Week three and Bob Dylan is on the menu tonight. Steve Earle comes into the classroom wearing a black t-shirt with a white "mono" logo on front and The Beatles logo on the back. His sleeves are rolled up to reveal a big "No Evil" skull and crossbones tattoo on his right arm and a heart and dagger with a Celtic band on the left. He's got fistfuls of CDs that he's eager to share including Woody Guthrie's "Asch Recordings. Vol.. 1-4", several Dylan discs and CDs by the Everly Brothers and Muddy Waters. Someone asks how the banjo playing is going (he bought one for his birthday last week). Steve says he's still playing the same tune, driving everybody "fucking nuts", but that's what banjos are for. He says Bluegrass musicians tell banjo player jokes like other musicians tell drummer jokes.
An article about Steve Earle and the class was in the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper today. A woman asks if he's read it. Steve admits he's heard about it but hasn't read it yet. It's Winter in Chicago and there have been snowstorms hitting at rush hour, so Steve says if you miss a class you can make up on another night.
Steve starts out by asserting that Bob Dylan is somebody you have to pay attention to because he's so good. Dylan is prolific and every fourth or fifth record he does something absolutely stunning. Steve was asked to tour with Dylan around 1987 but was busy recording "Copperhead Road". Steve was disappointed because he thought he wouldn't get the chance again. Luckily, Bob has been on tour pretty much non-stop since 1987. After "Copperhead Road" came out, Steve took a pretty serious cut in pay to go out on the road with Bob.
Steve talks a bit about the mythology that Dylan created around himself. He thinks Dylan started out wanting to be a rock star and ended up a folk singer by accident. Steve is suspicious of stuff written about Dylan and is hesitant to include any books on the reading list. He admits Bob has put his own share of misinformation out there. When he came to New York from Minnesota, Bob made up tales of coming from out west playing whorehouses in Colorado to add to his mythology. One of the first things Dylan did when he came to New York was to go visit Woody Guthrie in the hospital. Dylan met up with some folksingers in New York who arranged for him to meet Woody. Commenting on Dylan, Woody said, "I don't know about the boy's writing, but he sure can sing." While Dylan met Guthrie, it is unlikely he ever got to see Woody perform because of Woody's degenerating health.
Steve stops and says it's important to talk about Ramblin' Jack Elliott and his relation with Woody and influence on Dylan, but he quickly loses the thread and starts talking about Townes Van Zandt and a party where Townes lost a jacket in a craps game. Steve finds his way back and draws an analogy between his artistic emulation of Townes and Dylan's emulation of Guthrie. For the most part, the Guthrie influence on Dylan was stylistic, probably learned from records and other performers.
When Dylan was starting, the Kingston Trio had already had a hit with "Tom Dooley" and Folk Music was something big record labels were starting to look at. But record companies were slow to react. In 1964, when the Beatles broke in the U.S., the biggest selling album on Columbia records was the soundtrack to "My Fair Lady". Showtunes were selling well on majors, but Rock and Roll was still dominated by independent labels. Companies really didn't commit to Rock until 1969 when Woodstock happened and albums started to catch on. Steve contends the Album era may be coming to an end due to several factors like the Internet and focus on pop singles. [As an aside I think this is fascinating - now that there are no confines for space or time, the 20 minute album side or 74 minute CD are meaningless. You can make an infinitely long album, organically growing with no end in sight. How will this change the scope, rhythm and flow of music?]
Dylan began his first recording sessions in 1961 after he was signed by John Hammond. Hammond started working on the smaller black music oriented subsidiaries of Columbia, then switched to Columbia to try to bring music influenced by black culture to a wider audience. The first act he signed was Billie Holiday and the last act he signed before he retired was Bruce Springsteen.
On Dylan's first record, he only wrote three of the songs himself. As writers, there is a fundamental difference between Woody and Bob. Both are natural writers, but Woody's songs have stronger narratives and Dylan's material is more naturally poetic.
Steve plays Dylan's "Song to Woody" from the album Bob Dylan (1962) then loads up Woody Guthrie's "The 1913 Massacre" about a Christmas massacre of copper miners in Calumet, Michigan. In 1913, Unions were relatively new and the copper miners had left the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) Union. The miners thought the IWW was too political to be effective as a trade union and split off to join the Western Federation of Miners. They were on strike in 1913 to try to get safer working conditions. The miners and their families were having their Christmas party at the Italian Hall. The people who worked for the copper bosses barred the doors to the hall and yelled fire; 78 children were trampled to death. Steve asks if anyone has heard the story before; almost no one has. Steve says this was songwriting's original function: to document events and make sure they were not forgotten. Folk music and narrative music can keep an ember alive and now everyone who walks out of the room will know the story. Steve comments that we're going through times where unemployment is low and everyone thinks things are pretty could but "that'll come back around. Hard times will come again."
Dylan was talented and smart; Guthrie wasn't as sophisticated musically. Steve says he's been practicing with double C tuning on the banjo and "you're gonna have to put up with it on some record at some point." He talks about open G tuning (a guitar tuning where the strings are tuned so when they are strummed with no fingering they form a G chord). He plays Dylan's "Highway 51", a strong, fast blues. He then plays Muddy Waters' "Rollin' and Tumblin" which is similar. It's different enough that Steve looked for a missing link. He plays the Everly Brothers' "Wake Up Little Susie", also in open G and it credibly fills in the gap. Steve was familiar with open G for folk tunes, but it took him a long time to figure out this was what Keith Richards was doing on electric guitar (although Richards pulls the E string off to get a Chuck Berry riff). Steve speculates that Keith got the open G tuning influence from Gram Parsons when Gram was hanging around the Rolling Stones. Steve picked up a banjo for the first time at Old Town and it took him a long time to get past the cheerful ("so cheerful it's irritating") sound of G tuning used by Bluegrass players, but he could work with double C tuning or mountain tunings. When the tuning has a vibe to it, it makes the instrument easier to work with. He cautions that some of the old folk songs we find on The Box may be in odd tunings.
Dylan's early sales figures were the best kept secret at Columbia Records and he didn't sell many records until "Like A Rolling Stone" hit years later. Steve got into Bob Dylan with the "Highway 61 Revisited" album. He had just started writing and was working on some songs for a school drama production. His drama teacher told him to pick up "Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" around 1970. To this day it is his favorite Dylan album.
For the first three albums, Dylan is emulating Woody. But on " Another Side of Bob Dylan", Dylan found his own voice. He distilled the elements of Woody Guthrie and put them together to form his own unique voice.
Steve comments that Emmylou Harris speaks of Dylan in reverential tones. Emmylou , Gillian Welch and David Rawlings do a gig in Nashville in the Winter at the Radio Cafe as a group called The Esquires. They have a Dylan songbook on a music stand and if they get stuck they go to the "book of Bob". Steve says he has to tell a couple Dylan stories because someone in class asked him about them.
Steve thinks that the reason he got introduced to Dylan was because of Mary Martin. She was Albert Grossman's (Dylan's manager) secretary. She came from Toronto and was familiar with the music scene there. When Dylan was looking for a back up band, she got Dylan in touch with the Band. Steve thinks that Martin was responsible for getting a copy of "Guitar Town" into Dylan's hands and that's why Bob requested Steve for the tour. Steve says Dylan was following him around asking questions about Nashville for about 45 minutes:
Tillis girl, is she okay?
Steve: Yeah, Pam's alright.
Bob: What about the big one?
Bob: No the BIG ONE.
Steve: Reba Mcintire?
Bob: Yeah, that's it.
Steve: She's terrible.
Steve chuckles, "He's a weird cat, no doubt about it."
Steve wants to play an example of the talking blues form (to be covered more during the Townes Van Zandt class). He plays "Oxford Town" from "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan". It's a song about civil rights workers registering voters in Mississippi; the movie "Mississippi Burning" was later made about the topic. The song was recorded with two tracks, using one microphone, and it was recorded and mixed in a day. Steve tries to track the song to its roots. In the liner notes, Dylan says it is a banjo tune, so Steve started looking at banjo tunes. Steve plays a Woody Guthrie track called "Two Good Men" about Sacco and Vanzetti. It's in open G and the phrasing and rhythm are similar. Steve says he knows for a fact Bob knew the Woody tune. This is a song that Woody and Cisco Houston did for a project commissioned by Moses Asch. Sacco and Vanzetti were two anarchists singled out by the government (during the first Red Scare). They were arrested and executed three months later (in 1927) and the fairness of their trial and actual guilt were widely questioned. Steve says this is one of the reasons we have a lengthier justice process today.
To connect Dylan back to The Box, Steve plays "Bob Dylan's Blues" from "Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" and then Woody Guthrie's "Lindbergh" and finally "Whitehouse Blues" from the "Anthology of American Folk Music" box set. They all share the same melody; Woody used this melody several times. Dylan had The Box or had access to it and really didn't need to lift melodies because he was so good. He was hurtling toward having a real voice of his own. But Dylan reused melodies too (e.g. "Girl of the North Country" and "Boots of Spanish Leather"). Steve says you can find this melody in an old Scottish song. He asserts that it's not about stealing things and covering your tracks, but because there are no new sequences of notes.
Next week we'll talk about Bruce Springsteen and we'll find that what writers take from sources become more subtle. Melodies are no longer lifted intact as we mover further along, partially due to legal complications. The focus will mostly be acoustic material, but Steve says he will probably include some E Street Band stuff ("I work on this lesson plan from week to week"). In closing, Steve says that Springsteen had some unique influences of his own and if he had been in any other place at any other time, he may have wound up driving a truck, even with the talent he has.
Steve sorts out the class notes and reminds folks that if they are writing a song, he'll start a list next week so they can sign up for the recital. A student shows Steve a copy of a vinyl version of the "Anthology of American Folk Music" he got at the Public Library. Steve says there are also vinyl copies downstairs in Old Town's Learning Center, but not as old as the one he's holding. The student says the librarian was shocked and asked, "Why is everyone so interested in Harry Smith and the Anthology all of a sudden?"
If you only knew.