Nashville Skyline Rag (1969) part 1: “Do what you want to do”


A month ago, Jochen’s book on “Nashville Skyline” was released. In English, German and Dutch. It is available on Amazon: Nashville Skyline: Bob Dylan’s other type of music (The Songs Of Bob Dylan): Markhorst, Jochen: 9798377036241: Books

Here on Untold, we publish the three-part series on “Nashville Skyline Rag” from it.


by Jochen Markhorst

I           “Do what you want to do”

“Nashville Skyline Rag,” Jann Wenner asks in the 1969 Rolling Stone interview, “was that a jam that took place in a studio or did you write the lyrics before?”

Which is a bit of a difficult question. After all, the song has no lyrics. Dylan is polite enough not to correct him: “Umm…. I had that little melody quite a while before I recorded it.” Still, Wenner’s curiosity is nonetheless not misplaced and in fact understandable; “Nashville Skyline Rag” does sound as if it was mainly improvised on the spot. Plus: Dylan has never released an instrumental song on record before; indeed, something is a bit odd about the song.

Civilised, likeable, a little awkward, intelligent and prone to well-dosed pinches of self-mockery, plus some mild irony at times – the image that rises from interviews with “Spider” John Koerner over the decades is pretty constant. Totally in line with this is also the answer he gives when asked for his opinion on all those particularly nice things Dylan says about him in Chronicles:

“Well, I’ve read the book,” says John, “and sometimes what I see is either he’s got a better memory than I have or he’s making stuff up. It could be either way. Because some of that I don’t remember all that well, but it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. But the general sense of it is correct.”
(fRoots 325, July 2010)

… with which Koerner very civilly hints that Dylan is not too particular about factual matters. Incidentally, this will not so much concern the passages in which the autobiographer comments on his old friend’s character and appearance: “Koerner was tall and thin with a look of perpetual amusement on his face. We hit it off right away. When he spoke he was soft spoken, but when he sang he became a field holler shouter. Koerner was an exciting singer, and we began playing a lot together.” But presumably Koerner’s surprises included the songs he would have played to the young Dylan. “I learned a lot of songs off Koerner,” Dylan writes;

John played “Casey Jones,” “Golden Vanity” — he played a lot of ragtime style stuff, things like “Dallas Rag.”

Koerner does have a huge repertoire, that much is true. Both solo, and with Dylan’s mate Tony Glover, and as a member of the legendary trio Koerner, Ray & Glover recorded dozens of songs, all of which we find again on Dylan’s set and track list. Either one-on-one or re-worked or paraphrased.

“Delia”, “Froggie Went A-Courtin'”, “When First Unto This Country”, “The Days of ’49”, “St. James Infirmary”, “Danville Girl”, “Corrina”… and that’s just a fraction of the songs whose echoes we hear back with Dylan. I learned a lot of songs off Koerner doesn’t seem an overstatement, in any case. But that “Dallas Rag” was among them is unlikely – Koerner never recorded that song and it is not on any of his setlists. On guitar, it is played by men like Stefan Grossman and Mark Knopfler (with his charming occasional band The Notting Hillbillies, 1990) – a catchy performance really does require a technical skill slightly above the level of a good, but not towering guitarist like Koerner, in any case.

The song appears at 30:15 in the video below

Well within the capabilities of the guitarist who is one of them most illustrious pillars of Nashville Skyline‘s beauty, though: Norman Blake.

In 1969, Norman Blake has long made his mark at the top of rootsy country, bluegrass and blues, has been playing with Johnny Cash for years, and has everything that appeals to Dylan in these days: a deep love of traditionals, an encyclopaedic knowledge of the oeuvre of greats like Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff and The Carter family, and enviable skills on guitar, mandolin, dobro and fiddle. And an expressed, deep love for ragtime. Which is how it began for him, in his youth in the 1940s, as he explains to The Bluegrass Situation interviewer in February 2017:

“Sam McGee was playing guitar. He was on there. He was playing solo-type guitar, playing with his brother Kirk. So I heard him.”
Sam McGee? I’ve never heard of Sam McGee.
“You’ve never heard of Sam McGee!”
Well … [laughs] I’ve heard of a good number of guitar players from back then, I think, but I don’t know of him.
“Well, the McGee brothers. Sam and Kirk McGee, the boys from sunny Tennessee, they were billed. They played with Uncle Dave Macon. Sam played a lot with Uncle Dave, made records with him, and then he and his brother Kirk also made records. And then they played with Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, band called The Dixieliners.”
What was his guitar style like?
“Sam was a finger-style guitar player, played guitar-banjo and played guitar, kind of a ragtime style. They were extremely good, some of my favorite people. I used to hear them on the Opry when I was a kid.”

After his interlude with Dylan, Blake remains at the top. He is a regular in Johnny Cash’s band, helps Joan Baez to a hit with his contribution to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, plays dobro on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s best-selling Will The Circle Be Unbroken, wins Grammys, including for his contribution to the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack (2000, Norman plays “You Are My Sunshine”, “Little Sadie” the instrumental version of “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow”, and “Big Rock Candy Mountain”), is a sound-determining member of John Hartford’s band and thus one of the founders of the so-called newgrass sound (Aereo-Plain, 1971), and ragtime remains a constant in Blake’s repertoire from his first solo album (Home in Sulphur Springs, 1972) to setlists deep into the 21st century.

The recording sessions for that landmark Newgrass record by John Hartford must have given Norman Blake a sense of déjà vu. “John let us play what we wanted to play. ‘Cause that’s one of the beautiful parts about it – he just let us get in there and pick,” says colleague Tut Taylor in the John Hartford essay in Ray Robertson’s Lives of the Poets (with Guitars), 2016, about working on Aereo-Plain. Exactly the same as what Blake experienced two years earlier with Bob Johnston and Dylan, as we know thanks to the Letterman interview with Charlie Daniels (“he wanted you to do what you wanted to do”).

The fruits of that freedom are effortlessly traceable: on Aereo-Plain, we hear Blake going all-out on side two, in “Symphony Hall Rag”, and no doubt we owe “Nashville Skyline Rag” to that same freedom. A year after the Nashville Skyline sessions the song is on John Hartford’s setlist, along with Norman Blake live (Turn Your Radio On, 1971), where Hartford introduces “Nashville Skyline Rag”:

“Uhmm, let’s see… I guess we should introduce Norman Blake next. I guess I can best introduce him by saying that people who read their liner notes closely, will know who he is. He plays on a lot of sessions. With people such as Johnny Cash and Joan Baez and Bob Dylan… I guess that’s one of my favorite Dylan albums, Nashville Skyline. Plays the definitive version on that.”

And again a year later Blake showcases the roots of “Nashville Skyline Rag” on his debut album, in “Richland Avenue Rag” – all recordings that demonstrate what happens when Bob Dylan gathers top country musicians around him on a Monday afternoon in Nashville, and then says: “These are the chords. This is the melody. Do what you want to do.”


To be continued. Next up Nashville Skyline Rag part 2: Some of the names just didn’t seem to fit


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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