From Talkin New York to Talkin Bob Dylan. First to last of the talking blues

By Tony Attwood

Apparently Talkin New York came out of an uncompleted Dylan song “NYC Blues”, and it is the first Dylan talking blues to make it onto an album.  It was written, I think, just after “Song to Woodie” the other Dylan composition on the first album, composed probably after he had left New York following his first attempt to get work there.

I’m not at all sure that this is the complete list of Bob’s talking blues, but a quick review suggests to me these are the songs in this format that got recorded:

  1. Talkin New York
  2. Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues.
  3. Talkin Hava Negeilah blues
  4. Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues
  5. Talking World War III Blues
  6. I shall be free number 10

Those six span 1961 to 1964 but I have a feeling I have missed something – just as I missed New York until now.  If you could fill in any others I’d be grateful.

Coming back to it after many years of not listening to Talkin New York, it feels fresh, funny, interesting… but still feels to me much more of a song that would be great in performance rather than being something I want to hear each time when I play the LP all the way through (and yes, I still have that original LP.)  And for me that is the main point about the talking blues – it is still good fun in live performance, but once you know it off by heart it lacks something to pull me back in.    And that something of course is a melody.

Talking blues goes way back to the mid 1920s when music was almost totally live performance, although oddly (given what I have just said about it being a form of music suitable for live performance) there is a recording of Chris Bouchillon’s talking blues available – probably the first (or at least one of the first) talking blues of all.  The quality is very poor – but then it comes from the earliest days of these sorts of recording.  But even if you can only take a few seconds of listening it is worth it just for the historical context.

Over the years the format didn’t change too much.  Woody Guthrie’s Talking Blues ends

Mama’s in the kitchen fixin’ the yeast

Papa’s in the bedroom greasin’ his feets
Sister’s in the cellar squeezin’ up the hops
Brother’s at the window just a-watchin’ for the cops

Drinkin’ home brew … makes you happy.

and the fact that Guthrie recorded so many talking blues must have attracted Dylan to the form.  And it gives him a chance to explore the notion of expressing a spot of irony:

“Man there said, “Come back some other day
You sound like a hillbilly
We want folk singers here”

and then more irony

He was ravin’ about how he loved m’ sound
Dollar a day’s worth

and some social concerns

A lot of people don’t have much food on their table
But they got a lot of forks ’n’ knives
And they gotta cut somethin’

and setting up another joke

So long, New York
Howdy, East Orange

which leads neatly into the East Orange discourse, which fortunately we still have available…

 

So yes, I do still find Bob’s “Talkin New York” entertaining, witty and fun, and when I first heard it as a youngster I was completely taken by it, having no idea that it came from a rich tradition.  So once more a million thanks to Bob to introducing me to that tradition (I don’t think we ever really had it in England).

But that’s not quite the end.   For after Loudon Wainwright III was called the ‘new Bob Dylan’ he recorded ‘Talkin’ New Bob Dylan’ in 1992, at the time of Bob turning 50.

It’s a bit more fun…

But to return to Bob.  “Talkin New York” is funny and clever and very mature for a young song writer.  And that is not the first time I have thought that in reviewing Dylan’s early songs.  “Ballad for a Friend” which turned up the following year is, for me, an absolutely incredible piece of writing, and I have often wondered where such maturity came from.

Now being reminded that I had not included Talkin New York in the chronology of Dylan songs, I once more can see an incredible maturity of writing – although of a very different kind – in this talking blues.

It really does show a very natural talent just bursting to get out – and as we quickly found – travelling in every direction at once.

What else is on the site

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all the 590 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 2000 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, please do drop me a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article.  Email Tony@schools.co.uk

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews

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3 Responses to From Talkin New York to Talkin Bob Dylan. First to last of the talking blues

  1. Babette says:

    The funny thing is that talking that dialect is like singing, – – – but there are more notes and more sliding than in european language and classical music.

  2. Morten Jonsson says:

    Fun topic. I’d call “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” a talking blues as well. The electric backing obscures that a bit, but the acoustic take on The Cutting Edge makes it clearer. It’s like a wackier “Talking World War III.” And if “115th Dream” counts, it’s hard to leave “TV Talkin’ Song” out–faster tempo, sourer edge, but the same form.

  3. Hello there Tony, Thank you for posting this analysis of a song from Bob Dylan’s Music Box: Come and join us inside and listen to every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers streaming on YouTube, Spotify, Deezer and SoundCloud plus so much more… including this link.

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