Bob Dylan Master Harpist 4: Dylan’s harmonica work as you’ve never heard it (unless you were there!)

This is the fourth episode in our series on Bob Dylan’s work on the harmonica.  You can read the earlier episodes

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

‘The lonesome organ grinder cries
the sliver saxophones say I
should refuse you
the cracked bells and washed out horns
blow into my face with scorn…’

Before leaping into what I have nicknamed Dylan’s organ-grinder period, which lasted from 2006 to 2011, we need to pause a moment and have a look at the Never Ending Tour, and perceptions of it.

If you listen to the nay-sayers, the NET is a kind of never ending failure, with Dylan dragging his sorry ass from venue to venue, cashing in on his former glory. Nothing could be further from the truth.

What the record shows (apart from some off nights and some off seasons even) is Dylan constantly reconceiving and reinventing his songs. Constantly rediscovering them anew. Over the thirty years of the NET, the sound Dylan and his band produced onstage changed from year to year, even from set to set. A continuous evolution and creative engagement with his material.

These phases have been a huge challenge to audiences, but none more so than the period we are entering. It is during this time that some of the worst reviews and responses Dylan’s ever got seemed to suggest a final nadir. I know one Dylan compiler who refused to listen to any Dylan after 2009, because that year was so bad. When I played my wife (who usually suffers my Dylan affliction with good humour) a 2009 performance of ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ (link below) she turned white and said, ‘Oh my God what’s happened to his voice,’ followed by, ‘he has to stop touring!’

Indeed, during this period there were other murmurings to this effect. It was time for Dylan to put his suitcase down. Of course, Dylan had a surprise in store for those folk, which he sprang in 2013/14 with the arrival of the baby grand and the soft-voiced crooner who could put his voice anywhere he wanted.

So, suitably forewarned, let’s venture forth into the NET’s strangest and darkest period!

In the previous post in this series, we saw that one of the effects of putting aside the guitar and getting in behind the keyboards in 2002 was to deprive Dylan of a lead instrument. Through the 1990’s the instrumental breaks, both electric and acoustic, were increasingly driven by Dylan on lead guitar. His punky Stratocaster. Putting it aside left a gap which that handy little instrument, the harmonica, might fill.

Dylan’s piano playing, at this stage, is percussive and rhythmic. He doesn’t begin to play the piano as a lead instrument until 2013, when the baby grand arrives. From 2002 to 2005 he uses the piano to urge a song forward, his method of anticipating the beat creating a momentum and excitement in something of a rough, roadhouse blues style. You can hear that best on the 2003 performance of Desolation Row (see Master Harpist part 3). He developed a technique for playing the harmonica with one hand while keeping up the rhythm on the keyboard with the other.

When he switched his little keyboard to organ mode in 2006, there was a further realignment of sound as Dylan did not, at least a first, use the organ in the same way as the piano, to drive the song forward, but created an eccentric, circus-like sound, an oddly mechanical, rinky-dink effect, with Dylan as organ-grinder. But the harmonica was still in easy reach.

In this odd take of ‘A Simple Twist of Fate’ from 2007, the circus-like organ provides just the right amount of pathos, while the oblique, tangential harp work helps keep us at a whimsical distance from the events in the song.

What marks this song in Blood on the Tracks is its freshness, as if we have just come from the experience, but how might it be remembered after 30 years or more? Through the hurdy-gurdy of memory – the song of a sad clown?

‘She belongs to Me’ (an ironical title for sure), written in 1964, is one of Dylan’s most enduring performance pieces, and it’s still there on his set lists. It’s a song that could be used to chart Dylan’s development over the years. A song about the mystery and inscrutability of love, and love’s humiliation; devotion edged with sarcasm. All our goddesses have feet of clay!

It is also a song closely associated with the harmonica, from the bluesy blasts of more recent years, to more delicate earlier interpretations. The current, hard-driving, drum-thumping version has its origins in 2006, and was a part of Dylan’s experiment with a more minimal, stripped back sound. During the first couple of years, Dylan played the organ very softly; the band softened down to match, allowing the harmonica space for his gentle, jazzy interpretations. Enjoy the laid-back sophistication of this performance:

Between 2006 and 2010 a new sound began to emerge from Dylan’s harmonica. He had always loved the high, shrieking edge, that wild, mercurial sound, and while he could always swoop low, it was in the high notes that he found his musical climaxes. Right from the start, Dylan’s ‘squeaky’ harmonica was distinctive.

I’ve suggested that Dylan’s style evolved from having to play the harp without hands, in a neck brace. Since he couldn’t always ‘cuddle’ the instrument in the manner of blues harpists, the resulting sound is thinner and sharper, with a lot less vibrato.

However a richer, more full-bodied, mid-range sound began to emerge when he switched to the organ. You can hear the beginnings of it in his 2006 performance of ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’. It’s a pity that the harmonica break at the end of the song is under-recorded because it is beautifully paced, and builds satisfyingly through the mid-range to Dylan’s favourite high, clear flying notes. But even then it doesn’t go squeaky. A virtuoso performance hidden away here!

This song is something of a junky’s lament – his friends have deserted him and there’s a cold turkey on his trail.   Once more Dylan amps the emotional charge of the song, gives it a cutting edge, with his harmonica, the instrument perfectly suited to capture the long, lonely despair of the road.

Along with discovering a more full-bodied sound in the mid-range, Dylan pretty much abandoned his rapid ‘peppering’ style for kind of ‘squirting out’ the notes by breaking them up. One, two or three notes forcefully pushed through the reeds. It’s a jazz technique often used by trumpeters to keep the breath flow going though that demanding instrument. With the harmonica we get a ‘tooting’ sound that begins to characterize Dylan’s harmonica style.

Imagine you are cruising through Kansas City one time. When you reach 12th Street and Vine you hear rough sounds coming from some dive. You stop in for a beer and there he is, the old guy you saw years back, the piano thumper, here with his band cooking up a storm. He’s got an axman with him onstage, a tenor if you’re not mistaken, and, wow, he’s playing alto to the sax’s tenor on the harp! Two reed men standing up in their creases duetting and duelling, sax and harp over top of one another. Jeez, buddy, you’ve seen nothing like it since Charlie Musslewhite and Paul Butterfield in the old South Side days… Beyond here lies nothing? You can say that again!

Plenty going on in this song, a suitably raucous introduction to 2009, but the general tendency of the performances in this year is towards a more minimal sound. The result was to push Dylan’s voice to the front, right at the time when his that voice turns gravelly.

By the time we get to 2009 we have some of Dylan’s roughest vocals ever. And some of his most jazzy harp performances. You can hear both on this little gem of performance of a gem of a song. Po’ Boy.

Like ‘Beyond here lies Nothing’, ‘Po’ Boy’ takes us right back to that era we are becoming familiar with. The 1930’s, Great Depression, not a good time to be a po’ boy having to be dodging Jim Crow laws. Dylan has sharpened the lyrics too by shifting lines around.

This is really a protest song, albeit a subtle one, laced with rye humour. The harp break is all casual subtlety with few jabs thrown in, a touch of nostalgia for a past era, jazz phrasing all the way.

‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ – What can you do with an iconic song like this after forty-five years, other than mess the words up a little? You swing it, give it a cheeky riff on the organ, throw in a few even cheekier, taunting harmonica blasts. Use the organ to give it bounce. A circus-barker voice rich with the irony of it all. Once around the dance floor with the same old, eternal and unanswerable questions.

‘Tangled up in Blue’ is a special case, and I want do a postscript to this series featuring the song.

The journey is from the reflective, quiet song of the first New York recordings in 1974 to the stadium rock epic of the nineties. Fast forward to 2009 and gone is the crowd pleasing, foot stomping, harmonica wailing, piano bashing days of 2003. Gone too is the performance of the song as a celebration of time and era. It’s been stripped right down.

It’s minimalist and downright weird, as if, somehow David Bryne of the Talking Heads turned into Bob Dylan for a moment (or the other way around).

We’re on the treadmill of memory, a constricted, mechanical beat from which the song struggles to escape. It’s not just the rigid bass riff, but Dylan rinky-dinks it on the organ, emphasizing the rigidity rather than fighting it. You can hear Dylan struggling to cut across it with a hoarse, exhausted voice.

But he can’t quite make it work, or just makes it – your call! When his voice falls into the beat, matching it, the results borders on the burlesque. Only the harmonica can cut loose from this cage and it sure does, sailing serenely above the mechanical beat, above the intractable struggle with memory, free as flight. At least one hand’s waving free! It’s so good Dylan must have liked it too, because he comes back for second flight before the last verse, and once more we are gliding through time, pushing higher into the stratosphere.

And, while we’re in weirdland, try this odd dumpty-dum performance of ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’. Perhaps the song itself, which is about an encounter with strangeness, is outlandish enough to sustain a performance like this. The circus really has come to town! And, by emphasizing the rigidity of the dumpty-dum, the harmonica break at end of song just pushes the performance from the weird to the bizarre. Oh my God, am I here all alone?

It’s useful to remember that during this so-called nadir phase in the NET, a whole bunch of new songs were coming on line from Time Out of Mind (1997) ‘Love and theft’ (2001) and Modern Times (2005).

I admired ‘Cold Irons Bound’ from Time out of Mind but could never quite get with the song. The opening clash between Dylan’s voice and the guitar seemed too dissonant for my ear, and early performances did pretty much the same. It wasn’t until we get that contentious year 2009 that we get a performance that got through to me.

A throbbing, sinister beat starts the song, with Dylan’s voice echoing in on top. For me, the song expresses an awful existential despair – like the universe has swallowed me whole – a prisoners’ song, and this cut-to-the-bone performance brings out the best of it. And the harmonica break! It just slashes back and forward across that sinister beat, whipping the song along. This has easily become my favourite performance of this one.

Also from Time out of Mind we have that wonderfully despairing ‘It’s Not Dark Yet.’ The only problem with the album version is that it’s not desolate enough for the lyrics. It’s swampy and evocative, in Lanoir style, but doesn’t push us to the edge of our mortality the way this 2010 performance does. Funereal and cheerless it is, with the harp’s dismal insistence, playing the same notes through the chord changes, bleak and relentless. Now he sounds like he really means it!

For me, nothing can replace the echoey trippiness of ‘Wheels on Fire’ from The Basement Tapes, 1967. Admirers of the song also need to check out Julie Driscoll’s wonderfully overwrought psychedelic version (find it on You Tube). Yet this rough-edged 2010 performance comes a close second. Arguably, the circus barker has some trouble sustaining the song, but there’ll be no argument about the power of the harp breaks. The harp work turns the performance into a tour-de-force. What I have called the ‘tooting effect’ with the harp is put to good use here. It’s all in the timing!

I want to finish this post with ‘Every Grain of Sand’ and one of Dylan’s greatest vocal/harmonica duets ever. We go beyond the idea of a harp ‘break’ or solo to what becomes, after the first verse, a duet for voice and harp, with the harp ‘talking’ back to the voice.

There is a long tradition of talking harmonicas in the blues. Aficionados might know of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. Sonny would sing verses and Brownie would insert harmonica replies and comments along the way. Champion Jack Dupree would talk to his harmonica that would talk back. It’s a lonely, on the road thing, just me and my little harp.

While I love the 1981 album performance on Shot of Love, and its wonderful swooping harmonica break, the production is pretty lush, nothing like this stripped down 2010 version. I had problems with some of the lyrics, at first, too. They seemed terribly uneven, but I hadn’t fully understood Dylan’s breathtaking ability to switch from the sublime to the cliché:

'Oh, the flowers of indulgence
and the weeds of yesteryear
Like criminals, they have choked the breath
of conscience and good cheer'

Perhaps I could never quite see weeds (or ‘leaves’ as he sings in this 2010 performance) as criminals. And the self-conscious poeticism of ‘yesteryear’ seemed, well… like the very flower of poetic indulgence.

Contrast that awkwardness and tendency to mixed metaphor with the masterful:

‘In the bitter dance of loneliness
fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence
on each forgotten face’

However, listening to the old circus barker and his lonely conversation with his harp, my issues seem to melt away. Even the anachronistic ‘yesteryear’ feels fitting sung by an ancient who is looking back a long way to a vulnerable moment in time, a moment that called his faith, and his very being, into question. I am reminded of Robert Browning – ‘there is more faith in honest doubt than all of the established creeds.’

I’ll be back this way with the last in this series soon, I hope. Keep on keeping on, and enjoy!

Kia Ora


  1. This is a captivating post. I like the way you’ve said “Wait, not so fast–stop and look at this” about performances from an era that’s easy to dismiss. What year/show is the Every Grain of Sand selection from? I’m always on the lookout for distinctive versions of it; to me, it’s one of his masterpieces. However, unlike many, many other songs whose concert versions outshine their studio recordings, I think he seldom does a concert version that has the power of his studio version, the official bootleg version, or some of the 1981 tour versions. I like this one a lot. Are you aware of him doing a vocal/harmonica duet like that in other performances of this, or any other song? I don’t always listen with the close attention to details that you do, but I’ve never noticed it before. Anyway, thanks for the post. It’s good reading.

  2. Hi David,
    Thanks for your comments. This performance of Every Grain of Sand is from March 19 2010, and, come to think of it, no other vocal/harmonica duet springs to mind that is as closely woven as this one.

  3. Mike, another wonderful instalment of a great series. Many thanks for these truly riveting performances. You certainly have a great ear for brilliant Dylan live performances. I have been listening repeatedly to these performances for the last couple of days just allowing the magic to wash over me. As we know , the performances get better and better with repeated listening as you discover new aspects to each performance. ‘Just like Tom Thumbs Blues’ is probably the finest performance of this song I have heard, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ is tremendous and ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing’ is superb (what a duet! ). What is clear to me is despite his 2010 gravelly voice, Dylan is putting his heart and soul into these performances and this becomes evident when he creates a new arrangement then alters his phrasing before crowning each performance with astonishing harmonica work which takes each song to another level. You are brilliant at setting the context for these performances and in capturing the essence of these performances.
    Mike, I understand the reason you do not date these performances ( it would interrupt your lovely flowing writing ) but would you please consider providing dates only for the above performances including the majestic’This Wheel’s On Fire’, thanks Robert.

  4. Most enlightening and enjoyable articles with the icing on the cake performances. The gravelly voice is hard to figure given the unexpected change a couple of years later to the wonderful voice of today. Maybe his love of Charley Patton and other delta blues singers had an influence, who knows? I feel that the change around about
    2012 paved the way for his remarkable interpretation of the American Songbook songs. I agree that you need to listen to these great live performances above a few times to really get into them as some such as Tangled Up in Blue are so unusual and different even for Bob Dylan. Looking forward to the focus next time on this song,thanks.

  5. Wow! Just listened again to This Wheel’s on Fire and still tingling from the sensation. This performance alone ( of a song he never recorded in the studio ) demonstrates that Dylan songs need to be heard performed by the maestro ( the harmonica takes flight, the song explodes into life ). The songs only really exist when they are sung and played. I agree that most of the Time out of Mind songs such as Cold Iron Bounds were spoiled by the hotchpotch production ( Dylan himself has said as much ) and the two performances here gain because less is more. What can one possibly say to convey the genius of the ‘duet for voice and harp’ performance of this remarkable Every Grain of Sand. The performance is sublime. One theory for this level of commitment and communication is that he is performing for an Asian audience who show their appreciation for Bob Dylan in a very special way. The insightful view of Po’ Boy as a protest song is so true and I also hear Summer Days in the same way. I also share your views in relation to the Never Ending Tour: A continuous evolution and creative engagement with his material.

  6. So good to see the concentration on Dylan’s unique gifts as a performer by someone who clearly feels the music. Great choose of powerful harmonica driven song performances.

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