This is part of a series covering the whole of the Never Ending Tour. You can find an index to all the articles here.
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
‘Popular culture usually comes to an end very quickly. It gets thrown into the grave. I wanted to do something that stood alongside Rembrandt’s paintings.’ (Bob Dylan, 2004, Los Angeles Times.
Dylan’s music stands at the crossroads of various influences. Blues and country music are obvious influences, as is folk. (Hard not to pick up the country reference with Dylan wearing a Stetson, as he did in 2004). But let’s not forget jazz.
The sound Bob Dylan produced onstage over the years 2003 – 2005 is quite distinctive from all other periods of the NET, and often leaned towards jazz, or has jazzy undertones. This is partly a natural consequence of Dylan moving from the guitar to the piano, and the style of Dylan piano playing, and partly the result of the jazzy turn Dylan took with “Love and Theft.” On that album blues and jazz sit quite comfortably together.
The big difference between Dylan’s guitar and piano playing during these years is that he picks the guitar, playing individual notes, while he tends to play chords on the piano. Only later, in 2012, when he returns to the piano after playing the organ from 2006, will he start playing individual notes and develop an entirely new way of playing the piano.
As I have written before, Dylan had no interest in playing lead piano during these three years. He was interested in a kind of retro musical texture, playing the piano like some barroom basher from the 1930s, using syncopation to drive his songs forward.
I would say the jazziest song Dylan wrote would be ‘Po Boy’ from “Love and Theft.” It swings. It has an unusual chord structure for a Dylan song, and is more sophisticated structurally than most Dylan songs. “I am not a melodist,’ Dylan says in that same Los Angeles Time article, but I might take issue with him there as he has written some exquisite melodies and ‘Po Boy’ is one of them. In that interview, he says that his songs are based on ‘old Protestant hymns and Carter Family songs or variations of the blues form.’ but that doesn’t describe ‘Po Boy.’ Both the lyrics and the melody of that song, with its humour and pathos, evoke the hobo years of the depression era with its Jim Crow laws. It’s a song of great subtly both lyrically and melodically. There’s nothing quite like it in Dylan’s entire canon.
We are lucky to have two very high-quality performances of the song in 2004, one from Rochester (13th Nov) and another from Binghampton (14th Nov)
This first one is from Rochester and has some fine harp work by the master. The harmonica is not thought of as jazz instrument, but Dylan turns it into one here. An irresistible performance.
NET, 2004, part 2 ins 1 Po Boy (A)
Workin' like on the mainline, workin' like the devil The game is the same it's just up on a different level Poor boy, dressed in black Police at your back
That odd reference to ‘on a different level’ reminds me of these lyrics from ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table, And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level
Curious. I’m not sure what Dylan means in both examples, but the po boy of that song and Hattie Carroll are both from the same class and most probably race – ‘Po Boy’ could be about a poor white person, but I get the feeling it’s a black person he’s singing about, without being quite sure why I feel that way. Perhaps it’s the reference to ‘Georgia laws’ which most likely refers to Jim Crow laws.
As with ‘Floater’ from the same album, Dylan delights in creating an imaginary back story for the persona that sings the song.
My mother was a daughter of a wealthy farmer My father was a traveling salesman, I never met him When my mother died, my uncle took me in, he ran a funeral parlor He did a lot of nice things for me and I won't forget him
This is complex. Either Dylan is creating a character who is telling us about the po boy, or he is switching to the first person, and this is the po boy himself speaking. Or it’s both at the same time. Very postmodern despite the 1930’s ambience.
This second recording is from Binghampton. Dylan is clearly relishing the song. The pace is a little slower but it swings just the same. Pity there’s no harp in this one.
Po Boy (B)
If ‘Po Boy’ was Dylan’s jazziest composition, ‘Floater’ is not far behind. The opening violin takes us back into the 1920’s in terms of the sound, the beginnings of jazz, while at the same time it’s a sophisticated song that draws together on all sorts of different levels. It’s the picture of a life lived at the same time as our po boy, but a different character; it’s a wry and wise song. Rembrandt? Hmm. Norman Rockwell? Both?
We have a beauty here from that famous Glasgow concert (See NET, 2004, Part 1). It swings too. It doesn’t get much better than this. The words ‘best ever’ are hovering around me looking for a sentence to land in (I guess they found one). This performance is a joy. Note how, on proper jazz style, the guitar takes a turn after the violin. Jazz evolved the tradition of each major instrumentalist taking a solo.
Swing, one of the varieties of jazz, evokes the big band era that reigned from 1935 to 1946 and according to Wikepedia “The name derived from its emphasis of the off–beat, or nominally weaker beat” and was popular in the dance halls. Think of Benny Goodman.
‘Bye and Bye’ is another 1920s style song that also has a swing to it. A wistful song with wide-ranging lyrics best sung with ‘a lover’s sigh.’ There is direct reference to swing in the song:
I'm paintin' the town Swinging my partner around
That refers to the dance style of the era. It could get pretty fancy, with the woman being swung over the man’s shoulder. This is slower than most swing, with a lazier beat. A touch of despair in the lyrics:
Well the future for me is already a thing of the past
Yes, I think I know how he feels.
We had some marvellous performances of this song dating back to 2001. This one’s from Toronto (20th March) and I think it can stand beside any of the previous performances.
Bye and Bye (A)
But we have another one here from Newcastle (22nd June), something of a rarity as Dylan seldom plays the harp on this song. In my Master Harpist series I likened the effect of this style of harmonica playing to a muted trumpet, and suggested, in regard to ‘Million Miles,’ that if you transcribed what Dylan is playing and then had it played on a muted trumpet, no one would think of Bob Dylan. The same applies here. Dylan toots away on his harp just as if it were a trumpet.
Bye and Bye (B)
If you slow swing right down you get the kind of slinky after midnight jazz that Dylan captures in ‘Million Miles.’ We heard a great version of this in 2003 (See NET 2003 part 1) but this one’s even better, mainly I think because it’s better recorded. This is a great mood piece in the melancholy vein with Dylan’s muted trumpet harp adding to the effect. This is jazz club music, to be played when people are danced out and ready to do a little crying in their cups over the impossibility of getting close to the one you really want to get close to.
This one’s from Toronto again.
The song needed to complete this set is Moonlight, which we could describe as a jazz ballad with a very antique feel to it. It wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the early 1920s or even earlier. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a good recording of this song for 2004, although I did find this one which, although not well recorded and a bit harsh on the ears, has several interesting features. First, he plays the harmonica on the song, which I haven’t heard before, and, perhaps more interestingly, he speeds it up, making it more jazzy than it has been up till now. (I can’t date this one exactly. I have it on a Bootleg album called Going to the Finest Schools, and information on that album has vanished from google, along with the album.)
You might be surprised that I have included ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ in this post on Dylan’s jazzy inclinations. ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ is a ballad in the great tradition of ballads that grew out of the jazz era and became known standards. I can imagine Ella Fitzgerald singing this song back in the 1050s, or Frank Sinatra. Here’s what All Music has to say about the genre:
‘During the golden age of the American popular song (around 1915-60), several dozen very talented composers wrote a countless number of flexible songs that were adopted (and often transformed) by creative jazz musicians and singers. Often originally written for Broadway shows and Hollywood films, many of these works (generally 32 bars in length) have been performed and recorded a seemingly infinite number of times, including “Body and Soul,” “Stardust,” and “All the Things You Are.”’
This one is from Cooperstown, NY. 13th August.
To make you feel my love
All of these songs in this post are from “Love and Theft”, except ‘Million Miles’ which is from Time Out of Mind, but the story of Dylan’s jazz connection doesn’t start there. It goes back to ‘When Dogs Run Free’ from the New Morning album (1970) and was a piss-take of the beat poets with their poetry and jazz thing, a piss-take of Dylan’s friend Allen Ginsberg and of cosmic, mystically soaked poetry. Yet, somehow, these later performances do not sound like such a piss-take, but underneath it all, he’s playing it for real. When he sings about being ‘in harmony with the cosmic sea’ you think maybe he might be. And ‘what will be will be.’ Didn’t Doris Day sing that first?
One way or another, it’s a lot of fun. This one’s from Washington, April 10.
When Dogs Run Free
I’m going to finish the post with a couple of rousing performances of Summer Days; a wonderful torrent of words. The genre here is jump jazz, described by Google as, ‘A sub-style of swing played by small bands in the late 1930s and 1940s that combined strong rhythms, riff tunes, blues, and pop songs. A precursor to rhythm and blues.’
Jump jazz differs from Rock and Roll in one vital respect: ‘Syncopation is almost synonymous with swing music. … White audiences at the time preferred jazz, swing, and standards. Jump blues differed from rock and roll mainly in the syncopated rhythm and instrumentation (rhythm guitar rather than horns).
This first one’s from Manchester (11th June).
Summer Days (A)
The second is from that marvellous Rochester concert. Better get jiving.
Summer days (B)
Wow! What a way to finish. See you soon with more exciting sounds from 2004.
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