tremendous ‘ Girl From The North Country ‘ which I heard when attending one of his concerts in the early noughties. I now see that Daily Motion have a video of this sublime performance ( London, 24th November 2003 ) which is further evidence of Dylan’s remarkable skills as a performer. This arrangement is stunning: so delicate with a lovely music box style melody, a truly magnificent vocal ( no one comes close to this level of nuance ) and the two light as air, tender harmonica solos to provide further beauty to a yearning performance of one of his greatest songs.

  7. Excellent. Cannot believe it has been 17 years since Dylan dropped the guitar and went to keyboard. He is a great guitarist as his acoustic albums prove. His changing keyboard playing over the years alters the performances and sets the mood,etc. Great performances here, thanks.

  8. Dylan is no lead guitarist but he is an excellent rhythm guitarist and excels on the acoustic guitar as on the brilliant ‘Good As I Been To You’ album. Since 2002 Dylan has occasionally played the electric guitar on stage and also in the studio. He played acoustic guitar on ‘Do Re Mi’ in the 2009 Guthrie documentary and on one of his own folk songs ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’ ( superb unique performance ) in the 2010 civil rights concert. Alas, no harmonica. The great 2015 album ‘Shadows in the Night’ and the follow up albums are special because Dylan does not play any musical instrument. When he performed these cover songs live he performed them in the same way and this led to him performing some of his own songs such as ‘Love Sick’ brilliantly in this style.

  9. Great article again. Would be useful if you could mention recording data with each example. Thanks.

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