Three haikus

From a family event in April, I offer three haikus, following at a distance in the footsteps of the inimitable master Basho

BOB DYLAN’S ‘MURDER MOST FOUL’ AND ITS MUSIC INTERTEXT

This is an updated and enlarged version of a text first published on this blog on 28 March 2020, the day after the song’s release online. I have kept the original entry as first impressions.

In what we can but call hard times, on 27 March 2020 Bob Dylan treated his fans to his first newly released original song since 2012 – indeed, the first newly composed original to surface since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. The song appeared online at:

and was introduced by its author thus:

‘Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years. This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.’ – Bob Dylan

The song, entitled ‘Murder Most Foul’, is about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, decades years on from the appalling event in 1963, but is also a tribute to (mostly) musical intertextuality. It is further distinctive as being Bob Dylan’s longest song to date, clocking in at 16:54 minutes and dethroning the previous champion from 1997 , ‘Highlands’ (16:29).

The title is from Shakespeare, from ‘Hamlet’ (Act 1, Scene 5, 27-28), when the ghost of Hamlet’s father declares of his own death, ‘Murder most foul, as in the best it is / But this most foul, strange and unnatural’. The phrase ‘murder most foul’ recurs at the end of each stanza. So prominent a Shakespearean reference serves to strengthen the argument of Andrew Muir’s recent book ‘Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare: The True Performing Of It’ linking the two bards. Dylan has sourced ‘Hamlet’ twice before, allotting Ophelia a whole stanza of ‘Desolation Row’ and quoting her evocation of the ‘primrose path’ [to hell] in the Tell-Tale Signs version of  ‘Ain’t Talkin”. Shakespeare also features in the new song in allusions to The Merchant of Venice and Lady Macbeth (whose husband’s phrase ‘walking shadow’ Dylan had earlier quoted in ‘Forgetful Heart’), as well as the line ‘Death will come when it comes’, which harks back to Julius Caesar (Act II, Scene 5, 36-37 – ‘Seeing that death, a necessary end,/Will come when it will come’).

Dylan had mentioned John F. Kennedy before now, at least twice. In ‘I Shall Be Free’ on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan he imagines ‘President Kennedy calling me up’ on the phone, and the box set ‘Trouble No More’ includes in its DVD part a live performance of the standard  ‘Abraham [Lincoln], Martin [Luther King] and John [Kennedy]’.

Schematically, we may divide the new song into two parts, the first focusing on the assassination and the second consisting mainly of musical and cinematic intertexts. The dividing line comes when Dylan addresses the ghost of the late DJ Wolfman Jack and asks him in repeated imperatives (‘Play …’) to broadcast radio-style a whole series of works or artists. The result looks something like a title list from Dylan’s erstwhile radio show Theme Time Radio Hour, although without any obvious single theme.

The cultural references, for the most part in the song’s second part, are abundant to the point of plethora and are calculated to keep the hardcore fans busy. They are almost all at the popular end of culture, although high culture is briefly represented when Beethoven (whom Dylan had made a character in ‘Tombstone Blues’) puts in a cameo appearance with his Moonlight Sonata. The cinema references include a string of actors – Marilyn Monroe, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd – and, notably, Abraham Zapruder’s film about the assassination itself.

The musical allusions, through song titles, artist names or direct quotes, embrace a whole multiplicity of genres in a gloriously disorganised journey through (mostly) US popular music (there is some British representation). We find old-time (‘Marching Through Georgia’), jazz (Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Nina Simone), country (Patsy Cline), folk (‘Tom Dooley’, ‘Deep Ellum Blues’), soul (Etta James), blues (Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, and ‘St James Infirmary’, the song which Dylan drew on for ‘Blind Willie McTell’), rock’n’roll (‘Let the Good Times Roll’, Little Richard’s ‘Lucille’), mainstream rock (the Beatles, the Who, Queen, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac), and fellow songwriters: Woody Guthrie, but also Randy Newman’s ‘Lonely at the Top’ and even, a shade surprisingly, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ and ‘Walk On By’.

In a few cases Dylan directly links song and artist (e.g. Etta James and ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’) – see Appendix IA. In others he names the artist (Patsy Cline, Charlie Parker) but not any song (or, for jazz artists, instrumental piece) – see Appendix 1B. In the majority of instances, however, what we have is a vocal or instrumental composition with no artist name attached. It is here that we may suspect Dylan has sent out a challenge to his fans of the type:  ‘pin an artist to this song’.

I have done my best to respond to such a challenge by compiling, from the internet and from my own music collection, a list of what I believe are at least plausible artist-song links (see Appendix ID). Others may of course wish to suggest other artists: my list is offered as a contribition to debare. One element I think is worth emphasising is the freauency with which a song turns out to have been recorded by one or other of the unchallenged greats of US popular music – Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley – those figures who we mention in the same breath as Bob Dylan himself.

The intertextuality includes Dylan self-referencing and self-quoting (see Appendix IC). We may note what to my knowledge is the first mention in a Dylan song of Tulsa, the city in Oklahoma which now houses the Dylan archive, in the line: ‘Take me back to Tulsa, to the scene of the crime’ – the references being presumably to Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys’ number ‘Take Me Back to Tulsa’ and to the heinous crime that was the Tulsa race massacres of 1921. The song ‘Memphis in June’ (by Hoagy Carmichael) had already been referenced by Dylan in ‘Tight Connection to My Heart’; ‘blood in my eye’ echoes ‘Blood in My Eyes’, covered on World Gone Wrong; the phrase ‘soul of a nation’ appeared on one of the outtakes of  ‘Dignity’ that appeared on Tell-Tale Signs; Woody Guthrie’s ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ has been both covered (on a tribute album) and quoted (on his first album) by Dylan; and the phrase ‘they killed him’ echoes another song about political assassination,  Kris Kristofferson’s ‘They Killed Him’ as covered by Dylan on ‘Knocked Out Loaded’. Notably, these self-references are for the most part to cover versions, the one significant exception, in a bold metatextual gesture, being ‘Murder Most Foul’ itself  – as cited verbatim in the closing verse: ‘Play “Murder Most Foul” (!)’, which places the whole song under the sign of a challenging circularity.

That circularity pertains to what we may call a certain ludic dimension in this song. Some on the internet share my own impression that ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ was never recorded by ‘the great Bud Powell’ (though it was by Ella Fitzgerald) – in which case Dylan would be asking the Wolfman’s ghost to play a non-existent track. Equally, at least three times Dylan puckishly demands that the DJ play a title – ‘It Happened One Night’, ‘Merchants of Death’, ‘Lonely are the Brave’ – which research reveals not be not a song at all, but a film. Here we may recall Dylan’s description in ‘Chronicles’ of a library so inclusive it houses volumes such as ‘Sophocles’ book on the name and nature of the gods’, or ‘The Athenian General’ by Thucydides, which do not exist. In ‘Murder Most Foul’, we may conclude, some of the time and despite the deep seriousness of the song’s main theme, Dylan is artfully playing with his audience.

Meanwhile, this is not the first time Dylan has engaged in ‘song-within-song’ (I offer a no doubt incomplete list of previous examples in Appendix II, including ‘Sara’ where Dylan cites his own ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’!)). No Dylan composition, however, has ever before embraced this amount of musical intertext. His motivation in delivering such a catalogue may be ambivalent. Are we talking about popular music as an embodiment of the American culture threatened by the killing of Kennedy, or music as an incomplete and partial transcendence of the painful challenges of real life?

Both dimensions are surely there, and meanwhile we can be sure that Dylanite research will continue on this song, which the fan community can only receive with gratitude, as an offering and reward for our loyalty that comes to solace us in hard times.

 

Note added 29 June 2020: See also my post of 28 June 2020, on Rough and Rowdy Ways. 

***

APPENDIX I – MUSICAL INTERTEXT IN ‘MURDER MOST FOUL’

1)         Artists named by Dylan but not linked to composition

Art Pepper

Charlie Parker

Fleetwood Mac (Stevie Nicks + Lindsey Buckingham)

Jelly Roll Morton

John Lee Hooker

Oscar Peterson

Patsy Cline    

Thelonious Monk

2)         Compositions with titles cited or quoted – officially recorded by Dylan

Blood In My Eyes – Mississippi Sheiks; Bob Dylan 

Murder Most Foul – Bob Dylan

Mystery Train – Junior Parker; Elvis Presley; Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash

Pretty Boy Floyd –  Woody Guthrie; Bob Dylan

They Killed Him – Kris Kristofferson; Bob Dylan

3)         Compositions with titles cited or quoted: artist/composition linked by Dylan

I Want to Hold Your Hand – Beatles

I’d Rather Go Blind – Etta James

Blue Sky – Allman Brothers (Dickey Betts)

Love Me or Leave Me – Bud Powell (?) (or Ella Fitzgerald? – see section 4 below)

Take it to the Limit – Eagles (Don Henley, Glenn Frey)

4)         Compositions with titles cited or title or other elements quoted Dylan but not linked to artist: artist(s)/composition linked by author’s research

(NB: for ‘Drivin’ Wheel’ and ‘Dumbarton’s Drums’ I have named two different compositions as credible candidates)

All That Jazz – Ella Fitzgerald

Another One Bites the Dust – Queen

Anything Goes – Frank Sinatra

Baby Scratch My Back  Slim Harpo

Blood Stained Banner – The Williamsons

Cash on the Barrelhead – Louvin Brothers; Gram Parsons

Crossroads – Robert Johnson; Eric Clapton with Cream

Cry Me a River – Julie London; Linda Ronstadt

Deep Elem Blues – Jerry Garcia

Deep in a Dream – Frank Sinatra

Dizzy Miss Lizzy – Larry Williams; Beatles

Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood – Nina Simone; Animals

Down in the Boondocks – Billy Joe Royal; Ry Cooder

Drivin’ Wheel 1- Roosevelt Sykes

Drivin’ Wheel 2 – Emmylou Harris

Dumbarton’s Drums 1 – Corries

Dumbarton’s Drums 2 – Royal Scots

Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey – Gerry and the Pacemakers

Going Down Slow – Guitar Slim

In God We Trust – Hillsong Worship

Key to the Highway – Little Walter; Big Bill Broonzy; Eric Clapton

Let the Good Times Roll – Louis Jordan

Lonely at the Top – Randy Newman

Lonesome Road (Long Lonesome Road) – Ian and Sylvia; Joan Baez

Long Black Limousine – Elvis Presley

Love Me or Leave Me – Ella Fitzgerald

Lucille – Little Richard

Marching Through Georgia – Jay Ungar and Molly Mason: Tennessee Ernie Ford

Memphis in June – Hoagy Carmichael; Annie Lennox

Misty – Ella Fitzgerald

Moonlight Sonata – Beethoven

Nature Boy – Nat King Cole

On the Street Where You Live – Vic Damone

One Night of Sin – Elvis Presley

Only the Good Die Young – Billy Joel

Saint James Infirmary – Louis Armstrong

Stella By Starlight – (vocal) Frank Sinatra; (instrumental) Stan Getz; Miles Davis

Take Me Back to Tulsa – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys; Merle Haggard

That Old Devil Moon – (vocal) Frank Sinatra; (instrumental) Clifford Jordan

The Old Rugged Cross – Alan Jackson; Johnny Cash

Tom Dooley – Kingston Trio

Tommy Can You Hear Me  – The Who

Twilight Time – Platters

Wake Up Little Susie – Everly Brothers; Simon and Garfunkel

Walk On By – Dionne Warwick

What’d I Say – Ray Charles

What’s New Pussycat – Tom Jones  

APPENDIX II – Previous examples of song-within-song in Dylan

A Day in the Life – Roll on John

Amazing Grace – Foot of Pride

Danny Boy – Foot of Pride

Dixie – Man of Peace

Memphis in June – Tight Connection to my Heart

My Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup – Black Diamond Bay

Nearer My God to Thee – Caribbean Wind

Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (Dylan) – Sara

Strike Up the Band – Handy Dandy

Which Side Are You On? – Desolation Row

BOB DYLAN’s’ NEW SONG ‘I CONTAIN MULTITUDES’ – FROM WALT WHITMAN TO EDGAR ALLAN POE

Hard on the heels of Bob Dylan’s recent, epic on-line song ‘Murder Most Foul’ (see entry on this blog for 28 March 2020), and still in this difficult springtime of 2020, comes another previously unreleased number, ‘I Contain Multitudes’, clocking in at 4:36 minutes and, while shorter than its lengthy predecessor, still replete with allusions in numbers enough to keep the planet’s Dylanites happily occupied.

 

Like ‘Murder Most Foul’, ‘I Contain Multitudes’ takes its title and refrain from the literary tradition: if the first was from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, the second honours another national bard nearer home, being taken from ‘Song of Myself’ by the poet often considered America’s finest, Walt Whitman: ‘Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself / (I am large, I contain multitudes)’.

Intertextuality inhabits the new song, albeit a shade less thickly than in ‘Murder Most Foul’. Dylan mines the British poetic tradition declaring: ‘I sing songs of experience like William Blake’, thus echoing a Blakeian title (he had earlier quoted the great poet and mystic in ‘Roll on John’ on ‘Tempest’). There is also an indirect Dylan self-reference in the line ‘Red Cadillac and a black moustache’, which is the verbatim title of a song of 1957 from the Sun Records stable, which Dylan covered on a tribute album in 2001. There is even a reference back to ‘Murder Most Foul’ in the line ‘I play Beethoven’s sonatas, Chopin’s preludes’: the earlier song mentioned Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’, and indeed ‘Chopin’s preludes’ could be traced back to T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘Portrait of a Lady’.

However, arguably the greatest intertextual find in the new song comes in the line ‘Got a tell-tale heart, like Mr Poe’. Edgar Allan Poe allusions in Dylan songs are hardly new (most recently, ‘Tempest’ contains several), Dylan evokes Poe in his prose works and in interviews, and indeed I have myself studied the Dylan/Poe connection in an article of 2009 at: www.atlantisjournal.org/old/ARCHIVE/31.2/2009Rollason.pdf

Nonetheless, unless I am mistaken this is the first time Dylan has actually *named* the celebrated Bostonian in the text of a song (the Beatles did so years ago in ‘I Am the Walrus’). The allusion is of course to Poe’s tale of 1843, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, whose title Dylan cited in his song ‘Need A Woman’ (as sung on the record, though not in the print version in ‘Lyrics’) and which also gave him the name of his 2008 compilation ‘Tell-Tale Signs’. As if all this were not enough, the line immediately following, ‘Got skeletons in the walls of people I know’ also has Poesque connotations, recalling the fate of the immured Fortunato in another of the author’s most famous tales, ‘The Cask of Amontillado’.

‘I Contain Multitudes’ can be approached from multiple perspectives: Bob Dylan has always contained multitudes. Meanwhile, that at this late stage in his career a song should surface containing a direct invocation of ‘Mr Poe’ marks a delightful and unexpected gift to his followers from the greatest English-language songwriter of modern times.

 

Note added 29 June 2020: See also my post of 28 June 2020 on Rough and Rowdy Ways.

SHORT STORY: THE LIBRARY OF LELAB

 

This story was written for a family writing event at Easter. Comments welcome!

THE LIBRARY OF LELAB

by Christopher Rollason, 13 April 2020

The Library of Lelab is situated at the centre of our city of the same name. It began in the old French tongue as Le Laboratoire: the laboratory city for a better world, the place where dreams were worked on till they came true. Today in the year 3220, twelve arduous centuries after the new world’s inception, we all know we have created the perfect living and thinking environment and very little needs to change. Thus I tell you as I sit at my librarian-in-chief’s desk on a raised platform at the library’s beating heart, gentle ayurvedic music playing as I write.

The entirety of our city is constructed in glass, plain or coloured or stained, transparent, translucent or opaque. To reach our library one passes through the complex that surrounds it, which we call Plaza Daedalus. In some ways it is like a conference centre from the ancient era, though today, now that all points of view converge on each other, we have long since replaced those outmoded places with Affirmation Centres. Around our library are restaurants, cafeterias, lecture theatres, concert halls, cinemas – all locations that serve to stimulate our material or intellectual tastebuds, which are open twenty-four hours a day and which we can never under any circumstances whatever imagine being closed  A glass rainbow bridge called Bifrost connects the plaza to the wider world.

The library’s bookshelves are in multiple shades of glass, lightly tinted according to class of book but not so strongly as to make the spines and titles anything but readable. Each book exists in two manifestations: a physical, leather-bound master copy, and its infinitely reproducible cybergenerated simulacrum that readers can have printed out in three dimensions. We call the first avatar the Luther copy, and the second the Gutenberg reproduction.  And invisible links connect library and books direct to the readers’ minds, which we the librarians can read.

If anything marks out our library as totally different from its – very partial – precursors in the old world, it is a trait as simple as it is vital: it only houses good books. Nothing can be written or published today that does not conform to our time’s highest ethical standards. Of course we do not reject the great books of the past. Shakespeare, Dante and Cervantes are here, only with red-letter warnings emblazoned on their title pages that these books may reflect attitudes of their authors’ remote time which could not be accepted today. The past is a foreign country, but among our most requested books are the works of Berrian, who long ago first articulated the wholesome principles by which our authors now write.

Surrounded by the coruscating tints of the glass shelves, when I gaze at each and every leather-bound volume nearest me I feel transfixed. Over long centuries, starting from our prehistory in the murky epoch before today’s reticular links existed, we have successfully purified the human mind. And so each day we celebrate our Library of Lelab.

ON READING JOSH MALERMAN’S NOVEL “BIRD BOX” IN DIFFICULT DAYS

On 1 January 2019 I posted on this blog about Susanne Bier’s “Bird Box”, a film made in 2018 and based on Josh Malerman’s novel of that name from 2014. At the time I located the film, with its imaginary pandemic, within the post-apocalyptic genre and related it to José Saramago’s novel ‘Blindness’ (‘Ensaio sobre a Cegueira’).

What I did not anticipate was the uncanny premonitoriness of ‘Bird Box’: there was no way of knowing that in its content and tone it would anticipate things that would come to pass in 2020. Very recently I remembered the film and decided to see it again. Inevitably, in the time of the coronavirus the film had new reverberations. I then felt impelled to read Josh Malerman’s novel.

 

Malerman, in third person but viewing events through the prism of his protagonist, Malorie, narrates the course of a pandemic whose effects include the breakdown of habitual social and economic activity (‘the entire globe is shut in’ – 277), the collapse of mobility and the near-compulsory wearing of, if not masks, blindfolds. There are repeated references to the ‘new world’ (e.g. 226, 227) that has come into being, and to the sensation that people ‘will never be free again’ (358), that the era when folks ‘walked the streets freely’ (330) has gone for ever. Horrendous acts occur, yet at the end hope resurges though community and children and a possible refuge from the worst of the pandemic is adumbrated.

Those who found the film spellbinding are also likely to be hooked by the book. Indeed, in a sign that the subjects raised by ‘Bird Box’ are ongoing, a sequel, to be titled ‘Malorie’, will be published in July. This second novel has been announced by Josh Malerman in a conversation at:

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/bird-box-sequel-malorie-sandra-bullock-netflix-josh-malerman-a8832111.html

and we can be sure that this time round, the story told by Malerman will be read differently = for better or worse, and let us only hope for the better.

**
Josh Malerman, ‘Bird Box’, Harper Voyager, 2014, 381 pp., ISBN 978-0-00-752990-2

**

Note added 30 July 2020:

‘Malorie’, Josh Malerman’s sequel to ‘Bird Box’ was indeed published in July 2020. I have already read it and found it a worthy continuation. It did not disappoint, but it leaves loose ends to the point where I am convinced this can only imply a third volume, and thus for the moment I reserve comment as any speculative analogies or comparisons could prove totally wrong. Let us meanwhile see if a second film materialises!

A GIFT IN HARD TIMES: BOB DYLAN REGALES HIS FANS WITH NEW SONG ‘MURDER MOST FOUL’

Note added 29 June 2020: I updated this piece in a new post on 19 April 2020, but have left this version here unchanged, as first impressions. Material from this post is also incorporated in my post of 28 June 2020 on the Rough and Rowdy Ways album.

Yesterday 27 March 2020, in a time of ever greater difficulty for all of us worldwide, Bob Dylan treated his fans to his first newly released original song since 2012 – indeed, the first newly composed original to surface since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. The song is at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=RD3NbQkyvbw18&v=3NbQkyvbw18&feature=emb_rel_end

and was introduced online by its author thus:

‘Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years. This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.’ – Bob Dylan

The song is entitled ‘Murder Most Foul’. It is about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, decades years on from the appalling event in 1963, but is also a tribute to musical and cinematic intertextuality. It is further distinctive as being Bob Dylan’s longest song to date, clocking in on my computer at 16:54 minutes and dethroning the previous champion, ‘Highlands’ (16:29) from the 1997 album ‘Time out of Mind’.

kennedy

The title is from Shakespeare, from Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 5, 27-28), when the ghost of Hamlet’s father declares of his own death, ‘Murder most foul, as in the best it is / But this most foul, strange and unnatural’. The phrase ‘murder most foul’ recurs at the end of each stanza. So prominent a Shakespearean reference serves to strengthen the argument of Andrew Muir’s recent book ‘Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare: The True Performing Of It’ linking the two cultural icons. Dylan has sourced Hamlet twice before, allotting Ophelia a whole stanza of ‘Desolation Row’ and quoting her evocation of the ‘primrose path’ [to hell] in the Tell-Tale Signs version of  ‘Ain’t Talkin”. Shakespeare also features in the new song in allusions to The Merchant of Venice and Lady Macbeth (whose husband’s phrase ‘walking shadow’ Dylan had earlier quoted in ‘Forgetful Heart’).

Dylan had mentioned John F. Kennedy in earlier songs, at least twice – in ‘I Shall Be Free’ on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan he imagines ‘President Kennedy calling me up’ on the phone, and the box set ‘Trouble No More’ includes in its DVD part a live performance of the standard  ‘Abraham [Lincoln], Martin [Luther King] and John [Kennedy]’.

free

 

Schematically, we may divide the new song into two parts, the first focusing on the assassination and the second consisting mainly of musical and cinematic intertexts. The dividing line comes when Dylan addresses the ghost of the late DJ Wolfman Jack and asks him in repeated imperatives (‘Play …’) to play a whole series of works or artists. The result looks something like a title list from Dylan’s erstwhile radio show Theme Time Radio Hour, although without an obvious theme.

The intertextuality includes Dylan quoting himself. The song ‘Memphis in June’ (by Hoagy Carmichael) had already been referenced in ‘Tight Connection to My Heart’; ‘blood in my eye’ echoes ‘Blood in My Eyes’, covered on World Gone Wrong; ‘rising sun’ recalls another cover, ‘House of the Rising Sun’ on Dylan’s first album; the phrase ‘soul of a nation’ appeared on one of the outtakes of ‘Dignity’ that appeared on Tell-Tale Signs; Woody Guthrie’s ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ has been both covered (on a tribute album) and quoted (on his first album) by Dylan. We may also note what to my knowledge is the first mention in a Dylan song of Tulsa, the city in Oklahoma which now houses the Dylan archive, the reference (‘scene of the crime’) being presumably to the deadly Tulsa race massacres of 1921.

The cultural references, for the most part in the song’s second part, are abundant to the point of plethora and will certainly keep the hardcore fans busy. They are almost all at the popular end of culture, although high culture is briefly represented when Beethoven (whom Dylan had made a character in ‘Tombstone Blues’) puts in a cameo appearance with his Moonlight Sonata. The cinema references include Marilyn Monroe, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and, notably, Abraham Zapruder’s film about the assassination itself.

The musical allusions, through song titles, artist names or direct quotes, embrace a whole multiplicity of genres in a gloriously disorganised journey through US (and occasionally UK) popular music: old-time (‘Marching Through Georgia’), jazz (Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Nina Simone), country (Patsy Cline), folk (‘Tom Dooley’, ‘Deep Ellum Blues’), soul (Etta James), blues (Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, and ‘St James Infirmary’, the song which Dylan drew on for ‘Blind Willie McTell’), rock’n’roll (‘Mystery Train’, Little Richard’s ‘Lucille’), mainstream rock (the Beatles, the Who, Queen, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac), and fellow songwriters: Guthrie, but also Randy Newman’s ‘Lonely at the Top’ and even, a shade surprisingly, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ and ‘Walk On By’.

Dylan’s motivation in delivering such a catalogue may be ambivalent. Are we talking about popular music as an embodiment of the American culture threatened by the killing of Kennedy, or music as an escape from the painful challenges of real life?

Both dimensions are surely there, and meanwhile the Dylanite research will continue on this song, which the fan community can only receive with gratitude, as an offering and reward for our loyalty that comes to solace us in hard time

MERITS OF THE ACADEMIA DATABASE

I have recently joined the academic database Academia (www.academia.edu), and, having already put up a number of my papers, can report that I am more than satisfied. It is true, as some have pointed out on the internet, that the free variant is of very limited use (it informs of papers but gives no access to them) and that to get anything useful out of this site one has to choose the paying variant. Some contrast this unfavourably with Google Scholar, but Academia does have its advantages, over both the Google facility and another rival, Orcid. Unlike Google Scholar though like Orcid, Academia is user-controlled: authors can put up their material themselves, whereas Google Scholar creates entries automatically and there is no way for authors to create, amend, remove or restore its entries on their own work. Also, unlike both Orcid and Google Scholar, Academia, with more than 115 million users, allows direct search on an enormous and ever-growing full-text database, currently with 24 million papers – a facility that was lacking even on the otherwise exemplary and now sadly defunct site GetCited. On the downside, Academia’s interface feels a shade clunky and some functionalities are hidden away and take some finding – but that may be simply a matter of getting used to it.

I can certainly say already that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, and would recommend this site to any researcher seeking a broader platform for their work.

SECOND ISSUE OF NEW JOURNAL ‘DYLAN REVIEW’

Now out is the second issue (Vol. 1, No 2, Winter 2019) of the new, academic-oriented on-line journal devoted to the work of Bob Dylan, the Dylan Review (I logged the first issue in an earlier post on this blog dated 19 July 2019).

The new issue includes: an interview with the celebrated critic and Dylanite Christopher Ricks (with focus on the variorum edition of the lyrics masterminded by him); a long article by Neil Corcoran combining biographical and textual scholarship, linking Suze Rotolo’s autobiography and the song texts of Boots of Spanish Leather and Ballad in Plain D; an informative review by William Luhr of Martin Scorsese’s film Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story; and reviews of three new books on Dylan.

The books reviewed are (by Stuart Hampton-Reeves) Andrew Muir’s The True Performing of it: Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare; (by Robert Reginio) Timothy Hampton’s Bob Dylan‘s Poetics: How the Songs Work; and (by myself) the edited collection Polyvocal Bob Dylan.

Full entry for my review: Nduka Otiono and Josh Tosh, eds., “Polyvocal Bob Dylan: Music, Performance, Literature”, Dylan Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, Winter 2019, pp. 2-8.

The full text of the issue is available on-line at:

https://www.dylanreview.org/contents

TALES OF LEONARD THE BARD – LEONARD COHEN: POSTHUMOUS ALBUM AND CONFERENCE

Leonard Cohen, singer-songwriter, poet, novelist and cultural icon, exited the material world on 7 November 2016, at the age of 82. However, the famous Canadian’s spirit is still very much with us, as now appears with the release of the posthumous album Thanks For The Dance (2019), which brings the tally of Cohen studio albums up to 15 and follows on seamlessly from the last album released in his lifetime, the acclaimed You Want It Darker from 2016.

The circumstances of the new album’s making are chronicled on the site of the Leonard Cohen Chair (Cátedra Leonard Cohen), the permanent research unit founded in 2011 at the University of Oviedo, in the region of Asturias in northern Spain. We learn how Leonard Cohen worked with his son Adam on this final album knowing he would almost certainly not live to see it released, at:

https://www.unioviedo.es/leonardcohen/index.php/2019/07/02/articulos-y-noticias/

(with a collection of links in Spanish and English),

The final product consists of nine songs, eight with words by Cohen père and music by Cohen fils and one (the title track) composed by Leonard jointly with long-term associate Anjani Thomas. The musical arrangements on this album are particularly haunting, with instrumentation of an ancient timbre – including jew’s harp, ukelele, mandolin and, performed by virtuoso Javier Mas, the Spanish lute of Arabo-Andalusian origins – as well as background vocals from an array of collaborators including  Cohen stalwart Jennifer Warnes. The sound recalls the timelessly universal musical effects to be found on two of Cohen’s finest albums, Recent Songs from 1979 and 1984’s Various Positions. The lyrics are classic Cohen, ambivalent glimpses into the dark night of the soul traversed by flashes of redemption. Enigmatic compositions like Happens to the Heart or The Night of Santiago will long keep Cohen exegetes at work. Light and darkness, destruction and creation, play out their patterns in these songs: in the tellingly titled It’s Torn, the bard declaims: ‘Come gather the pieces / All scattered and lost / The lie in what’s holy / The light in what’s not’.

Now, hard on the heels of the new album comes news of a conference, to be organised by the Oviedo centre from 15 to 17 April 2020, under the banner: ‘Oppressed by the Figures of Beauty:  International Conference on Leonard Cohen and on the Work of Singer-Songwriters’ [Oprimidos por las formas de la belleza: Congreso Internacional sobre Leonard Cohen y La Canción de Autor] (the  quotation is from Cohen’s song of 1974, Chelsea Hotel No 2). Details are at:

https://www.unioviedo.es/leonardcohen/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/CFP-Congreso-sobre-Leonard-Cohen-y-la-canción-de-autor.-ENGLISH.pdf and

https://www.unioviedo.es/leonardcohen/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/CFP-Congreso-sobre-Leonard-Cohen-y-la-canción-de-autor.-Oprimidos-por-las-formas-de-la-belleza.-ESPAÑOL.pdf

This international event, which will be conducted in English and Spanish, promises to bring appreciation of Leonard Cohen’s legacy to new heights, as the healing power of poetry and music continues to manifest in the voice of the composer of Hallelujah, the singer gifted with a golden voice who in that song of 1984 famously affirmed: ‘I’ll stand before the lord of song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah’. With a remarkable new album and a major Cohen event looming, that hallelujah still resounds beyond the grave.

 

**

Note added 30 July 2020:

The Oviedo conference was unfortunately cancelled, for reasons it would be superfluous to explain. Yet Cohen’s hallelujah still reverberates, the fire of song still burns, and the event may yet finally happen ..

 

REVIEW OF BOB DYLAN, THE BOOTLEG SERIES Vol. 15, TRAVELIN’ THRU

Bob Dylan’s long-running Bootleg Series reaches its Volume 15 with the release of a collection of essential material from the period 1967-1969, featuring Johnny Cash on a majority of the tracks and chronicling the first part of Bob Dylan’s ’country period’ (the second part was earlier visited by Volume 10 – Another Self Portrait, released in 2013). Unlike some of its predecessors, Volume 15 is a relatively brief affair, clocking in at 3 CDs (or vinyls) and with no variants – so this time round, no deluxe editions or limited-issue discs! The set comes with a 54-page booklet with full track listings and appreciations by Ben Rollins, Rosanne Cash and Colin Escott. It also has the seal of approval of the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa.

                             

The three discs muster a total of 50 tracks, of which two are brief spoken-word interludes, leaving 48 of music, of which 19 are credited to Bob Dylan alone, 25 to Dylan and Cash and the remaining 4 to Dylan and Earl Scruggs. Three tracks have had prior release (one, an alternate version of ‘Lay Lady Lay’, only very limited); the remaining 45 are making their official debut. There are two ‘new’ Bob Dylan originals, ‘Western Road’ and (with Cash) ‘Wanted Man’, and a goodly number of cover versions (Dylan/Cash or Dylan alone) of folk or other standards and classic Cash compositions, enriching the ever-growing roster of songs officially covered by Bob Dylan.

The set consists of: 7 outtakes from the John Wesley Harding sessions (1967, Dylan); 8 outtakes from the Nashville Skyline sessions (1969, Dylan); 25 tracks from the 1969 Dylan/Cash sessions in Nashville (one of them ‘Studio chatter’ from Cash); 3 tracks from the Johnny Cash TV show of 7 June 1969  (2 Dylan / 1 Dylan/Cash); 2 outtakes from the Self Portrait sessions (1969, Dylan); and 5 tracks with Earl Scruggs (one an interview with Scruggs), recorded at a New York private house in May 1970 (hence a shade outside the set’s advertised timeframe). There is a slight overlap with Another Self Portrait in the form of an outtake of ‘I Threw It All Away’ which appeared on that album, while the two Self Portrait outtakes, though not on that collection, could of course have featured there. Notably, for the John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline sessions there is only one version of each featured song; this set thus diverges from the completist approach that characterised the mastodontic The Bootleg Series Volume 11 (The Cutting Edge) or the recent (non-Bootleg Series) 14-disc Rolling Thunder Review retrospective. The contents of the set are inevitably not all of the same quality, but everything included is, at the least, interesting and, at best, superb.

John Wesley Harding is one of Bob Dylan’s very greatest albums, and its metaphysical profundities need no introduction. Its successor Nashville Skyline, if less ambitious, has stood the test of time and is regarded as a country-rock classic – indeed, it could be called a great Hank Williams album not by Hank Williams. The outtakes for the two that surface here will have been eagerly awaited by many, but do not in fact add a vast amount to the songs. For John Wesley Harding, there are some tempo changes – ‘As I Went Out One Morning’ is taken slower than on the album, ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’ faster, and while there are a scattering of minor lyric variations, there is really only one to write home about, namely on ‘I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine’. The last verse appears as ‘Oh I awoke in anger, without a place to stand or hide’ – as opposed to ‘so alone and terrified’ on the album version, and also to ‘so alone and mystified’, a lyric change which recently emerged on the Rolling Thunder compilation. Of the three variants, I suggest that ‘alone and terrified’ remains the best, connecting with the motif of fear that occurs elsewhere in the album. Only seven of John Wesley Harding’s 12 tracks are represented: there is no work-in-progress to illuminate the enigmatic ‘Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’, while according to Colin Escott’s notes no alternate versions exist of the two closing songs that form a bridge to Nashville Skyline, ‘Down Along the Cove’ and ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’. For Nashville Skyline, the set offers variants of almost all that album’s tracks, but again the musical or lyrical variants are not major. The one ‘new’ song from the sessions which appears, ‘Western Road’, was left off Nashville Skyline – wisely, as while a competent blues it would not have been a fit with the album’s register.

The Dylan/Cash sessions, laid down for an album that never was, are the set’s centrepiece. Some tracks are frankly best forgotten but others are magnificent. Certain experiments – Dylan singing ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ simultaneously with Cash intoning ‘Understand Your Man’; a pair of Jimmie Rodgers medleys on which neither Cash nor Dylan manages to yodel convincingly – are scarcely listenable. By contrast, Dylan and Cash together offer superb readings of a whole series of Cash evergreens (‘I Still Miss Someone’, ‘Big River’, ‘I Walk the Line’, ‘Ring of Fire’ and more), two unquestionable Dylan classics (‘One Too Many Mornings’ and ‘Girl of the North Country’ – the latter song being of course featured on the released Nashville Skyline), and standards including ‘That’s All Right, Mama’, ‘You Are My Sunshine’, ‘Just A Closer Walk With Thee’ and a medley of ‘Mystery Train’ and ‘This Train Is Bound for Glory’. Of particular interest are ‘Ring of Fire’ and ‘I Walk the Line’: the former, which appears twice on this set, would later feature in a version by Dylan on the soundtrack of the 1996 film Feeling Minnesota, while the latter is invoked by Dylan in Chronicles, Volume One as an inspiration for his own masterpiece of 1989, ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’. The two also duet on the Dylan composition ‘Wanted Man’, marking the official debut in a version (co-)performed by Dylan himself of the song which Cash would later feature on his classic live album Johnny Cash At San Quentin. However, this version is incomplete and, while it starts strongly, fades away into confusion and is best considered a rehearsal, with Cash’s San Quentin performance remaining the definitive version of this slice-of-Americana song.

Of the remaining, more heterogeneous tracks, by far the best are the two Self Portrait outtakes, both featuring Cash classics. Dylan excels himself vocally on both ‘Ring of Fire’ and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, and musically the two tracks are on a level with the best of Nashville Skyline: they would indeed have been enrichments for Self Portrait. The three live tracks from the Johnny Cash Show also sound fine, with Dylan’s ‘Living the Blues’ anticipating Self Portrait. The Dylan/Earl Scruggs material, however, sounds a shade throwaway, perhaps reflecting the private-house venue: if the traditional ‘East Virginia Blues’ manages to convince,, the throwback to the Free-Wheelin’ album, ‘Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance’, comes over as sketchy. The 50 tracks come to an end with a (previously released) version by Dylan and Scruggs of Dylan’s instrumental ‘Nashville Skyline Rag’ – a tribute to both the city of Nashville and to the album for which the composition was written, and thus, the listener may feel, a satisfying conclusion to a rich and diverse listening experience.

**

BOB DYLAN, The Bootleg Series Vol. 15 1967-1969, TRAVELIN’ THRU (featuring Johnny Cash), Columbia Records 2019, 3 CDs / vinyls

**

Note added 10 January 2020:

This review has been published in print form in Dylan zine The Bridge (Gateshead, UK), No 64, Winter 2019, pp. 99-103.