Monday, December 29, 2008

Bob Dylan Chronicles: 1958 to May 1961

(For an explanation of this project, see here.)

“Little Richard,” “Buzz Buzz,” “Jenny, Jenny,” and conversation. Recorded 1958, house of Robert Zimmerman, Hibbing, Minnesota. These liner notes aren’t going to try to tell the story of Bob Dylan’s life. So we’re not going to talk about his birth in Duluth, his upbringing in Hibbing, his parents, his high school, etc. We’re just going to talk about the music, and things directly relevant to it. Here, that means observing that the earliest Dylan recordings currently circulating come from sometime in 1958, when Dylan was seventeen. They feature Dylan and his pal John Bucklen goofing around with some instruments and a tape recorder. Fragments of four songs circulate (we include three), along with some priceless snippets of conversation. These came into circulation in 1993, when they were broadcast on a BBC documentary, along with some new interview footage with Bucklen (some of which also slips in here – we’re not going to include interviews in this series, as a rule, but this was kind of hard to edit out).

“Little Richard” sounds like an original, although it’s not much but a riff. “Jenny, Jenny” (Johnson/Penniman/ Crewe) is a Little Richard song, while “Buzz Buzz” (Byrd/Dolphin) is an obscure number by the Hollywood Flames; now it’s maybe better known through Los Lobos’ cover, although their version, too, is pretty obscure.

The interesting thing about this recording (besides the fact that – hey, cool – it lets us hear a seventeen-year-old Bob Dylan) is that it bears out what Dylan has discussed in interviews: he didn’t start out as a folkie, but as a rocker. Here we hear him declaring his undying love for Little Richard – and already laying out his philosophy of singing (although he’d come to reconsider his opinion of Johnny Cash). As maiden recordings go, it’s pretty revealing.

“The Frog Song,” “I Got A New Girl,” “When I Got Troubles.” Recorded 1959, location unknown (presumably Hibbing). More goofing around. “The Frog Song” is probably an original, but to call it a song is to overstate things…he’s just playing at sounding like Clarence “Frogman” Henry. “I Got A New Girl” hasn’t been identified, and it’s just a fragment, too. The real find is the original “When I Got Troubles.” These were recorded by Dylan’s high school friend Ric Kangas, and “Troubles” was released in 2005 on the No Direction Home soundtrack, making it the earliest Dylan performance to see official release. It shows: that at eighteen, Dylan was turning toward folk. Also, what this blur of early recordings demonstrates is Dylan’s willingness, from the very beginning, to assume different voices – we’ve already heard his Penniman bawl, his Nashville Skyline croon, a sort of generic folkster voice, and that weird Frogman thing.

“Gotta Travel On.” Recorded May, 1960, house of Karen Wallace, St. Paul, Minnesota. The song was written by Paul Clayton, Larry Ehrlich, David Lazar, and Tom Six, important figures in the Minneapolis folk scene, and that’s where this takes us. In 1960 Dylan betook himself to the Twin Cities, to college, where he skipped classes and concentrated on trying to make it as a folk singer in the nascent coffee house scene. …As you can already tell, talking about early Dylan kind of turns you into a textual critic, and this tape most of all. In May of 1960, Dylan was recorded at the house of a friend. The tape is probably the most important document of his pre-New York days, and certainly the most extensive document, comprising in its complete form at least twenty songs. Unfortunately, it doesn’t circulate in its complete form. What we have is three different partial versions, dating from a period in the ‘70s when the tape’s maker and owner, Karen Wallace, was attempting to interest Dylan collectors in purchasing the tape. A few songs circulate complete or nearly so in excellent sounding copies (though with Wallace speaking over them), more circulate in decent-sounding fragments that she used to try and interest potential buyers, and most circulate in lousy-sounding fragments taped by a machine literally hidden in the taper’s armpit. No collector is known to have bought the tape, and nobody seems to know what happened to it, or to Wallace for that matter. No selection has ever been released by Columbia, suggesting they didn’t snap it up (more’s the pity if they didn’t). It’s a shame, because it’s a fascinating thing, made all the more tantalizing by the fact that we can only experience it in this partial and often all but unintelligible manner. Why’s it fascinating? Voice and repertoire. The voice Dylan’s singing in here is what people who knew him in Minnesota considered his natural voice – the sweet crooning style he’d surprise the world with on Nashville Skyline. In other words, what we have here is proof that when Dylan sings in an atonal rasp, he does it because that’s how he wants to sound. (True Dylan fans, of course, never doubt that he can sing anything, as good as anybody, when he wants to.) The repertoire shows what Dylan was singing at the earliest part of his career for which we have any extensive evidence, and definitely before his much-talked-about Woody Guthrie obsession really kicked in. The tape contains some Guthrie songs, as any folksinger’s repertoire in 1960 would, but it also contains a lot of other things, in fact a lot of things that we don’t have any indication of him singing after this. Not for years, at any rate: one of the treats of this tape is that it includes several songs, such as this one, that he would return to many, many years later. “Gotta Travel On” appeared on Self Portrait in 1970, and then was an important feature in the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue shows.

The next eight songs – “The Two Sisters,” “Rovin’ Gambler,” “Saro Jane,” “Mary Ann,” “Sinner Man,” “Abner Young,” “Muleskinner Blues,” and “One-Eyed Jacks” - all come from the different versions of the Karen Wallace tape. All are “traditional” (which can mean either written by somebody we don’t know of, or actually shaped by generations of singers, or both) except “Muleskinner Blues,” a Jimmie Rodgers tune that pretty much every folksinger of the time sang, plus all the country singers and, over in England, all the skifflers too. Also except for “One-Eyed Jacks,” which is a Dylan original – long thought to be the first, although the Bucklen tape and “When I Got Troubles” proved that suspicion wrong - and it hurts that we don’t have it in listenable quality. The others are fragmentary, and some only appear on this tape. Others would be revived much later: “Rovin’ Gambler” was released in a live version on a 1998 single, while “Saro Jane” and “Mary Ann” were worked up in wonderful folk-soul versions in 1970. It should be noted that a few fragments of other songs come up in some of these tracks – evidence of bad editing, probably. There’s a bit of “Five Hundred Miles” under Karen Wallace introducing “Muleskinner Blues” – it sounds like Dylan sings the two songs as a medley, although that may not be the case.

“Rambler, Gambler” (another traditional number) finds us again in the realms of the listenable. It was recorded in August of 1960 by a friend of Dylan’s at an unknown location, presumably in the Twin Cities, and released on the No Direction Home soundtrack. The tone is a bit less sweet here – a bit more Self Portrait than Nashville Skyline – but more importantly, the phrasing is more confident, more skilful. It sounds less like he’s singing for himself here.

“Red Rosey Bush,” “Johnny I Hardly Knew You,” “K.C. Moan,” and “Talking Lobbyist” were all recorded in the autumn of 1960 at Dylan’s apartment (supposedly), at a party. In terms of sound quality, the tape is only marginally better (or maybe worse, depending on what kind of noise bothers you most) than the Karen Wallace fragments that circulate, but it’s interesting because there’s almost no overlap with the songs on the earlier tape. Was Dylan really burning through songs that quickly in this period? Just how large was his repertoire? Nobody knows. This tape also finds Dylan doing his best to sing in an accent pitched somewhere, or perhaps everywhere, in the British Isles, for “Johnny,” and then turning around to affect a Memphis Jug Band blues in “K.C. Moan.” “Talking Lobbyist” may be an original, and it’s even more relevant today than it was then.

“Gypsy Davey” and “Remember Me” were recorded in February or March, 1961, at the home of Bob and Sid Gleason, East Orange, New Jersey. What “Talkin’ Lobbyist” does hint at is Dylan’s growing Woody Guthrie infatuation. For a time in late 1960 (by all accounts) and in the first half of 1961 (as evidenced by tapes) Dylan was, by his own description, “a Woody Guthrie jukebox” – he was utterly taken with the man’s work, and his persona. Famously, it was to meet the great man in person that Dylan left Minnesota and hitchhiked to New York. The big jump. He joined the Greenwich Village folk scene, and also visited Guthrie at the hospital. All of this is well told in the Scorsese documentary… What we hear here is from the earliest circulating tape from after Dylan’s arrival in New York, made at the home of some friends of Guthrie’s who befriended Dylan – took him in, really, the scruffy homeless midwestern scrounge boy who wanted to be Woody Guthrie. “Gypsy Davey” is a traditional song arranged by Guthrie, and Dylan would record it for his first all-folk album, in 1992. “Remember Me” is an old song written by Scott Wiseman.

“Talking Columbia” was recorded live on May 6, 1961, at the Indian Neck Folk Festival, in the Montowesi Hotel, Branford, Connecticut. More Guthrie. Dylan spent the early months of 1961 scuffling around the Village clubs, a period he describes with great vividity in his memoirs. Unfortunately, we just don’t have tapes from those performances. This is as close as we have, from a road trip he took (one of many), this one to Connecticut for a “folk festival.” By now his sweet Nashville Skyline voice has been fully replaced by his husky, barky Guthrie voice. Of course he doesn’t really sound like Woody Guthrie. Actually, he begins to sound like Bob Dylan now.

“Ramblin’ Round.” May, 1961, the home of Bonnie Beecher, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Actually the most significant document of Dylan from the first half of 1961 was not made in New York or anyplace near, but in Minnesota. In May he took a brief trip back there, presumably to report back to his friends about how much he was learning and doing in the metropolis. While there, he played about ninety minutes’ worth of songs into a tape recorder at the house of a friend. These have long circulated, and in pretty good quality, and the tape furnishes a really good, complete picture of Dylan at this stage of his development. He’s deep in Guthrie’s thrall at this point – something like half the songs have some sort of association with the bard, and his vocal mannerisms show the infatuation as well. But he’s singing with a certain amount of confidence, and occasional mastery. He’d get a lot better very quickly, but you can hear him growing already. “Ramblin’ Round” is one of Guthrie’s signature Dust Bowl tunes. …Like the Karen Wallace tape, the Bonnie Beecher tape has been left untouched by Columbia’s various releases over the years, suggesting they don’t own it. Part of why I make these Chronicles is out of a suspicion that even if Columbia ever did undertake something this comprehensive (they never have before), it would have holes. Sometimes a fan project can be more complete than a record company release. On the other hand, a Columbia Chronicles would also, doubtless, include things I don’t have access to – nobody knew of the existence of some of these tapes before No Direction Home was released. In any case, the point is moot: Columbia (or Dylan himself) has never shown the slightest interest in putting together a true, complete, scholarly picture of Bob’s career, preferring to let the bootlegs come out a bit at a time. If you want the full picture you’ve got to paint it yourself. So we will.

“James Alley Blues” and the rest of the songs on this disc also come from the Bonnie Beecher tape. This was written by Richard Brown, and shows the other great influence on Dylan at this time, Harry Smith’s monumental Anthology Of American Folk Music (which Dylan would be instrumental in the Smithsonian’s re-releasing in the late 1990s, or so it was rumored). Not a bad pair of influences – the wildest and most mysterious of the old folk, and the most direct and relevant of the new. This performance is a gem, breaking out of the Guthrie mannerisms and hinting at the country-blues inflections that would come to the fore later in the year.

“Pretty Polly,” “Railroad Boy” are traditional murder ballads from the Anthology.

“San Francisco Bay Blues” was written by Bay Area one-man band Jesse Fuller, and was in everybody’s setlist in the early 1960s.

“Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” By gospel-blues singer the Reverend Gary Davis. His songs, too, were great favorites of the urban folk crowd.

“This Train.” Written by Big Bill Broonzy, but closely associated with Woody Guthrie.

“Pastures Of Plenty.” One of Guthrie’s best-known songs. Tom Paxton did the definitive folk-revival version of it, but Dylan’s rendition here comes close. It’s easily the best performance on the 5/61 tape, and probably the best performance we have a recording of to this point in time. He gives the tune a moody gravity that works just fine.

So here we have it: the arrival, it's safe to say, of Bob Dylan. The disc starts with what is undeniably juvenilia, but by the end, he's a real live folk-singer. You may not have been able to predict, based on these performances, that he'd go on to be God, but you might just have tossed a dime in his hat at your coffee shop or invited him back to your folk festival.

1 comment:

kikjess said...


I'm trying to establish exactly where both 'Minnesota' ('Minneapolis') tapes were recorded, and who was present in both cases. Seems fairly clear the first one was at B.Beecher's appartment, but looks like there's some confusion about the second one, is it at Beecher's or at Dave Whittaker's place?

Somehow I can't find any private messaging function on Blogger.. is there an email address I can drop you a line at?