Friday, March 20, 2009

Bob Dylan Chronicles: December 1961 to March 1962

(Click here for an explanation of this project, and the two previous installments.)

“I Was Young When I Left Home.” December 22, 1961, home of Dave Whittaker, Minneapolis, Minnesota. First released in 2001 on a bonus disc included with initial pressings of “Love And Theft”. The first fifteen songs on this disc all come from the same tape, the so-called “Minnesota Hotel Tape.” This was recorded in Minneapolis when Dylan went back home for the holidays. This was a triumphant return to a degree his last trip back, in May, couldn’t have been: he’d not only been signed, but had actually recorded his first album, even if it hadn’t been released yet. While he was in the Twin Cities, fellow folkie Tony Glover recorded just over an hour and a half of him singing and talking. The results have circulated for decades, and constitute another key document of the early Dylan. Coming exactly a month after his first album sessions, they either show how far he’d come in a scant four weeks, or show just how much he’d been holding back in Columbia’s studios. The Minnesota tape is, in other words, better than the record he’d just finished making, and if the best half of it had been released instead of what was, it would have made an even more impressive debut. This quasi-traditional number (extensively reworked by Dylan) was one of the key tracks, and deserves a place at the beginning of any brief overview of Dylan’s career. "Never did no wanderin'," the Folksmen would later admit, and neither, really, had Dylan, but he can make you believe he had.

“Hard Times In New York Town.” Released in 1991 on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3. What the tape lacks is new originals, except for this one, a much more listenable take on his early NY experiences than “Talking New York” had been. It takes its melody from a Harry Smith Anthology tune, “Penney’s Farm.” "When I leave New York I'll be standin' on my feet." That's just what he'd done, of course; you can hear a little flash of defiant pride as he sings it.

“Dink’s Song.” Released in 2005 on the No Direction Home soundtrack. A traditional number collected and arranged (the credits read) by John and Alan Lomax, although they evidently did little more than push “record” while “a woman named Dink” sang it. Dylan’s performance is golden, real expert tension-and-release stuff, and that gonzo way he had of reaching deep down for a note. "Fare thee welllll."

“Candy Man.” A Rev. Gary Davis tune that all the folkies did – Hot Tuna even did it. It's back room stuff, suggestive and goofy, and Dylan has a lot of fun with it, playing with those B's in "run and get the bucket get the baby some beer." Whaaa?

“Wade In The Water.” Released in 2001 on Live 1961-2000: Thirty-nine years of great concert performances (Japan-only). A trad gospel number, done up with a desperate conviction, and a bottleneck. You’ll notice that this is the fourth different place where fragments of this tape have been released. Obviously Columbia owns it, and someday they’ll release it complete, no doubt, but in the meantime they’ve been stringing us along with it. Annoying, that.

“Stealin’.” An old Memphis Jug Band number. In 1987 when Dylan got together with the Dead, he and Jerry realized they’d both played this in their folkie days. They pulled off a charming, if ramshackle, rendition then. Here Dylan goofs around with it just a little too much – he had that tendency in the early days. Sometimes his, erm, youthful enthusiasm could overpower his musical sense. He was only twenty, for God's sake.

“Poor Lazarus.” A trad number. He’d return to this in the Basement with the band in 1967, in fragmentary fashion. He's digging deep again here, trying hard to evoke the weariness of a seventy-year-old man, preferably black, preferably from Mississippi. Your reaction to some of these early Dylan performances may depend on how tolerant you are of obvious effort in recordings. Yes, he's trying to be something he's not. As a rule, that can lead to disaster, or so we're told in this culture where "be yourself" is gospel. But sometimes it can lead to great art. I heard in this what I hear in some early Rolling Stones songs, or early Elvis: an overpowering desire to be something more than one is. Imitation and flattery and all that, sure, but implicit in this desire is the potential for transformation. Dylan would never become a seventy-year-old black man from Mississippi. But the desire to sing like one would mark him, and in the end he would become - Bob Dylan.

“Cocaine Blues.” More Gary Davis. He’d return to this one on the Never-Ending Tour in the late 1990s, to great effect.

“Omie Wise.” A traditional number, variously spelled as “Ommie Wise” or “Naomi Wise.” A classic murder ballad.

“VD Blues,” “VD Waltz,” “VD City,” “VD Gunner’s Blues.” A quartet of some of Woody Guthrie’s lesser-known, and perhaps less distinguished, compositions – but they were commissioned for a good purpose, to educate servicemen about the dangers of venereal disease. Dylan, no doubt, got a twenty-year-old’s silly kick out of singing about such a risqué subject. An infamous passage on the Minnesota Hotel Tape.

“Long John.” Traditional. Mostly this is just a harmonica jam. Dylan’s harp work is something we haven’t talked about much, but it was what got him noticed first in the Village. He played harp accompaniment on a few sessions for other people – most notably Harry Belafonte and Victoria Spivey – before getting his own record deal. It's one of the few areas of his career we don't examine in this series. Gotta draw the line somewhere...

“Hezekiah Jones.” A folk recitation written by hipster comedian Lord Buckley. Another of the finest moments on this tape, as Dylan delivers it with just the right mix of thoughtfulness and sardonic humor. It borders on the precious, and in other circulating performances it goes there, but not here.

“Smokestack Lightning.” This and the next three songs, and the conversation that surrounds them, were recorded on January 13, 1962, in the apartment of Cynthia Gooding, New York, New York, and broadcast on Gooding’s WBAI Radio program “Folksinger’s Choice” on March 11 of that year. This is, of course, the Howlin’ Wolf number, a rare early excursion into the repertoire of the electrified Chicago variety of blues. This tape gives us another opportunity to hear Dylan at his folksinging finest, just before he started concentrating on his own compositions; it also gives us another chance to hear him tell some of his choice early whoppers.

“Hard Travelin’.” One of Woody’s signature songs. This may be my favorite of Dylan’s Guthrie covers, at least before “Pretty Boy Floyd” in 1987. It’s just a perfectly well-rounded performance.

“Roll On John.” Another traditional number, and the only song from these sessions to be released (to date). It came out in 2001 on There Is No Eye: Music For Photographs (Recordings Of Musicians Photographed By John Cohen). The title of this comes, of course, from a song Dylan hadn’t yet written in 1962. Not the best performance from the tape, but... Dylan once described some of his songs as "exercises in tonal breath control." That's what we have here. He's holding his breath a long time on some of these phrases.

“Long Time Man Feel Bad.” Trad., arr. Alan Lomax. A very nice tune, this shows up on a number of Dylan tapes from around this time. And we have quite a few tapes beginning right about now. 1962 is a pretty well-documented year. And it’s a good thing, as it would be a very important year for Bob. On this volume of the Chronicles we're kind of finishing off what you could call his First Album Period; I think of it as his Folksinger Period. Pretty soon he'd move on.

“Poor Boy Blues.” Recorded February, 1962, location unknown, New York, New York. The big thing that happened was that in early 1962 Dylan started writing in earnest. This song and the next two come from a small batch of songs he recorded as publisher’s demos for Leeds Music, a deal that John Hammond worked out for him to give him a little cash. He also recorded “Hard Times In New York Town” and “Ballad For A Friend” for Leeds, and a couple of songs he’d record formally at his next studio session (we’ll pick them up then). “Poor Boy Blues” and the next two, he would never come back to. They’re nice songs, though. Certainly not very original, but they’re nicely put together. The guitar backing to this seems to have morphed into “Oxford Town,” a much stronger melody.

“Ballad For A Friend.” A fine, affecting ballad, with something of the wistful, weary air of “He Was A Friend Of Mine.” I wouldn’t mind hearing this one revived sometime, but no doubt Dylan forgot it the minute he finished singing it.

“Standing On The Highway.” This one he also sang for Cynthia Gooding, so it seems to have been part of his set for at least a little while. A nice, gritty blues.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers: At The Ryman (1992)

One of the nice things about having a CD collection as stupidly large as the Tanuki's is that you can go spelunking. You can find things you haven't listened to for years and years. Things you forgot you even had. Sometimes you realize there was a good reason you forgot. Sometimes you wonder what you were thinking every minute you weren't listening to Emmylou Harris And The Nash Ramblers At The Ryman.

Why do I even have this? I don't know. I like country music, but more in the breach than the act; I don't have much of a collection. I appreciate Emmylou's importance, but thought all I had of her was stuff she did with Gram Parsons, or the Band, or Dylan, or for the Coen Brothers. Then I stumbled across this the other night, and put it on, and was spellbound for an hour.

I've come to appreciate voices. Singing. This is not something you always learn growing up asLink a rock fan, especially in the postpunk era, when a scream or a growl was more trustworthy than a croon. And I still naturally gravitate toward vocals with the bark and husk left on (Dylan's my man) over the vocal acrobatics that some musics prize. But I have come to appreciate a beautiful voice and a well-sung song.

Well, Emmylou Harris has a voice. Just listen to how she delivers "Hard Times" (and isn't that a topical song?). She gets as breathy as a prayer, but never weak, never unsure. Listen to that little oomph of aargh - 'scuse me, that added measure of passion she packs into "who toils." The way she phrases the rest of that line, the way she makes "better days are o'er" soar and weep.

Or take what she does with "Mansion On The Hill." You might think Bruce owns it - he wrote it, after all - but dig the way she just opens up and lets it float on "children playing," "tall cornfields," "beautiful full moon." She finds this rich pathos in the song, this full beauty, that Bruce's version hints at, but is too stark petrified of its own discovery to realize.

My favorite moments on the record, though, come in the Bill Monroe covers. This whole album is acoustic: it's Emmylou and a crack bluegrass outfit, a perfect fit for her pure voice. And of course they shine on the Monroe tunes. But the thrill is how completely she owns them. Listen to "Get Up John." All the gentleness of "Hard Times," the contemplation of "Mansion On The Hill," is out the window. This is fast, hard-charging railroad music - but she's right on top, mastering it at every moment. The way she delivers that first verse, punching the melody, but simultaneously caressing it - she's a rounder and a preacher all in one. And then, we get the refrain, and she vows "I'll go with you," and it's just a plain statement of fact (until the last time around, when it's a shout of exultation), and then she hollers "John the Baptiiiiist." You know, the song is written from the point of view of the Lord. She makes you believe it.

The point is, she knows how to sing. But beyond that, she's got that voice. Even at the joyfullest moments of "Get Up John," that voice is heavy with some secret acquaintance with sorrow. It always expresses more than it says. If you accidentally pull this record out after leaving it on the shelf for fifteen years, and it catches you in an untethered moment, you might just find yourself with tears in your eyes.

I think I'm going to be getting me some more Emmylou.