Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

June 17, 2009

"Song to Woody": Dylan's breakthrough.

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 12:00 pm

So I spent an evening talking to a Bob Dylan class run by Bob Levin at the 92nd Street Y and it was a lot of fun–people are still curious about the interview I did with Dylan in which he rhapsodized about the sound he’d been seeking, “that thin, that wild merucry sound”. There was a lively discussion, moderated by Jon Friedman and Bob Levin, of many other Dylan issues as well. Anyway, preparing for it I discovered once again what a mystery Dylan was/is.

I did something I hadn’ t done for a million years. I listened to Dylan’s first album Bob Dylan, from beginning to end. Thirteen songs, 12 or them negligable material–and one song, if not immortal than at least awe-inspiring, awesome. It’s the next the last song on the album, which makes it all the more surprizing since you have to put up with 11 ho-hum imersonations of blues singers, impersonaltions of other folkies, covers of old chesnuts.

And then there’s “Song to Woody”, so beautiful, pure, hypnotic, mesmerizing. You could play it all day long (which is what I did using the CD repeat function) and not get tired.

And I’m not even a big fan of Woody Guthrie. The melody Dylan took from him for this song (from some coal mining disaster lament) is just about the only Guthrie melody I’m really fond of and I can’t stand banjo playing, I’m almost allergic to it, and I associate it with Guthrie. . Why has no one remarked that Dylan has mercifully spared us the banjo for the most part in his work. Not enough has been written about that–nor about his killer harmonica work.

Anyway, as I was saying, 12 of the 13 songs on this first abum are just not memorable to me (I’ve always been a fan of electric Dylan anyway). No hint of genius.

But then in “Song to Woody” there’s Dylan no longer impersonating tired folkie riffs. He’s at last being himself, or impersonating hiself. You never know. this one next to last song, this one writen by Dylan himself this one called “Song to Woody” that suddenly soars, enters into your heart and soul with it’s beauty, it’s authencity,it’s generosity, its love. He had found his voice paying tribute to another voice, not disguising himself in another voice.

I bet you haven’t listened to it in years if ever. Check it out and tell me what you think.

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11 Comments »

  1. I couldn’t disagree with you more, Ron. I think that “Song To Woody” is the WORST song on the album. I’ve always been a huge Dylan fan, and I have listened to that album over and over again through the years. “Song To Woody” just doesn’t hold up to repeated listening; it’s immature (not surprising, seeing as Dylan was only about 20 when he recorded it) and mawkishly sentimental. I think that “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” is great, and I also think that Dylan’s version of “House Of The Rising Sun” is the best one ever made (except, maybe, for Odetta’s). The way he slyly changes the lyrics to “Pretty Peggy-O” is really funny, and his technique on “Freight Train Blues” blows me away. In fact, I love just about the entire album EXCEPT for “Song To Woody.”

    Comment by Amy — June 17, 2009 @ 12:13 pm | Reply

  2. In a backward-looking way, I’m kind of partial to that early version of “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” on that record. So make it 11 out of 13 for me (though I don’t really know the album well).

    Comment by johnshade — June 17, 2009 @ 1:37 pm | Reply

  3. Ah, who can resist that baby face on the cover? Check out the bootlegs of “Freewheelin'” outtakes for the transition bewteen the two albums. It really all began with “Bob Dylan’s Dream”, done in one take, as an afterthought, at the end of the “Freewheelin” sessions. “Freewheelin'” made the first album shine in its light and, at the time, we experienced them as a twofer. And give Woody a break, far looser and genuine than the unctious, humorless fraud Seeger!!!!

    Comment by charlie finch — June 17, 2009 @ 1:59 pm | Reply

  4. Listen to the boots of the 1962 Minnesota Hotel Tapes to see how “Bob Dylan” was a step back from the bluesy stuff he was doing. The guy could mimic a mynah bird!

    Comment by charlie finch — June 18, 2009 @ 6:08 am | Reply

  5. What I’ve always liked about this side– and what is enjoyable about the Live at the Gaslight recording is that you can clearly Dylan becoming something more than a folk singer. He is so young, but he is also well on the way to inventing “Bob Dylan”, and his singing, his playing, and his ear for melody are already sophisticated and advanced.

    Comment by Bill Altreuter — June 18, 2009 @ 6:36 am | Reply

  6. In general the early Dylan holds up to repeated listening today. Let me recommend the first disc of “Bootleg Series 1-3” and the first discs in the unofficial Genuine Bootleg Series, nine disc set in three volumes. If you’ve got the vinyl boot “Ten of Swords”, that has the most complete compilation of the 1962 Minnesota tapes. Dylan was fully formed before his first album was released. The breadth and richness of material that he recorded before the release of “Times They Are a Changing” is staggering. We are talking about 65 or 70 distinct sides, recorded between the ages of 18 and 22. To a certain extent, drugs and women wrecked him, or at least wrecked that boy/man hitchhiking through the crossroads. In this light Dylan’s jive/beat/put-on persona, which he donned upon arriving at the Chelsea Hotel, so to speak, was a devolution of his talent. Hard listening to the virgin work, amazingly, proves it

    Comment by charlie finch — June 18, 2009 @ 5:48 pm | Reply

  7. I hosted the class and can say, unequivically, that Ron was a fantastic guest, he was filled with insight, openness, candor, warmth and passion, he set a standard for future guests that will be hard to exceed. Ron spent a week interviewing Bob, how many can claim that kind of access? And, read the interviewed, discover what Ron discovered, its inspiring. As to ‘Song to Woody,’ and all other Bob things, there is no right or wrong answer. Its all right, ma and its all wrong, except that its always right for you, which is the only thing that matters. Enjoy what you enjoy, skip what offends or disappoints. As for me, I love the arc of Bob career and, even at this age, whatever joint he shows up in next will be one that I’ll respond to, I don’t think he wants any more from any of us.

    Bob Levinson

    Comment by Bob Levinson — June 19, 2009 @ 8:44 am | Reply

  8. I love the live version he did in 1999 (despite some asshole near the mike yelling out “Leadbelly”). It’s absolutely masterful, a mature reading which to me is even more devastating and beautiful than that first burst of genius-promise so many years ago.

    Comment by mokami — June 19, 2009 @ 2:03 pm | Reply

  9. Also Dylan’s spoken poem “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie”. Our President could use a bit of Woody in him. It was up to Rep. Howard Berman to speak courageously about Iran from the House floor instead.

    Comment by charlie finch — June 19, 2009 @ 5:55 pm | Reply

  10. “There is no right or wrong answer”-Bob Levinson (ne “Levin”) Wanna test that theory? Check out Bob’ extraordinary Massey Hall Gospel Concert, 1980 Toronto, on YouTube especially “Coverdown Breakthrough”, to my mind his greatest concert work, and all in the name of Jesus!!

    Comment by charlie finch — June 20, 2009 @ 9:59 am | Reply

  11. Other spectacular Dylan performances on YouTube:”Lakes of Ponchartrain” (1989), “Blowin in the Wind” (Barcelona 1984), Earl Scruggs TV Special (1969), “Waggoner’s Lad” (1989), “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (1963, March on Washington)” “When the Ship Comes In” (1963, March on Washington), “Restless Farewell” (1997, Sinatra tribute) “Trail of the Buffalo” (1989) “Ring Them Bells” (Japan 1991), “Girl From the North Country” (Johnny Cash Show 1969)

    Comment by charlie finch — June 20, 2009 @ 10:52 am | Reply


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