BOB DYLAN AT 70.

AN APPRECIATION

con't

 

 

5. “Don’t Think Twice, it’s All Right”
This is relatively early Dylan, and appeared on his second album. “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Columbia, (1962). This was the LP whose cover featured Dylan’s then-girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, who recently passed away, and was an early influence on Dylan’s socio-political development.
12 Peter, Paul & Mary, were early Dylan boosters, and followed up their hit single of “Blowing in the Wind,” with an excellent version of this song. Interestingly, PP&M changed the “if you don’t know by now,” from the second to the fourth line” of the first stanza, and substituted for “I’m walking down that long lonesome road gal, “ for “so long, honey babe,” but their slick Milt Okun arrangement did justice to the song. “Don’t think Twice” is a love song from the vantage point of someone who is leaving what, to him, was an unsatisfying relationship. The love interest was clueless as to why she is the reason the singer is “moving on.” She has either given too little (turnin’ on the light, babe—the light I never knowed,” callin’ out my name, gal, like you never did before”) or wanting too much (“I gave her my heart, but she wanted my soul”).13
The Dylan version of the song on “Freewheelin’”featured the masterful guitar accompaniment of Bruce Langhorne. Many an aspiring folkie (myself included) struggled to master the intricate fingerpicking featured by Langhorne, as well as Ramblin’ Jack Eliot, and Peter, Paul & Mary.
Favorite Version: Ramblin’ Jack Eliot (early Dylan mentor, Guthrie mentee, and protean folksinger). Second Place: Peter, Paul & Mary; Honorable Mention: Joan Baez.

6. “Girl From the North Country”
This song, like “Don’t think Twice,” first appeared on the “Freewheelin’” LP, and is nicely sung and played by Dylan. He fingerpicked it in an up-tempo “Travis” style, an early refutation of those who were quick to dismiss his ability as a guitarist. Even though Dylan favored simple Woody Guthrie-like strumming, he was able to play in a variety of folk styles and—while never of lead guitarist caliber—was certainly a versatile and effective accompanist both on guitar and piano. (Clearly, Dylan’s virtuoso harmonica playing is certainly of “lead” quality, and is on fine display on this and many other songs on “Freewheelin.’”) This is a beautiful love song, with a heartfelt nostalgia for a lost love. Far from the dismissive “it’s over, but it’s no big deal!” (my words) sentiment present in “Don’t Think Twice,” in “Girl from the North Country,” Dylan wants only to tender her his fondest regards and displays a sensitive concern (“see for me that she’s wearin’ a coat so warm, to keep her from the howlin’ winds”), and the evocative sensual remembrance (“see for me that her hair’s hanging down; rolls and flows all down her breast…that’s the way I remember her best.”). As even the casual Dylan observer knows, he rarely does a song the same way twice. Those anxious for a “Dylan’s Greatest Hits,” when you see him in concert are almost certain to come away disappointed. That said, his second “studio” recording of “Girl from the North Country” is slowed down to a ballad, performed in a memorable duet with Johnny Cash on his “country” album, Nashville Skyline. Apart from an uneven bootleg,
14 it’s the only recording available by these two musical icons. Here, they’re both in top voice.
Favorite Version: You guessed it! Dylan & Cash.

7. “My Back Pages”
This song appeared on Dylan’s last fully acoustic album, called “Another Side of Bob Dylan.” This relatively underappreciated album featured three of the songs on this list, and was the first clear step that Dylan had moved away from the self-styled role of the kind of topical-political folksinger, whose songs appeared on the pages of “Sing Out” and “Broadside” Magazines, and turned—in the words of Sing Out editor Irwin Silber, “inward.”
15 This introspective turn was epitomized by the song “My Back Pages.” Interviewers have frequently struggled to find the “real Dylan,” as he has—by his own words—assumed many different personalities and poses over the years.16 When I first heard this song, I was taken aback by Dylan’s candor, as it seemed his first admission that the world-weary tone that he had affected in his early years, may have been a bit premature for a man in his early twenties.17 And so, when I first heard Dylan’s verse-ending refrain, “Ah but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now,” I realized that saying something like that was not an easy thing for him to admit, and that this “other side” of Bob Dylan was, perhaps, the first true one to which we were being exposed. I gained a new respect for Dylan, far different from the bad-boy persona he flaunted in “Don’t Look Back,” where he seemed to mock and take delight in befuddling many of the people who were trying to get a better understanding of who he was. This is a song worth listening to anew, as it presaged a new, and more mature, Bob Dylan.
Favorite Version: The Byrds on “Younger than Yesterday,” Columbia, © 1967. Second Place: Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert: Dylan, McGuinn, Harrison and Petty (1992).

8. “It Ain’t Me, Babe.”
Also from “Another Side,” “It ain’t me, Babe,” can be seen as a companion piece to “My Back Pages,” even though it may appear closer in tone to “Don’t think twice, it’s all right.” Dylan was, by now, painfully aware that people had expectations of him that he was growing increasingly reluctant to embrace. In the song, his lover has projected an image on him that he is loath to fulfill. If, he tells her, she’s looking for someone, “never weak, but always strong, to protect you and defend you, whether you are right or wrong—someone to open each and ever door”—uh, uh, wrong guy. While, at first blush, the song may seem selfish, upon closer listening, he’s simply saying that not only can’t he be all things to all people, he can’t even be those things to her. He’s also warning her that only disappointment can lie ahead if she expects a flesh and blood human being to be a knight in shining armor. “I’m not the one you want babe, I’ll only let you down.” By moving inward, the same Bob Dylan who was decrying being the voice of his generation was spelling it out to his fans—it ain’t me babe. To quote Popeye, “I yam what I yam.”
Favorite version: Peter, Paul & Mary’s” late-career version on “Flowers & Stone “
18 Second place: Joan Baez’s version on “Joan Baez, #5.” (Johnny and June Carter Cash’s version is a bit hokey, and the Dylan/Baez duet from Newport is amateurish, and should be avoided at all costs. Look instead for their bravura performance on “With God on our Side.” See #9.)


9. “With God on our Side”
When heavyweight champion Joe Louis was leaving for the army early in 1942, he was asked whether “God was on our side,” and replied “we will win because we are on God’s side.”
19 This oft-quoted response to a press inquiry was something that Americans placed great faith in, and, of course, rarely questioned. It’s hard to find a clearer example of a protest song in Dylan’s catalogue. What made “With God on our Side,” unusual was its holding a magnifying glass to what had been an article of faith. If America was involved in a cause, how could it not be just? This pre-Vietnam song (whose melody had been appropriated from Dominic Behan’s excellent topical Irish song, “The Patriot Game,” written in 1959) cast a skeptical eye on skirmishes dating back to the earliest days of our republic. It may be instructive to compare “With God on our Side,” to “I ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” another excellent protest song written at about the same time by the late Phil Ochs, a Dylan contemporary, and—arguably—Dylan’s closest “competitor” for the “best protest singer” crown.20 These two songs dealt with the same American history lesson in different ways. While both are first-rate songs, essentially making the same point (i.e. war is not the answer), look at how differently the two artists approach the topic. Ochs is straightforward in his examination, and recalls a bloody history culminating in the detonation of the first atomic bomb (“when I saw the cities burning I knew that I was learning that I ain’t marchin’ anymore”). His final stanza is a leftist’s lament over the fact that the labor unions (once the spokesmen of “the Peoples’ struggle”) are now bemoaning the closing of missile camps (due to the loss of jobs). Ochs’s refrain is that old people make the decisions to go to wars fought by the young, and leaves us with the rhetorical question he has answered in the negative (“tell me is it worth it all?”) Dylan’s approach looks at the shibboleth (“God is on Our Side”) and compares it to some of the same historical realities that caused Ochs to recommend abandoning the gun. In so doing, Dylan holds a mirror up to the slogan, and, in so doing, displays its irony. Herein lies Dylan’s distinctive strength. He’s not just saying, “war is bad, and peace is good.” Instead (As in his early “Only a Pawn in their Game” and—of course—“Hattie Carroll”), Dylan employs a metaphor and, in “With God on our Side,” turns it upside down. When Dylan looks at the end of World War II, he points to our forgiveness of the Germans (“and now we are friends. Though they murdered six-million, in the ovens they fried, the Germans now, too, have God on their side.”). That line leaves us gasping for breath. The complicated post-war policy decisions made with respect to both Germany and Japan have been the subject of much scholarly inquiry, ands goes far beyond the scope of this piece, but Dylan was not wrong to show how confusing it can be when man tries to ascribe God’s support to his (temporal and changing) decisions. In perhaps the song’s most powerful moment, he looks to the betrayal of Jesus Christ by (supposed ally) Judas Iscariot and asks if he, too, had God on his side. He then provides us with the answer made inevitable by his inquiry into our (and mankind’s) hypocrisy, if “God is on our Side, He’ll stop the next War.” Amen.

Best version: The Dylan/Baez duet at Newport.
22 When I first heard this 1964 duet, it seemed to me the single most representative performance of the folk-era, by its two preeminent practitioners. Don’t miss it!

10. “A Hard Rain’s a-gonna Fall.”
This is early (1962) Dylan, and appeared on his Freewheelin’ album. On the liner notes, noted music and first amendment columnist Nat Hentoff observed that it was written in response to the Cuban Missile crisis. Back when Dylan was more open in discussing the meaning of his songs, he told the late Studs Terkel that he was not referring to the so-called “acid-rain” caused by nuclear fall-out, but rather the lies that people tell (i.e. “the pellets of poison”).
23 This song is an excellent example of what is called “the folk process,” a description of how folk songs borrow from one another and change over time. In this one, Dylan borrowed openly from “Lord Randall,” an old Child ballad of a young man who returns home poisoned by his sweetheart, a fact drawn out by his mother after repeated inquiries. Here, in this first of many “long” songs by Dylan, he again makes use of metaphor and irony in a way that distanced him from many of his more “pamphleteering” contemporaries. The song is filled with allusions to racism (“I saw a white man who walked a black dog”) the nihilism caused by mankind’s abuse of his (“and none is the number”) planet and demonstrated Dylan’s promise of becoming something more than just a protest singer. While the debate will forever rage on whether or not Dylan’s lyrics constitute poetry, the words to “Hard Rain” suggest a nascent poeticism he was later to realize more fully. When I hear “a highway of diamonds with nobody on it” I think of how little our material goods will matter to a decimated planet. The words, ”I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children” meant nothing to me at the time but, now, in the wake of the children forced to be soldiers in Rwanda’s internecine warfare, have all too powerful an impact. When Dylan points out that the world we were creating would be a place “Where the executioners face is always well hidden” we can draw our own conclusion as to how so much harm is done under the cloak of governmental or multinational corporate anonymity. At the time he was first performing the song, I remember a parodist at Gerde’s Folk City (whose name I can’t recall) singing a spoof of it with the refrain, “it’s so hard to be ethnic.” In any event, listening to the song now merely underscores its prescience. While, back in 1962, I must confess that I thought that Dylan was taking himself (and the world) far too seriously, I think that, perhaps, I was not taking it seriously enough. When he closes with, “But I’ll know my song well before I start singing,” we now know what that young, tousle-haired ragamuffin was talking about.

Best version: Dylan’s studio version, on “Freewheelin’”. Second place: Joan Baez on “Farewell Angelina; (or for a live performance, Disc 3 of Box Set “Rare, Live & Classic” Vanguard, 1993, where she employs her trademarked imitation of Dylan on the final stanza. Unfortunately, this is one time she should have played it straight, as it distracts from the strongest part of the song. ) Honorable Mention: Pete Seeger, on “We Shall Overcome; the Complete Concert; Columbia © 1963, 1988.
 

   

                                       

Footnotes:

12. See “A Freewheelin’ Time,” Suze Rotolo, Broadway Books © 2008. This is reminiscence on their time spent together as well as a portrait of the 60’s in the Village. For Dylan’s bitter take on their break-up, listen to “Ballad in Plain D,” on “Another Side of Bob Dylan.” He does not blame Rotolo, someone he loved very much.
13. On a personal note, I remember a friend of mine cautioning me—with respect to the woman I later married—“Give her your heart, but not your soul.” People were quoting Dylan even back then. My soul, by the way, remains intact.)
14. Dylan/Cash Studio Out-takes: Spank 106 © 2004
15. My dog-eared copy of the November 26, 1964 issue of “Sing Out,” included Silber’s open letter, with the words, “your new songs all seem to be inner-directed, now inner-probing, self-conscious…” While hell may have no fury like a doctrinaire lefty scorned, Silber was very correct in his assessment of the change in Dylan’s music. In fairness, he did retract some of his criticism in later years. Psychologists would argue that people were “projecting” their own attitudes on Dylan, and only liked him to the degree that he was doing their bidding. Dylan’s “inward” turn transformed the musical landscape. (See footnote 2) The entire missive can be found on-line by googling “An Open Letter to Bob Dylan.” Dylan may have “answered” the open letter in his song, “Positively Fourth Street.”
16. “Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, edited by Jonathan Cott; Wenner Books, (2006)
17. 16 I have long been a fan of the late Jean Shepherd (best known for his “Christmas Story”), whose late-night radio monologues formed the backdrop of my misspent youth, one did a bit on Bob Dylan called “The young old man.” In it, he poked fun at Dylan’s world-weariness, and (unfavorably) compared Dylan’s experience to that of a combat-hardened army sergeant. If any of you can locate this bit, I’d love to get my hands on it.
18. “Flowers & Stone,” Gold Castle Records D2-71339, ©1990
19. Joe Louis: Box Rec (Web)
20. “I ain’t Marchin;’ Anymore” Elektra Records © 1965. Bing Crosby had once said half-jokingly (about Frank Sinatra), “A voice like his comes along only once in a lifetime. Unfortunately, it was during mine.” Phil Ochs might have said the same thing about Dylan. Like Dylan, Ochs also turned “inward,” moving away from protest songs to more inner-directed music, although with less success. Beset by his own demons, he took his own life in 1976, and the music world lost an important voice.
21. “The Essential Dylan Interviews” Wenner Press 2009, Studs Terkel, 1963.¬
22. “Joan Baez, Live at Newport,” Vanguard 77015-2 ©1996.
23. Essential Interviews: May, 1963