Bob Dylan Performance Sampler
by Michael Bouman
Song To Woody (1962) on Dylan's first record, "Bob
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
A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (1963) on "The Freewheelin'
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
Shooting Star (1989) on "Oh Mercy" and
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
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
"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
"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
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.