Friday, November 22, 2013

The Times They Are a-Changin: Now Ain't the Time For Your Tears

Bob Dylan's third album, The Times They Are a-Changin, consists of ten songs of rapturous rage and resigned melancholy.  When reviewing the early Dylan LP's it's impossible not to address their historical contexts because they are so closely intertwined with the times in which they were written and recorded. On The Times They Are a-Changin' Dylan eschews compromise and facade in favor of weary determination and sincere, and at times, ominous moralizing guaranteed to rattle your walls.

The title track persists as a Declaration of Independence for the 60s generation. By employing lyrics with a simple force like on "Blowin' in the Wind", it promises change is coming. Today, the words border on cliche whenever they're referenced in pop culture with the inevitable images they conjure: make love, not war, hippies, protest, Vietnam.  The nature of history is an ongoing theme on the album as the song itself resembles Yeats' turning gyres of history with the line "don't speak too soon, for the wheel's still in spin" marks the moment in time as filled with possibility.

On "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," Dylan wrote a protest song with crescendos within crescendos.  Based on an actual incident, when one William Zanzinger, a wealthy heir to a wealthy Maryland family, drunkenly threw verbal and physical abuse on the mostly African-American staff at a banquet that resulted in the death of Hattie Carroll, a black maid he struck in the head with a toy cane.  Murder charges against Zanzinger were reduced to manslaughter and he served a six month sentence.  With each verse, Dylan compared the lives and differing fortunes of Carroll and Zanzinger in an incredibly powerful use of pathos.  No complicated message here: those with power and money behind them rarely, if ever, are held accountable.  I wonder how many lives were changed when they first heard "Hattie Carroll."

"Only A Pawn in Their Game" addressed the assassination of the civil rights leader, Medgar Evers.  Instead of condemning the assassin, Dylan exposed the Jim Crow system as a cynical method of social control designed to reinforce itself through generations. When Dylan performed the song at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival it left the crowd speechless. "When the Ship Comes In" envisions a new birth of freedom as a historical inevitability , but only after tragic struggle and sacrifice (protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention used the song's chorus "the whole world is watching" as a battle cry). 

"With God on Our Side" deconstructed the triumphant narrative of American history prevalent in school textbooks.  Each verse follows a nameless narrator who fought in every American war.  Hidden beneath the causes of all those wars are an ugliness history glosses over.  The sentiments may be a bit dated, because they were written at the height of the Cold War, but they are a reminder of how the victors tend to write the history.  Today I'd like to think most history classes the avoid the narratives of American Exceptionalism.  As a teaching tool "With God On Our Side" is an excellent way to begin a discussion on the meaning of American history.

Hidden among the serious "protest" songs are two melancholy ballads "One Too Many Mornings" and "Boots of Spanish Leather." Both were written about Suze Rotolo who left Dylan to study in Italy.  The line, "An the silent night will shatter from the sounds inside my mind,"  sums up the vibe running through the entire record.

The closing song, "Restless Farewell," ends things on a deeply personal note  Final tracks on Dylan albums sometimes foreshadow what's coming next.  By ending the album with a confessional, Dylan made a jarring shift in tone from the topical jeremiads to a song written in the throes of exhaustion and uncertainty.  Dylan pledges to "remain as I am/And bid farewell and not give a damn." For it would be a decade before Dylan returned to writing topical songs.



Saturday, November 9, 2013

Freewheelin' Bob Dylan

Released in May 1963, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" has lost none of its power.  In fact, the idea of someone downloading it on their Ipod or coming across an old vinyl copy gives me hope.  Recorded over the course of a year, after his debut LP failed to sell, Dylan's songwriting ability jumped by leaps and bounds in the interval period.  He easily had enough material for two albums (many outtakes have appeared on bootlegs over the years).  Rather than a collection of folk covers, 'Freewheelin' contains almost all originals with subjects ranging from the most pointed political commentary to lighthearted rambles.

"Blowin' in the Wind" assured Dylan's words were heading towards immortality.   He drew upon biblical language and Lincolnesque rhetoric to make sense of America's struggle for civil rights as the country reflected on the centennial of the Civil War.  By asking rhetorical questions like "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?" and "How many times can a Man turn his head, pretending he just doesn't see?" he not only invoked the African-American struggle for equal rights, but used language that could connect with anyone,anywhere living under oppression.  By June of 1963, Peter, Paul, and Mary's version of "Blowin in the Wind" had reached #2 on the charts. 

"Masters of War" persists as Dylan's most stinging protest song.  In his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned Americans about the ominous partnership between the government and the defense industry.  Dylan questioned the the underpinnings of the Cold War itself: a militarized society ready for war at any given moment as wealthy capitalists stood to profit on the blood of others. Throughout the years Dylan has performed blistering live versions: Listen from the righteous anger on the "Live at Brandeis" release or to a controversial performance at the 1991 Grammy's as the first Gulf War waged.

Another spellbinding track, "A hard-rain's-a-gonna-fall" envisions a world where all hope has disappeared   Once again he asks rhetorical questions, "Where have you been, my blue eyed son?  Where have you been my lovely young one?" All the the modern fears of nuclear holocaust or environmental disaster are there with images of "the poet dead in the gutter" and "babys with wild wolves all around them."  Dylan still performs "Hard Rain" and the words and imagery remain sharper than ever.

"Girl From North Country" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All  Right" look at the opposing sides of lost love.  His delivery of the line "please see if she's wearing a coat so warm/to keep her from the howlin' wind" emotes the affection towards someone long gone and never coming back.  On "Don't Think Twice" Dylan reverts back to his Guthrie like syntax "I'm walkin' down that long, lonesome road,babe/Where I'm bound I can't tell" and ends the song accusing the lover of wasting his time" but he "don't mind."

The final three tracks conclude with some comic relief: "Honey, Give Me One More Chance, "Corrina, Corrina" and the ramshackle stream of consciousness of "I Shall be Free." 

"Freewheelin" introduced Dylan to the world.  The cover photo him and Suze Rotolo instantly set the tone for 1960s cool.  As for 1963, America rode a wave of optimism that summer with peaceful March on Washington (where Dylan performed with Joan Baez) and the signing of the Test Ban treaty with the Soviets.  Vietnam hovered in the distance as more abstraction than reality.  For many,"Freewheelin" was their first encounter with Dylan - giving all who listened then and later some mental toughness for the tumultuous times ahead.








Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Debut: Bob Dylan

Imagine a coffeehouse. Greenwich Village. The Cafe Wha?  Wintertime.  1961.  Onstage steps a disheveled  kid out of Mark Twain playing a harmonica and strumming a beat up guitar. The rollicking playing style compensates for the ragged vocals.  Onstage he's an arcane figure, accessible and distant at the same time.

A longtime center of the Avant Garde and creativity in North America, Greenwich Village played a pivotal in the formation of the counterculture of which Dylan played a crucial, but ambiguous role. Like the Bohemians who preceded them, the folkies were in revolt against the present.  

Dylan arrived in the winter of 1961 and in less than a year had a recording contract with Columbia Records.  Legendary producer John Hammond signed Dylan on the spot after watching him perform.  His first year in New York's filled with mythology - much of it of his own cunning.  To early biographer Robert Shelton  he boasted of being a hustler on Times Square to survive his poverty.  For a long time many believed Paul Simon based "The Boxer" on Dylan's early days in New York.  However, in Dylan's memoir Chronicles Vol. 1, he's more a kindly bookworm spending his days at the New York public library reading history and poetry.

The first LP, Bob Dylan, recorded over three afternoons, attempts to capture the intensity of the live performances.  Of the thirteen tracks, only two were original compositions, 'Talkin' New York," and "Song to Woody."  The rest were blues and folk covers like "You're No Good" and "In My Time of Dyin."  The Guthrie influence is all over with Dylan's talking introductions and rambling attempts at social commentary.

The album has a homemade vibe: just Dylan, guitar, and harmonica. Enamored with folk and the blues, he went for the emotive narrative power of the former and the up front humanity of the latter.  Listen to "Pretty Peggy-O" with its folk-country-blues which foreshadows Dylan's persona he followed throughout his career all the way up to Blood on the Tracks and beyond.

On "Song to Woody," Dylan pays tribute to his mentor, but also encapsulates the idea of the entire folk movement, by writing about a world, "that looks like it's adyin' an' it's hardly been born." Another stirring performance is "House of the Rising Sun," with its understated sense of doom (although the 1965 version by The Animals remains untouchable).

Widely considered a flop on its initial release, Bob Dylan produced no hits nor made Dylan a household name.  But something compelling happens on every track. 



Friday, September 27, 2013

A Brief Introduction . . .

If you just clicked on this site, I know what you might be thinking:  Do we really need another blog devoted to Bob Dylan?  I have no simple answer except to say I have my own selfish reasons.  As one who dabbles in blogging from one random topic to another, I hope this project will give my writing more focus.  My plan is to write a response for each studio album released by Dylan in chronological order (from Bob Dylan to Tempest), including the live LPs and the Bootleg series.  I'll do my best to avoid going into "review" mode with brief, superficial blurbs on each song  (also, I have no background in music theory so I won't be writing about chord progressions or other technicalities).

But back to answering my original question: Dylan's work continues to inspire discussion, controversy, and celebration.  Almost every subject is fair game.  They include history, literature, folklore, religion, gender, politics - endless possibilities for any writer looking for an epic subject.   Rock critic Lester Bangs once wrote, "Every great work of art has two faces, one toward it's own time and one toward the future, toward eternity."  Each post will keep that sentiment in mind.  To pardon the pun, these entries will have a freewheelin' spirit.  We'll have fun.