Bob Dylan and the Blues: leaving town in all directions at once

by Tony Attwood

The earliest recording that we have listed on this site of Dylan performing one of his own compositions, is “When I got troubles.”  It was recorded in 1959, and appeared on “No Direction Home” – Bootleg 7.  The song’s title is related to a Lightning Hopkins classic, Hopkins himself being one of the all time great blues creators and performers.  Dylan’s opening composition is not the same song, but the feeling is close.  If you don’t know it, it is available on Spotify.   Here’s the Hopkins original.

Which leads to the simple conclusion: from the very start, Bob Dylan was a blues man.

But of course, being Dylan he was never just that.   “When I got Troubles” certainly is a 12 bar blues in the classic style, but as a composer Dylan, unlike Hopkins, then meandered in a different direction.

“Song for Woodie”  was written not long after “When I got Troubles”, is certainly not a blues song, and within months of creating “When I got troubles” Dylan was experimenting with a third form of music – the talking blues, which is hardly related to the classic Hopkins type blues at all.

So right at the start we have Dylan singing straight blues, Woodie Guthrie type rural folk and then the urban humorous talking blues.  He was in short, from the start, experimenting like mad.

And it would be, in my view, a mistake to consider any of these three separate forms of music as closely linked.   The talking blues is a major variant in its own right, mostly these pieces are humorous and without the repeated opening line so common within the classic blues. In the classic blues the singer has got more troubles than we can imagine and that repeated line emphasises just how all encompassing these problems are.  In the talking blues it is all, mostly, a joke.

But that was not all, for even when Bob was working with the blues that is clearly the blues, he was also experimenting with the form.  “Man on the Street” for example takes us away from the classic three chord 12 bar blues into and leaves us hanging half way between the blues (the subject matter of the song is pure blues, the unknown guy who just died in poverty) and folk.

At this very early moment in his writing career Dylan was clearly looking for a way to combine the various forms that attracted him.  Was he to be a folk singer with a social conscience, a classic blues man, or even a comedian?   Certainly in that first full year of composing Bob was all three.

And if there is a song that combines the folk and blues elements it is “I was young when I left home”.

The lyrics are packed with blues elements

Said your mother’s dead and gone
 Baby sister’s all gone wrong
 And your daddy needs you home right away

… its not a classic blues, but surely it would never be turned away in any blues club that allowed acoustic performers through the door.

But then, suddenly at the start of 1962 it was the blues that occupied Bob.

Poor Boy Blues is a blues sung on one chord (although Bob does build an accompaniment into what he is doing, but the song itself is resolutely just on a single chord).  And yes the blues can be like that.  But what is so noticeable is that for a man who has clearly been influenced by the blues, he is still not singing the classic 12 bar blues.  He is very clearly taking the blues elsewhere.

And indeed even when Bob does explode with his first utterly, totally amazing composition in the blues style, he is still not using the 12 bar format.

Ballad for a friend is most certainly using blues themes, the “railroad track” and death, and it is sung utterly as the blues – it is just not a 12 bar blues.  Nothing wrong with that of course, but interesting because most artists start with the 12 bar and either stay there, or work out from there.  Dylan did neither – he worked backwards into the 12 bar format!

The recording appears on Bootleg 9, and if you don’t know the song, I would urge you to play it now (it is on Spotify and available without a subscription), and listen to that little comment from Dylan at the end.   How amazingly secure his performance is, but in the comment he makes in the recording he sounds like an insecure little kid.

Poor Boy Blues written next and appearing on the same Bootleg album again takes the same journey – it’s the blues, it’s about trains (always a good bluesman’s theme), and it is not a 12 bar blues.  Dylan seemed utterly determined to go anywhere but the 12 bar format.

Standing on the highway could be a 12 bar given the format of the lyrics, but here Dylan just sticks to one chord – which allows him to show off his remarkable blues guitar technique.

In fact as far as I can see the first real 12 bar blues we have from Dylan is Hero Blues – a song that didn’t make it onto Times They Arse a Changin.

And this really is my point about Dylan and the blues.   The blues in its classic form is a totally constricting type of song, and even at the very start of his musical career Dylan had moved beyond it.

Bob did perform some 12 bar blues format songs, but even in his first full year of performing and recording he had bent the style into something that would have the old blues men turning over in their graves either in horror at what he has done to the form or utter admiration (at what he has done to the form).

And in exploring these songs at the start of Dylan’s writing career we can see the enormity of his talent – so vast that no traditional forms could hold him in place.

My point in this little piece about Dylan and the blues is that all this happened at the very start of his writing career: 1961/2.  This is where we see the real, raw, original talent, with the songs just pouring out of him at hyperspeed (the listing of songs written in 1962 contains 36 titles – just under one a week!)

The blues is in there, making its mark, but these blues songs are mixed up amidst all the other forms that Dylan was exploring, from Let me die in my footsteps to Blowing in the wind  – songs which were written one after the other.

In short, if we ever go looking for the origins of Dylan’s genius, I don’t think it is to be found in the blues at the start of his career.  From the off, Dylan was travelling in all directions at once.

And that is for me the real key to grasping the music of Bob Dylan – to go back to the start and see just how many directions he was going in from the very start.  It meant that from here on, he had all these genres, all these styles, to choose from.   He knew from the very start that he could take any form and make a success out of it.

Which is basically what he did from here on in.

What else is here?

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all the 590 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 2000 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, please do drop me a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article.  Email Tony@schools.co.uk

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews

 

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3 Responses to Bob Dylan and the Blues: leaving town in all directions at once

  1. Markku says:

    Great insight. So simple, but I have not seen it elsewhere. As we all know”folk blues” is a different thing.

  2. Markku Koski says:

    Great insight. So simple, but I have not seen it elsewhere. As we all know”folk blues” is a different thing.

  3. Robert Ford says:

    Nobody can sing the blues like…
    I recently came across this quote from Dave Alvin, a fine musician who has played with Dylan ( his band supported Dylan for part of his 1998 USA tour ), ” I told him that he was one of the best white blues singers ever and he said ‘Yeah, I always thought so too’ ” John Hammond knew a good singer or two.

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