Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Bob Dylan, Remember Me (When the Candlelights Are Gleaming).
Bob Dylan, Death Don't Have No Mercy.
Bob Dylan, Talking Columbia.
Bob Dylan with Ramblin' Jack Elliot, The Great Divide.
Bob Dylan (with Oscar Brand interview), Sally Gal.
Bob Dylan, In the Pines.
Bob Dylan, Long Time A Growin'.
Bob Dylan, House Carpenter.
Bob Dylan, This Land Is Your Land.
Bob Dylan, Dink's Song.
Bob Dylan, Wade in the Water.
Bob Dylan, Black Cross.
Bob Dylan, I Was Young When I Left Home.

At last here I was in New York City, a city like a web too intricate to understand and I wasn't going to try.

It wasn't money or love I was looking for. I had a heightened sense of awareness, was set in my ways, impractical and a visionary to boot. My mind was strong like a trap and I didn't need any guarantee of validity.

Bob Dylan, Chronicles.

He first came to New York as anonymously as we all do. Somewhere on the Upper West Side, on a freezing Tuesday afternoon in January 1961, a four-door Impala lumbers to a stop and disgorges two men carrying duffel bags and guitar cases. They stand and shiver for a few minutes on the street, talk and point, bum cigarettes and ask directions from passersby and then begin walking the sixty blocks or so down to the West Village. One is a folk singer named Fred Underhill, the other is one Robert Zimmerman, late of Madison, Wisconsin. That night, the pair play the open mike at the Cafe Wha?, and when their set is over, the Wha's owner Manny Roth asks the handful of patrons if anyone has room to put them up.

You could say Fred Underhill is the control, Robert Zimmerman the experiment, in an exercise whose results have yet to be fully comprehended.

Over the next nine months, Bob Dylan would meet and play for his idol, Woody Guthrie; he would be written up in the New York Times and would play Carnegie Chapter Hall; and, having been signed by the man who discovered Billie Holiday, would cut his first album for Columbia Records before Thanksgiving.

Bob Dylan's hothouse apprenticeship is bewildering to examine--its speed, its ruthlessness, its audacity. It's saddening as well, to realize that the environment that produced a genius like Dylan--the pass-the-hat coffeehouses, the cold-water flats, the pamphleteers, the mentors and promoters and sympathetic Reds--has all but vanished, so that in 2008, a kid who arrived in NYC from Madison, Wisconsin, broke but bursting with talent, would simply have nowhere to go.

After arriving in NYC, Dylan's first order of business was to establish a line of succession--to meet Woody Guthrie, who was dying in Greystone Hospital. On Sundays, Guthrie was allowed to go to the home of his friends, an electrician named Bob Gleason and his wife Sid. Their house in East Orange, NJ, became one of Dylan's first places to crash, as well as serving as a graduate course--he burned through the Gleasons' folk and blues LP collection, absorbing everything that he heard. On Sundays, he auditioned for history, playing for the likes of Guthrie, Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger and Ramblin' Jack Elliot.

Dylan's take on "Remember Me" was recorded by the Gleasons at some point during Dylan's stay with them in February 1961. While it sounds as though it could be an 18th Century English ballad, "Remember Me" was a near-contemporary country song, written in the early '40s by Scott Wiseman. Dylan sings it in a nasal twang and manages to sound even younger than he is.

By the time he returned to Minnesota in May, Dylan had become a Guthrie apostle, singing like an Okie. A version of Rev. Gary Davis' "Death Don't Have No Mercy," recorded at his friend Bonnie Beecher's apartment in Minneapolis, shows Dylan in flux--he seems as delighted as a neophyte to have mastered the chord changes, but then, when he begins singing of death and despair, he becomes spectral. It's as though, in order to bridge the chasm between his own limited experience and the hard, dark knowledge of songs like "Death Don't Have No Mercy," Dylan submits completely to the song, channeling ghosts, performing a mummery.

Woody Guthrie's "Talking Columbia" is from one of Dylan's first recorded live performances, at the Yale-sponsored Indian Neck Folk Festival, held at the Montowesi Hotel in Branford, CT, on 6 May 1961. (It was here Dylan first met Bob Neuwirth, and likely heard Gary Davis perform.) It's a poor recording, and Dylan's singing is barely audible, but it serves to show how much of a professional veneer Dylan had by this point. It's also a snapshot from the height of Dylan's Guthrie mania--each performance is preceded by "this is a Woody Guthrie song" in the manner of a kid saying a quick grace before a meal.

By the fall of '61, Dylan had been to up to Cambridge, Mass., where he had met Eric Von Schmidt ("in the green pastures of Harvard University") and Richard FariƱa, had backed Harry Belafonte in the studio and had established himself as the preeminent up-and-comer in the Village folk scene. He also cannily wooed Robert Shelton, the New York Times' folk music critic, who provided Dylan with LPs, rehearsal space and eventually a Times review.

The duet with Jack Elliot on Guthrie's "Great Divide" is from Dylan's residency at Gerde's Folk City in late September.

The interview with WNYC's Oscar Brand occurred on 29 October 1961, a few days before Dylan's first headline performance at Carnegie Chapter Hall. Dylan's interview, in which he offers a series of shameless fictions about his life, is even more appealing than the version of "Sally Gal" that he eventually offers (and which, in another little audacity, he claims to have written in a carny--it was actually adapted from Guthrie's "Sally Don't You Grieve").

From the Carnegie show itself are the traditional ballads "In the Pines" and "Long Time A-Growin'" (or "Young But Daily Growing")--Dylan would revisit the latter with the Band several years (and several lifetimes) later. The show was a bit of a flop (only 50 or so people attended, mostly friends), but the surviving recording shows Dylan's growing skill as a performer, using charm and digressions to keep his audience hooked.

"In the Pines" or "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" is an Appalachian ballad that dates back to the 1870s, though it was popularized in the mid-20th Century by Leadbelly, whose recording likely influenced Dylan. (The kids likely know this version.)

I just played the guitar and harmonica and sang those songs and that was it. Mr. Hammond asked me if I wanted to sing any of them over again and I said no. I can't see myself singing the same song twice in a row.* That's terrible.

Bob Dylan, 1962, on the recording of his first album.

* Dylan actually did multiple versions of "You're No Good," "House of the Rising Sun," "Talkin' New York," "Man of Constant Sorrow," "Pretty Peggy-O" and "See That My Grave is Kept Clean" during these sessions.

Dylan cut his first LP (which allegedly cost $400 to make) on the evening of 20 November and the afternoon of 22 November 1961. The only original songs taped were "Talkin' New York" and "Song to Woody" and much of the rest of the material were songs that hadn't been in Dylan's regular stage repertoire. So begins a long, endless tale of Dylan being uncomfortable within the confines of the studio and frustrating fans with his selections and deletions.

Case in point: one of the best performances from the sessions, "House Carpenter," was left on the shelf for three decades. "House Carpenter," or "The Demon Lover," is an ancient song, Child Ballad #243--known in the 17th Century as "A Warning for Married Women, being an example of Mrs Jane Reynolds (a West-country woman), born near Plymouth, who, having plighted her troth to a Seaman, was afterwards married to a Carpenter, and at last carried away by a Spirit."

Dylan's version of "This Land Is Your Land" (sadly truncated and marred by some loud thumping) was taped at the home of folk aficionados Eve and Mac McKenzie, in NYC on 4 December 1961.

Finally, Dylan went back to Minneapolis for Christmas; it was a victory procession of sorts, commemorated one night when Dylan, knocking off an entire bottle of Jim Beam, recorded some two dozen performances on a reel-to-reel tape. The session was a valedictory to Guthrie, who Dylan was leaving behind (he ran through all of Guthrie's "V.D." songs), a tribute to Dylan's current influence, Dave Van Ronk, and an indication of future directions, both in the new compositions Dylan was writing and in the utter confidence and power of his playing.

"Wade in the Water" is salvation via apocalypse. while Dylan's take on Lord Buckley's "Black Cross" is a parable without an answer. And Dylan simply inhabits "Dink's Song," a tune he had learned from a John Lomax collection. From Lomax's 1947 book, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter:

I found Dink washing her man's clothes outside their tent on the bank of the Brazos River in Texas. Many other similar tents stood around. The black men and women they sheltered belonged to a levee-building outfit from the Mississippi River Delta, the women having been shipped from Memphis along with the mules and the iron scrapers, while the men, all skillful levee-builders, came from Vicksburg...

Dink, reputedly the best singer in the camp, would give me no songs. 'Today ain't my singin' day,' she would reply to my urging. Finally, a bottle of gin, bought at a nearby plantation commissary, loosed her muse. The bottle of liquor soon disappeared. She sang, as she scrubbed her man's dirty clothes, the pathetic story of a woman deserted by her lover when she needs him most - a very old story. Dink ended the refrain with a subdued cry of despair and longing - the sobbing of a woman deserted by her man.

And finally, "I Was Young When I Left Home," Dylan's reworking of Guthrie's "900 Miles," is one of Dylan's finest early compositions, an early epitaph for a life constantly renewing itself.

Just after the new year began, Dylan went back to New York. Four months later, he wrote "Blowin' in the Wind."

The future was nothing to worry about. It was awfully close.

Dylan, Chronicles.

Most of these recordings remain unreleased, though they are starting to come out in drips and drams. "House Carpenter" is on the first Bootleg Series set; "Wade in the Water" is on Live 1961-2000; and both "I Was Young When I Left Home" and "Dink's Song" are on the No Direction Home soundtrack.

Sources: Olof Bjorner, Hard Times in the City; Clinton Heylin, Behind the Shades; The Recording Sessions; Paul Williams, Performing Artist 1960-1973; Michael Gray, Song and Dance Man III; B. Dylan, Chronicles.

For Chris George ("this is for Leonard, if he's still here")

RIP: Robert Rauschenberg.

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