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Dylan Interpretations

In Defense of Dylan's Voice

I pretty much agree with this, except that I don't think Dylan's voice sounded old when he was young. On his first album, which I've never much liked (I almost said "unlistenable," but that's overstating it), he sounds to me like a kid who doesn't really know what he's doing. He wants to sound authentic in some way, like an old country or blues singer discovered in his native place. But his authentic identity is middle-class Jewish boy. He's trying to create a new identity for himself, and he isn't even sure what to imitate: I don't know of any genuine old-time folk singers who sound very much at all like he sounds on most of that album.

Over the next few albums he began to find his own voice, though his country twang is obviously forced. But that voice itself became part of the material that he used to develop what proved, around the time of Bringing It All Back Home, to be an authentic Dylan voice, in both the sonic and poetic senses. It, too, has mutated over time, through both choice and physical changes, but it's been clearly his since then. 

In the liner notes to Freewheelin', which was recorded when he was only twenty-one, he says "I don't carry myself yet the way that Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Lightnin' Hopkins have carried themselves. I hope to be able to someday, but they're older people." He was right about himself then, but he did get there, as he hoped.

I do however disagree with the writer about bourbon. Nothing against scotch, but bourbon is not a failed scotch any more than Dylan is a failed Paul McCartney. 


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I saw that article too; it made me happy to think that someone would devote time to writing about Dylan's voice.

That first record is spotty, but there are some good things on it ("Song to Woody", "House of the Rising Sun"). You're right though that he wasn't really himself yet. The leap from that record to the next (Freewheelin') never ceases to amaze me.

That quote from the Freewheelin' liner notes is great; I don't recall ever having seen it before.

I don't know that I've ever tried bourbon.

Bourbon is a totally different drink, made with a different grain, corn vs. barley for scotch. Bourbon has a touch of sweetness and...I don't know, it's hard to describe tastes, but I'd call it sharp in comparison to the thick taste of scotch. It's true that scotch doesn't mix well, just as Dylan doesn't harmonize with anybody.

I got that lp out after having written this post and listened to the first two songs. The first song confirmed my memory, the second, a talking blues, was amusing. Might listen to the rest later.

You can listen to those talking blues - like Talking World War III (is that on the 1st or the 2nd album? - every five years or so.

2nd. This is the one about New York. It's amusing. "You sound like a hillbilly. We want folk singers here."

I don't have a lot to say about Dylan (though i tend to like covers of his songs better than the originals), but I can talk about scotch and bourbon, especially after I've had some. I don't know that I'd say scotch has a "thick" flavor compared to bourbon. I'd say scotch is more airy. Bourbon tends to be more syrupy (the sweetness you mentioned). I would say scotch (single malt, anyway) tends to be sharper. I think bourbon tends to be somewhat "flat" unless it's old (Van Winkle) or cask strength (Bookers).

Terms are very subjective, of course. I wouldn't describe scotch as "airy" at all. But "syrupy" for bourbon--well, yeah, you could say that, although a non-drinker would be pretty irritated if you got him to sample it by describing it that way. Also "flat", but not in a bad way--it's a less complex taste than scotch, which is what I mean by "sharper". I should say that I am not a connoisseur of either.

Ok, I'm listening to Bob Dylan for the first time in I don't know how many years. And finding it both better and worse than I remembered. "Talkin New York," "In My Time of Dying"--not bad. "Man of Constant Sorrow"--hmm...well... "Fixin to Die"--bad idea..."Pretty Peggy-O", "Highway 51", "Gospel Plow"--I guess these are the ones that made me think "unlistenable". "Baby Let Me Follow You Down"--not bad. "House of the Rising Sun"--starts off ok, gets way too histrionic. "Freight Train Blues"--near disaster. "Song to Woody"--pretty good. "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean"--another bad idea.

Who could have imagined what would follow from this beginning?!?

I've never really liked Dylan's voice much but I don't find it unlistenable the way I do some others -- Geddy Lee, for instance, or Robert Plant. I just find them annoying. I'm not a Dylan fan, and I tend to think him overrated, but I don't loathe him or anything.

Now that Dylan is such an institution people tend to forget (if they were around) how common it was in the mid-to-late '60s to hear people say "great songs, when somebody else sings them" about his work. I actually think he's a bit overrated, too, but that he still rates pretty high.

Funny you mention Geddy Lee. Last week I watched part of a Rush concert on tv, just out of curiosity. I always found the little I'd ever heard of them annoying, and his voice is certainly part of the annoyance factor. I was impressed with the guitarist, though, and in general with their technical skill, though I didn't care for the result.

I sort of like Plant's voice. Have you heard that thing he did with...what's her name?...age is doing this more and more to me...plays fiddle...Allison something...Krause? It's very good and with better material would have been great. Plant doesn't screech like he used to. I disliked Zeppelin in their day, but have come to a grudging appreciation of them, though it's not something I want to listen to. My dislike was based more on feeling that they sounded evil than on the music alone.

My son at 15 had a friend with Down's. He said the friend "sounds like Bob Dylan when he sings." perfect


There's at least one song in which Dylan tries to sing in a straightforward manner: "Lay Lady Lay".

Re Robert Plant's recent collaboration: that's Alison Krauss, fiddler and vocalist for the band Union Station. She also appears on Richard Thompson's latest album (which I have yet to get), and has done a lovely rendition of "Dimming of the Day".

Speaking of Thompson and Dylan...they've been touring together recently.

Yes, and if I'd really wanted to I could have managed to get to one of the stops, which is about a 3-hour drive from here. When I read a review of it I was a little sorry that I hadn't gone just for RT's performance. But apparently his part was pretty brief compared to Wilco's, a good band but not one I'd especially want to hear live. If I'm not mistaken they were the band that was here a few years ago and got a lot of complaints for being far too loud for the relatively small venue.

I never did like Nashville Skyline. I really tried, but I just don't. For a long time I wasn't 100% sure it wasn't a joke.

Alison Krauss on Thompson's album doing a rendition of "Dimming of the Day" may be lovely, but it just plain makes me sad.


Speaking of jokes, have you seen that the next volume in Dylan's "Bootleg Series" is going to be outtakes from the Self-Portrait and New Morning sessions?

I read somewhere (though I cannot now find it) that Self-Portrait really was conceived by Dylan as a kind of joke -- an intentionally bad joke that he hoped would get people "off his back", which I take to mean that he wanted to put another bullet in the "voice of his generation" mythos. If you remember, his move from country to electric on Bringing It All Back Home was an attempt to do the same thing -- an attempt that backfired, obviously.

I think I have a comment in the spam filter.


Craig's was in there, too. Freed now.

90% of RT's songs are on the gloomy side. The one that really gets me is the somewhat similar "Withered and Died." And there's one I really can't bear to listen to, "[redacted]". I'll tell you the name if you really want to know, but don't say I didn't warn you (I think we had this conversation once before).

I've been reading about that new release, Craig. Here's a review. This guy says the idea that it was a joke isn't true. But I have to say that the thought of a collection of Self-Portrait outtakes is like contemplating the leftovers from a meal of burnt toast. And the complete package is four disks! I remember many years after SP came out thinking "It couldn't have been that bad," and listening to it again and thinking "Yes, it is." But that review treats it quite seriously.

New Morning is a pretty decent album, though.

Yes, we have. But what I meant was that the idea of Alison K. replaacing Linda T. for DotD makes me sad. If it wasn't on an album with Richard, it wouldn't bother me. I really like that song, sad as it is.


Oh yeah, is sad. I hope AK wasn't making eyes at him as she sang it.

Like in that Willie Nelson movie.


I don't know that one.

I guess I should have said I hoped he wasn't making eyes at her. But I was thinking of a Krause-Plant video where she seems to completely enchanted with him.

Look at his picture here:

Boy, if there is ever anybody I wouldn't want to look at me.


And that was Honeysuckle Rose, where Willie is looking at his best friend's daughter (Emmylou) like that while they are singing--and vice versa.


Heh. I'm sure there are much less troll-like pictures of Robert Plant around. Haven't seen Honeysuckle Rose. Just as soon not, I guess.

You know what, Mac, you are right and you saved me 98 dollars. I heard there was an album of Self-Portrait outtakes coming out, so I put it straight in my cart. I admit I thought it was odd it was 98 dollars, but I thought, maybe it's fantastic or something. I never said to myself, you hated Self-Portrait, so why should you want to listen to outtakes from the same? I'm deleting it.

I'm willing to entertain the possibility that there are some good things on it, but--$98?!? I'm glad I was instrumental in changing your mind about that. There's probably a smaller edition, if you're really curious. That's the way they seem to be doing these outtake sets.

Have you heard Patty Griffin's new album?


About Self-Portrait being a joke -- there's this in a 1984 Rolling Stone interview:

Interviewer: It always seemed to me that you were sort of infallible in your career up until Self Portrait, in 1970. What's the story behind that album?

Dylan: At the time, I was in Woodstock, and I was getting a great degree of notoriety for doing nothing. Then I had that motorcycle accident, which put me outta commission. Then, when I woke up and caught my senses, I realized I was just workin' for all these leeches. And I didn't wanna do that. Plus, I had a family, and I just wanted to see my kids.

I'd also seen that I was representing all these things that I didn't know anything about. Like I was supposed to be on acid. It was all storm-the-embassy kind of stuff — Abbie Hoffman in the streets — and they sorta figured me as the kingpin of all that. I said, "Wait a minute, I'm just a musician. So my songs are about this and that. So what?" But people need a leader. People need a leader more than a leader needs people, really. I mean, anybody can step up and be a leader, if he's got the people there that want one. I didn't want that, though.

But then came the big news about Woodstock, about musicians goin' up there, and it was like a wave of insanity breakin' loose around the house day and night. You'd come in the house and find people there, people comin' through the woods, at all hours of the day and night, knockin' on your door. It was really dark and depressing. And there was no way to respond to all this, you know? It was as if they were suckin' your very blood out. I said, "Now, wait, these people can't be my fans. They just can't be." And they kept comin'. We had to get out of there.

This was just about the time of that Woodstock Festival, which was the sum total of all this bullshit. And it seemed to have something to do with me, this Woodstock Nation, and everything it represented. So we couldn't breathe. I couldn't get any space for myself and my family, and there was no help, nowhere. I got very resentful about the whole thing, and we got outta there.

We moved to New York. Lookin' back, it really was a stupid thing to do. But there was a house available on MacDougal Street, and I always remembered that as a nice place. So I just bought this house, sight unseen. But it wasn't the same when we got back. The Woodstock Nation had overtaken MacDougal Street also. There'd be crowds outside my house. And I said, "Well, fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can't possibly like, they can't relate to. They'll see it, and they'll listen, and they'll say, 'Well, let's go on to the next person. He ain't sayin' it no more. He ain't givin' us what we want,' you know? They'll go on to somebody else," But the whole idea backfired Because the album went out there, and the people said, "This ain't what we want," and they got more resentful. And then I did this portrait for the cover. I mean, there was no title for that album. I knew somebody who had some paints and a square canvas, and I did the cover up in about five minutes. And I said, "Well, I'm gonna call this album Self Portrait."

Interviewer: Which was duly interpreted by the press as: This is what he is . . .

Dylan: Yeah, exactly. And to me, it was a joke.

Not sure I buy that though.

I am thinking it must have been temporary insanity even to put that in my amazon cart. Do you remember 'All the Tired Horses'?

No I have not heard the new Patty Griffin and it would be great to hear a report on it.

He may be semi-serious, but my, does he capture those times!

This account of Dylan's view of the late '60s is very much in line with what he says in Chronicles, if my memory is reasonably accurate.

I had pretty much forgotten "All the Tired Horses" until I read a couple of reviews of this new collection. Bizarre, as I recall.

But the very worst Dylan song ever is "Wiggle Wiggle".

I haven't heard the new Patty Griffin, either. Didn't know there was one.

I read Chronicles this spring, and that is pretty much exactly what he writes about the period.

That's at least one thing Dylan is consistent about.

One thing I like about that book is how Dylan only focuses on albums that weren't very historically significant, as if he were trying to avoid hagiography, or separate himself from histrionic Baby Boomers. His prose is so vivid that I didn't mind that he wasn't writing about parts of his life I was previously curious about.

In general that book was a whole lot better than I expected, although I don't remember a lot of details now. The account of the Woodstock period is one thing that stuck with me, though.

I been meaning to read that book for a long time. I must get to it!

It's not a great book or anything, but I think anyone interested in Dylan would enjoy it.

There are some very long and tedious parts about the late 80's, where Dylan keeps losing his creative spark and finding it again, and back and forth.

However, I loved the chapter about his early days as a folk singer in New York.

One passage in particular, about his meeting a sound effects man for radio shows, has struck me as particularly well-wrought. I won't quote it here, because it's like a long poem, or even a long joke, that you have to read to the end.

Yes, I remember that early days part, too. Especially where he's staying with those friends, and reads and reads and reads. Sounds like such a great moment. That, and the Woodstock years, and something towards the end about some eccentric roadside flea market type of thing--in Louisiana, maybe?--those are the parts I remember. Don't remember the story about the sound effects man.

Thanks, it would be just great to read in the evenings after semester starts. I'm always looking for a truly relaxing book that has nothing to do with theology whatsoever.

I've often wondered what it would be like if the thing you were most interested in (or close to most, anyway) was the thing you made your living by. I remember many years ago reading Coleridge's advice to a would-be writer to find some non-literary occupation and do his writing in the evening. I think his main reason was the financial insecurity of writing as a trade. As I recall he painted this idyllic portrait of the writer coming home to the smiling faces of wife and children, seeing them off to bed, and working away, refreshed and content, in the silent house after they were all asleep. I have often remembered that, and laughed. But I'm sure there's also a definite drawback to having your intellectual interest also be your job, something you need relief from rather than something you turn to for relief.

Well, though, I do still enjoy reading books for work. I still enjoy reading Thomas Aquinas or von Balthasar. I get excited when I crack open a book by the theologians I like. But in the evenings after I knock off, I don't want to read a theology book. It's work.

There's a French early 20th century Catholic guy called Sertillanges who wrote a book with a name like The Christian Intellectual. He has a similar sort of portrait, of some man writing away while his wife is busy with her sewing basket.

And his wife is not saying a word, right? so as not to disturb his concentration.

I should know that work is work even when you like it. I was about to say writing is like that but I don't know if I even like it. I like having done it.

That's right. His wife sitting quietly with her sewing. It's a clerical romantic conception of marriage!

I have a friend who is tired of standing up for theology or even Religious Studies in a secular university and says he might like to go into administration and just write in his spare time. To me, that would be the end. In the evenings, I'd watch Breaking Bad or Foyle's War. I wouldn't write anything.

"a clerical romantic conception of marriage" Indeed. Definitely not based on experience.

Well, it was very close to being the end for me. You read about people like John Grisham who get up at 4 and write for 2 or 3 hours, then go off to a regular job. I've actually tried that and couldn't make it work. I almost fell asleep on the way to work after a week or so of it.

I can't write with anyone else in the room. Not that I'm really a writer, but if I can't write a blog post with someone else around, I'm sure I couldn't write anything longer.


Neither can I.

That's right. His wife sitting quietly with her sewing. It's a clerical romantic conception of marriage!

Heh! This makes me think of the comedienne who said that women are crazy and complex, while men are simple and Delusional. (At least this charming picture of domesticity sounds delusional to me).

Yes, and she won't be able to leave him alone because she is crazy and complex. ;-)


Although, I have to say that many homeschooling mothers have this kind of image.

Before life beats it out of them. :-(

Yes, but we survive, and who wants to live in Cloud Cuckoo Land?


Although, I have to say that many homeschooling mothers have this kind of image.

--C-C-C-craaaazzzzyyyyy! QED :)

Cloud Cuckoo Land does sound sort of appealing at times.

Yes, that's how they trap you.


Then you end up in Jonestown.


Or Steubenville.

That's a joke. I'm quite sure I would like Steubenville in most ways. But your mention of Jonestown made me think of a recent discussion on Daniel's blog about the evolution of communities like that, which apparently a significant number of people have found stifling.

We actually looked at houses there once. Boy, you could get a lot of house for $58K--5 bedrooms, a den--maybe 2 dens, and a finished basement.

I was thinking about going to school there, but obviously we changed our mind.

I have a feeling I would have been stifled after a while.


That book by Sertillanges (The Intellectual Life) is actually pretty good, on balance, but the section on "being an intellectual with a family" is more than a tad too rosy. I remember him asking his family-man reader who thinks he's too busy to do anything intellectual: "Have you two hours a day?"

No, no, no. I don't.

In those days, even lower middle class Europeans had servants. My father used to say, 'America has no servant class.' That includes Canada.

A servant class perhaps bought them two hours of leisure a day?

John Webster, probably the best living systematic theologian, liked that book.

I've seen the book recommended by Fr. Schall and, recently, by R.R. Reno. I've actually read it, years ago, and it is a good book.

I have two small servants, but somehow they never seem to do what they're told.

It is rather depressing to consider that I've never heard of the best living systematic theologian!

I see that he used to teach at the same school where I went to graduate school -- but he left the year before I arrived. That explains why I don't know him. Surely.

A servant class perhaps bought them two hours of leisure a day?

I used to laugh when I would read English novels about the time of WWII. All these middle class women so worried about whether or not they will be able to find someone to make their beds and wash their dishes.


I wonder if rich Americans--movie stars and such--who have servants call them that.

There was a review of a book about Virginia Woolf a while back in The New Criterion which had some funny quotes from her lamenting about her problems with her cook. You got the impression that she (VW) would have starved if she'd had to cook for herself.

I haven't heard of him either, Craig.

Re your two servants: have I ever mentioned Horton's Law regarding help from children? Their willingness to help is in inverse proportion to their ability.

No, I haven't heard of Horton's Law before! Are you suggesting that they won't always want to help clean the bathroom or sweep the kitchen?

I don't want to be too discouraging, but, yes, the phenomenon has been reported.

I got a couple of good years out of my eldest male servant and I consider that to be pretty good going!

Of course if you have to do the everyday jobs yourself, you don't have proper leisure for serious intellectual study.

Even outsourcing the gardening doesn't bring us the leisure my husband would need to do intellectual work outside of his work hours.

It is truly hilarious to realise that middle class women worried about whether or not their beds would get made, although I relate to the cooking. Nick and the kids do the bulk of it here. :)

People don't call their servants "servants" any more I dare say - especially in the US I would imagine (though I have no proof whatever). Surely it's "employees."

I think it's more likely by specific function. Nanny, gardener, cook, etc. Or maybe, collectively, "the help".

It's always sobering to me to realize how much the gracious leisured life has always depended on the usually ill-paid labor of others.

I must say that a couple of my servants have become very useful in their middle age.


But not as servants, I expect.

Cooks, furniture movers, computer technicians.


This is a very amusing discussion. Although it's true that the servants are pretty poorly paid and they have to work hard. I always made sure I paid any helpers above the minimum wage, which is much higher in Australia than here. Here, I like to make sure they are paid above that rate too - we have a gardener and he earns a reasonable amount, but he does work very hard in the heat. :(

I agree, Maclin, about their various titles - nanny etc. But I was thinking of the collective term. In Pollyanna, Miss Harrington referred to her "staff." But I think you're right about "the help." In Australia, they might be called "employees" but since I don't know anyone who has more help than a weekly gardener or cleaner, I don't really know.

Oh yeah, I didn't think about "staff." I'm sure that's the word some people would use. "help" is a bit old-fashioned and condescending to egalitarian ears.

Most of my former servants are not close enough for me to use them as cooks,etc. That must be handy. What I really need is a gardener, but I don't think any of them would do that anyway, or are especially qualified.

"Help" sounds very southern and pre-Civil Rights movement to me, although we didn't use that term.

I thought about that. The only one that's close enough really has her hands full.


Then again, one of them is helping you with your book.


I'm paying her--it's her business.

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