By Mike Johnson (kiwipoet)
In this unique series of articles we examine Bob Dylan’s harmonica playing, in each case with multiple examples of the way his craft has developed. The earlier articles, in case you missed them, were…
- Bob Dylan: Master Harpist
- Bob Dylan Master Harpist part 2
- Bob Dylan Master Harpist part 3.
- Bob Dylan Master Harpist part 4
I gazed down in the river's mirror And watched its winding strum The water smooth ran like a hymn And like a harp did hum
At the end of the last article in this series, Master Harpist 4, we had arrived at the year 2010, towards the end of what I have dubbed Dylan’s organ-grinder period, marked by his rinky-dink organ work, his circus barker voice – and some of the greatest harmonica work you’re likely to hear.
By 2011, new and fresh elements were beginning to stir in Dylan’s performances. A rigidity of musical form that marks the organ-grinder period began to give way to more fluid performances. The band sounds newly energised and, if you listen carefully, you can hear the crooner beginning to emerge from the circus barker. Dylan’s vocal performances in 2011/12 are extraordinary. He barks, growls, croons, yips – and even sings! Breaking into falsetto, particularly on the word ‘you’ gives the performances a demented, unhinged feel.
The organ work too, tends to be more subtle, if you can hear it. And, there are some outstanding harmonica performances, as we shall see.
However, the writing was on the wall for the tiny instrument, and by 2013 harmonica breaks were largely relegated to a few ritual blues blasts on ‘Tangled up in Blue’ and ‘She Belongs to Me’. Dylan’s interest shifted to his baby grand piano, introduced on stage late in 2012.
There were two major influences at work, possibly conjointly, that would take Dylan away from his trusty harp. The first was the music that must have been brewing in his mind for his 2013 album, Tempest. The orchestral sound, with its metronomic precision, didn’t allow any room for harmonica work, which is better suited to more open and improvised forms. Nor, in the live performances of Tempest songs like ‘Scarlet Town’, ‘Pay in Blood’, ‘Early Roman Kings’ and ‘Long and Wasted Years’ did Dylan attempt to adapt the sound to include the harmonica.
And then there is the growing influence of Frank Sinatra and the Great American Songbook. Sinatra’s music grew out of the big band era of the 1940s. Big bands had all kinds of reed men: saxes, trombones, clarinets, cornets, trumpets, even flutes – but no harmonicas. The humble harmonica is the instrument of the lone cowboy and the blues journeyman. It is a folk instrument. Dylan’s ‘uncovers’ of Sinatra’s songs, two albums and a triple album, contain no harmonica work.
So there was a brief period, some 18 months from 2011 to mid-2012, the last flowering of the organ-grinder phase, in which these elements were emerging, but the harmonica still flourished.
There’s no better place to start than with three performances of that exquisite little ballad ‘Forgetful Heart’ from Dylan’s 2010 album, Together Through Life. Night after night, all through 2011, Dylan delivered poignant and powerful performances of the song. ‘Forgetful Heart’ is itself a heart-wrenching song, dealing as it does with our capacity to forget even our most profound experiences, or call them into doubt. Along with that goes the pain of loss. It must have one of the most devastating last verses Dylan ever wrote, or in this case co-wrote.
Forgetful heart Like a walking shadow in my brain All night long I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain The door has closed forevermore If indeed there ever was a door
I love the following performance, from early 2011, for its quiet, understated character, lit by piercing gull-like cries from the harp. A piercing nostalgia. Bright nails in the heart. It doesn’t get much better than this, I thought.
I was wrong. It could get better! In the following performance from later in 2011 we get pretty much the same vocal, with the crooner on the rise, but the harp solo lifts the performance into a different category, turning this little ballad into a tour-de-force. Dylan extends the harp break over a second chorus, with sharp, repeated jabs to the heart. Dylan’s genius for improvisation is evident. As with the best of Dylan, you’re not just listening to the song, you’re living the experience.
By the time we get to 2012, the edge seems to have worn off the pain, but, if anything, that softness is more subtle and poignant than those earlier blasts of hurt and loss. Jazzy and sad, as if seen from a distance. Maybe the best version of all – take your pick!
Another song with loss and nostalgia at its heart is ‘Shooting Star’, from the 1989 Oh Mercy album. This song is not so much about the loss of experience to the eroding effects of time, but the loss of love. It strikes me that it is the shooting star of salvation that keeps slipping away. The ‘you’ addressed might be a woman, of course, but might also be a saviour. However you read it, in these later performances the song becomes something of a showcase for the harmonica, which as always adds emotional intensity to the song’s central drive. Once more I notice a softening of effect from 2011 to 2012. The sharp edge of the 2011 sound, with a frantic touch to the harp solo, gives way to a more reflective, softer response in 2012.
Here’s the 2011 version:
Here’s the 2012 version:
We last encountered ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ in 2006, right at the beginning of the organ-grinder period (see Master Harpist 4). Dylan continued to perform the song, often featuring the harmonica in breaks that are surprisingly delicate and jazzy, given the heavy pulse of the song. Again there is an evolution worth following.
In 2010 we have a more minimal, slower-paced performance with a comparatively gentle harmonica break:
Fine as that performance is, it doesn’t match the richer, fuller sound of this 2011 performance. The energy level has cranked up and, to get the weirdness the song needs (being about an encounter with weirdness), an echo has been added to Dylan’s voice. You’re in a crazy-house of distorted mirrors here, and the jeering harmonica is no help when trying to find your orientation.
But we’re not quite finished with the song. This performance from 2012 is notable, not just for yet another stellar harp performance, but the audience response. You can hear the energy go up when the harp appears. This time we get a more subtle use of the echo with, at times, Dylan duetting with his own echo!
Mostly Dylan’s harp work is restricted to certain songs, but there are times when he throws a harp solo into a song not associated with the harmonica. ‘Lovesick’ is just such a song.
Dylan continued to work with some of the songs from Time out of Mind, now 14 years old. Dylan himself has expressed admiration for the song, suggesting it might be a song to join the ranks of the classics in the Great American Songbook. Like ‘Lonely Avenue’ by Doc Potus, which it vaguely resembles in its tight, repetitive musical form, it expresses the very essence of alienation. It’s one helluva crepuscular song.
I see, I see lovers in the meadow I see, I see silhouettes in the window I watch them ’till they’re gone and they leave me hanging on to a shadow
If you like, it’s a song about a haunting, driven by the heavy tread of a night walker, one who has become a ghost to the world. Then, shatteringly, just as you are becoming mesmerised, the harp break arrives to rock you off your feet. A short, sharp harp break, brilliantly delivered, makes this performance a compulsive listen:
And, as you hit the link an awe-struck second time, take note of the whimsical organ work, a few notes here and there, beautifully understated.
Another song not usually associated with the harmonica is ‘Things Have Changed’, often Dylan’s preferred opening song during this era. It’s brisk and provocative, and, if you cut through the superficial explanation that it’s about a young, rebel folk singer, who might be called Bob Dylan, who became disillusioned, then the song becomes quite mysterious. To me it speaks of a turbulent reaction to the madness of the modern world – ‘people are crazy/and times are strange.’ Madness breeds madness, and one way out of there is to lock yourself away, become impervious to it all, that world which might explode – ‘I’m locked in tight/ I’m out of range…’ Such madness is catching!
Feel like falling in love with the first woman I meet Putting her in a wheel barrow and wheeling her down the street
A correspondent commenting on Master Harpist 4 asked if there were any other songs, beside ‘Every Grain of Sand’, in which Dylan enters into a duet with his harmonica. I replied that nothing sprang to mind.
I few days after that, while working on this article, I found this performance of ‘Things Have Changed’ in which we hear, as the song progresses, another vocal/harmonica duet, only this one at a frenetic pace suitable to the zaniness of the song. Crazy little harp interjections into the vocal line.
In the last article I commented on a 2010 performance of ‘Not Dark Yet’, so won’t repeat those comments. For me, no other performance quite matches the bleak intensity of that rendition. The song, however, survived into 2011/12 with more sensitive harmonica breaks than on the 2010 performance. I mean sensitive to the quieter, less desperate and more reflective. In this late 2011 performance, listen to how, around 3 mins 47 seconds, and into the harp break, we get an echoing, fading effect – our lives slipping out of sight as the dark approaches. I run out of superlatives for this kind of genius.
It’s my contention that the genius of the harp work is enabled, inspired if you like, by the genius of the lyrics and the feelings they potentially open up:
Well I’ll live here and I’ll die here against my will It might look like I’m moving but I’m standing still…
‘Blind Willie McTell’, an outtake from the 1984 album Infidels, surfaced in the late 1990s in some pretty heavy, if not ponderous, rock versions. By the time we get to 2011, Dylan is not taking the song quite so seriously, or at least giving it a less serious treatment, preferring to bounce or swing it the way Frank Sinatra might have swung it. And the serious lyrics come across with less agony, more of a celebration of an era, the 1930s once more, the locus of such songs as ‘Summer Days’ and ‘Po’ Boy’ (see Master Harpist 4). Its vision of a world riddled with moral corruption, however, survives in the swinging versions. We celebrate despite the song’s dark vision, rather than wallow in it:
Well God is in his heaven and we all want what’s his but power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is…
This first performance, from March 2011, is totally harmonica-driven. (You will find this same link in my article Dancing to Dylan, but I make no apologies for repeating it here in its proper context, it’s such a compelling performance.) I don’t know quite how to explain this, but to me there is a Chaplinesque feel to this performance. Maybe it’s an evocation of the Charlie Chaplin era, or maybe it’s to do with the cheeky irreverence of the harp work, that satirical bounce in the beat – or maybe I’m just imagining it…
Wonderful as that is, we can’t leave the song there. This version, from October, has the advantage of being better recorded, and so is perhaps more rewarding to listen to, but it also features an extended harmonica ending, with two false endings. It has more swing and less bounce than the previous version. I can’t decide which I like best!
As I write this, a climate-change-driven storm is bringing mass rain and flooding to Louisiana. The US has just experienced its wettest twelve months in recorded history. It was Ezra Pound who said that literature is ‘news that stays news’. Dylan’s ‘High Water’ is an excellent example. It’s as true now as when he wrote it at the turn of the century – ‘high water everywhere…’ Chaos and anarchy are let loose in this madcap song. Not a song that really features the harmonica much, but in this performance Dylan uses the instrument to wrack up the audience.
Dylan may not talk much to his audience, but he can still communicate. No great harp solo here, but listen to the audience response! He has them whooping along, using his harp rather than his voice to bark at the audience. It’s an audacious performance from 2012:
I nearly didn’t include this next performance of Dylan’s old favourite, ‘Just Like Tom Tumb Blues’ as the recording is quite inferior. Such a pity, as it has a nice, foot-tapping, forward-looking beat and some fine harmonica work. Well, warts and all, it seems like a good way to bid farewell to the organ grinder. We last encountered this song in 2006 (See Master Harpist 4) and, while I prefer that earlier version, this one carries itself with conviction.
Dylan’s transferred affection from the organ to his gleaming black baby grand did not lead to the immediate disappearance of the harmonica. There are some great harmonica performances through to 2014 and beyond, they just became few and far between. This includes some rare and lovely moments, such as this little ballad, ‘This Dream of You’, from Together Through Life. Not as compelling as ‘Forgetful Heart’, but still a vehicle for some nostalgia-driven harmonica work, reminiscent of what I have called Dylan’s ‘muted trumpet’ sound (See Master Harpist 4)
To audiences’ delight, ‘She Belongs to Me’ continued to showcase the harmonica, right through the Sinatra years, from 2014 to 2018. I commented on this deadly song in Master Harpist 4, but by this stage in its evolution, with that pounding beat, it has become ominous, almost sinister, particularly given the implication of these lines:
You start out standing proud to steal her anything she sees… (repeat) you wind up peeking through a keyhole down upon your knees.
And the harmonica! Gorgeous timing, the way it catches the song, carrying it across a few missed beats. Here’s one from 2014:
So… is it all over now between Dylan and his harp? In some recent performances of ‘Tangled up in Blue’ he doesn’t even produce the instrument. I’d be very wary of making predictions where Bob Dylan is concerned. In his late 70s, he’s still innovating and, as Frank Sinatra has faded from his set list in the last year or so, Dylan has returned to earlier songs not heard for a while. And he certainly hasn’t forgotten how to play the harp! Try this 2018 version of ‘Don’t Think Twice’, a song we started with back in the first Master Harpist article. He sings it the way Frankie might have sung it, which creates a strange effect, but the beautiful harmonica work is pure Dylan (see below).
Well it is all over now baby blue for this series, and I want to thank those readers and Dylan enthusiasts who have come along for the ride. It’s been a real exploration for me too, which has kept me at the keyboard. I started out with something to prove. I’d had enough of ill-conceived attacks on Dylan’s musicianship. I wanted to show what he could really do with that humble little instrument. I trust I have demonstrated to everybody’s satisfaction that Bob Dylan is indeed a master harpist.
Until we meet again!
Ps: I’ll be back shortly with a postscript to this series: ‘Tangled Up in Harmonicas’. Watch this space.