by Jochen Markhorst
Keep On Pushing (1964) by Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions is one of the half-hidden records (the bottom one) on the carefully constructed cover of Bringing It All Back Home.
“When I first met Dylan,” Robbie Robertson tells Barney Hoskyns in Across The Great Divide (1993), “I played him a ballad of the Impressions-album Keep On Pushing, “I’ve Been Trying”, written by Curtis Mayfield.”
That meeting is a few months after Bringing It All Back Home, and in his autobiography Testimony (2016) Robbie tells it differently again (and plays the record during a get-together sometime in December ’65, shortly after Levon Helm left The Hawks, a few months after the first meeting), but anyway: Curtis Mayfield stands on a pedestal with both Dylan and Robertson. Fan Robertson doesn’t have to push Mayfield very hard in the following years – and regularly smuggles him into the Basement, for instance through his guitar licks in “Goin’ To Acapulco”.
When Dylan leaves his place at the forefront of the civil rights movement, Mayfield is one of the greats filling the vacancy. Songs like “We’re A Winner” and especially “Keep On Pushing”, which are even quoted and used by Rev. Martin Luther King, have a similar impact and status as Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind”; they are sung at rallies and protest gatherings of mainly black students, with Mayfield’s songs gradually developing into a soundtrack for the black pride.
His pièce the résistance is of course “People Get Ready”, the masterpiece to which Dylan keeps returning. He sings it in the Basement in that summer of 1967, again during the Rolling Thunder Revue in ’75, in 1989 he records a beautiful studio version for the soundtrack of the film Flashback, in ’91 the song is unexpectedly on the setlist (in Argentina, 8 August, immediately after the already surprising opening “New Morning”) and in the episode “More Trains” of his Theme Time Radio Hour, March 2007, radio maker Dylan finds the metaphorical use of “train journey” reason enough to qualify the song as a train song, so he may play it again. In every decade of Dylan’s long career, “People Get Ready” comes along once in a while.
Robertson’s soul-loving heart will have jumped when Dylan, in the latter days of that long summer in West Saugerties, comes up with “All You Have To Do Is Dream”, a melodic, smoothly swinging Impressions-like soul number on which the Canadian gets the chance to quote from half the soul catalogue. The short, vicious accents on the third beat as in Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home”, fills as in Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man”, Curtis Mayfield’s licks and, certainly in the second, slightly faster take, the nonchalant, percussion-like funky accompaniment à la early James Brown.
Only that solo steps out of the soul idiom; Robertson is experimenting with the pinky swell technique, by the sound of it – the little trick where the little finger closes the volume knob just before the stroke and then opens it again, causing the sound to swell and die away again. Undisputed grandmaster and pioneer of that technique is Phil Keaggy, but both Keaggy and Robertson probably copied it from Zal Yanovsky’s guitar part on The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream”, the first recording on which that manual swell can be heard. Dylan has a short line with frontman John Sebastian anyway, and Yanovsky is from Toronto, just like Robbie Robertson, so they probably know each other.
Nor is the lyrics 100% soul. Far from it, even. Clichés like that’s just how much I would love you / If you’d just only let me try and the title fit seamlessly in Otis’ or Solomon’s repertoire, but for the rest the lyrics are the work of an original poet. Like the opening lines:
If the farmer has no silo
And his fuel cost runs up high
Well, that’s just how much I would love you
If you’d just only let me try
… Dylan is the first song poet at all to include the word silo in a song, as well as fuel cost (only fuel is – rarely – used; by the Beach Boys in “Shut Down”, for example; and by Chuck Berry in “You Can’t Catch Me”), and apart from Ol’ MacDonald, farmers are not archetypes in song culture either (Woody Guthrie sometimes sings one).
It’s a remarkable, atypical opening and it clashes right away in line 3 with that’s how much I would love you. “I’ll love you as much as fuel prices will go up”? It’s an alienating simile that even Brecht would shy away from and equally striking by Basement Tapes’ standards. Thanks in part to the neat, correct syntax, the lines, unlike most songs from The Basement Tapes, suggest coherence. And with that, the tone shifts from Dadaist haze (as in “Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread” and “Quinn The Eskimo”, for example) to the anarchic humour of Groucho Marx and Lenny Bruce.
The second verse is stylistically similar. Again four coherence suggesting lines with new, original idiom (up to date kitchen and acquainted) and an alienating pointe with grinning floor birds, whatever that may be. Chickens, obviously, but then again: they really can’t “grin from ear to ear”, so it’s another inimitable metaphor (other transcriptors understand claw birds, by the way, but that does not clarify either). Heylin refers to it as just another contribution to the basement lexicon of nonsense.
For a moment, Dylan the stand-up poet seems to be a bit rudderless in the third verse. He tries to associate on those floor birds, but gets stuck already in the second line – and then suddenly dashes off a thoroughbred Dylanesque aphoristic one-liner:
But restriction causes damage
And damage causes lust.
It is a very quotable, depth and wisdom insinuating phrase à la lost time is not found again (“Odds And Ends”) or too much of nothing can turn a man into a liar, aphorisms that have the antique sound of age-old sayings, yet really are forged here and now, in this pink house this summer. Though this one has less practical applicability, at first sight. Alright, a scenario to restriction causes damage could still be devised. Sleep restriction causes damage indeed, as does water restriction, and there are plenty other restrictions conceivable which could cause some damage. But damage causes lust? It does take some perverted empathy and ditto sexual preference to find any truth in there.
It does not really inspire the freely associating song poet Dylan to a revealing sequel either. He does take a turn towards ambiguous, slightly vulgar imagery in the next verse, in which the little girl is asked to blow this hard horn, but no aphrodisiac damage precedes this. Now the steam seems to be running out. The poet turns to self-plagiarism, to it’s very easily done, almost literally a quote from “Highway 61 Revisited” – very unusual for the bard who hates repetition so much – and then completes the lyrics with the typical, and by now somewhat dutiful Basement nonsense, with an earful here and a loaf of bread there.
Mayfield dies on Christmas Day ’99. From Dylan there’s no statement known. However, in most necrologies Mayfield is compared to Dylan and sometimes even called black Dylan, although that somewhat dubious nickname actually was reserved for Gil Scott-Heron.
When theatre director Jackie Taylor of the Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago is interviewed in 2013, for the play It’s All-Right To Have A Good Time: The Story Of Curtis Mayfield, she does have a fierce opinion about that nickname:
“People call Curtis the black Bob Dylan because of the impact of his music and proficiency and magnitude. I would turn it around and say that Bob Dylan is the white Curtis Mayfield.”
Well, “All you have to do is dream,” Dylan would probably say to that.
Jochen’s books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
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