Bob Dylan Talkin’ New York; taking Woody Guthrie (and Christopher Bouchillon)

by Jochen Markhorst

By now Stephen King has joined the pantheon of Great American Writers, and rightly so. Since the 1970s, after the breakthrough with the blood-curdling Carrie (1974), he has been working his way up to become the grandmaster of horror and suspense, but at the latest since the 1990s, the literary quality of his work is increasingly recognized. King’s production is huge, the sales figures are astronomical (around 350 million copies sold) and Hollywood is also happy with the man’s talents. With more than two million votes on the main film site imbd.com (more than half of the voters awarding the perfect 10/10 score), the film adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption is considered the best film of all time, and that is probably also thanks to Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins – but above all to the compelling, layered and moving story.

The equally strong The Green Mile is thirty-first on that list. King is less satisfied with Kubrick’s widely acclaimed film version of his The Shining, with a frightening Jack Nicholson. And certainly not with the “academic bullshit” that pollutes the film. “It’s like Dylan says,” he says in a Rolling Stone interview in October 2014, “You give people a lot of knives and forks, they’ve gotta cut something.”

The Dylan quote does not just fall from the sky. The writer is a fan, his work is full of Dylan references and quotes. It shows that he is well versed in Dylan’s repertoire; King also quotes from lesser known works such as “On The Road Again” (in The Dead Zone), “I Shall Be Free” (Hearts In Atlantis) and “Tombstone Blues” (in Carrie). And King has used the knives and forks quote from the interview before, in a book, in the preface to the collection of short stories Night Shift. Although the allegation does not fit completely wrinkle-free in the attack the author reopens on the film adaptation of The Shining, it certainly illustrates his knowledge of Dylan’s oeuvre; this line, too, does not originate from a everybody’s friend like “Blowin’ In The Wind” or “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, but from the obscure “Talkin’ New York”.

Whether or not the love is mutual cannot be deduced from Dylan’s lyrics. But it is striking that Dylan has already performed three times in the home town of Stephen King, the unsightly and remote town of Bangor in faraway Maine, with some thirty thousand inhabitants at 35 square miles not exactly a dazzling metropolis.

Anyway, the song does have music-historical value. “Talkin’ New York” is the second song from Dylan’s debut album Bob Dylan (1962), after the cover of Jesse Fuller’s “You’re No Good”, and therefore the first official Dylan composition the world is introduced to. However, the song never reached the canon. In later years, during the revaluation of the initially quite flopped album, it is overwhelmed by the other Dylan original on the album, “Song To Woody”. Understandable, though the song does have more merits than just the curiosity of the birth of a genius.

 

The form is not too spectacular. The talking blues, the rhythmic talk-singing over a simple, repetitive chord scheme, has been around since 1926, since Christopher Allen Bouchillon (1893-1968) recorded the song “Talking Blues” in Atlanta.

Especially in folk music the form becomes popular, for which Dylan’s idol Woody Guthrie is responsible. Bouchillon is cabaret-esque, but Guthrie replaces the folly and vulgar banalities with epic stories, social commentary and irony, and hijacks the genre for satire, social protest and activism.

After his first attempt, “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues” in 1940, he writes some twenty more and it sets a trend. Pete Seeger is making a furore with “Talking Union” and “Talking Atom”, Dylan’s Greenwich neighbours Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs keep the now-moribund genre alive and kicking until the 1970s and in between the talking blues still flares up every now and then thanks to notable outpourings such as the hit that Guthrie’s son Arlo scores with “Alice’s Restaurant” (1967), and Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”, of course.

In November 1961, when Dylan records his first album, Guthrie’s work is the model. The private, strictly personal content of the text is different. Off-label also compared to Dylan’s later work; the poet will rarely be this little concealing, unambiguous, openly autobiographical and almost journalistic.

Soberly analyzed, the song recounts a few weeks from the life of the young troubadour, the first difficult weeks in a cold, cold New York. Judging by Dylan’s recollection of those same days in his autobiography Chronicles and judging by reconstructions made by industrious biographers, the song is remarkably accurate – it was about like this. Bitter cold, plodding, Greenwich Village and coffee houses, a harmonica and the trips to East Orange, to the hospital where Woody Guthrie is.

Poetically, the debutant remains within the lines. In the first verse a classic mirror game with up and down, in the third verse the wink rocking, reeling, rolling which the poet, who will be so ferociously associating a few years from now, fits neatly into the context of a subway ride, west rhymes with best and eyes rhymes with skies.

Dominating is a thick Guthrie sauce. The protagonist is a rambler, we also recognise the pensive, half-muttered repetitions from The Great Historical Bum, the ego is exploited and a union member and last but not least: Dylan quotes his hero. The “very great man” who “once said that some people rob you with a fountain pen” is from a famous Woody Guthrie song, from his classic gangster song “Pretty Boy Floyd”:

Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

The first authentic glimpses of the germinating genius are thinly sown, but still: there are some. Accurately, Stephen King picks that one and only truly Dylanesque line out of the song. And the irony is more subtle, more witty with Dylan than with his great example Guthrie.

The last lines are pleasantly non-serious. The crushed musician turns his back on New York, so long, and goes back to the “western skies”, to East Orange.

East Orange is 24 kilometers, 15 miles, west of Greenwich Village, 45 minutes by public transport. Change trains at Penn Station.

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