Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bob Dylan's 69th Dream

Song of the North Country: A Midwest Framework to the Songs of Bob DylanTomorrow is Bob Dylan's 69th birthday, and as listeners to the show may have guessed, I'm a bit of a fan -- a well-read fan, I hope, Dylan scholarship being one of the few genres I read without serious head-bobbing. My current project is a study looking at Dylan's lyrics from the pastoral Midwestern tradition, which is much more engaging than it sounds. Although there's some fast-and-loose linguistics in the analysis of Dylan's Minnesotan speech (as in, it's his singing on studio performances), it's otherwise somewhat arresting to realize just how much of a country boy this guy was and is -- at least according to the voice he inhabits on the records.

But this is blues blog, and of all the possible approaches to Dylan appreciation, the blues seems like a deceptively easy one. For the last few years I've been programming the House of Blues Breaks with Elwood Blues. Mondays are often "Blue Monday," where Elwood "digs up the blues roots of a classic rock song." Blues has always been an integral, if subtle, part of Dylan's repertoire, but he's been making this easier the last few years with some brazen rip-offs -- er, re-interpretations. On his most recent non-Christmas album, the music on two songs, Beyond Here Lies Nothin' and My Wife's Home Town, is straight out of a pair of classic Chicago Blues (Otis Rush's All Your Love and Muddy Waters' I Just Want To Make Love To You, respectively). 2006's Modern Times was even more obvious, with Dylan writing new lyrics but barely changing the titles of Memphis Minnie's When The Levee Breaks, Muddy Waters' Rollin' And Tumblin',
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs - Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006and Sleepy John Estes Someday Baby Blues (the last one is often more familiar as Big Maceo Merriweather's Worried Life Blues and Muddy Waters' Trouble No More). For what it's worth, I'm especially fond of Dylan's alternate arrangement released on the most recent installment of The Bootleg Series.

But as I suggested above, Dyan's blues pedigree has generally taken a more subtle form, from one-off covers in concert to rather oblique references and interpolations in his own songs. Books by Michael Gray, Clinton Heylin, and others have delved into this aspect of his writing -- and, often more importantly, his live performance. This website has an overview of the blues source behind Dylan originals (this one goes beyond straight blues), and I've certainly copped a few for recent House of Blues Breaks:
Street LegalLightnin' Hopkins' Automobile Blues as the source of some of the lines and phrasing in Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat, Son House's Pony Blues and Dylan's New Pony (from the generally neglected Street Legal, which also features a nod to Robert Johnson in Dylan's last Top 10 single, Baby, Stop Crying).

But to wrap it up for now, here is Mr. Zimmerman 34 years ago today (a day before he hit the same 35 as I am), performing in Fort Collins, Colorado at the end of my favourite of tour, the second Rolling Thunder Revue. As was becoming usual, it featured some radical rearrangements of tunes new and old: a galloping, slide-guitar-laden Shelter From The Storm, and a honky-tonk take (with Joan Baez) on I Pity The Poor Immigrant. He'd also been playing an up-tempo barrelhouse romp through A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall on tour the previous fall, but left it out of the set until this slowed-down epic turn in May. I especially love the move at 2:05 where he shakes the band off to draw out the refrain. Enjoy...

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