Dirt Road Blues (1997) part 11 (postscript)

Previously in this series…

By Jochen Markhorst

XI         I got to get back to the stage

 After the recording of “Dirt Road Blues”, the song is left behind. Left alone and lonely, even; all the other songs from Time Out Of Mind find their way to the stage, but “Dirt Road Blues” immediately disappears under the dust of the dirt road. And stays there. At least until 2003, when the song is dug up and dusted off, for just one single time. Not completely dusted, though. Just a little.

Malcom Burn, multi-instrumentalist and recording engineer on 1989’s Oh Mercy, the “real” predecessor to Time Out Of Mind, tells a peculiar anecdote that plays out in the run-up to the recording sessions. In the days leading up to Dylan’s arrival, when Lanois and he are busy preparing the recordings, they receive a music cassette in the mail. From Dylan.

“And so Dan and I and Mark Howard, the other engineer, we sat down to listen to this cassette, and we put it in the machine – and this Al Jolson music started playing. And we were like, “What the Fuck? Al Jolson?” So, we fast-forwarded it, and it was just a whole tape of Al Jolson.”

It also includes a note from Dylan. “Listen to this. You can learn a lot.” Much later, halfway through the recording, Malcolm remembers this strange instruction, and now he understands at least something of it. During a break, Dylan tells us how important phrasing is. “You can have really great lyrics, but if you don’t deliver them properly, they’re not gonna mean a thing.” And somewhere in that conversation Dylan says, “My two favourite singers are Frank Sinatra and Al Jolson.”

Al Jolson was, of course, a great singer, and the “world’s greatest entertainer”, as DJ Dylan appreciatively agrees (Theme Time Radio Hour, Ep. 23, “California”), but survives – perhaps unfairly – as the most famous blackface singer ever. On Google’s “images” page, for example, 8 of the first 10 hits are Jolson in blackface. And that’s how he appears, as an apparition, as a blackfaced ghost, in one of the most memorable scenes from that remarkable Dylan film Masked & Anonymous (2003).

Towards the end of the film, Jack Fate stands in his trailer in front of the mirror shaving, while the irritating and pushy journalist Tom Friend tries to provoke him with suggestive questions. Fate remains silent and responds with an insipid look at best, until Friend touches him. Fate brusquely pushes the startled Friend away, who reproachfully says, “Hey man, I’m on your side.” With that, Friend gets a first word out of Fate:

Fate: That depends on your point of view.
Friend: Hey, I don’t want to be here any more than you do.
Fate: I doubt it.

Fate steps out of the door as the single line “Tangled up in blue” sounds vaguely in the background, and walks onto the carnival-like set. Now, at 1:25:25, the soundtrack sets in “Dirt Road Blues”. Not the Time Out Of Mind recording. This version doesn’t have the Winston Watson vibe, but a distinct J.J. Cale vibe. “Mama Don’t”, “Anywhere The Wind Blows”, “Okie”, that vibe, more or less.


As we hear the first verse of “Dirt Road Blues”, we follow Fate across the carnival. He climbs a scaffold and looks out over the set. Behind him, a blackface artist with a banjo descends the stairs and sits down on the steps. It does seem to be the ghost of Al Jolson, but he introduces himself as “Oscar Vogel” (Ed Harris). On the soundtrack, the music is mixed into the background, instead we now hear, softly and menacingly, the ghostly howl of the wind in the distance. The ghost’s words are given a chilling reverberation, just as ghostly. But behind it still sounds, very vaguely now, a textless version of “Dirt Road Blues”. Oscar tells us he is dead because he dared to criticise Fate’s father, the dictator, from the stage.

Oscar Vogel: They said it was an accident. [strums banjo] Some even said it was a suicide. Some people choose to die in all kinds of ways. Some people jump out of buildings And slit their wrists on the way down. Some fall on their own swords. I opened my mouth. Do you remember? My name is Oscar Vogel.
Jack Fate: Oscar Vogel. Well, I got to get back to the stage.
Oscar Vogel: The stage – ah, yes – the stage. The whole world’s a stage.

And then, as Jack descends the stairs, “Dirt Road Blues” swells again, still instrumental. Jack looks back one more time, up. The ghost of Oscar Vogel/Al Jolson is gone.

The song’s connection to the film images is puzzling. “Something with Al Jolson” is the only thing that connects the Oscar Vogel scene with the somewhat circumstantial background story of the genesis of “Dirt Road Blues”. Dylan doesn’t seem to have any special feelings about it either; after this one-off reanimation, the dust settles over the song, and now for good.

The one-off resuscitation, this partly dusted off version of “Dirt Road Blues”, was recorded with Dylan’s touring band in July 2002, at the now demolished Ray-Art Studios film studio in Canoga Park, Los Angeles. On Variel Avenue, half an hour’s drive from Dylan’s home in Malibu. Just follow the dirt road and take Highway 101.




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Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:


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