Archive for the ‘Bob Dylan’ Category

Arabic violins and Strauss waltzes

March 1, 2015

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edited from Bob Dylan (MusiCares 2015 Person of Year speech):

Rock ‘n’ roll is a combination of blues, and it’s a strange thing made up of two parts. A lot of people don’t know this, but the blues, which is an American music, is not what you think it is. It’s a combination of Arabic violins and Strauss waltzes working it out. But it’s true.

The other half of rock ‘n’ roll has got to be hillbilly. And that’s a derogatory term, but it ought not to be. That’s a term that includes the Delmore Bros., Stanley Bros., Roscoe Holcomb, Clarence Ashley … groups like that. Moonshiners gone berserk. Fast cars on dirt roads. That’s the kind of combination that makes up rock ‘n’ roll, and it can’t be cooked up in a science laboratory or a studio.

I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.

If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me — “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.”

If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.

“Roll the cotton down, aw, yeah, roll the cotton down / Ten dollars a day is a white man’s pay / A dollar a day is the black man’s pay / Roll the cotton down.” If you sang that song as many times as me, you’d be writing “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” too.

I sang a lot of “come all you” songs. There’s plenty of them. There’s way too many to be counted. “Come along boys and listen to my tale / Tell you of my trouble on the old Chisholm Trail.” Or, “Come all ye good people, listen while I tell / the fate of Floyd Collins a lad we all know well / The fate of Floyd Collins, a lad we all know well.”

“Come all ye fair and tender ladies / Take warning how you court your men / They’re like a star on a summer morning / They first appear and then they’re gone again.” “If you’ll gather ’round, people / A story I will tell / ‘Bout Pretty Boy Floyd, an outlaw / Oklahoma knew him well.”

If you sung all these “come all ye” songs all the time, you’d be writing, “Come gather ’round people where ever you roam, admit that the waters around you have grown / Accept that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone / If your time to you is worth saving / And you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone / The times they are a-changing.”

You’d have written them too. There’s nothing secret about it. You just do it subliminally and unconsciously, because that’s all enough, and that’s all I sang. That was all that was dear to me. They were the only kinds of songs that made sense.

All these songs are connected. Don’t be fooled. I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way. It’s just different, saying the same thing. I didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary.

“Demon Lovers and Gospel Truths”

August 7, 2013

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edited from Ray Templeton ( and

Dylan: “Maybe when I was about ten, I started playing the guitar. I found a guitar… in the house that my father bought, actually. I found something else in there, it was kind of mystical overtones. There was a great big mahogany radio, that had a 78 turntable–when you opened up the top.

And I opened it up one day and there was a record on there–country record–a song called “Drifting Too Far From The Shore.”  The sound of the record made me feel like I was somebody else… and er, then, uh, you know, that I, I was maybe not even born to the right parents or something.”

In the first volume of his autobiography, Chronicles (Simon & Schuster, 2004), Bob Dylan talks of discovering

“… a parallel universe… with more archaic principles and values…  A culture with outlaw women, super thugs, demon lovers and gospel truths… streets and valleys, rich peaty swamps, with landowners and oilmen, Stagger Lees, Pretty Pollys and John Henrys – an invisible world that towered overhead with walls of gleaming corridors…

Folk music was a reality of a more brilliant dimension.  It exceeded all human understanding… (a) mythical realm… it was life magnified.”

Elsewhere, he describes putting together a repertoire of his own from the tradition (long before he had started to write songs) consisting of songs that were

“… about debauched bootleggers, mothers that drowned their own children… floods, union hall fires, darkness and cadavers at the bottom of rivers…  They weren’t friendly or ripe with mellowness.  They didn’t come gently to the shore…  They were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality, some different republic …”


House Carpenter

June 21, 2013

edited from

The Demon Lover and the House Carpenter

Laurence Price receives the credit for the original song, published as a broadside in 1657, and entitled “James Harris (The Daemon Lover).”  It bears the somewhat more descriptive subtitle of:

A Warning for Married Women, being an example of Mrs Jane Reynolds (a West-country woman), born near Plymouth, who, having plighted her troth to a Seaman, was afterwards married to a Carpenter, and at last carried away by a Spirit, the manner how shall be presently recited.”  

British and Irish versions tend to favor “The Demon Lover” as the title of choice, and American versions generally favor “House Carpenter.” Some British artists pick up “House Carpenter,” but these are often explicitly sourced to American artists.  All modern versions essentially agree on the core elements of the story, however much they together stray from the original.  The song as we have it today reliably dispenses with the initial courtship of James Harris and Jane Reynolds, his being pressed into ship’s service, and any details of the carpenter’s demise at the end of the song.

Depending on the goals of the singer, the remaining details are tweaked in the story.  There are some variables.  These include:

  • The length of the separation of the lovers. If it is specified, it is either seven years, as in the Price original, or “three-fourths of a long, long year.”
  • The number of children born to the carpenter’s wife
  • Whether the carpenter’s wife requires her old true lover to demonstrate his ability to support her
  • Whether the carpenter’s wife puts on a display of finery as she departs
  • Whether the lover who lures her away is a demon who kills her through supernatural means or her demise is depicted as accidental/natural.

Sometimes these options appear to be mixed and matched, unrelated to other elements or who is singing the song where.  Other options tend to correlate strongly with each other or other factors.  For one, basically all the Old World versions (regardless of which title they choose) invoke a supernatural agent; the lover reveals himself to be a demon.  In essentially all of the New World versions, there is no demon.  The only view of the supernatural, if any, is that our heroine views the hills of Heaven and of Hell, and learns which way she will go.

In Clarence Ashley’s version, initially recorded either in 1928 or 1930 (depending on your source) and released by Columbia Records, he accompanies himself on 5-string banjo.  Harry Smith  (in the Anthology of American Folk Music) summarized this version as follows:


Ashley’s version demonstrates another correlation among our variables.  If the length of the “true lovers'” separation is “three-fourths of a long, long year,” she has only one child.  This tie happens only in American versions of the song.  In versions where the time is not specified (American or Old World), or is specified as seven (Old World only), there may be two or three children.  The implication here has to be that the baby is either Harris’s, or that she was faithful to her vow to him for no more than a moment before wedding the house carpenter.  Either of these choices are significant departures from the original narrative.

In Price’s original, the only people we definitively know die are James Harris (whom the Spirit impersonates) and the carpenter.  Jane Reynolds is merely missing and reasonably presumed dead.  The original, therefore, accomplishes its work primarily on the basis of the destruction that Jane’s choice wreaks on others.  She is a somewhat more sympathetic character, having done her level best to be faithful.

In the more contemporary versions, both “The Demon Lover” and “House Carpenter” focus on the destruction it wreaks on Jane.  In the former, she is deceived by a supernatural trickster, in the latter, she meets her doom because of a leaky ship and her own bad judgment–natural causes, in more ways than one.

Love Henry

February 15, 2013



by Bob Dylan:

LOVE HENRY is a “traditionalist” ballad.

Tom Paley used to do it.

A perverse tale.

Henry — modern corporate man off some foreign boat,

Unable to handle his “psychosis” responsible for organizing the Intelligentsia,

Disarming the people, an infantile sensualist — white teeth, wide smile, lotza money, kowtow to fairy queen exploiters & corrupt religious establishments, career minded, limousine double parked, imposing his will & dishonest garbage in popular magazines.

He lays his head on a pillow of down & falls asleep.

He shoulda known better, he must’ve had a hearing problem.

Banjo Bill Cornett sings “Love Henry”:


February 2, 2013



by Bob Dylan:

DELIA is one sad tale—two or more versions mixed into one.

The song has no middle range, comes whipping around the corner, seems to be about counterfeit loyalty.

Delia herself, no Queen Gertrude, Elizabeth I or even Evita Peron, doesn’t ride a Harley Davidson across the desert highway, doesn’t need a blood change & would never go on a shopping spree.

The guy in the courthouse sounds like a pimp in primary colors.

He’s not interested in mosques on the temple mount, armageddon or world war III, doesn’t put his face in his knees & weep & wears no dunce hat, makes no apology & is doomed to obscurity.

Does this song have rectitude?

You bet.

Toleration of the unacceptable leads to the last round-up.

The singer’s not talking from a head full of booze.



“Delia’s Gone,” sung by Pat Conte (from “American Songs with Fiddle and Banjo”):

Breathed Fire Through His Nose: Roots of Bob Dylan (pt. 2)

November 29, 2012

Clarence Ashley, Jon Pankake, Tex Isley.

from “Chronicles,” by Bob Dylan:

Jon Pankake, a folk music purist enthusiast and sometime literary teacher and film wiseman, who’d been watching me for a while on the scene, made it his business to tell me that what I was doing hadn’t escaped him. “What do you think you’re doing? You’re singing nothing but Guthrie songs,” he said, jabbing his finger into my chest like he was talking to a poor fool.

Pankake was authoritative and a hard guy to get past. It was known around that Pankake had a vast collection of the real folk records and could go on and on about them. He was part of the folk police, if not the chief commissioner, wasn’t impressed with any of the new talent. To him nobody possessed any great mastery-no one could succeed in laying a hand on any of the traditional stuff with any authority. Of course he was right, but Pankake didn’t play or sing. It’s not like he put himself in any position to be judged.

“You’re trying hard, but you’ll never turn into Woody Guthrie,” Pankake says to me as if he’s looking down from some high hill, like something has violated his instincts. It was no fun being around Pankake. He made me nervous. He breathed fire through his nose. “You better think of something else. You’re doing it for nothing. Jack Elliott’s already been where you are and gone. Ever heard of him?” No, I’d never heard of Jack Elliott. When Pankake said his name, it was the first time I’d heard it. “Never heard of him, no. What does he sound like?” John said that he’d play me his records and that I was in for a surprise.

Pankake lived in an apartment above McCosh’s bookstore, a place that specialized in eclectic old books, ancient texts, philosophical political pamphlets from the 1800s on up. It was a neighborhood hangout for intellectuals and Beat types, on the main floor of an old Victorian house only a few blocks away. I went there with Pankake and saw it was true that he had all the incredible records, ones you never saw and wouldn’t know where to get. For someone who didn’t sing and play, it was amazing that he had so many.

Elliott, who’d been born ten years before me, had actually traveled with Guthrie, learned his songs and style firsthand and had mastered it completely. Pankake was right. Elliott was far beyond me.

I sheepishly left the apartment and went back out into the cold street, aimlessly walked around. I felt like I had nowhere to go, felt like one of the dead men walking through catacombs. It would be hard not to be influenced by the guy I just heard. I’d have to block it out of my mind, though, forget this thing, tell myself I hadn’t heard him and he didn’t exist. He was overseas in Europe, anyway, in a self-imposed exile. The U.S. hadn’t been ready for him. Good. I was hoping he’d stay gone, and I kept hunting for Guthrie songs.

View related post.

Made Me Want to Gasp: Roots of Bob Dylan (pt.1)

November 11, 2012

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie (guitar)

edited from “Chronicles” by Bob Dylan:

BOB DYLAN: I listened especially to The New Lost City Ramblers. I took to them immediately. Everything about them appealed to me-their style, their singing, their sound. I liked the way they looked, the way they dressed and I especially liked their name. Their songs ran the gamut in styles, everything from mountain ballads to fiddle tunes and railroad blues. All their songs vibrated with some dizzy, portentous truth. I’d stay with The Ramblers for days. At the time, I didn’t know that they were replicating everything they did off of old 78 records, but what would it have mattered anyway? It wouldn’t have mattered at all. For me, they had originality in spades, were men of mystery on all counts. I couldn’t listen to them enough.

On this particular day, we were just sitting around talking and Flo Casstner asked me if I’d ever heard of Woody Guthrie. I said sure, I’d heard him on the Stinson records with Sonny Terry and Cisco Houston. Then she asked me if I’d ever heard him all by himself on his own records. I couldn’t remember having done that. Flo said that her brother Lyn had some of his records and she’d take me over there to hear them-that Woody Guthrie was somebody that I should definitely get hip to. Something about this sounded important and I became definitely interested.

Flo told me about-a Woody Guthrie set of about twelve double sided 78 records. I put one on the turntable and when the needle dropped, I was stunned-didn’t know if I was stoned or straight. What I heard was Woody singing a whole lot of his own compositions all by himself . . . songs like “Ludlow Massacre,” “1913 Massacre,” “Jesus Christ,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Hard Travelin’,” “Jackhammer John,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues,” “This Land Is Your Land.”

All these songs together, one after another made my head spin. It made me want to gasp. It was like the land parted. I had heard Guthrie before but mainly just a song here and there-mostly things that he sang with other artists. I hadn’t actually heard him, not in this earth shattering kind of way. I couldn’t believe it. Guthrie had such a grip on things. He was so poetic and tough and rhythmic. There was so much intensity, and his voice was like a stiletto.

He was like none of the other singers I ever heard, and neither were his songs. His mannerisms, the way everything just rolled off his tongue, it all just about knocked me down. It was like the record player itself had just picked me up and flung me across the room. I was listening to his diction, too. He had a perfected style of singing that it seemed like no one else had ever thought about. He would throw in the sound of the last letter of a word whenever he felt like it and it would come like a punch. The songs themselves, his repertoire, were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them. Not one mediocre song in the bunch. Woody Guthrie tore everything in his path to pieces. For me it was an epiphany, like some heavy anchor had just plunged into the waters of the harbor.

That day I listened all afternoon to Guthrie as if in a trance and I felt like I had discovered some essence of self-command, that I was in the internal pocket of the system feeling more like myself than ever before. A voice in my head said, “So this is the game.” I could sing all these songs, every single one of them and they were all that I wanted to sing. It was like I had been in the dark and someone had turned on the main switch of a lightning conductor.

“Stack a Lee”

October 27, 2012

Bob Dylan’s liner notes to “Stack a Lee” on his album “World Gone Wrong”:

What does the song say exactly?

It says no man gains immortality thru public acclaim.

Truth is shadowy.

In the pre-postindustrial age, victims of violence were allowed (in fact it was their duty) to be judge over their offenders- parents were punished for their children’s crimes (we’ve come a long way since then).

The song says that a man’s hat is his crown.

Futurologists would insist it’s a matter of taste.
They say “let’s sleep on it” but they’re already living in the sanatorium.

No Rights Without Duty is the name of the game & fame is a trick.

Playing for time is only horsing around.

Stack’s in the cell,

No wall phone.

He is not some egotistical degraded existentialist dionysian idiot, neither does he represent any alternative lifestyle scam (give me a thousand acres of tractable land & you’ll see the Authentic alternative lifestyle, the Agrarian one).

Billy didn’t have an insurance plan, didn’t get airsick, yet his ghost is more real & genuine than all the dead souls on the boob tube- a monumental epic of blunder & misunderstanding. A romance tale without the cupidity.


Jon Pankake, Bob Dylan, and the NLCR

March 30, 2012


Ralph Rinzler, Bob Dylan, John Herald at the Gaslight 1962 © John Cohen

edited from

[Jon Pankake co-edited the music journal The Little Sandy Review in the early 1960s in Minneapolis, MN]

When Bob Dylan left Dinkytown, the Minneapolis neighborhood where he spent his one year at the University of Minnesota,, for New York City’s Greenwich Village, he went with Jon Pankake’s blessing. He also went with some of Jon’s most precious records-which he stole right off the shelves and put in his duffel bag. When Jon discovered the theft of his records he became enraged at this hobo vagabond minstrel and vowed to track him down and recover them.

Fast forward six months and Dylan was now sleeping on someone else’s couch-the Mayor of Greenwich Village. That would be Dave Van Ronk. Jon Pankake showed up at his door and when the purpose of his surprise visit became known, all hell broke loose. Pankake broke a bottle off at the neck and started swinging it over his head, aiming at the scruffy ne’er do well who had since become the talk of the town-based on his performances at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center and Gerdes Folk City, where he was now opening for the likes of Mississippi John Hurt and the new bluegrass sensation-the Greenbriar Boys. That didn’t mean squat to Jon Pankake-he came to get his records back.

It was just at that precipitous moment for modern folk music history, ladies and gentlemen, that Dave Van Ronk showed up, diffused the situation and saved Bob Dylan’s life. Jon got his records back, and a chastened Bob Dylan went on to write Blowing In the Wind and Masters of War, for which I think Van Ronk deserves no small credit. The records Jon Pankake retrieved from Dylan’s duffel bag were the first Folkways recordings of The New Lost City Ramblers, which he rescued and took back to Dinkytown.