Ap­pro­pri­a­tion Bob

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Tempos - Steve Ter­rell

It’s prob­a­bly no big sur­prise to any­one who reg­u­larly reads this col­umn that of all the many faces of Bob Dylan — folkie Bob, coun­try Bob, gospel Bob, singer-song­writer Bob, Las Ve­gas Bob, etc. — my fa­vorite is elec­tric Bob. And it’s prob­a­bly a good thing that I didn’t go to the New­port Folk Fes­ti­val in 1965 or see a per­for­mance from that tour in 1966 where folkies were scream­ing “Ju­das!” at him. I’d have been the 12-year-old Okie kid in the cheap seats shout­ing “Turn it up!”

But even for us rock ’ n’ roll die-hards who se­cretly be­lieve that Dylan’s ca­reer re­ally be­gan with the rock­a­billy/Johnny Cash-in­formed “Mixed Up Con­fu­sion” in­stead of with all those acous­tic dit­ties, there’s no deny­ing that the ge­nius that is Dylan — the re­bel­lious­ness, the hu­mor, his grasp on his­tory, and his in­sights into the Amer­i­can char­ac­ter — is read­ily ap­par­ent in his ear­li­est songs.

That’s the main thing I pick up from the lat­est (ninth) vol­ume of Dylan’s Boot­leg Se­ries, ti­tled The Wit­mark Demos 1962-1964. Here is a kid in his early 20s who was about to trans­form the en­tire song-pub­lish­ing in­dus­try — as well as ex­pand our con­cept of folk mu­sic and the bound­aries of rock ’ n’ roll — sing­ing earnestly in that tiny stu­dio at M. Wit­mark & Sons, his New York pub­lish­ing com­pany in those days.

These ver­sions of his songs were not meant to be heard by the gen­eral pub­lic. They were recorded quickly and tran­scribed into sheet mu­sic so the pub­lish­ing com­pany could pitch them to other record­ing artists. Back in those days, few singers ac­tu­ally wrote their own songs. (That cus­tom was changed not in small part through the ef­forts of one Bob Dylan.) The sound qual­ity is lo-fi, not to men­tion in­con­sis­tent. Some tracks truly sound like bootlegs. There are false starts and ob­vi­ous mis­takes. For in­stance, “Talk­ing Bear Moun­tain Pic­nic Mas­sacre Blues” be­gins with a Dylan cough. And he stops af­ter one of the verses, ex­plain­ing that he’d re­cited the wrong punch line to a verse.

So ba­si­cally, al­though there are sev­eral of Dylan’s best-known songs in­cluded in this col­lec­tion — “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Masters of War,” “Mr. Tam­bourine Man,” (played on pi­ano), and (of course) “Blowin’ in the Wind” — this is a col­lec­tion for fa­nat­i­cal fans who like to see how the Dylan sausage is made.

I like the more ob­scure cuts the best. You’ve got to won­der how many times must record com­pa­nies put ver­sions of “Blowin’ in the Wind” on a Dylan al­bum. (The an­swer, my friend — )

One of my fa­vorites is “Bear Moun­tain.” As with some of the more “se­ri­ous” tunes Dylan wrote dur­ing this pe­riod — “Bal­lad of Hol­lis Brown” and “The Lone­some Death of Hat­tie Car­roll” come to mind — this song was ripped from the head­lines. Dylan read a news­pa­per ac­count about an ill-fated Fa­ther’s Day cruise up the Hud­son River. Some­one had coun­ter­feited tick­ets, and the over­loaded boat sunk well be­fore it reached Bear Moun­tain. Sev­eral were treated for in­juries, but no­body was killed. Dylan saw the wicked hu­mor of the sit­u­a­tion and, ac­cord­ing to leg­end, wrote the song overnight. “Just re­mem­ber wakin’ up on a lit­tle shore/Head busted, stom­ach cracked/Feet splin­tered, I was bald, naked.” I still laugh when pon­der­ing how a boat­ing ac­ci­dent can make you bald.

An­other old fa­vorite here is “Ram­bling, Gam­bling Wil­lie.” Like “Bear Moun­tain,” this was recorded back in 1962 but never made it to an “of­fi­cial” al­bum un­til the first Boot­leg Se­ries col­lec­tion in the early ’90s. (Most real Dylan fans heard these from real bootlegs long be­fore there were CD box sets.) The melody of “Wil­lie” came di­rectly from the Ir­ish song “Bren­nan on the Moor,” which Dylan’s pals the Clancy Broth­ers and Tommy Makem recorded back in the folkie days. Wil­lie Bren­nan was a Robin Hood-like “brave young high­way­man” who di­vided his loot with “the widow in dis­tress.” Dylan’s Will O’Con­ley shared his win­nings with the poor as well. But ap­par­ently a large chunk of his in­come also went to child sup­port. He’s a wom­an­iz­ing card shark who had “twenty-seven chil­dren, yet he never had a wife.” Dylan as­sures us that “He sup­ported all his chil­dren and all their moth­ers too.”

And who would have ever thought that “Talk­ing John Birch Para­noid Blues” would ever be rel­e­vant again?“ Dylan says, “Well, I in­ves­ti­gated all the books in the li­brary/ Ninety per­cent of ’em gotta be burned away/ I in­ves­ti­gated all the peo­ple that I knowed/ Ninety-eight per­cent of them gotta go.” Un­for­tu­nately, the sound qual­ity of this ver­sion is so bad that it se­ri­ously de­tracts from the lis­ten­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. (Some­one has to be re­spon­si­ble for that. The Com­mies? The vast right-wing con­spir­acy?) Seek out in­stead the live ver­sions on

The Boot­leg Se­ries, Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964 — Con­cert at Phil­har­monic Hall or The Boot­leg Se­ries, Vols. 1-3 (Rare & Un­re­leased) 1961-1991.

The Wit­mark ses­sions also have a few gems I’d never heard. One of these is “Gypsy Lou,” an ode to what sounds like the sex­i­est heart­break­ing hobo girl alive — “a ramblin’ woman with a ramblin’ mind/Al­ways leavin’ some­body be­hind.” And down­right lovely is “Bal­lad for a Friend,” a bluesy tune about look­ing at trains and re­call­ing a friend who died a tragic death.

One thing these demos do is show how Dylan was ap­pro­pri­at­ing old blues tunes as his own from the be­gin­ning. “Stand­ing on the High­way” is ba­si­cally a re­write of Robert John­son’s “Cross­roads.” And “Poor Boy Blues” owes a small debt to Lead­belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and a big debt to Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smoke­stack Light­ning.” If you think Dylan dropped this habit, lis­ten to his com­po­si­tion “Rollin’ and Tum­blin’” from 2006’s

Mod­ern Times or “If You Ever Go to Hous­ton” from last year’s To­gether Through Life.

Bob Dylan turns 70 in May. Not quite as amaz­ing is the fact that the Dylan Boot­leg Se­ries will be 20 years old next year. I’m hop­ing the next one will be full of rock­ers. Or maybe a duets al­bum of record­ings and live songs he’s done with oth­ers. Maybe Sony can find two CDs worth of Dylan stuff from the ’ 80s that didn’t suck. Maybe a crazy rocked-out show from “The Never End­ing Tour” from the last 10 years or so. Even if Vol­ume 10 con­sists of songs Dylan sang in the shower, it’s bound to add to the enigma that is Bob.

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