Volume 2, No. 4: April 15, 2005

Bob Dylan Performance Sampler

by Michael Bouman

Song To Woody (1962) on Dylan's first record, "Bob Dylan"
The language and spelling reflect Guthrie's stylistic influence on the lad of 21 who made this record.  The "Bob Dylan voice" that appears on the folk songs and blues on this record was apparently modeled on the "rusted shrapnel" sound of Bob's friend, Dave Van Ronk.

Blowin' In The Wind (1962) on Dylan's second record, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan"
Dismissed as too vague and indistinct by Dylan's peers in the folk music community, this song became an instant hit with people Dylan's age, and it was widely recorded by others.  The song is modeled after "riddle songs" in the folk repertoire.

A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (1963) on "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan"
Written during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and modeled after an English ballad, this kind of song builds energy verse after verse.  I played it as my audition at Penn State for Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, a music fraternity that originated at Central Methodist College in Fayette, Missouri.

The Times They Are A-Changin' (1963) on Dylan's third record, "The Times They Are A-Changin'"
Another instant hit that earned Dylan the unwanted title of "spokesperson of his generation."

One Too Many Mornings (1964) on "The Times They Are A-Changin'"
A great example of Dylan's lyrical side.  The language is still in a style influenced by Woody Guthrie.

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (1964) on "The Times They Are A-Changin'"
A classic example of the 1960s "protest song" genre.  Protest song writers took their material from current events in the newspapers.  Dylan met such writers as soon as he left high school.  His contributions to this genre led to a reputation he fought hard to undo just a few years later.

Like A Rolling Stone (1965) on Dylan's fifth record, "Highway 61 Revisited"
Suddenly, Dylan exploded out of pseudo folk music and bridged it with rock.  The poetry is in a style of street rap, and the song has the obviously autobiographic reference to "scrounging your next meal," which is what Dylan did for more than a year after high school.  The song began as a long poetic rant, full of spleen.  Then one day he brought it to a recording session.   This is one of his "greatest hits."  It appears on many of his live concert recordings.

It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry (1965) on "Highway 61 Revisited"
Dylan performed this live as "Phantom Engineer" for a while before he recorded it.  He typically came to recording sessions with unformed ideas about his songs and with pages of lyrics without melodies.  After trying several takes of this song, he worked up a new arrangement at the piano during a break.  That's the version that made it to the record.  It's a great example of Dylan's rural blues roots, which go back to Louisiana radio stations that he was able to pick up in his boyhood home in northern Minnesota.  The final verse of the song, unlike the first two in style and content, is a forecast of a lyric style that is his own.  Set a scene; then say something unexpected; then say something else unexpected.  This is "Dylan-sense."

Desolation Row (1965) on "Highway 61 Revisited" and also on "MTV Unplugged"
The poetry and style of this song stopped me in my tracks when I first heard it.  It's a good introduction to the "surreal" style Dylan added to his writing.  Compare the original with the 1994 MTV recording for a taste of how Dylan reworks the delivery of lyrics to keep the material fresh.  He has said that he considers a recording to be "just one of many possible performances of a song." 

Subterranean Homesick Blues (1965) on Dylan's sixth record, "Bringing It All Back Home"
Now an international star, Dylan is pouring out song lyrics nonstop.  He's still exploring his weird, surreal imagery here, blending it with rap rhymes, and uttering the infamous phrase, "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," which a terrorist group used as the source of its name, The Weathermen. 

Bob Dylan's 115th Dream (1965) on "Bringing It All Back Home"
This recording documents Dylan's studio method, which was impulsive, non-communicative, and chaotic.  He might finish one take on the guitar and bolt to the piano and begin another song before microphones were set or the musicians knew what he was about to play.  What you hear on the record is the first and only take, in which he catches everyone by surprise as he launches into the lyric with no one else ready to play, then breaks down in laughter as the producer tells everyone to "hold it" and then calls for another take.  You hear it all on the record.

It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) (1965) on "Bringing It All Back Home"
This song remained popular a long time.  It's another long "Beat" poem, full of rich images.  The line, "even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked" brought cheers when he sang it during the Watergate scandal in 1974.

Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 (1966) on Dylan's seventh record, "Blonde On Blonde"
In a way, this is one of Bob Dylan's most remarkable recordings.  Released as a single, it got a lot of air play.  I remember hearing it in a diner and wondering, "what kind of crap is THAT?"  The story is that Dylan brought the lyric to his recording session and got the session musicians high on pot before a "run-through."  He asked everyone to play an unfamiliar instrument for this "rehearsal."  After the run-through, the musicians got ready to do a serious take and Dylan said, "that's it."  They said, "what are you going to call it?"  He replied instantly, straight-faced, "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35."  What you hear on the record is that first run-through.

Visions of Johanna (1966) on "Blonde On Blonde"
Dylan's first double LP contains a lot of memorable performances.  I've always been partial to this quasi-spoken rendition of a song about a lost love.  The record is a smorgasbord of vintage strangeness mixed with humor. "Blonde On Blonde" concludes the "big bang" of Bob Dylan's career.  Married now, entranced with babies, and hounded by weirdoes who want him to be "The Prince of Protest," Dylan will go into seclusion for several years, live a family life, learn to paint, and read like crazy.

All Along The Watchtower (1968) on "John Wesley Harding" and numerous other recordings
When Dylan emerged from seclusion, he made a spare recording with acoustic guitar, bass, and drums.  Most of the songs on the record appeared to have biblical references, particularly this one.  The content and style were utterly different from what he had done before he "went under."  The final song on the record, I'll Be Your Baby Tonight, is a preview of the sudden turn he will take next, into his country roots.

Lay, Lady, Lay (1969) on "Nashville Skyline"
No one imagined that Bob Dylan would release an album of apparently "country" songs in the pallid voice he chose to employ for "Nashville Skyline."  Dylan marks this as the beginning of his campaign to bewilder the fans who considered him the "spokesperson for his generation."  The voice on the record is the real Bob.  Every other voice he has adopted is a made-to-order sound for the imagined persona of the lyric.

If Dogs Run Free (1970) on "New Morning"
I have skipped the trashy double album titled "Self Portrait," which Dylan released to further bewilder and confuse his fans.  The "New Morning" record followed that one, with "bucolic" themes to further bewilder the fans.  Included on the record are songs he wrote for the Archibald MacLeish play, Scratch.  I don't like much of this record, but If Dogs Run Free is a very bluesy spoken song with jazz scat singing in the background by Maeretha Stewart.  Cool! 

Knockin' On Heaven's Door (1973) on the soundtrack recording, "Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid"
The movie director, Sam Peckinpaugh, recruited Bob to write the soundtrack for a western and to take a small part in the film.  Dylan composed what became an instant rock classic, covered by a lot of other artists and repeated on many other Dylan recordings.

Tangled Up In Blue (1974) on "Blood on the Tracks" and "Bob Dylan - Real Live"
Many regard "Blood on the Tracks" to be among Dylan's very finest records.  He wrote the songs one summer on his Minnesota farm while separated from his wife and family.  The songs express the pain of that separation.  Virtually every one is a gem.  Ten years later he reworked the lyrics to "Tangled Up In Blue" and put the whole song into third-person, with a modified tune and harmonic structure.  In my opinion, the initial recorded versions of Dylan songs are almost always stronger as music than subsequent, more "theatricalized" quasi-spoken renditions.

Buckets Of Rain (1974) on "Blood on the Tracks"
After all the songs of pain, the record ends with this folklike tune accompanied by acoustic bass and solo acoustic guitar, and what guitar playing!  Although the lyric is a love song, the playing is full of stabbing sounds that he first heard on the blues records of the legendary Robert Johnson.  The feeling is in the fingers and the steel strings, not the lyrics.

Slow Train (1979) on "Slow Train Coming" and on "Dylan and the Dead"
This song comes from the era of Dylan's conversion to Christianity and his sermonizing fans at his live concerts.  The live recording with The Grateful Dead, from 1988, has a reworked lyric and a powerful performance.

Gotta Serve Somebody (1979) on "Slow Train Coming" and on "Dylan and the Dead"
Again, powerhouse performance with the Grateful Dead and major reworking of the lyrics.  At the time, these songs were far from Dylan's mind.  When he got together with the Grateful Dead for a short tour, he found they were interested in performing a lot of material he had left behind.  During rehearsals for this tour, Dylan says he experienced a sudden vision of personal rebirth at the moment of despair when he imagined he would just retire rather than go out on that tour.  The song is wonderful on both records, made eight years apart.

Where Teardrops Fall (1989) on "Oh Mercy"
Virtually every song on the critically acclaimed "Oh Mercy" is an expression of Dylan's musical rebirth following a long slump and a serious injury to his left hand.  After innumerable takes on a song they never got right, Dylan pulled out the lyrics of "Where Teardrops Fall" late one night and they did a run-through.  The next day when they listened to the tapes of all the failed attempts, suddenly everything changed when this song played.  The producer, Dan Lanois, exclaimed, "what is THAT???"  They all knew it was magical.  They recorded it again, but never captured what was special about the run-through, so it's the run-through that they put on the CD.  The saxaphone solo at the end was a spontaneous contribution by a musician Dylan wasn't even aware of during the session.  He just got a musical idea as he listened to the run-through and played it at the perfect moment.

Shooting Star (1989) on "Oh Mercy" and "MTV Unplugged"
Dylan wrote this one night during recording sessions.  It's special to him.  He says it contains "many hundreds of miles of pain."  I imagine it telescopes memories of several significant women and of Dylan's father, who died suddenly in Minnesota when Dylan was in seclusion with his family in Woodstock, New York, late sixties. 

Canadee-i-o (arranged 1992) on "Good As I Been To You"
Bob Dylan recorded two CDs of folk song arrangements in his home recording studio in 1992 and 1993.  This unexpected retrospective of his folk roots won wide critical acclaim but sold poorly.  What you hear on the record is complete takes with no fixing, nice guitar playing with unfixed flubs, as if sitting with him at home.

Blood In My Eyes (arranged 1993) on "World Gone Wrong"
"World Gone Wrong" is the second of the acoustic CDs of folk music, and it's my favorite of the two.  Blood In My Eyes is a compelling blues with a concocted voice that sounds like an aged blues singer. I especially like his rendition of Delia http://bobdylan.com/songs/delia.html with its refrain of "All the friends I ever had are gone."

Standing In The Doorway (1997) on "Time Out Of Mind"
"Time Out Of Mind" won three Grammys and was seen as yet another major "comeback" for Bob Dylan.  Produced again by Dan Lanois, the CD is full of powerful and swampy sound environments for Dylan's powerful lyrics of his maturity.  The remarkable lyric of Standing In the Doorway begins this way and continues with increasing passion blended with fantasy:

I'm walking through the summer nights
Jukebox playing low
Yesterday everything was going too fast
Today, it's moving too slow
I got no place left to turn
I got nothing left to burn
Don't know if I saw you, if I would kiss you or kill you
It probably wouldn't matter to you anyhow
You left me standing in the doorway, crying
I got nothing to go back to now

Tryin' To Get To Heaven (1997) on "Time Out Of Mind"
Typical Dylan lyric, patchwork quilt of imaginary scenes and revelatory glimpses of a "self" that may or may not be Dylan's. "You broke a heart that loved you /Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore." Loss oozes out of this lyric, and maybe even a confession about drug use.  Maybe not.  Typical Dylan lyric, a collage of meanings adding up to sadness.

Not Dark Yet (1997) on "Time Out Of Mind"
An incredible soundscape, layer upon layer of sound in the Lanois "swampy" style, Not Dark Yet is as dark a lament as I know, utterly haunting.

Mississippi (1997) on "Love And Theft"
I suspect this was too upbeat a song to include on "Time Out of Mind," so it sparkles like the gem it is on the astonishing compilation of American musical genres that is "Love And Theft."  Created in the studio under Bob Dylan's personal supervision, this CD is widely regarded as his best work.  Personally, I think there is no one recording that is "best."  So many are in that category, this among them.

High Water (1991) on "Love And Theft"
I've seen this called "Bob Dylan's best song."  Virtually every song on this CD is "best."

Sugar Baby (1991) on "Love And Theft"
This concluding piece on the CD is another collage of meanings, allusions to all sorts of things, and yet it all hangs together with a surprising, breathtakingly cruel refrain that is a dismissal of a "sugar baby" in a tone that reminds me of the recordings of the aged bluesman, Son House.



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