Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Dylan Album Project: The Times They Are A-Changin'

The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964)

After Freewheelin’, this was in many ways a step backwards. Freewheelin’ had a wider scope than most double albums; it created its own world. Times is mostly regarded as a political album. Seven of the albums ten songs, and among them the album’s longest songs, are political in nature, with two of the others being breakup songs and the other one, “Restless Farewell,” being a rewrite of the Irish drinking song “Parting Glass” that seems like a 21+ version of Freewheelin's “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” a sad song about leaving friends behind. While its true that most of the major songs on Times – “With God On Our Side,” “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” the title track – are political, Dylan’s political songs had become more nuanced and reflected a wider world view. In “Oxford Town” on Freewheelin’, Dylan basically said “look at racism. It sure is bad.” In “Hattie Carroll,” he accepts that racism is bad, he doesn’t need to state it. Instead, he focuses on society’s reaction to it, trusting the justice system to treat Carroll’s murder as a hate crime. It is the justice system that faces the spoken condemnation, not William Zantzinger, the man who murderer her, though the song manages to skewer both. In “Only A Pawn In Their Game” Dylan defends the unnamed Byron de la Beckwith, murderer of Medgar Evers, as being only a scapegoat for institutionalized racism that is perpetuated by the Southern aristocracy so they can keep the poor whites ignorant and thus keep sucking them dry. Dylan’s contention that Beckwith is a product of his times is much more layered than simply saying “shame on you for killing a civil rights leader,” which is what so many of Dylan’s peers were doing. That said, when you leave this album, Dylan expertly makes you feel disheartened and indignant, but only “When the Ship Comes In” imparts the spark of life that was all over Freewheelin’.

Best song: When the Ship Comes In – According to Joan Baez, Dylan rolled into town to be her opening act and, after initially being denied a hotel room due to his scruffy appearance, wrote this as payback in time to sing it at their concert. The song’s righteous anger may only be channeled at some hotel execs in actuality, but it sounds like an indictment of everything wrong with society, and specifically aimed at the old guard, willing to uphold inequality in the name of the almighty dollar, and Dylan calling in Moses to help him drown the swine on a day of joyous revolution.

Worst song: The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Yes, it an anthem. It might be the most anthemic song in Dylan’s whole catalog, but it is also one of the deadest. The problem is that he has all these fantastic ideas – I will gladly admit the song is full of truths – but no imagery to hang them on. Also, the melody is strident but after being overplayed a few thousand times it is stridently boring.

Best Outtake: Moonshiner – This may have been the only cover recorded at the Times sessions, but it is has one of Dylan’s great vocal performances. Dylan has a fondness for songs about bootlegging, and this harkens to that tradition. He also has a haunting performance on “Copper Kettle” from Self Portrait and a spirited jaunt on “Diamond Joe” in the film Masked and Anonymous. Not to mention a rarely heard jovial rollick through “Good Ol’ Mountain Dew” with Johnny Cash. Lots of good bootlegging songs.

Best live rendition: The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll – I heard Dylan perform this in Kansas City. It was the highlight of the show and it sounded like a hymn. Gorgeous. Christopher Ricks, professor at Oxford, feels this is the best poem in the English language.

Rhymes: less/Midwest (“With God On Our Side”); shacks/cracks/tracks/pack/back; clinch/lynch (2 and 3, “Only A Pawn In Their Game”); numbered/conquered (“When the Ship Comes In”); caught ‘em/bottom (“Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”)

Images: “screams are stabbin’ you like the dirty drivin’ rain” (“Ballad of Hollis Brown”); “the silent night will shatter” (“One Too Many Mornings”); “the fire in the air, it felt frozen” (“North Country Blues”); “she emptied their ashtrays on a whole ‘nother level” (“Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”); “the dirt of gossip blows into my face” (“Restless Farewell”)

Axioms: “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand” (“The Times They Are A-Changin’”); “If God is on our side, he’ll stop the next war” (“With God On Our Side”); “The poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool” (“Only A Pawn In Their Game”); “a Boston tea party don’t mean the same thing as it did in the newborn years before;” “there’re no depressed words, just depressed minds” (4 and 5 from “11 Outlined Epitaphs” [liner notes])

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Ain't No More Cain (sic) on the Brazos

I was listening to the Band's recording of "Ain't No More Cane" this morning. When it comes to traditional material, you can't do much better than the band. They do my favorite versions of both this and "Long Black Veil," which actually sounds much older than it really is. Today was the first time I'd really noticed the line "don't you rise up 'til it's judgment day for sure," though, and it struck me at once that Cane may be working dually here.

I knew "Ain't No More Cane" was an old work song, probably dating back to the early twenties or maybe a little further back. I had always assumed it was a migrant farmer song about the ending of the sugar season ("Ain't no more cane on the [banks of the] Brazos [river.] It's all been ground down to molasses" wails the song's speaker. What I didn't know is that it is also a prison song. After hearing it with fresh ears, I went to The Band's unofficial website where Erin Sebo expertly points out that nearly all of the prisons in Texas are along the Brazos and that the song also uses prison slang, like "bully" and "captain."

Another word that is slang is "Hannah," meaning the sun. It is Hannah who is told not to rise until judgment day is certain, i.e., after the anti-Christ, who may claim that (s)he will bring judgment. Sun here may double as Son -- the speaker could be asking Christ to rise up. In the literal context of the song, though, the speaker is asking the sun not to rise because the day means work, often in the hot fields. And though the sugar is all harvested, some other crop's season may be just around the corner.

All of this seems to beg the question, why sugar cane? It may simply be that "cane" is a literal detail from an autobiographical songwriter. It may be that cane fit the meter best. It may also be because cane carries resonances of Cain. Prisoners are outcasts; they bear the same burden as Cain. It could be that they are identifying with him. "Ain't no more Cain" because they have escaped, but then if they "all got ground down to molasses" they may be dead. This is particularly interesting as molasses is the same color as the tar baby. One may think of Jean Toomer's "Cane" or of the white supremacist belief that black skin is the physical mark of Cain (interestingly enough, racists used this as proof of blacks inferiority and then proceeded to lynch blacks, although God marks Cain as a proscription of vengeance, saying that no one can kill Cain because of his mark).

Whatever associations we may make with cane/Cain, its purpose in the song is to represent labor. The sun also represents labor, as the prison work is done beneath the sun's intense heat. The two are equated. When the speaker tells Old Hannah, or the sun, not to rise until judgment day, the speaker is also telling Cain not to rise until judgment day. I don't have the whole thing worked out yet, but there may indeed be something interesting going on there.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Dylan Album Project: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)

Whereas Dylan only wrote two of Bob Dylan’s 13 songs, on Freewheelin’ there were only two songs he didn’t write, “Corrina, Corrina” and “Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance.” His growth as an artist is apparent all over. This album oozes personality. While I love the performances on Bob Dylan, I realize that is a very personal opinion, but nearly everyone finds something to love on Freewheelin’. It is by turns funny, sweet, angsty, visionary….. everything. You have love songs (“Corrina, Corrina”), break up songs (“Girl From the North Country,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”), and political songs (“Blowin’ In the Wind,” “Masters of War”). You have deadly serious songs (“Oxford Town,” “Bob Dylan’s Dream”), and seriously funny songs (“Talkin’ World War III Blues”). A very well rounded album, expertly written and performed with a wink.

Best song: Talkin’ World War III Blues – This is almost undoubtedly my parents favorite song on the album. Dylan’s surreal sense of humor at its best. Live, Abraham Lincoln would often become T.S. Eliot.

Worst song: Down the Highway – It was between this and “Honey, Just Allow me One More Chance.” I think critics often look at “Honey” and “Corrina” as slight because Bob didn’t write them. The lyricism of the performance of “Corrina” is just heartbreaking, though, and the fervor of “Honey” gets me. “Down the Highway” may be a Dylan composition, but it sounds like a generic blues rehearsal. The only good parts are some mentions to a girl in a foreign land who goes away to Italy. Those specific references to Suze Rotolo don’t make this any better, they just make it any inferior prequel to “Boots of Spanish Leather.” Especially following this with “Bob Dylan’s Blues,” a jaunt, off-the-cuff comedic version of “Down the Highway,” serves to point out “Down the Highway”’s own inability to stand as a strong song on its own merits.

Best outtake: Death of Emmett Till – It would be obvious to pick one of the four outtakes – “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoia Blues,” “Let Me Die In My Footsteps,” “Rocks and Gravel (Solid Road)” and “Rambling, Gambling Willie” – that were pulled off this just prior to release (it had already been pressed and delivered when the records were recalled), but instead I went with “Emmett Till” because, even though it is one of his more obvious and less nuanced political rants, it includes one of his most powerful images for me – “Emmet’s body floats the foam of a Jim Crow Southern sea.”

Best live rendition: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall – Dylan tore through this in 1975 on the first half of the Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan’s vaudeville tour. A lot of people assume this is about nuclear fallout, specifically related to the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was written several months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, though, and I think it is more about a Biblical rain. Dylan said it was just about “a hard rain,” but the most important thing he said is that every line in here is really the first line of another song, and he just never thought he’d live long enough to write all those songs so he crammed all the first lines together. A damning and jarring series of first impressions it gives us. The form is stolen out of the old folk ballad “Lord Randall.” This would have been my top song on the album, except that this blistering version makes it sound like acid rain. A third great version is a bluegrass version from 2008 done for the Zaragoza Expo on clean water in the third world.

Rhymes: desks/masks, destroy/toy, turn/unlearned (1-3 from “Masters of War”), thumpin’/somethin’, ad/Conelrad (4-5 from “Talkin’ World War III Blues”)

Images: “snowflakes storm” (“Girl From the North Country”); “blood flows out of their bodies and is buried in the mud” (“Masters of War”); “ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard;” “pellets of poison are flooding their waters” (3-4 from “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”); “I lit a cigarette on a parking meter” (“Talkin’ World War III Blues”)

Axioms: “All the money you made will never buy back your soul” (“Masters of War”); “You wanna be like me? Grab yourself a six-shooter and rob every bank you see. Tell the judge I said it was alright” (“Bob Dylan’s Blues”); “I’ll know my song well before I start singin’” (“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”); “Cadillac…. Good car to drive, after a war;” “I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours” (4-5 “Talkin’ World War III Blues”)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Dylan Album Project: Bob Dylan

The Dylan Album Project

As a way of approaching Bob Dylan’s studio work, I have decided upon a way of profiling Dylan’s studio albums. First, a description of the album. Second, my favorite song. Third, my least favorite song. Fourth, the best outtake (when available). Fifth, the best live version. Sixth, the five best rhymes on the album. Seventh, the five best images on the album. Eigth, the five best axioms on the album (or in the liner notes). This will provide a good intro, and when the best songs from the worst albums pop up, it will be obvious they are bad. Even more so, when the bad rhymes, images and axioms come out, run for the hills. Likewise, if the bad songs are good and everything thing else fits, get a copy and give it a spin. Dylan rhymes like a lyrical genius (cause he is), crafts images like Ezra Pound and has almost as many axioms as Proverbs, so those all make sense. When I list the best, worst, and outtake I may or may not provide some background and justification as to my choices. And of course, since my choices are at least half subjective, you may end up thinking what I think is the worst song on an album is better than my pick for the best, in which case its worth discussing what the hell I was thinking.

Bob Dylan (1962)

He looks so young and puffy-cheeked on the cover, but you listen to it and he sounds old. He also sounds like he’s trying to sound old, but I don’t think he sounded that convincingly old again until maybe Oh Mercy. The songs are mostly about death – “Fixin’ to Die,” “In My Time of Dyin’,” “See That My Grave is Kept Clean.” He’s trying all sorts of crazy shit here – that breathless, manic harmonica on “Gospel Plow,” that forever-long note on “Freight Train Blues.” He’s throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Dylan only wrote two of the thirteen songs on this album – “Song to Woody” and “Talkin’ New York” – and to me that are in some ways the two songs that least stand up over time. He sounds wild and alive, afraid he’ll die before getting a chance to go back in the studio again. Dylan regretted this album as soon as it was in the can, and that’s probably why. That and most of the songs were not part of his stage show and some he’d never played before the session at all. This maybe isn’t the best Dylan album, but many people underrate it. It is loose, ramshackle takes on a bunch of covers, but Dylan has always done more with loose and ramshackle than anyone else, and his covers, especially of folk material, inhabit the performances more than just about anyone else’s. As you can see below in the rhymes, images and axioms below, there isn’t too much that blows you over in terms of poetry, but the passion and conviction Dylan brings to these songs makes this album a winner in my book.

Best song: In My Time of Dyin’ – Dylan’s using young socialist hottie Suze Rotolo’s lipstick case as a slide.

Worst song: Talkin’ New York – Maybe it is just that it pales in comparison with all of Dylan’s other talkin’ blues (except maybe “Talkin’ Hava Negilah”). I had thought “Pretty Peggy-O” was weaker, and in some ways it is certainly sillier, but Dylan is doing some pretty interesting things there with a frame story, tonal shifts, polysemic text…. it’s just too interesting to be the worst. Of course, I’ve always appreciated Dylan as a cover artist, so what do I know?

Best live rendition: Song to Woody – Dylan hasn’t played these live very often. Some songs he might not have played live at all. They were a departure from his concert repertoire at the time he recorded them and months later his shows were mostly his own compositions so they never snuck into the playlist. “Song to Woody” has probably gotten the most play. I was blessed and surprised to see it performed in 2001 in Topeka, KS when Dylan send his band to the wings and began to sing “Song To Woody” accompanied only by his acoustic guitar. Naked and badass. He receives some accompaniment by the end. The overall effect is jaw-dropping.

Best outtake: He Was A Friend of Mine – This song’s nuance is unmatched by “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Song to Woody.” Its pathos can blow you right over. It is tender and deep. So why didn’t Dylan choose to include it? Probably because it was a Dave Van Ronk song and Dylan already felt guilty about stealing his arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun” for this album. Van Ronk was the first to arpeggiate the chords in “Rising Sun.” Dylan stole his arrangement and tried to take it off the album, but the record company thought it was too good. A year or two later the Animals copied it, playing the arpeggios on organ, and had a number one hit. Van Ronk, had he recorded it first, would have done quite well for himself. Dylan is able to slay the listener so completely with “He Was A Friend of Mine,” though, that who knows what would have happened with an Animals cover of a Dylan cover of this song.

Rhymes: lion’s den/let me in (You’re No Good); brains/insane (You’re No Good); sorrow/Colorado/railroad (Man of Constant Sorrow); cry/lullaby; joke/broke (Freight Train Blues)

Images: “People going down to the ground (Talkin’ New York);” “a bloody spade (Gospel Plow);” “the gospel line gets mighty hot (Gospel Plow);” “boomer shack (Freight Train Blues);” “froze right to the bone” (Talkin’ New York)

Axioms: “[People] got a lot of forks and knives, and they gotta cut something.” (Talkin’ New York); “Freight train taught me how to cry.” (Freight Train Blues); “[The World] looks like its dyin’ and it’s hardly been born.” (Song to Woody); “The very last thing that I’d want to do is to say I’ve been hitting some hard travelin’ too.” (Song to Woody); “A lot of people don’t have much food on their table.” (Talkin’ New York)