Bob Dylan: Master Harpist

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!

Kia Ora

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19 Responses to Bob Dylan: Master Harpist

  1. Robert Ford says:

    Brilliant, brilliant piece, Mike. In fact, a vital contribution in the context of this site’s reluctance to go beyond the words and generally ignore performance, which not only get’s to the heart of Dylan genius as a harmonica player but also as a music maker. The same people who say that Dylan cannot play the harmonica are the same people who say that Dylan cannot sing. I would argue that he is as brilliant a musician as he is a wordsmith. There are no words that can fully describe the impact of his voice ( or should that be voices? ) on me. I thought that one of Dylan’s first studio sessions was playing harmonica for Harry Belafonte ( and Victoria Spivey ) so someone heard the magic at this time. As regards favourite harp work, an impossible but lovely question. With over 57 years of performances to consider a few spring to mind…you have referred to the off the wall brilliance of 1966 and the magnificence of 1981 ( check out the ‘Forever Young ‘ from Mannheim on the 18th July,captured on the ‘ Waiting At the Gates of Eden’ bootleg, where a divine vocal leads to a heavenly harmonic solo ). The studio ‘ Just Like A Women ‘, ‘Sara’ , ‘What Can I Do For You’, ‘Every Grain of Sand ‘ and ‘ Spirt on the Water’ are truly wonderful and I have great memories ( and bootleg) of Wembley 1984 when 90,000 people were driven to estacy by two heart wrenching harmonic solo’s in ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ . I saw him in Blackpool a few years ago when he excelled on both ‘She Belongs To Me’ and an incomparable ‘Forgetful Heart’. Bob Dylan himself has often said that his greatest performances of his songs are usually on a stage somewhere around the world.

  2. Kiwipoet says:

    Thanks Robert,
    It’s a pleasure to share my enthusiasm, and the music, with others. Thanks too for the listening tips. It seems with Dylan it’s hard to grasp the totality of what he’s doing, particularly as these lyrics which bother us so much can take on different meanings with different feeling tones created by the music. The sweeping musical backdrop to this 1995 Man in the Long Black Coat pretty much creates a new song.

    I’ve got ‘Every Grain of Sand’, ‘Forgetful Heart’ and ‘She belongs to Me’ coming up in the next instalment or two of this series.

  3. Robert Ford says:

    Mike…more wonderful insight ” these lyrics which bother us so much take on different meanings with different feeling tones created by the music” and ” the sweeping musical backdrop …pretty much creates a new song”. Exactly.

    Often people cannot understand why we single out individual live performances by Dylan because they tend to think ( and expect ) the 1981 ‘ Forever Young ‘, for example, to be the same. Dylan is such an instinctive and creative artist that he never hardly ever repeats himself. Who else on prime time TV would start their performance with ‘Don’t Start Me Talking’ an unrehearsed song ? ( and , of course, the harmonica breaks on the two other terrific performances ‘ License to Kill ‘ and ‘Jokerman’ are hair standing up on the back of the neck amazing).

    The studio versions of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ , ‘Desolation Row ‘ and the definitive, sublime ‘All Along The Watchtower’ to name three songs from many would not have the same emotion without the incredible harmonica breaks.

    Looking forward to your next instalment, thanks Robert.

  4. Markku Koski says:

    I heard Dylan first on Harry Belofonte´s Midnight Special. Harmonica on that piece was so great that I looked from the cover the name of the player. And after that I have followed him.

  5. hans altena says:

    Great to have this highlighted. And what you mentioned about Parker and Coltrane and Dylan’s harp playing rings true for me as harmonicaplayer and jazz lover. By the way, Dylan himself mentions the influence of jazz, he frequented gigs of Coltrane and loved Monk, which is traceble to his pianoplaying which is also very special!

  6. werner hofmann says:

    thanks for this beautiful contribution, all the best to aotearora

  7. ed grazda says:

    Thanks. Dylan’s harmonica playing is very special – his connection to jazz is clear. His piano playing recently, very jazz inspired. I remember at the Brooklyn outdoor concert a few years ago, that the band almost sounded like Miles’ Bitches Brew.

  8. PC says:

    We have some memorable TV and film performances of great Dylan harmonica performances. The superb 1984 Letterman performance mentioned above has the added drama of finding the harp in the correct key! The 1986 concert ‘Hard to Handle’ has the glorious extended harp introduction to ‘Heaven’s Door’ where Mike Campbell’s smiling face confirms this is special. The 1989 Van Morrison documentary has Dylan respectfully playing delicate harmonica in wonderful close up with Morrison singing ‘Foreign Window’ overlooking the Acropolis. ‘Blind Willie McTell’ at the fairly recent Scorsese Tribute has a deliberate rough as hell blues vocal with driving harp breaks and a perfect stop start ending. The great 1994 Woodstock performance has some killer harmonica playing. Renaldo & Clara has the riveting ‘Isis’ amongst other gems. These performances, of course, only scratch the surface.

  9. Matt says:

    Where can I find that Live version of Rank Strangers?

  10. LarryFyffe says:

    Also, see and hear Dylan on the 1964 CBC -TV produced “Quest” show.

  11. Filip says:

    Thanx a lot for this marvellous piece of insightful writing. And, as for me, apart from already mentioned “What Can I Do for You”, “Man with the Long Black Coat” and “Every Grain of Sand”, I’d gladly mention also album versions “Gospel Plow”, “Pledging My Time” and “It Takes a Lot to Laught, It Takes a Train to Cry” – and “It’s Alright, Ma” (from the “Before the Flood” live album).

  12. Filip says:

    Thanx a lot for this marvellous piece of insightful writing. And, as for me, apart from already mentioned “What Can I Do for You”, “Man with the Long Black Coat” and “Every Grain of Sand”, I’d gladly mention also album versions “Gospel Plow”, “Pledging My Time” and “It Takes a Lot to Laught, It Takes a Train to Cry” .

  13. LarryFyffe says:

    Appears some American viewers confuse the 1964 CBC show, that includes Canadian actor Michael Zenon, with Pete Seeger’s “Rainbow Quest” series from American TV.

  14. Kiwipoet says:

    Thanks to everyone for their comments so far. It’s a great encouragement to get on with Part 2! When you look at all the examples everybody has given, you realise how important the harmonica is to Dylan’s art. Matt, I found ‘Rank Strangers’ on a bootleg Album called People Sleeping in Broken Beds.

  15. Red says:

    Great article. Last years Live 1962-66 has some great performances, including arguably the best ‘One too many mornings’ with a tremendous vocal and harmonica performance. The Wilbury’s ‘If you belong to me’ is a great Dylan performance, with a terrific harmonica break. Unsurprisingly The Wilbury’s albums had more Dylan vocal performances than the equally gifted Roy Orbison. Dylan is a great singer.

  16. Red says:

    Sadly Roy Orbison was not on the second album, but the point is still valid.

  17. Paul Keser says:

    My dad was a sound engineer in the 40’s and 50’s as well as a huge jazz fan. I remember playing with his ancient Crown reel to reel tape deck in the basement in the late 70’s early 80’s and I stumbled across a tape from the 50’s I believe. It was a pre-recorded reel to reel in a professional box like an album . Don’t remember who it was but I remember the credit “and introducing Bob Dylan on harmonica”. I only listened to it a few times because every time I touched dad’s r2r I was taking my life (or at least my hind quarters) in my hands…unfortunately I don’t know what ever happened to the tape. I would love to hear it again.

  18. werner hofmann says:

    once again: thanks for your delicious analytic efforts, look forward to what is still to come.

  19. Paul Atherton says:

    I have been playing harmonica for more than 50 years now. I was inspired by the early Dylan using a harmonica stand and playing with my guitar at College. I graduated to Chromatic harmonica ( the one with the slider with sharps and flats – think Larry Adler and Stevie Wonder) and thence to blues harp playing for a number of years in a band.

    The first thing to say is that Dylan is still the best and most magical folk harp player. He doesn’t bend the notes much if at all. (Blues harp is played on the same 10 hole harps but it’s a very different style and very different sound. Notes are bent by drawing very hard on four or maybe five holes. )

    But Dylan employs many other styles. Very rapid kaleidoscopic note playing and very innovative variations. From chords to single notes and back again. I have copied all of his great solos. And I am always amazed at his technique and competence.

    He stands far above his imitators. Neil Young and even Springsteen, whilst making great music, don’t come close to his technique

    Thank you Bob for inspiring me to play in the first place and for continuing to inspire me.

    Your harp playing in Just like a Woman on the Live at Royal Albert Hall 1966 is still – just – top of my list for its virtuosity.

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