By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
Like everything he does, Dylan’s harmonica playing has been controversial, but not a lot of serious comment has been devoted to it. Plenty of put-downs. The first item to come up on a google search is a Reddit discussion of Dylan’s harmonica playing with almost every comment negative and to my mind, misdirected. Here is a typical example:
‘So many Dylan songs have harmonica solos in them, but many are actually atrocious to listen to. I think his harmonica playing is often, at best, superfluous. He plays in a manner that – I hope intentionally – is discordant and grating to listen to, and he sometimes puts the instrument at the very end of a song with no warning, as if to say “Fuck it! I’m Bob-Goddamn-Dylan!” Contrast this with artists like Tom Petty or Donovan, who use the instrument to produce a soothing, pleasurable tone. Am I taking crazy pills, or what gives with Bob Dylan and his harmonica playing?’
This post is an attempt to answer that last question, and present the positive case, for I have always loved Dylan’s harmonica playing and have always been disappointed when albums like Street Legal don’t feature it. I think much has to do with how our ears are attuned to music, and what we expect when we listen to a song. If we’re looking for a ‘soothing, pleasurable tone’ then we’re best off staying well clear of Bob Dylan, for even his most gentle and melodic songs are seldom soothing, and the pleasure than arises from listening to them comes from quite a different source.
I was brought up among jazz aficionados, weaned on on sax players like John Contrane (who never smiled), Charlie Parker (who could play faster than anybody else), Sonny Rollins (who could play two saxophones at once) and so on, with a nod to the trumpeters like Louis Armstrong. To these jazz cats, Bob Dylan was a two chord wonder, and any mention of his harmonica playing would raise a sneer. The verdict was unanimous: he couldn’t play the instrument. In his early songs Dylan developed what I call a ‘peppering’ technique in which many notes are played very fast, apparently at random. After listening to one such song, I listened to some Charlie Parker and what I heard were a whole lot of notes played very fast apparently at random. Any suggestion, however, that Dylan might also have a little jazz in his veins earned me some pitying looks from my jazz cat friends.
Audiences, however seemed to appreciate it, and Dylan’s ‘squeaky’ harmonica, mounted on a neck brace, quickly became a part of his waif-like, on-the-road image. In this wonderful version of Don’t Think Twice, from the 1964 Philharmonic Hall performance, we find a good example of the ‘peppering’ effect, and the audience’s appreciation of it. Note, by the way, the wonderful soaring vocal.
It was clear from the start that while he often used the harmonica as a way of filling in some beats between verses, blowing just a few notes, that thin, vulnerable, amateur-sounding harmonica was an essential component of the feeling tone of a song. It was an integral part of appearing ‘young and unlearned’, the frail kid talking truth to power with nothing but a guitar and a quavery harmonica he doesn’t seem to know how to play. It was all part of the image.
Consider once more this performance of Blowin’ in the Wind from 1963, and note how those whimsical little jazzy bits between the verses contribute to the forlorn nature of the song and the unanswerable questions it poses:
To my mind, however, it’s not until we get to Mr Tambourine Man that the peppering effect fully comes into it’s own as an integral component of the song and the themes of the song. The dancing harmonica solos in many great performances of this song during the 1966 tour reveal a mastery of the instrument, with those apparently random notes sewed into the Harlequinesque, carnivale ambience created. The notes can be rough, jagged, piercing, a little crazy, the choruses held together by long swooping blues notes; almost out of control, obsessive and repetitive, but miraculously brought back under control again. Then rising to a climax of high squeaky notes dancing poignantly on the circus sands at the end. Clearly there is a lot more going on here than just filling in a few desultory notes between verses. The emotional range of the song, and its ability to affect the audience, has been extended. These are fey sounds, friends!
Someone told me that while most blues harpists get their wah-wah-wah sound, with vibrato, by sucking on the instrument while cuddling it with two hands, Dylan tends to blow rather than suck, and his style has evolved through not handling the harp (that came later) because of playing the guitar at the same time. I don’t have the knowledge to be sure of that, but I do know that Dylan’s harp playing is so distinctive I can spot it within a few notes.
While that thin, vulnerable, lonely sound was an essential component of John Wesley Harding, and later Blood on the Tracks, the use of the harmonica waned during the 1970s. It never quite fitted with the violin during the Rolling Thunder Tour, or with the big band sound of 1978. The harmonica seemed to fit better with the more intimate, acoustic Dylan than the stadium rocker – but that too would change as Dylan’s sound evolved in the late 1980’s and into the 90’s, when his harmonica work again became important.
The gospel period is a frustrating one for the harp enthusiast. He only lets loose on one song, ‘What Can I do For You’, and in 1981 on old classics like Forever Young and Knocking on Heaven’s Door.
Clutching the harp in two fists, Dylan delivers a wrenchingly emotional performance, an outpouring of gratitude. Those readers who have Trouble No More can hear a sonically superior version to the You Tube clip, but beware, the CD included in the box set contains only half the song, the first harp solo having been cut! (Sacrilege!)
The harmonica featured only occasionally during the Tom Petty years in the mid to late 1980s, again not suited to Petty’s heavy, stadium style sound, nor do you hear it much in Dylan’s work with the Grateful Dead. However, in the second year of the NET, 1989, some strange piercing sounds were once more heard from the stage. Something new had entered the music. When I first heard the harp work on ‘Rank Strangers’, even after years of listening for, and to, Dylan’s harp, I didn’t recognise what I was hearing. I thought maybe GE Smith was playing above the frets or something. Take a listen to this. The first, astonishing harp solo begins around 3 mins 30 secs, but is repeated with variations after a brief guitar interlude. Incredibly, the harp solo ends with three notes from the dawn bugle call of the US military, known as Taps or ‘Day is Done’, repeated over and over.
I swear to all the jazz cats out there that I’ve heard Contrane and Parker do this, squeezing the reeds between their lips seemingly in effort to reach above audible sound, certainly above the normal range of a sax. Of course Dylan can’t squeeze the reed as on a sax, as the reeds are encased in tin, but by forcefully blowing the very top notes, and eliding between them, he succeeds in creating an unearthly, screaming sound in perfect counterpoint to the ghostly moan of the song. Again, it depends on how you’ve trained your ear, and the sounds you respond to; where I find sheer musical genius, others might hear metal scratching on glass… There are many other examples of similar style playing from that year, often with a feeling of improvisation about them, as if neither Dylan nor GE Smith quite knew where the song was going or when it would finish.
In the 1990’s, Dylan’s harp playing crept back into force. In 1992/3, the band began to sound quite jazzy and improvisational, with arrangements looser than Dylan normally prefers. The band pulls out the stops in this 1992 performance of ‘All Along the Watchtower’. Dylan’s voice was pretty scratchy during this period, and the vocal is unexceptional, but he clearly enjoys his whimsical harp interlude at the end of the song, so light and airy against the heavy beat of the music, while also giving way to the song’s urgency. The audience loves it too!
It is, however, in 1995 that Dylan’s harmonica playing reached new heights. Famously, Dylan had a cold at the Prague concert that year, which kept him off the guitar, but it didn’t stop some amazing vocals and unprecedented harmonica work. The pop and rock music of the 1980s veered towards creating sonic landscapes, orchestral sounds, and we don’t normally associate Bob Dylan with this kind of music, but in this grand and grandiose version of ‘Man in The Long Black Coat’ you hear Dylan and his band aiming for a full orchestral effect, which is where the harmonica comes in, lifting the song into one huge wall of sound. It’s a pity that the recording devices, or the original sound system for all I know, was not up to capturing the full range of this magnificent achievement – not to mention the limitations of MP3s! The fluctuation from soft to hard sound goes into distortion, but I think you can listen through that to what it might have sounded like, and it’s a sheer blast, with long sustained harmonica notes pushing the music ever higher, finally floating above the wall of sound, thin and insistent, and ultimately as haunting as the song itself. The first solo is just a warm up for the climax to follow the last verse.
For Dylan, the harmonica becomes another kind of voice, one which can take his own vocal sounds and extend them. In the last two decades Dylan has brought his harp playing to a new level of mastery, and that will be the subject of my next blog in a week or two. In the meantime, let us know your own favourite Dylan harp work, and what it adds to the song. And if you hate it, then, well… quit those crazy pills!
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