NET 2009 part 6 Rolling the Rock

NET 2009 part 6 Rolling the Rock

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

While ‘Rock Around the Clock,’ recorded in 1954, marks the beginning of the rock ‘n roll era, it was Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ 1956, that broke new ground musically by introducing white audiences to the blues, and which might be seen as the first rock song. You can find Heartbreak Hotel, by the way, if you mosey on down Lonely Avenue. It is fitting that in 2009 Dylan performed the song, even if only once, at Nevada, 16th August. If anything, with that dumpty-dum organ, the song sounds even older than Presley’s. The circus barker will never have Presley’s smooth, rubbery voice, but here it is, sounding like a Chicago blues number.

Heartbreak Hotel

That was a wonderful ‘uncover’ of the famous song, and Dylan sounds like he was having a lot of fun with it.

Listening to Dylan’s 2009 performances of some of his early rock songs, I’m once more struck by how ‘primitive’ they were, how like the music of the 1950s compared to the sophistications of, say Pink Floyd or even the melodic complexities of the Beatles songs of the 1960s. Only The Rolling Stones and The Animals were doing this kind of unfiltered bluesy stuff for mass white audiences. I found myself wondering how these performances would have sounded in the mid-1950s and, for the most part, they would have fitted in quite well.

Take this performance of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ from Rothbury, for example. A 1950s audience would have had no trouble boogying to the guitar riff that drives the song. They might have had a few problems with the lyrics but, well, don’t we all?

Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night
Told the first father that things weren’t right
My complexion she said is much too white
He said come here and step into the light he says hmm you’re right
Let me tell the second mother this has been done
But the second mother was with the seventh son
And they were both out on Highway 61

I think something is happening here but I don’t know what it is, and maybe it’s best I don’t enquire too deeply.

Highway 61 Revisited

Note Dylan’s organ break. He doesn’t stray too far from vamping along with the rhythm, but it’s more adventurous than what we heard from him in 2006 /07.

A 1950s audience would have had no problem with this performance of ‘Maggie’s Farm’ either. The guitar riff (hauntingly familiar, but I can’t quite place it) and the fast dumpty-dum tempo would have had the 50s audience up and jiving. The lyrics would probably have made them laugh. I suspect that in this case Dylan has deliberately made the song sound vintage, placed it in that era. (Amsterdam 11th April)

Maggie’s Farm

‘Rainy Day Woman’ would have been a foot-tapper, I suspect, for that notional 50s audience, particularly for the first few verses, when the pace is brisk, but curiously the song slows down to more like its original lazy tempo. And the lyrics might not have puzzled them that much either. The word ‘stoned’ was being used in the early 1950s to describe being under the influence, and ‘stone drunk’ goes back to the 1920s.

Rainy Day Woman

The sentiment expressed in ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way’ is common enough in the world of pop songs, and the thumpity-thump beat of this performance (Boston, 15th Nov) would have gone over okay with a 50s audience.

Most Likely You Go Your Way

Dylan swings ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,’ just as he did with ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (see NET 2009 part 1) and will do, in 2011, with ‘Blind Willie McTell.’ If they had heard Victoria Spivey’s ‘Dope Head Blues’ (1927) or ‘Cocaine Blues’ by Luke Jordan (1927), or ‘Spoonful Blues’ by Charlie Patten (1929), our 50s audience could well have related to Dylan’s own junky’s lament. We might feel that this swing version lessens the agony inherent in the lyrics, but I dunno – if you can dance to it, it can’t be all bad. (Hanover, 21st March)

Tom Thumb’s Blues

Since all the imagery of ‘Blind Willie McTell’ related to the era of that old blues musician who did his last recordings in 1956 (but was active in the 1930s and 40s), a hip, blues-oriented 50s audience would have had no trouble with the song’s pessimism and nostalgia, or with this particular performance, although I doubt it would appeal to rock ‘n rollers listening to Bill Haley. This beautifully clear Crystal Cat recording (Brussels 22nd April) is a treasure. Close your eyes and you’re right there, in the shadow kingdom of a speakeasy, listening to some old guy recall the old days. A remarkable vocal performance.

Blind Willie McTell

‘Cat’s In the Well’ doesn’t need much tweaking to fit right into the boogie-woogie era. The guitar break is right out of the rock ‘n roll playbook. You can jive to this no problem. The lyrics would have given a 50s audience some trouble though. Despite the bounce of the music, the lyrics are vicious – ‘the world’s being slaughtered as it’s such a bloody disgrace,’ although he doesn’t sing ‘bloody’ on this performance, Dylan shies away from profanities, and softens it to ‘terrible’ or some such euphemism.

This is a warm up, the opening song at Boston (14th Nov), so we are treated to that extended introduction current at the time. I must say I prefer the simpler ‘…Columbia recording artist, Bob Dylan!’ to this potted biography.

Cat’s In the Well

It’s when we come to that greatest of all rock songs, ‘Like A Rolling Stone,’ that we leave the 50s audience behind us. While we can trace the riffs that drive the song to Richie Haven’s 1958 hit ‘La Bamba,’ suitably disguised, the famous lyrics land us squarely in the drug-fuelled years of the mid-1960s:

You say you never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He's not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And say do you want to make a deal?

Nor has time, or Dylan’s ravaged voice, been able to dim the ferocity of these lyrics, their condemnation of falsity and snobbery. In this case, however (Stockholm), the spirit of the performance is more reflective than accusatory, more in sadness than in anger.

Like a Rolling Stone

With this gleeful performance of ‘Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat’ we are right back in both the musical and clothes fashion of the 50s. Pillbox hats date back to the 30s, but came into full prominence in the 50s and 60s. Of course, Dylan is taking the piss out of the fashion, and even musically he has his tongue in his cheek. This song, at least this performance of it, could be seen as a send-up of that ol’ bouncy rock ‘n roll; it’s fun but not to be taken too seriously. This is another opener, warm up song, in this case from Rothbury.

Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat

If we remove ‘All Along the Watchtower’ from its standard place as the closing song, and place it here, with the rock ‘n roll songs, we get a somewhat different perspective of that apocalyptic song. Despite its biblical, in fact Old Testament, imagery, the song belongs firmly to the first two decades of the Cold War, and the constant threat of annihilation ushered in by it. That Cold War was as real to the 50s as it was to the 60s, and a 50s audience would have had little trouble relating to it. As he’s done in the past few years, Dylan plays the song for its contrasts; a minimal, quiet backing during the verses, punctuated by raging guitar blasts between verses, all pushed along by a churchy organ and a militant tempo. (Rothbury) A stand-out performance.

With the drums of war still beating in Ukraine, and the implicit threat of a nuclear holocaust, this song sounds as relevant as ever.


Folk songs predate rock ‘n roll. You could argue that rock ‘n roll grew out of a particular kind of folk music, the blues crossed with jump jazz, and Dylan’s acoustic folk songs grew out of the rich folk tradition fully alive in the 50s. Dylan’s first audience for his acoustic songs were very much a 50s crowd, hipsters and old lefties, the lost generation that preceded the boomers. You can see them at the video of Dylan’s Finjan club performances of 1962. (I find, however, that the video of these performances has vanished from Youtube)

Dylan keeps this performance of ‘Don’t Think Twice’ simple and pared back, despite the organ. (Amsterdam 12th April) A 1930s audience might have found this a little unusual but not right out of the ballpark, and the relationship suggested by the lyrics is as old as love itself.

 Don’t Think Twice

‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ deals with a racism that is as old as the Jim Crow laws that enforced it. While the incident it’s based on, the casual killing of an African American barmaid by a rich young white man, happened in February 1863, it could have happened pretty much any time from the 1880s on, along with the tepid response from the law that Dylan laments.

In keeping with performances in recent years, Dylan does a half-talking, half-singing adaption that perfectly suits the didactic purposes of the song. (Boston 14th Nov)

 Hattie Carroll

I’m going to finish with this performance of ‘My Back Pages’ because it must come close to a best ever, wonderfully recorded by Crystal Cat and passionately delivered. And, for this song, a rare, piercing harp break. I’ve always found the song a bit lumbering, but that doesn’t seem to bother me here. Finally, after all these years, I get swept away by it. (Berlin, 1st April) In it, Dylan announces a swing away from simplistic, oppositional thinking. We’ll see a resounding return to that oppositional thinking in 1979 – but he will be so much older then…

My Back Pages

I’m indebted to Jochen Markhorst for drawing my attention to the following comment made by Dylan in 1997 ( see Markhorst’s indispensable Crossing the Rubicon page 91):

‘What makes (my songs) different is that there’s a foundation to them. That’s why they’re still around…’ Dylan also refers to, ‘a strong foundation, and subliminally, that’s what people are hearing.’

This has helped me understand what Dylan has been doing with these stripped-down performances in 2008/9, and the dumpty-dum which has given me so much trouble.

Dylan wants his songs to have a strong foundation when the winds of musical fashion shift. Their roots in vintage music provide that foundation, just as his lyrics, rooted in blues, folk and literary traditions provide another deep foundation. He ain’t no flash in the pan. Part of his genius is the ability to make old things new again, antique sounds and musical structures in particular. At that level, his songs remain forever young, while at the same time being forever old.

So ends my survey of this rich and challenging year. Next post, we’ll be turning to 2010, and the beginnings of a new musical direction for Bob Dylan. Catch you then.

Kia Ora.

The Never Ending Tour from the start


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