The first albums I bought were the first two Beatles albums, and I loved them, without knowing much about what I was listening to.
I’m pretty sure the third album I bought was Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, and I CERTAINLY didn’t know what I was hearing, except that it was powerful. It turned out to be the first of his two greatest albums, as far as I’m aware, just preceding Blonde On Blonde. I quickly obtained Another Side of and Bringing It All Back Home, which were clearly working up the the latter two, and became a huge fan. But after Blonde On Blonde things changed.
Up till then I hadn’t been aware of failure. The Beatles and Dylan had both been getting better and better. Now both seemed to lose their way. I didn’t care much for the next Dylan album, or the one after that, when he sounded sort of like Gomer Pyle, or maybe Jim Nabors. The last song of his I really liked was Tangled Up in Blue. The album was supposedly one of his best, but I wouldn’t know, having hardly listened to the rest of it. Then, after an interlude with the Rolling Thunder Revue, he went into a version of Christianity that didn’t appeal to me at all. As far as I can remember, I’ve heard just 3 of his newer songs since.
One was on a TV show, I think a tribute to him, where Lou Reed and his band did Foot of Pride. I liked that one, but didn’t pursue it. The second was Blind Willie McTell, probably on the Band’s late album, Jericho. “Too pious,” I thought at the time, but don’t know exactly why, since I didn’t listen again, let alone know anything about McTell, though I’d heard his name.
The third was probably around 2000, maybe on the Grammy’s, when Dylan and his band did something—I don’t even know what. I thought the band sounded good, but Dylan’s voice sounded full of phlegm.
But I was still curious about him, and recently picked up Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz, which supplies CONTEXT to his songs–exactly what I wanted. Because it’s less interested in the details of his life, the book begins with a chapter on Aaron Copland.
Copland had some things in common with Dylan, in being interested in leftist politics during the 1930s. This interest led him to consciously simplify his music, writing music based at least in part on folk songs, which ordinary people could appreciate. He was trying not to write down to anyone, but to say what he wanted to say in a simpler way than his modernist side. This period is when he wrote his most popular works: Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, Lincoln Portrait, Rodeo, and Fanfare for the Common Man. The latter was a contradiction, since fanfares were traditionally for the most important people, so that it poses a question: why not celebrate the ordinary people? They just may be much more important than we usually think. Kurt Weill had done something similar earlier: decided to write musicals instead of straight classical music in an effort to be more directly involved with more people. His music too became popular. Whether that was good or bad depends on your perspective, I suppose.
Of course one of the forces behind this period, in which other people also took part, was the Soviet Union, so that there was reaction against it in the 1950s. There’s been a similar reaction against a lot of things that happened in the 1960s.
The second chapter was about the Beats, as Dylan was very interested in the writers, particularly connecting with Jack Kerouac’s poetry, and becoming close friends with Allen Ginsberg early in his career. That’s one of the strands of influences that turned him into a songwriter of an unheard of sort in the 60s.
Another was that he was open to a lot of influences. When he came to New York (if not before) he started reading just about anything he could lay his hands on. Tacitus, Machiavelli and Clausewitz are mentioned, and there was a great deal besides. I’ve been a reader all my life, but never read as widely as THAT.
His approach was the same with music. He liked the pop music he grew up with, but added country, blues and rock & roll before finding a particular resting point in folk music. Folk music, he said, is the one kind of music that ISN’T simple, that includes all sorts of strange things, and that if you can enter its world, understand it, and perform it well, there’s no place it CAN’T take you.
So he followed the folk music technique of borrowing: melodies from here, lines from there. His Song to Woody, from his first album, took the melody from a Woody Guthrie song; one which Guthrie had borrowed from somewhere else. Desolation Row, off Highway 61 Revisited, used a lot of Kerouac’s imagery.
It’s been said that Dylan seriously thought of quitting being a songwriter before coming up with Like a Rolling Stone. Whether that’s true or not, he later DID lose his way, and Wilentz quotes him as saying that it was like he got amnesia and simply couldn’t remember how he’d written songs before, when they’d come 3 or 4 at a time. From my perspective, his lost period continued a long time, complicated by many people’s suspicions that when he DID come up with a good song he often wouldn’t release it very quickly, maybe sometimes not at all. He’d always played with his image; maybe sometimes he did it to protect himself from the painfulness of his fame in the 1960s.
But, according to Wilentz, he began finding his way again in the late 80’s, and has continued since then. His greatest work is still what he did in the 60s, but he’s refined his methods and managed to come up with good things since.
His knowledge of both music and general history seems to be encyclopedic. He’s drawn influence from all over. 19th century blackface music for one, in which whites pretended to be black, and one thing Dylan may have been referring to when he titled one album Love and Theft. He talks about liking Rickie Nelson, but feeling that his music was a mistake with no future. The older music, though, the Stagolees, Frankie and Alberts and Delias did.
Frankie and Albert (better known as Frankie and Johnny) was about one lover killing another because of jealousy. Delia, much less known is similar, but different in that in this one the boy kills the girl, instead of the woman killing the man. Delia and Cutty (or Cooney) are just teenagers, apparently living in the underworld, where, it is suggested, Delia might be a prostitute. Cutty calls her his “little wife”, but she denies it and curses him. He shoots her. Bad enough at any age, but particularly heartbreaking at that age.
Another song, from one of Dylan’s most recent albums is Nettie Moore. The original song was written in 1857, and the singer is a South Carolina slave whose wife has been sold to a Lousiana slave trader. Another version of it was done in the 1930s by the Sons of the Pioneers, who then included Roy Rogers. No doubt, says Wilentz, that Dylan was thinking about both of these when he made his version, but it’s different from both. It borrows from Robert Johnson, Papa Charlie Jackson, WC Handy, and Hank Williams, as well as Frankie and Albert. The story is implicit, not explicit, images collecting from which may be inferred what it’s about. Apparently it started as a sort of game, in which a line from an old song (or a reference to one) suggested the next line to the writer. And according to Wilentz, Dylan has said the song does have an explicit meaning that he took care to preserve.
The singer praises Nettie, though he’s sinful himself, and loves her hard, but there’s a suggestion she’s been unfaithful. A judge enters the song, then disappears, and though it’s spring, and the world is beautiful, the singer sees the world darken before his eyes. Wilentz has two possible scenarios: one might be of an older man, perhaps a member of a cowboy band, who abandoned his love, and lives in darkness. The second is that the singer murdered Nettie, whom he deeply loved, with a knife. It’s a song, says Wilentz, about the absolute loss of hope because of the narrator’s mistake, whatever it was. The way he describes it, the second alternative is the more heartbreaking, and the whole thing gave me the chills, though I haven’t even heard the song.
The method described by Wilentz is, again, the way Dylan has always worked, though some have thought it to be plagiarizing. But plagiarizing is passing someone else’s work off as your own. Borrowing is what all artists do. No one can be totally original. Someone or something always inspires, whether it’s a feeling invoked, as specific line or phrase, a musical riff or melody. It’s what you do with it that counts. Of course you can take a song, for instance, and refuse to properly credit it, thus denying the author of the royalties he or she deserves, but much better if you take from and transform it.
And Dylan has a reason to do it. He sees the modern world as being a virtual one, with all its memory gone, and he wants to restore that memory. If you play pro baseball and don’t know who Jackie Robinson was (and Dylan, it seems, is a baseball fan), you’re poorer for not knowing. Suppose it’s the Civil War you don’t know about? Then you don’t know much about contemporary American politics. Dylan sees folk song, among other things, as indicating an alternative universe that might just be the real one, overlaid by the universe of people trying to sell you something. The virtual world isn’t the real one, however attractive it may be, and you’ll never find out the real truth about the complexities of human nature from it. Wilentz quotes William Faulkner: “The past’s not dead. It’s not even past.”
In one interview Dylan said when he was young he was in a hurry to get somewhere, into a position. He got there quickly and impressively, then appeared to lose it. Some of his later work suggests that he didn’t entirely like that position once he got there, but he’s found ways to work with it. I don’t know how many people find Dylan relevant anymore, and I’m not sure I do, but Wilentz’s book contains a great deal worth reflecting over.