Publisher’s note: because of the number of musical examples herein, this post is published in two parts – Part 4.2 will follow shortly. Details of all the previous episodes in this series are to be found on the Never Ending Tour index page.
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
We’ll begin this final post for 2010 by rounding up a few of the songs from Dylan’s early ‘protest’ period, song which, as I’ve commented before, Dylan did not abandon even though he’d long since stopped writing such topical songs. These songs are the foundation of Dylan’s career, and the main reason for his artistic identity and early fame.
‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’ is a simple driving blues that tells a powerful story driven to despair by poverty, driven in the end to murdering his ‘wife and five children’ and committing suicide. It is a tense, elegant piece of storytelling, and by using the second person (you) after the first verse, rather than the third person (he), achieves an uncomfortable intimacy with his character.
This Kansas City performance with its minimal backing, a thudding drum, mandolin and darkly driven bass, is as good as any and better than most.
‘John Brown,’ although not a blues, is another piece of tense story-telling, this time of a dramatic confrontation between a mother and soldier son over the issue of war, ending with the son’s final rejection of his mother’s jingoistic patriotism. ‘You weren’t there standing in my shoes,’ he tells her.
The song has a similar minimal arrangement as ‘Hollis Brown,’ with mandolin, which is maybe why Dylan doesn’t perform both songs at the same concert. Putting them together as I have here emphasizes the similarity of their arrangements.
This performance from Tokyo (March 23rd) is a rarity in that Dylan punctuates some of the verses with a single, insistent, bluesy harp note. As far as I know, this the first time Dylan has played the harp for this song. A little gem this one.
Also highly topical, ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ was taken from a newspaper story and dramatically portrays the contempt of the rich for the poor. Over the previous few years Dylan had been perfecting a half-recited, half-sung version, half way between poetry and song, in keeping with the story-telling that drives the song. As with Hollis Brown and John Brown, one of the prime virtues of the song is its compact, condensed storytelling. This acoustic performance from Dornbirn (June 19th) continues that presentation of the song, the half-spoken delivery gives rise to an intimate rather than strident performance.
The greatest of these early protest songs has to be ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.’ It isn’t a topical song, dealing with story of a particular character, like the three songs we’ve looked at so far, but ranges far and wide in the regions of human suffering and war. A truly visionary and prophetic song. Whenever I see a reference to child soldiers, a heart-rending feature of modern war, I think of the line, ‘I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children.’
You will have you own response to the strange, circus-like organ riff in this New York performance (23rd Dec), and maybe wonder if it doesn’t fall a little too heavily into the dumpty-dum. I think I’ve grown used to it now, and it doesn’t put me off the way it once did.
‘Masters of War’ of course belongs to this little set. I included the Padova performance in Part 2 (See NET, 2010, part 2), but it won’t hurt to include the equally powerful Tokyo performance here.
Masters of War
It may seem that ‘Cat’s in the Well’ is the odd man out here, as it was written for the 1991 album Under the Red Sky, but by placing it here I’m emphasizing my view that it is a protest song of its own right, with anti-war strains running through it, along with intimations of disaster and doom. The song is fading from Dylan’s set list, where it was often used as a kicker to start a concert as it does here. This Tokyo (23rd march) performance is the second to last, the song vanishing from view after 2010. To my mind, one of the sharpest and clearest performances we’ve had. A boogie-like beat.
Cat’s in the well
I’ve always seen Desolation Row as a protest song, albeit of a different stamp from the earlier songs. I tend to see a greater continuity between the early, acoustic, protest song and the mid-sixties surrealist songs than is generally acknowledged. In ‘Desolation Row,’ a social concern that might have taken a whole song now gets one or two evocative lines:
And the riot squad they’re restless they need somewhere to go as lady and I look out tonight from Desolation Row.
This one from Dornbirn (19th June) swings along in fine style to begin with, but I’m not too sure how to take the breaking up of the vocal into single words that fall heavily into the beat of the song at 4.47 mins. Dylan falls into this vocal pattern from time to time during this stage of career, and for me it’s too intrusive to ignore, and distracts from the unfolding of these amazing lyrics.
I could say similar things about this performance of ‘Visions of Johanna,’ another mid-sixties masterpiece, and maybe Dylan’s best ever song although that might be difficult to tell from this rather jerky version from Mashantucket (Nov 27th). I find these performances lack the spooky mysterious atmosphere of the album version, or the bleak world-weariness of the sixty’s live performances. That odd, stilted organ however might have its raison d’etre.
Vision of Johanna
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