Bob Dylan is playing a concert in my small, rural home town this summer. Because I cannot afford a ticket and that fact is breaking my heart, I have decided to create my own Dylan-centered activity – I will pay homage to the master by re-listening to all his albums. Chronologically.
It’s March 1962. I won’t be born for another twenty years. And one month. The young musician depicted above has his first album published. He’d got a break some six months before, thanks to Columbia’s talent scout John Hammond. He was signed to the label and recorded the songs for his first album in two days – after weeks of listening to mountains of folk songs. And now it hits the record stores.
This album is not one that gets a lot of spin time from me (ehm… rather less than that, even), so even though I know the songs, listening to them now, with the intention of writing about them, is almost like a fresh experience. The one thing that hits me straight away and stays with me throughout the thirteen tracks is that of youthful irreverence. This is a guy who doesn’t care about how the traditional songs he sings are ‘supposed’ to be sung.
Let’s have a look at those songs:
The first song hits straight out with that irreverence I was mentioning. ‘You give me the blues’, he sings, but really he doesn’t care one way or the other. He’s almost laughing about it all and singing and playing at a pace that has nothing to do with the blues.
‘Talking’ is perfectly right. No way is this singing. Instead, he tells the story in a sing-song voice, accompanied by fast guitar and short bursts of the harmonica. This is one of only two original songs on this album and it’s such a perfectly typical Dylan song – the delivery, the wry humour, the art of the throw-away remark and the story told with a straight face, so that you’re never sure whether to believe a single word or not.
This is a lament. And that’s how it’s sung as well. Compared to the other songs, it’s slow and quiet. I find it hard to remember that the guy singing this is a boy, barely twenty years old. The voice shows depth and experience as its wails in an intensity that is very honest and personal.
I connect this song first and foremost with ‘O Brother where art thou’, the movie by the Coen brothers and since I love that movie, their version is the one I have in my head. Dylan’s is very, very different. This is closer to sorrow than the movie version, but even then, it’s not real sorrow. It sounds more like weariness. Or even boredom? No, not really. Just a dusty, weary ‘whatever’.
Here I hear real emotion, not so much the mocking that is part of most of the other songs. Again, the voice, the message, the delivery are all deeply incongruous with the photo on the album cover of a smooth-faced, unscarred, slightly arrogant young boy.
Talking of mocking… Poor pretty Peggy-O gets a good dose of that right in the beginning when he opens the song with ‘Been around this whole country, but I never yet found Fennario!’ And he continues in the same spirit – just listen to how he pronounces ‘dove’ when he sings that she’s as pretty as one. If you ever needed a lesson in what irony sounds like, listen to this. Oh, and I can’t help comparing it to the lovely version of Simon & Garfunkel, which couldn’t be more different in any way. (And if you make me decide, I will choose that version over Dylan’s!)
His voice changes throughout the song, from a pressured belting, to a wailing cry, to a dipping, quiet, almost talking style. There’s real emotion here – if he can’t have this, he doesn’t care for the rest either and I believe what he’s saying.
8. Gospel Plow
As with most of the traditional songs on this album, Gospel Plow is fast and has very little to do with gospel. It’s strongly delivered, but with a distinct disrespectfulness – as if he’s secretly laughing about anyone who follows the advice that the song gives.
Quieter. He doesn’t belt or press out the lyrics, nor howl them. Instead, there’s more ‘conventional’ singing, although even here, there are a few unexpected skips or dips of the voice. It’s not mocking, and it’s not bored, but there is also no noticeable passion for ‘baby’. I still really like it.
This must be one of the most-sung, most-covered songs. I don’t know any statistics on this, but I think every singer or band who is even only remotely connected to folk music, has recorded this song at some point. Here, Dylan sings it in a (comparatively) slow, serious, grieving, drawn-out voice. The inevitability of the end is audible from the beginning.
Despite the title, there is no trace of any blues feeling in this song. It’s a fast, joyful celebration of wanderlust, sung with a whistle-blowing, train-break-screaming, rail-screeching voice.
12. Song to Woody
This is the second song on this album that is a Dylan original (… at least the lyrics… the melody comes from the same person that the song is dedicated to). As with Talkin’ New York, it is so very typical. The rhythm, the way he sings, the way he draws out the words, and the homage to the masters that went before him – it’s real, and honest and very touching, even if it might come off as arrogance on his side to string his name into the line of the great musicians he mentions – I choose to hear it as the confidence of youth and the promise to carry on the heritage.
Very strong delivery. It starts slow but picks up a little speed. Despite the fact that his voice is strong and distinctly not close to death, it doesn’t sound ridiculous when he sings about his heart stopping to beat and his hands turning cold.
… it’s a fun little record that already shows the great potential of the singer. Despite the rather random collection of songs, the fast, almost hasty, way in which it was recorded (later John Hammond said that Dylan was the most undisciplined artist he’d ever had to work with) and the fact that only two of the songs are his own, the album as a whole has personality and foreshadows the future.
My favourite song? Well, I love the arrogant, mocking, individual way he deals with the traditional songs, and I like the melody of Baby, let me follow you down, but the two Dylan songs are my favourites – Talkin’ New York because of the talking style and the dry humour, Song to Woody because I find it so very touching.
Part of my morning routine is to open my feedreader and ignore all the multitude of updated feeds and go straight for one special one. Then I’ll lean back, sip my tea or coffee and read. That one feed is the feed linking the ‘Poem of the Day’ of the Poetry Foundation, that delivers a new and fresh poem to me every day.
It’s a revelation every day. Some days, I might not connect with the poem. Other days, I just don’t like it. Most days, however, it’ll give me something. A smile. An insight. A thought. A feeling. On the best days, a surprised gasp, a disbelieving re-reading with a growing warmth rising up from my stomach to my chest to my head, where it will pop like bubbles into untamed joy and wonder. Those days are special.
I’ll save that poem and probably write about it or talk about it or share it with friends. Those that are into oetry and those that aren’t. I don’t pay any attention to that – the latter category will just have to give it a try. That poem will colour my day, set the tone for it, provide atmosphere. I save them, and when I read them again, I can recall that first joy, like remembering that first butterfly in your stomach when you realize you are falling in love with the person you’re looking at.
Because they are special (to me), I want to share some of these poems. Or rather, since they aren’t mine to share, I want to share my feelings about them and maybe give others the chance to feel something similar. Or something different. Each according to their tastes. So I’ve decided to start a mini-series. I’m not a fan of weekly schedules and I don’t want it to feel forced, to me or to others, so I’m not going to write a weekly installment, but rather whenever it feels right to do so. I’m still thinking of a clever title for that venture and so far I haven’t got it. (Titles are my great stumbling blocks, I hate having to think them up. I’m open for suggestions.)
The first one I want to share is one that has come back to me the last couple of days. I first read it some months ago, three, four, something like that. I’ve thought of it in the meantime, but for two or three days it’s been very present in my mind. It’s set in spring and written from a guy’s perspective. I don’t know why it speaks to me so much right now, in the middle of summer. I’m guessing that it might be something to do with my itching feet and the fact that I want to travel and see new places, meet new people, have fresh winds blowing in my face. Or maybe it’s just he fact that it’s a great poem. Judge for yourselves. Here goes:
……..A Color of the Sky by Tony Hoagland via The Poetry Foundation
…….. Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,
…….. driving over the hills from work.
…….. There are the dark parts on the road
…….. when you pass through clumps of wood
…….. and the bright spots where you have a view of the ocean,
…….. but that doesn’t make the road an allegory.
……… I should call Marie and apologize
…….. for being so boring at dinner last night,
…….. but can I really promise not to be that way again?
…….. And anyway, I’d rather watch the trees, tossing
…….. in what certainly looks like sexual arousal.
……… Otherwise it’s spring, and everything looks frail;
…….. the sky is baby blue, and the just-unfurling leaves
…….. are full of infant chlorophyll,
…….. the very tint of inexperience.
…….. Last summer’s song is making a comeback on the radio,
…….. and on the highway overpass,
…….. the only metaphysical vandal in America has written
…….. MEMORY LOVES TIME
…….. in big black spraypaint letters,
…….. which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back.
…….. Last night I dreamed of X again.
…….. She’s like a stain on my subconscious sheets.
…….. Years ago she penetrated me
…….. but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed,
…….. I never got her out,
…….. but now I’m glad.
…….. What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.
…….. What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.
…….. What I thought was an injustice
…….. turned out to be a color of the sky.
…….. Outside the youth center, between the liquor store
…….. and the police station,
…….. a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;
…….. overflowing with blossomfoam,
…….. like a sudsy mug of beer;
…….. like a bride ripping off her clothes,
…….. dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,
…….. so Nature’s wastefulness seems quietly obscene.
…….. It’s been doing that all week:
……. making beauty,
…….. and throwing it away,
…….. and making more.
I love every line of this. Every single line. In the following, I’ll just jot down a few notes on what this makes me feel and think. (I give you leave to not be interested in that, so you don’t need to feel bad if you stop reading at this point. The important thing is the poem itself.)
It starts right off with the picture of driving on a road through woods, with glimpses of the ocean, and straight away I want to be off, driving down that road. I think I have driven down that road, and if I haven’t, I will. I also like that kind of wry humour, when he says ‘but that doesn’t make the road an allegory’.
I love the honesty. He should follow the social conventions, but, whatever… can’t be bothered, will only do it again anyway, so what’s the use… And anyway, the tossing trees are much more interesting. (I agree, by the way)
Is it possible to top that part about ‘the only metaphysical vandal in America’? I don’t think so. It’s a funny, intelligent, throw-away remark, as is the line underneath: ‘which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back’. It makes me smile and nod in recognition. It’s the kind of half-silly, half-deep thing you’ll think when your thoughts are drifting and maybe you’re a little tired, but at peace with yourself.
And there, buried in the middle of it, as if to hide it, is that lyrical, wonderful, suggestive stanza, that sounds as if it’s straight out of a beautiful pop song: ‘What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle. What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel. What I thought was an injustice turned out to be a color of the sky.’ Can’t you just hear that being sung? I definitely can.
The end, everything onward from ‘Outside the youth center …’ is perfect. I cannot even pick out one line or one part that I want to highlight especially, because I feel that once you’ve read it, there is nothing left to say. The dogwood tree, that is ‘loosing its mind’ – can’t you just see that? Coupled with the tossing trees in sexual arousal and the spring wind from the beginning, it makes such a painfully vivid picture.
I could write so much more about it, and actually, the more I write, the more I have to say, but this is already very long, and anyway, I’m sure you’re much more interested in using your own imagination and go and explore the pictures this poem has conjured up for you. I hope you have fun.
A friend’s status on facebook, quoting Walt Whitman, reminded me to go back to my old copy of ‘Leaves of Grass’ and thumb through it. As usual, I ended up reading ‘Song of the Open Road’, which is something of a personal hymn. Who couldn’t be enchanted by a beginning like this?
Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.
And then, later on, my favourite part of that poem:
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
So yes, Whitman is a bit wordy. And yes, sometimes that can deter from what he has to say, and sometimes it’s plain annoying. And then, just when I’m about to put down the book, I’m caught by the rhythm of the repetition – I get a shiver down the spine from the honest, straight-forward love of humankind that flows from his writing – I stumble across a single, little gem hidden inside the repetitions and the big words
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.
I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes, rhymes,
We convince by our presence.
– and I forgive the repetitions, the overflow of words, and am left only with a sense of grandeur and gratitude. Grandeur in the small things, in small ideas, in small people. Gratitude that there are people like Whitman who was able to see that grandeur, and love it, and express it.
I just found another way to define what is a good story: a story that makes you cry even though you’ve read it 10+ times already.
Another one: a story that will not allow you to put down your book, no matter if you have all hell break out around you and should be doing a gazillion other things rather than read – even though you’ve already read the book more than once and know exactly what’s going to happen.
And another one: a story that makes the world around you seem less real than the one on the page (yes, even though you’ve read it more than once before).
All these things happen to me whenever I pick up any of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books. Any. No matter how often I’ve read them (and I’ve read them VERY often).
I wish I could tell a story like that. I wish more other people could, as well.
Do you have any stories that fit into these definitions for you? Or do you have any definitions of your own?
This is an awesomeness-appreciation post. Today, I’m appreciating Dylan Thomas all over again.
To begin at the beginning:
It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.
The first sentence. The very first time I read it, years ago, I was irrevocably hooked. It goes on to describe how the whole town is sleeping, and I love every single word, but the part that I love especially, apart from that first sentence, is this:
Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams, with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glow-worms down the aisles of the organplaying wood. The boys are dreaming wicked or of the bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrodgered sea. And the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields, and the cows in the byres, and the dogs in the wetnosed yards; and the cats nap in the slant corners or lope sly, streaking and needling, on the one cloud of the roofs.
Is there anything more effortlessly vivid, more neatly expressive, more beautifully evocative than that?!? Somehow it’s the ‘anthracite statues of the horses’ that always send a chill down my spine. If you’ve never read Under Milk Wood, you’ve missed out. Go and get it. Even better, listen to it. It’s a radio play, after all.
Which reminds me… You can hear Dylan Thomas read it himself: