I ended last months Ramblin’s with some brief thoughts on Bob Dylan’s birthday and I thought I just might

carry on with that theme. If you know me or have read my columns closely, you probably know that I’m a big Dylan fan (I won’t say fanatic, because when you’re talking Dylan, folks have gotten pretty fanatical) and, to put it bluntly, consider him the best rock and roll musician of all time. From the first time I heard a Bob Dylan record (It was in the bedroom of a friend, one autumn afternoon, in 1964. I was in the eighth grade and the album was “The Times They Are a’Changin’” and it belonged to his older brother who was in college. Not just the title song, but “With God on Our Side” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game”, really moved me as a dedicated young Christian who was trying to figure out what religion was really all about.) with his acoustic guitar and as Don McLean said later, “a voice that came from you and me.” I had an uncle who would sit on the porch with an acoustic guitar and sing all afternoon and outside of the church, that was all I knew about live music. I had grown up listening to my mothers Hank Williams records and even though there were all those fiddles and steel guitars and sometimes strings surrounding Hank’s singing, I somehow just always imagined he was up there with his guitar, just like my uncle Edward when he played for me on the front porch. And there was a lonesomeness to Hank’s voice that Dylan seemed to have channeled. In the months leading up to Bob’s 70th Birthday, I happened to read two books about him and his work. The first and better of the two was “Bob Dylan in America” by Sean Wilentz, who is better known as a historian, but has connections to Dylan and his music that qualify him for the subject. Rather than a biography, Wilentz looks at the influences that helped create Dylan, going deeper than Hibbing, MN and Woody Guthrie. One very interesting chapter deals with the influence of the Beat Poets on Dylan’s love of language, as well as their philosophy of spontaneity and living in the moment. The second section of the book is one of the most interesting. In the first, he discusses Dylan’s 1964 Philharmonic Concert, which he attended as a teenager and then wrote the liner notes for the album of the concert that was released as The Bootleg Series, Vol 6. It’s a great remembrance of both the concert and the stage that Dylan was at in his career. Wilentz says it was “in part a summation of past work and in part a summons to an explosion that none of us . . . was fully prepared”. This was part of Dylan’s last totally acoustic tour and Wilentz points to signs that he was growing restless with the folk music community and on the verge of the big change that wouldn’t come for almost a year when he brought Mike Bloomfield to Newport and “went electric”. In the other part of that section he discusses the late night recording of “Blonde on Blonde” in Nashville. He had begun working on tracks in New York, but something wasn’t right, so he brought several NY musicians with him to Nashville, including Al Kooper and Robbie Robertson, where they were joined by some of Nashville’s best young studio musicians. There are great recollections from many of the musicians as to

how they learned to work together and how they came to the lonesome “mercurial” sound that Kooper called the “sound of 3AM.” In Section III, Wilentz deals with the “Rolling Thunder Review”, the troupe of friends and acquaintances that Dylan toured America with in the Bicentennial Year of 1976. He spends more time on the Ruban Cater story than is necessary, but it still has interesting moments. I was a little disappointed that he didn’t go into more about the tour itself. However, the chapter that follows it on Blind Willie McTell is excellent, both for its telling the most complete account of McTell’s live and music that I’ve read, and is his influence on Bob Dylan. McTell was a Georgia street singer who was atleast partially blind, who had the uncanny knack of leading tourist of Atlanta on sight-seeing tours, accurately pointing out all the landmarks. He is best known for writing “Statesboro Blues” which the Allman Brothers turned into a hit, and having a song by Bob Dylan named after him. Here Wilentz goes into the physche of the southern Negro, as they were known then, who was always walking a tight rope with white people. He thinks Dylan came to identify with him about walking the line between being popular and following your heart. In a similar chapter, Wilentz uses Dylan’s move back toward folk music in the 1990s when he released two records of traditional type songs, played, unaccompanied, on acoustic guitar, to give a lesson in the history of American folk music. He uses the song “Delia” which had been recorded by Dylan and Blind Willie McTell in very different versions. Wilentz is best when he’s researching history and this chapter takes us to the roots of American folk, by focusing not just on “Delia”, but also on “Frankie and Johnny” and “Stagolee”, all of which were written about real life crimes from the early 1900s. This is interesting stuff. From there, the book goes down hill somewhat although there are still interesting segments from his discussion of Dylan’s “Never Ending Tour” which has been going on with breaks and a few band changes since the 1990s and an excellent discussion of Dylan’s “Love and Theft” which was released on Sept 11, 2001. Calling Dylan a “modern minstrel” with roots that reach far deeper than 1950s hootenannies and 1960s rock shows, but to the old Medicine Shows and Minstrel Shows of the 1800’s, he also goes to great lengths to defend Dylan against some of the charges of plagiarism that have leveled at him since the release of Modern Times in 2006. But some of the other topics, were anti-climatic, to say the least. He stays away from the gossip and stars’ romantic problems and sticks to the Bob Dylan that takes the stage and makes the records, and overall, this is an excellent book, that is well written and researched, and an interesting read. The other book I read, was “Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads” by Greil Marcus, who is an author I have quite often enjoyed, but this one let me down a little. Perhaps a lot of stories had already been told and therefore it felt like old news, but it also seems to write a book about one song is a bit of a stretch. Don’t get me wrong, it is one

of the greatest and most revolutionary singles that rock n roll has produced, but it got a little repetitious and almost boring the more I read. He does come up with some revealing new information about the recording of the song that is of interest but too often he’s either telling me things I already know or repeating himself. Although I found the book enjoyable (I like reading about Dylan), it’s not one that I would recommend to any but the most die hard Dylan fan.

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