NET, 1999, part 6. Honky Tonk Dylan: Despair and sentimentality.

The Never Ending Tour

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.

 

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

This post, the last for 1999, is dedicated to the non-Dylan songs Dylan performed in that year.  We have already seen some of these songs in previous posts; ‘Sounds of Silence’, (NET, 1999, part 1, don’t miss it!), ‘Not Fade Away’, ‘Alabama Getaway’, ‘Money Honey’ (NET, 1999, part 3), ‘Roving Gambler’ and ‘You Gonna Quit Me’ (part 4). But that doesn’t cover the range of songs Dylan does in 1999, which is particularly rich in cover songs, as Dylan keeps returning us to an earlier era of music, mostly country and cowboy songs, thus establishing a context and background for his own songs.

Some of these songs, like ‘Friend of the Devil’ have cropped up in Dylan’s setlists for a couple of years. That song is from the Grateful Dead, with the lyrics written by Robert Hunter. Released in 1970, it has been widely covered by a number of artists, and has been described as progressive bluegrass. It has that classic feel to it. The themes of insomnia and relationship woes put the song firmly in Time out of Mind territory. (18th Nov)

 Friend of the Devil

Remember when you first put Dylan’s 1980 Saved on the turntable? The first song is ‘Satisfied Mind’, a slow, bluesy intro to the album. The song was written by Jo Hayes and Jack Rhodes and was number 1 on the billboard Hot Country Song list in 1955. It was the kind of song the child Dylan would have been listening to on his radio during those lonely Hibbing nights. Dylan’s first known performance of the song was in 1967, during the Basement Tapes era. Those who know it from Saved are hardly going to recognise it performed in this antique fashion. It turns out to be a rollicking cowboy song with suitably melancholy lyrics about the illusory nature of money. (9th Nov)

Satisfied Mind

As far as I know, ‘Pass Me Not, Oh Gentle Saviour,’ written by the blind Fanny Crosby in 1868, was not performed by Dylan prior to 1999, and would only be performed five times over 1999 and 2000. It’s a country music hymn, an interesting fusion that produced many such songs. Fanny Crosby herself wrote dozens of them. Still a cowboy song, it’s about salvation rather than whisky or love woes. Dylan’s arrangement here is similar to The Stanley Brothers version released in 1960.

It’s something of a curiosity in this context, a dark period for Dylan in which his faith is deeply called into question by the Time out of Mind songs. ‘Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer’, he sings on ‘It’s Not Dark Yet’. Perhaps this expression of a simple, old fashioned faith appealed to Dylan during such a time, a crisis of faith if we can call it that. There’s a strong flavour of nostalgia in all of this. (23rd Feb)

Pass me not, oh gentle saviour

Not quite so maudlin, and more upbeat, ‘Honky Tonk Blues’ by Hank Williams turns out to be a crowd pleaser. Not to be confused with ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ by The Rolling Stones, Williams’ song was released in 1952, and was made famous by Charlie Pride in 1980. The song is about a farm boy who goes to the city and becomes disillusioned. There may be an echo here of Dylan’s experience – a kid from the northern provinces goes to New York to suffer his own rude awakening. But of course, you can never go back again… (23rd Feb)

Honky Tonk Blues

‘You’re Too Late,’ by Lefty Frizzell, recorded in 1954, was only performed once by Dylan at Daytona Beach, FL, Jan 29, 1999. (See Tony Atwood’s post: https://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/16040). Again, we’re in country, cowboy music territory, sob songs I like to call them. They are sentimental in the way that ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ from Time out of Mind is. Despair and sentimentality are a matched pair. This is a wonderful, robust performance of the song. Highly recommended. Perhaps this sentimentality is an antidote to despair, or maybe a traditionally safe way to channel it. (29th Jan)

 You’re too late

‘Oh Babe It Aint No Lie’, by the incomparable Elizabeth Cotton, was released in 1958 and has been covered by many artists including Gillian Welsh and Anita Carter. There is a wonderful You Tube video of Cotton performing the song (looks like the early 60s to me, but there is no date on the performance). In her lengthy intro she tells how the song came about. Captivating:

Dylan did the the song on 27th July and gives it a brisk treatment, changing the lyrics around a bit, making it more of a love/regret song. Still it’s a lot of fun. This is from the Tramps concert in New York.

Oh Babe it aint no lie

Dylan’s admiration for Johnny Cash is well known, and around 1969/70 Dylan sought to emulate the iconic country singer, wearing white suits and adopting a ‘country singer’ voice. Dylan mimicked Cash as he did Guthrie years before. That admiration never faded, perhaps because they both went to the same musical well to draw their inspiration. Apart from ‘Walk the Line’, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ is Cash’s most famous song, not without controversy, as Cash was never a prisoner there, nor anywhere else. Dylan doesn’t have Cash’s deep, majestic voice, but he gives the song a vigorous airing with his own nasal twist. You’d almost think Dylan had been a prisoner there too, you know – cold irons bound. (10th Nov)

Folsom Prison Blues

Dylan also sang ‘Big River’, another Johnny Cash song released by Sun Records in 1958. Perhaps it was from Cash that Dylan learned the power of place names, and how to use them in a song. Here’s a verse from ‘Big River.’

‘I met her accidentally in St. Paul, Minnesota,
And it tore me up every time I heard her drawl, Southern drawl,
Then I heard my dream was back Downstream cavortin' in Davenport,
And I followed you, Big River, when you called.’

Listening to the opening bars, you might think you are about to hear a Dylan song, ‘Tombstone Blues’ maybe, or ‘Watching the River Flow’(8th Nov). The crowd loves it.

Big River

In NET Part 3, we heard Dylan do a Dion song, ‘The Wanderer’, in duet with Paul Simon, I think. Here he does it on his own, and it sounds, to my ear, uncannily like Dion. Clearly Dylan has listened carefully to Dion. This homage to the rogue male, released in 1961, has dated more than Dylan songs have – men are no longer encouraged to boast about their ‘two fists of iron’ or their rampant womanising, but it’s a rocking foot tapper and Dylan has fun with it here.

The wanderer

We’re no strangers to ‘Stone Walls and Steel Bars’, by the Stanley Brothers. Dylan began including the song in 1997, and in an earlier post I suggested that it was, in spirit at least, an ally of ‘Cold Irons Bound’. (Tony Attwood gives a good account of the song here: https://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/11475)

Dylan’s performances of the song are remarkable for their power and intensity. This one from the early show at Atlantic City, New Jersey, is no exception. Some gentle acoustic guitar from Mr Guitar Man. It works better for me as a prison song than ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, but I don’t know if the Stanley Brothers ever went to prison either.

 Stone Walls and Steel Bars

Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroads’(1936), is more than just a song. It is a seed that would help inspire and spark the rhythm and blues revolution that underpinned the rock music era. It was covered by Cream in 1966, with Eric Clapton demonstrating his mastery of the blues. The lyrics don’t support the myth that the song is about how Johnson met the devil at the crossroads and sold his soul in return for musical genius, but there is the mysterious fact that Johnson suddenly learned how to play the guitar, and play it brilliantly, from being a bad player.

Here is Robert Johnson’s 1936 original.

The song stands at the crossroads where the folk Dylan and the rock Dylan meet. While Johnson performed alone on an acoustic slide guitar in Delta blues style (the earliest known blues style, featuring slide guitar and harmonica), the song easily lent itself to electric treatment, as the Cream version shows. Dylan learned to convert many of his songs from solo acoustic to electric full band treatment, and it is ‘Crossroads’ that shows the way.

Here, Dylan is duetting with Clapton, but I’m not sure it was a good idea to put Mr Guitar Man with Eric Clapton. Dylan’s obsessive hammering at two or three notes doesn’t stand up well against the fleet-fingered, melodic Clapton. (Note: this was not a regular NET performance, but a televised benefit concert with a different backing band.)

Crossroads

That’s it for my survey of 1999. I think it was not just the band working sweetly together, but Dylan’s voice that made this an outstanding year. It is his greatest instrument. He can make it soft, luminous and intimate, or rough and throat torn as he choses. We haven’t heard him do that so effectively since 1995, and by 1999 his voice is richer and more full bodied. He hits the high notes when he wants and there’s a ton of power.

The performances were more disciplined than previous years, with not so many wandering epics, while two superb lead guitar men seemed to be able to successfully underpin Dylan’s own stubbornly unique and problematic guitar style.

Yes, Dylan had reached a peak in his rising curve, but it was not to finish there. While 1999 is lauded as being one of the greatest years of the NET, and I wouldn’t argue with that, the following year, 2000, was a triumphant continuation of the 1999 peak with, in my opinion Dylan’s best performances ever of certain songs.

That’s coming up in the next post. See you then!

Kia Ora


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2 Responses to NET, 1999, part 6. Honky Tonk Dylan: Despair and sentimentality.

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    A ‘three time loser’ was automatically given a sentence of life in prison in some States…,

    So if ‘Steel Walls’ is taken as an execution song, it’s a case of not letting facts interfere with a good story….

    Alcatraz prison in deep Frisco Bay did not execute prisoners.

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    “The Rock” housed Federal prisoners considered to be very dangerous.

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