This series charts the NET from its origins in 1987 to the present day, with multiple examples of Dylan’s performances through the period in question. The full index is here.
The 1999 series so far is…
- NET, 1999, Part 1: Every night in a combustible way.
- Never Ending Tour, 1999, part 2 – Is everything as hollow as it seems?
- NET, 1999, part 3 Touchdown at Tramps – Archaic Music
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
For practical purposes, we can invent two Bob Dylans (there are a lot more; the man contains multitudes, after all). One is a rock singer with his feet firmly planted in the 1950s and the era of rock and roll. I explored the Rock Dylan in my last post. There we saw Dylan singing ‘Not Fade Away’, ‘Money Honey’, ‘That’ll Be the Day’, and the rock and roll derived ‘Alabama Getaway’. There are others we’ll catch up with in the next post. We saw how the rhythms and chords of rock and roll influenced Dylan’s great early songs like ‘Tombstone Blues’ and ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way’.
Full credit is due to guitarists Sexton and Campbell for brilliantly echoing the sounds of that earlier era of music.
But as well as the Rock Bob we have the Folk Bob. In the 1960s, Dylan acknowledged these two Bobs by breaking his concerts into acoustic and electric sections. That division carries through into the 1990s largely intact, although Dylan evolved a ‘soft rock’ sound which tended to blur the gap. He didn’t necessarily divide his shows into two halves, as he did in the 60s, but the two sides of Bob Dylan were evident every time he switched guitars from acoustic to electric and back again.
In this post I want to explore the Folk Bob because, in 1999, Dylan covered some of the folk songs that influenced him, just as he did with the rock and roll songs. The two Bobs have distinct musical lineages, although when it comes to the blues, the line gets blurred.
Let’s start with ‘Roving Gambler’ (See https://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/15673). This is a traditional song, first recorded by Samantha Bumgarner in 1924, but which dates back to 19th Century England. The Folk Bob has an English/Celtic connection, sometimes direct but more often, as in this case, after the song has entered the American tradition.
Dylan has been singing it since 1960. It’s peppy and a good performance piece. Like ‘Pretty Peggy O’ it’s a root song for Folk Bob’s own songwriting. As evidenced in this performance, the song has lost none of its charm for Dylan. ( 19th November, Atlantic City.) Here he uses it as an opener.
‘You’re Gonna Quit me’ is credited to Blind Blake, first recorded in 1926, and included in Dylan’s folk collection Good as I Been to You, in 1993. The title of the album is a phrase from that song. Here Dylan plays it straight, just as he does on the album, and the ambience of it takes us right back to the folk clubs in New York in the early 60s. (8th April)
You’re gonna quit me
It is well known that Dylan began his songwriting career by writing his own lyrics for pre-existing melodies. (I believe ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ was Dylan’s first fully original melody.) The first song Dylan wrote, ‘Song to Woody’, takes its melody from the Woody Guthrie song, ‘1913 Massacre’. (see https://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/45540) The origin of the melodies of these songs is often obscure, which suggests they come from more ancient folk traditions.
In ‘Song to Woody’ the major features of a Folk Bob song are established – a simple ballad like structure with multiple verses, and no bridge. In revisiting the song, I was surprised at how good it is. Dylan didn’t begin by writing bad songs; he was good right from the start. Like ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’, another early song, there’s a sense of nostalgia, as if the singer is much older than he was, a sense of a life travelled and lived. There’s a world weariness that belies his youth, but of course by 1999 his voice has grown old enough for the song.
The song celebrates and is quite explicit about these folk and blues singers from the 1930s and 40s whose melodies and attitudes underpin Dylan’s own.
‘Here’s to Cisco an’ Sonny an’ Leadbelly too An’ to all the good people that traveled with you Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men That come with the dust and are gone with the wind’
The reference is to Cisco Houston, a comrade of Guthrie. Sonny is probably Sonny Boy Williamson, a bluesman from the 1930s and a great harmonica player, while Leadbelly and his prison songs were getting known in the early 1960s, mainly thanks to the efforts of collector Alan Lomax.
Once more, Dylan plays it straight, with no frills.
Song to Woody
The early ‘Masters of War’ shows how effective welding his own lyrics to pre-loved melodies could be. The melody comes from ‘Nottamun Town,’ an ancient traditional English song, a nonsense rhyme, which was collected and then arranged by Jean Ritchie. (See https://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/527)
In the article just referenced, Tony Atwood has a fascinating discussion of the ‘Dorian Mode’ in which the song is written, a mode that is in neither the major nor the minor keys, but a more ancient key which has largely fallen out of use. This Dorian Mode helps create that ominous, threatening effect we hear in the song, something that has come from a more ancient place. The genius of the song lies in this combination of hard hitting, contemporary anti-war lyrics with this antique Dorian Mode. Somehow, I am reminded of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘ancestral voices prophesying war’ (Kublai Khan) and Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’:
‘And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.’
Dylan has done this song as a hard rocker, but in the 90’s he developed a more quiet but no less threatening arrangement, not as rigidly dumpty-dum as the original (Freewheeling, 1962), but more a syncopated, surging sound better suited to the song. I’m still stuck on the 1995 London performance, but I have no quarrel with this powerful version (a harp break would have been nice, though). The audience is a little rowdy for my taste, but what interests me is the guitar work, with Sexton, Campbell and Dylan giving the song a Celtic drive both moving and spooky.
Masters of War
Dylan does the same thing with his anti-war drama, ‘John Brown’. In this case he uses a traditional Irish melody from ‘My Son John’, an anti-war song in its own right. (See https://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/48) Again it is this mix of antique folk melodies and contemporary themes that drives the song along. There is a curious sense of antiquity to the lyrics of this song also, however. The term ‘cannon ball’ takes us back to wars of previous eras.
Probably the best live version of ‘John Brown’ remains the 1994 MTV Unplugged performance. It’s very smooth. But by the late 90s Dylan had evolved a slower, starker arrangement, with banjo, that rivals the Unplugged performance. This 1999 performance (From Tramps, New York) is both simpler and more deadly. The antique nature of the melody is brought to the fore by the arrangement.
There is however a problem. By the late 90s Dylan has lost his grip a little on the lyrics (same with ‘Blowing in the Wind’), and he fluffs them a couple of times (while brilliantly covering up for it) and this mars the performance for me.
‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’ (1963) is built on three simple chords common to many songs, which is maybe why it sounds familiar, even if we haven’t heard it. It’s a wonderful love song, I put it alongside ‘Girl from the North Country’ – it has a similar innocence. In this performance Dylan doesn’t try any clever tricks, or attempt to add chords, but plays it in all its original simplicity, giving it a gentle melody with the band joining in on the chorus. It is done without sacrificing the delicacy of feeling we find in the original.
Tomorrow is a long Time.
It’s not exactly clear where the melody for ‘Girl from the North Country’ comes from, and it doesn’t really sound much like ‘Scarborough Fair’ to which it has been linked. It does, however, have an old worldly sense to it in some of the phrasing. Love songs are as old as folk music itself, and it’s the sense of deep time, a long tradition, that gives these songs their gravitas. In singing these compositions, Dylan becomes the archetype of the travelling bard or minstrel.
Once more the 1999 performances honour the feeling of the original. This is a softer version from 2nd April.
Girl from the north country. (A)
And here’s a somewhat sharper version. (Date unknown)
‘Blowing in the Wind’ is derived from ‘No More Auction Blocks’, a song about slavery dating back to the American Civil War. The wind may be elusive, but the questions are eternal. It was one of the first protest songs Dylan wrote that wasn’t based on a topical event. The antique feel of it, and its anthemic quality, give a sort of timelessness. Again the use of ‘cannon ball,’ a deliberate archaism to give the message a more universal feel.
Blowing in the Wind
Fast forward three or four years and we have ‘Fourth Time Around’, a narrative which evokes the English ballad tradition and was a poke at the Beatles song, ‘Norwegian Wood’, which Dylan felt was too much like one of his own songs. But the lyrics tell a sordid, unsavoury little tale quite at variance with the sweetness of the melody. It is a deadly little song about an un-romantic encounter. It is dripping with venom and bitterness.
‘She threw me outside, I stood in the dirt where everyone walked And after finding out I'd forgotten my shirt, I went back and knocked I waited in the hallway, she went to get it, and I tried to make sense Out of that picture of you in your wheelchair that leaned up against Her Jamaica rum, and when she did come, I asked her for some She said, "No, dear, " I said, "Your words aren't clear, you'd better spit out your gum" She screamed 'til her face got so red, then she fell on the floor And I covered her up and then thought I'd go look through her drawer’
But what a beautiful, spooky performance Dylan gives here. The complaint that Dylan never sings his songs the way they sound on the album doesn’t apply here. The thirty-three years between the writing of the song and this performance drop away. Yep. This is just the way it sounded.
Fourth Time Around
Well that’s me this time around. Back soon with more sounds from 1999.