Archive for the ‘Bob Dylan’ Category

I am not a Dylanologist nor do I play one on this blog, though I do consider myself a Bob Dylan fan. In 1979, at the age of 14, I purchased my first Bob Dylan album, Slow Train Coming, and despite disliking the LP’s religiosity, continued on the journey, hopping aboard the box cars known as his Greatest Hits and Greatest Hits Vol. II albums and riding the rails to Freewheelin’, The Times They Are A-Changing, Another Side, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, though not in that order. The red and blue Rolling Stone Record Guides, as always in those years, were crucial engineers in my journey.

In the mid-’80s, when I was one of several rotating deejays on the folk show that aired on Penn State’s student-run radio station every Saturday and Sunday morning, his early works were staples of my shifts. I also came to know a few of his ‘70s-era albums simply by playing their tracks on the air, as odd as that may sound. (A skip in the live Hard Rain album haunts me still.)

Anyway, as the times of hand have rotated around my life’s clock, a smattering of his latter-day works also entered my collection, including the 3-CD Biograph overview, Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind and the Greatest Hits Vol. III set, as “Dignity” was and is a latter-day favorite of mine, plus his recent Rough and Rowdy Ways LP, which to my ears is one of the year’s best. (It’s too soon for me to contemplate my much-ballyhooed Album of the Year honors, but I’m sure it will be in the running.) More often than not, however, when I’m in a Dylan mood, I turn to those ‘60s sides – Freewheelin’ and Bringing It All Back Home, especially – or The Bootleg Series Vol. 6 (Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall) and Vol. 9 (The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964).

I’m also a fan of cover versions – not just of Dylan songs, but of the genre itself (if it can be considered a genre). At their best, covers shed insight into both the singer and the song. The Sid & Susie Under the Covers albums still receive play in my day-to-day life, as does Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John. (What can I say? I’m weird that way.) And First Aid Kit’s renditions of a few Dylan tunes on Election Night 2016 said much about them, while simultaneously demonstrating the utter timelessness of the songs themselves. 

Until recently, however, I wasn’t familiar with the Nashville-based, Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift. She came to my attention by way of Twitter, believe it or not, as folks I follow also follow her (or vice versa); as a result, her tweets occasionally popped up in my feed. One day, and I don’t remember exactly when, her cover of Dylan’s recent “I Contain Multitudes” appeared.

Her vocals are smoother than Dylan’s gruff intonations, obviously, and the gravitas that drips from his every syllable is missing from hers – but it’s replaced by an intangible that’s difficult to articulate, yet equally hypnotic. It’s akin to eyeing a landscape from a glider rather than a plane, I suppose. The former, if I’ve done my research right, skirts the clouds; the latter, on the other hand, flies above them. Either/or, it’s quite cool. I ordered the LP the same day from her BandCamp page, expecting the delivery to be near the release date listed there – August 14th. Then, earlier this month, she released a rendition of “Queen Jane Approximately” that features a Byrdsian texture. Again, quite cool.

The LP arrived on Monday with a note thanking me for purchasing the album, but – let’s be real – the nice note would mean little if the album itself didn’t live up to those first two teaser tracks. No worries, however. It does. Emma’s vocals capture the emotional raison d’être of the songs, with her inflections adding depth and all the other things that turn a cover song into a reflection of the performer’s own soul.

To my ears, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is the standout of the eight songs. Emma captures the nuances of the lyrics, seemingly living them while singing them. The other tracks, as evidenced by the above two videos, also skirt the clouds, shedding a welcome perspective. Another immediate favorite is “The Man in Me” from New Morning, a Dylan album I’m not super familiar with. (That’s another notch in the album’s favor, actually: These aren’t the usual Dylan songs that get covered.)

My main criticism of many albums in the CD era and, now, digital age is length. Too often, artists release hour-plus affairs that would be stronger if they’d trimmed it to 40-or-so minutes and allocated the other tunes to b-sides (or whatever the digital version of those are). The reverse is true here, however, as the listener is left wanting more. I highly recommend Blonde on the Tracks, and look forward to exploring the rest of Emma Swift’s oeuvre.

For those curious, here’s the song list with their album home in italics:

Queen Jane Approximately – Highway 61 Revisited
I Contain Multitudes – Rough and Rowdy Ways
One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later) – Blonde on Blonde
Simple Twist of Fate – Blood on the Tracks
Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands – Blonde on Blonde
The Man in Me – New Morning
Going Going Gone – Planet Waves
You’re a Big Girl Now – Blood on the Tracks

    

There are a myriad of tributaries through time that twist together as if one, but each offers a distinct experience that depends upon many factors, such as one’s age, race and gender. The summer of 1967 is a good example. Anyone steeped in pop-culture history, and even some who aren’t, likely know it as the Summer of Love, when Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released and the Monterey Pop Festival took place (though, technically, Pepper and the festival both fell in the spring). People in another tributary, however, remember or know those same months as the “long, hot summer” when riots erupted in such urban centers as Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Newark, N.J.

Just days after the Detroit riot, which followed the one in Newark, N.J., President Johnson spoke to the nation about the unrest. He emphasized the need to stop the lawlessness, but also addressed the underlying issues that fed it: 

“The violence must be stopped, quickly, finally, and permanently. It would compound the tragedy, however, if we should settle for order that is imposed by the muzzle of a gun. In America, we seek more than the uneasy calm of martial law. We seek peace that is based on one man’s respect for another man – and upon mutual respect for law. We seek a public order that is built on steady progress in meeting the needs of all of our people. Not even the sternest police action, nor the most effective federal troops, can ever create lasting peace in our cities. The only genuine, long-range solution for what has happened lies in an attack – mounted at every level – upon the conditions that breed despair and violence. All of us know what those conditions are: ignorance, discrimination, slums, poverty, disease, not enough jobs. We should attack these conditions – not because we are frightened by conflict, but because we are fired by conscience. We should attack them because there is simply no other way to achieve a decent and orderly society in America.”

LBJ’s flawed presidency was derailed the following year, of course, by events in one of that era’s other tributaries, the Vietnam War. Although promises made by one president are often broken by the next, in the decades since we’ve seemed headed in the right direction – despite stumbles, of which they’ve been too many. (As Martin Luther King Jr. said, paraphrasing the abolitionist minister Thomas Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”) 

As 2019 faded to a close, I often referred to 2020 as “the year of visual acuity.” I assumed that we, as a people, would visit a figurative ophthalmologist and leave with new specs that granted us better vision – not just of the present, but of the past. As the philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

American is burning. Again. Let us respond to it, now, and prevent it from happening again. And again. And again.

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Last week, I watched Bob Dylan: Roads Rapidly Changing, a documentary that recounts Dylan’s rise in and eventual departure from the Greenwich Village folk scene. He arrived in the Big Apple from the Land of 10,000 Lakes in 1961 with no connections, but – due to his talent and drive – quickly made a name for himself. “Blowing in the Wind,” The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are a-Changing,” Another Side of Bob Dylan and Bringing It All Back Home, his 1965 farewell to the folkie world, date to this period in his life.  

The film, which I highly recommend, features a wealth of archival footage and performances alongside insights from an assortment of fellow Village folkies (Eric Andersen, Maria Muldaur and Tom Paxton) and rock journalists (Robert Christgau and Anthony DeCurtis).

Highway 61 Revisited, released a mere five months after Bringing It All Back Home, isn’t covered in the doc, which is understandable – it was his first full-fledged rock album, and the film focuses exclusively on his folkie days. Still, think about that for a second: In an era where it can take an artist years to release the next album, Dylan released two monumental sets within five months of each other. Paradigms shifted with each.

Of Bringing It All Back Home: The first side features Dylan backed by an electric band – a radical notion within the purist folk scene at the time. In the most simplistic description, the new sound marries the folk form to the rock beat.

The second half features an acoustic Dylan at his most electric.

There’s little more to say but this: The album, which expanded the concept of what popular music could and should be, is consistently rated as one of the greatest of all time. (This Rolling Stone article delves into its impact.) It sounds as fresh today as it must have sounded in 1965.

One last thought: Since the dawn of written history, there have always been purges of the past in order to placate the present. (You might say that we, as a people, have a long history of criticizing what we can’t understand.) Humans are flawed creatures, in other words, with our biggest flaw being that we tend to run with the pack. But in the mid-‘60s, Bob Dylan didn’t turn his back on what came before. Instead, he synthesized it into something new.

The track list:

There is much to be said about Tuesday’s presidential election, but the biggest takeaway is this: For the second time in 12 years, and only the fifth time since America’s founding, the candidate who received less votes won.

The outcome is a result of the arcane Electoral College and per-state approach of the founders, who had little faith in the will of the people. As Alexander Hamilton explained in The Federalist Papers, the final decision on who should be president was the domain of “men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station.” He and his brethren wanted to insure that “the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

(That same lack of faith is why senators also weren’t directly elected. Until 1913, state legislators selected them.)

In practice, however, the Electoral College is a rubber-stamp vessel whose voters almost always cast their lot with the will of their states. And that’s why crooked carnival barker Donald Trump will be the next president of these United States.

It is what it is, unfortunately.

While there is much more that I could say, I’ll leave it with this: the first order of business Trump and the congressional Republicans should do is to dismantle the Statue of Liberty and ship it back to France. Their America is not about liberty, freedom or welcoming “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” As I wrote last week, to them, it’s not a land made for you and me; it’s a land of us versus them.

Anyway, for today’s Top 5: Freewheelin’ First Aid Kit.

fakdylan

(I borrowed the photo from FAK’s official Facebook page.)

1) First Aid Kit – “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”

2) First Aid Kit – “With God on Our Side”

3) First Aid Kit – “It Ain’t Me Babe”

4) First Aid Kit – “One More Cup of Coffee.”

5) First Aid Kit – “Subterranean Homesick Blues”

And one non-Dylan bonus:

First Aid Kit – “America”