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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007


I've just clinched a gig in Glasgow in November, and can re-cap on the date I'm doing before that in Birmingham. Both are BOB DYLAN & THE POETRY OF THE BLUES events, and these are the details:

Thursday Sept 13, 8pm
Birmingham: Midlands Arts Centre
Cannon Hill Park, Edgbaston Rd, Birmingham B12 9QH
Box Office: 0121 440 3838
tickets £9 (concessions £6.75)

Friday Nov 16, 8pm
Glasgow CCA
Centre for Contemporary Arts, 350 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow G2 3JD
Box Office 0141 352 4900
tickets £11, concessions £6

Please come and say hello if you manage to get to either of these. It's the first time I'll have done a gig in Birmingham - I don't know why it's taken so long: I like Birmingham, and used to live there once upon a time - and the first time in Glasgow since a short talk at a Waterstones in Sauchiehall Street in 2000.

Saturday, July 28, 2007


Yesterday's Times reported:

Dylan has agreed to let Mark Ronson, the dance world’s hottest producer, weave his magic on 'Most Likely You'll Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)' [sic], the bittersweet break-up song from his 1966 album Blonde on Blonde.

After years of rejecting all offers to remix his catalogue, Dylan, 66, has decided that a dancefloor makeover is the best way to introduce his generation-defining work to a new teenage audience.
The London-born Ronson is the DJ hitmaker behind Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen. He recently turned a song by The Smiths into a pop hit.

Ronson’s update of Dylan’s bluesy track is expected to fill dancefloors and top the singles chart. The Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe will give the song its first airing next week [on Monday, apparently].

When Elvis Presley’s estate sanctioned a remix of his 'A Little Less Conversation' in 2002 it became a global No 1 and revitalised interest in “The King”. Dylan’s record company is hoping to prompt a similar revival in his popularity before issuing a retrospective of his work in the autumn.

Mike Smith, managing director of Columbia Records, told The Times: “It is the first time Bob has agreed to anything like this. We want to bring his music to an audience unfamiliar with Dylan in a similar fashion to the Elvis campaign.”

Ronson and Smith were invited to trawl through the entire Dylan catalogue for a suitable track to reinvent. Smith said: “We hit on 'You’ll Go Your Way' because it already has a great rhythmic breakbeat. It’s also got a timeless, universal lyric.

“It’s not such a familiar song that people will cry, ‘Sacrilege’. It will also confound people’s expectations of Bob, which he has done throughout his career.”

...Smith said: “We hope the fans will see this as an addition to the canon, not a desecration. It’s a new interpretation of Bob’s world and adds to the mystery. We all approached the remix with respect and awe.”

Ronson said: “It’s the first time Bob Dylan has given anyone the original multi-tracks of his songs to do remixes. I’m a huge Dylan fan, so it’s a great honour, along with the fact that he heard it and approved it, because, as you imagine, he’d be quite picky.”

Bob Dylan has always been interested in rap-type stuff, so hip-hop seems pretty unsurprising, and certainly more interesting than advertising Victoria's Secret or doing tie-ins with Starbucks. Clearly, though, this is motivated by shrewd commercial opportunism - on Jeff Rosen's part, or Bob's, or Sony's, I wonder - and this "new teenage audience" remix will apparently be included on that autumn restrospective set, to be titled DYLAN. (See here for the official details.)

The comparison with Elvis' 'A Little Less Conversation', though spot-on in marketing terms (they hope), is not especially apt artistically. Bob's track - correct name 'Most Likely You [sic] Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)' - is a terrific piece of work from one of his very greatest albums, whereas Elvis' recording of 'A Little Less Conversation' was, pre-remix, one of the least interesting songs and least animated performances he'd ever come up with. This too was unsurprising: it was recorded for one of his last, most clapped-out cheapo movies, Live A Little, Love A Little (and God knows, there was little of either in the film), at the MGM Sound Studios, Culver City, on March 7, 1968, and released that September. A great year for those of us who were in any way attuned to the 1960s, but not for Elvis Presley. And to judge by Chronicles Volume One, Bob Dylan didn't feel attuned to that period either.

So I look forward to hearing Bob hip-hop hopping along, though not, I must admit, to having to run the aural gauntlet of Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe's show.

UPDATE: Actually you can here an extract from it here at a site called Zimming Point now... A first hearing of this snippet suggests that Bob and the remix make uneasy partners, but it gets better... Anyone else want to offer hasty comments?

Thursday, July 26, 2007


A past posting was about an English GCSE exam paper set this year (apparently by the OCR exam board as part of their 'English Paper 1: Media, Non-Fiction and Information'), which included a "comprehension" question based on a passage from Chronicles Volume One.

Now I note that in the current Private Eye they have a feature titled 'The Examiners Examined' in which they name and shame particular exam boards in categories like 'Most predictable questions'. The article cites the OCR board's use of Dylan under 'Most pathetic attempt to be hip' and then - itself somewhat predictably - offers under 'Most impossible question' the fact that "In the same [exam] paper pupils were asked to "explain concisely" Dylan's thoughts.'

An old friend, the writer Nigel Fountain, would not have been lost for an answer. In the mid-1960s, with only minutes left in a politics exam, and still needing to answer one more entire essay question, he tackled the one that demanded " 'We shall overcome'. Overcome what?" His very concise offering was "The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind."

Monday, July 23, 2007


I've just had a few days' break in southwest France, where the weather was not the total contrast I'd hoped to the wet chill of England, but was, as with many things about life in the land of George W. Bush's cheese-eating surrender monkeys, an improvement. Back here last night, news reports of flooding seemed almost unbelievable... and now that it isn't just poor old Hull, up in the north of England, that's affected, but agreeable swathes of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, the media and the politicians are of course far more interested in it all.

But I digress. An anniversary I had intended to mark but missed while away from my computer (and therefore this blog) occurred last Wednesday: namely, the 5th anniversary of the death of folklorist Alan Lomax, a man about whom it is impossible not to have mixed feelings, I imagine.

Here, working within its usual brief of stressing the Dylan connections of other people, is the entry on Lomax from The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. (One detail I omitted from the entry, for no good reason beyond my own forgetfulness, was the place of his death. It enjoys a name that must always reverberate with sad irony when anyone dies there - it is called Safety Harbor, Florida.)

Lomax, Alan [1915 - 2002]
Alan Lomax was born in Austin, Texas on January 31, 1915, the son of the indefatigable folklorist John A. Lomax. He was driven all his life by the need to prove himself to his father in the same field - which he more than managed. It is not possible here to list or delineate his unparalleled success as a collector of folksongs and blues in many lands; it must be enough to note that had he not chosen the path he did, our entire understanding of American music would be immeasurably the poorer and our troves of recorded sound vastly less. Everything would have developed differently without him: the Library of Congress would be smaller, its archive of pre-war field-recordings less extensive and less valued; the Folk Revival movement would have supped on a far thinner gruel and the conditions that nurtured Bob Dylan’s career so different that Dylan’s own creative canon could not have been the same.

Lomax was - to mention merely a couple of ways his work concretely affected Dylan’s - a great advocate of WOODY GUTHRIE’s importance (‘No modern American poet or folk singer has made a more significant contribution to our culture’), and a tireless field-recorder, like his father, of men on prison farms (not least in father and son thus first recording LEADBELLY), so retrieving exactly the kind of magical material HARVEY ABRAMS said that the young Bob Dylan was a purist about (‘He had to get the oldest record and, if possible, the Library of Congress record’).

Dylan refers to Lomax directly a number of times in Chronicles Volume One, introducing him first as ‘the great folk archivist’ and a few pages on describing a tangible feature of the Village’s musical topography, ‘Alan Lomax’s loft on 3rd Street. Lomax used to have parties twice a month where he’d bring folksingers to play…. You might see Roscoe Holcomb or CLARENCE ASHLEY or Dock Boggs, MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT, Robert Pete Williams or even Don Stover and The Lilly Brothers – sometimes, even real live section gang convicts that Lomax would get out of state penitentiaries on passes and bring to New York to do field hollers in his loft. The invitees to these gatherings would most likely be local doctors, city dignitaries, anthropologists, but there’d always be some regular folk there too. I’d been there once or twice…’

On January 20, 1988, Alan Lomax was, bizarrely, in the audience during Dylan’s acceptance speech at his induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame; Dylan included Lomax in his thanks, adding: ‘I spent many nights at his apartment house listening to and meeting all kinds of folk music people which I never would have come in contact with.’

Dylan was also taped by Lomax at this apartment, in early 1963 (the tape is undated but has to have been made after Dylan returned from England that January and before the assassination of Kennedy on November 22). The result consists of Dylan singing a rather beautiful version of ‘Masters Of War’, Lomax asking him where he wrote it and Dylan going into a somewhat drunken-sounding monologue about having written it in England where people don’t like Kennedy and then about General de Gaulle and Russian Premier Khruschev. Altogether the tape last around 8 minutes, with the singing running to 4½.

This item was unlogged by Dylan discographers until very recently. The Alan Lomax Archive keeps adding to its online lists, and this item only appeared in fall 2005, though it had been offered to Dylan’s office as an item for inclusion in the No Direction Home movie some time earlier (but not used).

By the time he made this tape, Dylan had also known some of Alan Lomax’s own performing of folksong. The album of sea-shanties he was introduced to by SPIDER JOHN KOERNER back in Minneapolis included, he remembers, ‘Alan Lomax himself singing the cowboy song “Doney Gal”, which I added to my repertoire.’ Indeed he did: he was recorded performing it in his sweetest pre-New York voice as early as May 1960 in a St.Paul apartment. Later, at the NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL of 1965, it was Alan Lomax who introduced the PAUL BUTTERFIELD BLUES BAND with some disparaging comment that no-one can quite remember (it is quoted differently in every account), prompting Dylan’s manager ALBERT GROSSMAN to wrestle him to the ground. Lomax was 50 years old at the time; he had decades of work still to achieve.

As it happened, by this point Lomax had long since impinged upon Dylan’s personal life too: in 1961, Lomax’s personal assistant was one Carla Rotolo, and through her, Dylan was introduced to her younger sister, SUZE ROTOLO.

Lomax’s biggest book, The Land Where The Blues Began, was published in 1993, when he was 78 years old. He had become an eloquent writer about the geography of the Delta, as well as about its music, and equally good on the work song as the main source of the poetry of the blues. By now he was, too, unafraid to make the broadest kind of statement, as here: ‘Singing and making music are a kind of dreaming out loud, pulling the listener into the dream and thus taking care of his deep needs and feelings.’

Alan Lomax was no saint - but since this has not been the place to list his achievements, nor should it be the place to list his faults. He died at age 87, on July 19, 2002.

[Alan Lomax, quote on Guthrie from The Penguin Book of American Folk Songs, Harmondsworth UK: 1964. Other works include many co-written with his father, plus The Folk Songs of North America, Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1960 and The Land Where The Blues Began, New York: Pantheon, 1993. Lomax taped interview with Dylan listed at, foot of page, seen online 9 Oct 2005; the tape is Alan Lomax Collection aggregate no. AFC 200404, tape no. T1248. Bob Dylan, Chronicles Volume One, pp. 55, 70 & 239.]

Monday, July 16, 2007


For years Melvyn Bragg, famously the British cultural commentator with the biggest hair, has avoided devoting one of his South Bank Show arts TV programmes to Bob Dylan's work.

This may be because he feels this would make a worthwhile show only if Dylan agreed to a one-to-one chat (though this would also rule out focussing on anyone dead, for example - so disqualifying quite a few great artists), but he's also managed to give the impression that he views Dylan with suspicion, if not hostility.

Which would be just about tenable if The South Bank Show never dropped its sights below lofty levels of conventional high-culture achievement. But that's never been its stance, and last night the subject was the so-called Bard of Barnsley, Ian McMillan: one of the shallowest poets and most obnoxious Professional Yorkshiremen you could hope to avoid encountering. A man who mistakes clumping delivery for plainspeaking, and cannot offer a sentence without larding it in self-regard.

However joshing and Northern-laddish their telly twosome might have been (and the combined murk of their vowel sounds must have been terrifying), taking Ian McMillan seriously enough to profile him while remaining suspicious of Bob Dylan is like gobbling slugs while scoffing at bouillabaisse.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


Had Woody Guthrie lived, he'd be 95 years old today. Sometimes the great ages people are (or would be) surprise and shock, since so many figures in my landscape are symbolic of youthful energy, chutzpah and hope - but there's nothing surprising about Guthrie having been born nearly 100 years ago. He always sounded that way. In the picture, he's the one on the left (in both senses).

Friday, July 13, 2007


July 13, 2006 was the official publication date for The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia in the UK. (It had been published in the US that June 15.) I'd like to say I think my publishers, Continuum, did a fine job in producing a lovely-looking book at a remarkable price. They also continue to give support to my live events, in the form of posters and flyers. I hope be able to supply a new list of forthcoming dates soon. These should include Birmingham and two dates in Scotland.

Meanwhile I'm gratefully thrilled, so far, with responses to my new book (different publisher: Bloomsbury, and only published in the UK so far), Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell, which gets a 5-star review in the current Uncut and was named "Non-Fiction of the Week" in Metro on Tuesday... while on, it shot into the top 200 sales rankings that day, and even into their Top 10 Movers & Shakers. This also seems to me a good-looking book, and, at least on Amazon, it too is a remarkable price for a 448-page hardback.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Here is his perhaps surprisingly general-infomation-packed entry in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Fuller, Blind Boy [1907 - 1941]
Fulton Allen was probably born on July 10, 1907, and certainly at Wadesboro, North Carolina. He was not born blind but his eyesight began to fail by the age of 20 when, already married to a 14-year-old bride, he moved to the important tobacco-trade town of Winston-Salem. He was a coalyard labourer until forced to give up this job, after which he resorted to musicianship. By 1928 he had gone wholly blind and had begun to apply himself seriously to the guitar, which he had not begun to play till around 1925. (He played a big, steel-bodied National guitar.) He and his wife moved to Durham in 1929, playing to workers coming off shift in all the tobacco towns up and down Highway 70 and around Winston-Salem; he remained in penury, though in the end he became the South-East’s best-selling and most prolific recording artist of the 1930s, characterised not by originality of material but by an ear for a catchy song, a deft finger-picking style and straightforward vocals.

He recorded only between 1935 and 1940, beginning with a New York City solo session on July 23, 1935 that included an attractive re-write of ‘Sittin’ On Top of the World’, named ‘I’m Climbin’ On Top of the Hill’; two days later he was accompanied by Blind GARY DAVIS and Bull City Red and their three-song session included a title THE BAND would later borrow, ‘Rag, Mama, Rag’. Next day came a further solo session before he returned to North Carolina. In 1936 he went back to New York for a longer two-day solo session (which included a version of ‘Mama Let Me Lay It On You’), and in 1937 he made the journey no less than four times for further multi-day sessions, the last of these in freezing mid-December. He returned once again in April 1938 but that October was able to record more conveniently in Columbia, South Carolina, with SONNY TERRY and Bull City Red; in July 1939 they reconvened in Memphis but were back in New York on March 5, 6 and 7 for sessions that began with a take of what has become one of Fuller’s signature songs, ‘Step It Up and Go’ (with Bull City Red on washboard but Sonny Terry not playing).

His final, long session, again with these two accompanists, augmented by BROWNIE McGHEE on at least one track (‘Precious Lord’, one of several issued as by Brother George and His Sanctified Singers, a name often used for religious sides by McGhee & Red) took place in New York on June 19, 1940. Twelve numbers were recorded. A month later he was in hospital and on 13 February, 1941 he died in considerable pain, back in Durham, from restriction of the urethra and a bladder infection. He was 33 years old.

Such was his influence and popularity that Brownie McGhee not only recorded as ‘Blind Boy Fuller No.2’ but made a record titled ‘Death of Blind Boy Fuller’. In the 1960s-70s Fuller became a subject of great interest to those blues researchers who liked the Piedmont school (and liked to debate whether there was such a thing), as opposed to those more insistent voices who dismissed Fuller, BLIND WILLIE McTELL and others from the South-East as ‘lightweight’ and would only countenance the heavier, fiercer blues of the Mississippi Delta. It was the detailed research by one of the Piedmont-style enthusiasts, Briton Bruce Bastin, that overturned the myth that Fuller had been blinded by a girlfriend (as still relayed in Paul Oliver’s classic work The Story Of The Blues as late as 1969). Fuller and McTell - that other great performer who followed the tobacco season trail in the southeastern states - listened to each other’s work. Fuller’s ‘Log Cabin Blues’ of 1935 is virtually a cover of McTell’s 1929 ‘Come On Around To My House Mama’.

‘Midnight Special’, the LEADBELLY song recorded by HARRY BELAFONTE with Bob Dylan as harmonica accompanist in the early 1960s, had been, in between times, a key item in Blind Boy Fuller’s repertoire. In 1937 Fuller recorded ‘Weeping Willow’ (one of those songs that includes the lovely commonstock couplet ‘I lay down last night, tried to take my rest / My mind got to ramblin’ like the wild geese in the west’), which Dylan performed at the Supper Club in New York in 1993. Fuller’s ‘Stealing Bo-Hog’ is one of the cluster of songs that pre-figures Dylan’s opening line of ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ (and LITTLE RICHARD’s ‘Keep A-Knockin’’) with its ‘Say you get away from my window, don’t knock at my door’; his ‘Pistol Snapper Blues’, from 1938, is one of those to invoke that character the monkey man, which Dylan pairs with ‘Tweeter’ in the title of a Travelin’ Wilburys song; and Fuller’s ‘Piccolo Rag’ (from the same 1938 session) is one of the many blues using ‘great big legs’ as a term of approbation - in Fuller’s case ‘Got great big legs and a little bitty feet’ - which gets reprocessed by Dylan into the ‘great big hind legs’ on his ‘New Pony’, on 1978’s Street Legal.

In 1992 Dylan recorded and released his own version of Fuller’s ‘Step It Up and Go’ on the Good As I Been To You album. It was a song that had rapidly become as much a hillbilly property as a blues dance number: it was performed by nearly every bluesman south of Chicago in the 1940s and ’50s and became a standard repertoire item - one of those test numbers, like ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ - that every self-respecting hillbilly blues guitarist had to be able to play. To look at the history of this comparatively recent song is to encounter yet again the extraordinary commonality of American grass-roots music, to see how shared a musical heritage there so often was between, as Tony Russell’s book has it, Blacks Whites And Blues.

At the beginning of the 1960s, THE EVERLY BROTHERS recorded ‘Step It Up & Go’, and to look at their slim interweaving within the story is to see a representative illustration of how this music passes to and fro. Their ‘Step It Up & Go’ isn’t on the album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, but Ike Everly would have been their source. Ike had been taught guitar by Arnold Schultz, a black musician who also taught THE MONROE BROTHERS; in turn Ike taught the 14-year-old Merle Travis thumb-pick style - a style Travis developed and showcased on ‘Step It Up & Go’.

The song was also in the repertoire of populist cowboy outfit the Maddox Brothers And Rose, the pre-rockabilly artist Harmonica Frank Floyd (a figure championed by GREIL MARCUS in Mystery Train) and John Hammond Jr., who includes it on his album Frogs For Snakes. It’s of a type that crops up over and over again. The building blocks of the lyric are commonstock, in some cases shared with those in that other frisky classic of inconsequence, TAMPA RED’s ‘It’s Tight Like That’, which, as remembered by Eugene Powell, for instance (a 1930s Bluebird recording artist and veteran blues musician interviewed in ALAN LOMAX’s The Land Where The Blues Began), includes ‘Had a little dog, his name was Ball / Gave him a little taste and he want it all’, which Dylan puts in as the fourth stanza of ‘Step It Up & Go’: ‘Got a little girl, her name is Ball / Give a little bit, she took it all.'

At the same time we find the melody of ‘Step It Up & Go’ used everywhere from the Kansas City jazz-tinged boogie pianist-singer Julia Lee’s 1946 ‘Gimme Watcha Got’ to ELVIS PRESLEY’s 1958 New Orleans pastiche ‘Hard Headed Woman’. Another Blind Boy Fuller song, ‘You’ve Got Something There’, and Blind Willie McTell’s ‘Warm It Up To Me’ are more or less the same, as is the MEMPHIS JUG BAND’s ‘Bottle It Up And Go’ (cut in 1932 and 1934) and Tommy McClennan’s 1939 ‘Bottle It Up And Go’, later recorded by JOHN LEE HOOKER as ‘Bundle Up And Go’, ‘Shake It Up And Go’ and ‘Bottle Up And Go’. Under that last title, it was also recorded in the late 1950s by Snooks Eaglin (at that time a street musician). Then there’s ‘Got The Bottle Up And Gone’, a debut-session track by Sonny Boy Williamson I from 1937, and ‘Touch It Up And Go’, a track by Fuller associate SONNY TERRY & Jordan Webb, cut in New York a year after Fuller’s death.

‘Step It Up & Go’ must owe its predominance to having the most accessible and familiar title. Like so many figures of speech, indeed like so much of the poetry of the blues, ‘step it up and go’ crossed over to the world of dancing from the world of work. It was what people said to their mules and horses. They still do, though it’s now more common as an exhortation to the tourist trade horses drawing carriages in New Orleans than in the fields, where tractors now do the ploughing.

Bob Dylan’s version is unambitious, as befits someone who understands the tradition in which the song sits. Conscious that a bravura performance is for the young and brash, and that there’s a hundred voices capable of matching up to what is a simple dance number, Dylan settles quite rightly for something egolessly unexceptional. This is intelligent good-time, on which his robust and clumsy guitar-work is countered by an alert, true-to-the-genre vocal. As John Wesley Harding (aka WES STACE) notes, ‘He screws up the riff at the end…so he goes through the whole sequence again, just for the hell of it.’ It’s true.

[Blind Boy Fuller: ‘Weeping Willow’, NY, 14 Jul 1937, Blind Boy Fuller On Down – Vol. 1, Saydisc SDR143, Badminton UK, c.1967; ‘Stealing Bo-Hog’, NY, 7 Sep 1937, & ‘Pistol Snapper Blues’, NY, 5 Apr 1938, Blind Boy Fuller with Sonny Terry and Bull City Red, Blues Classics BC-11, Berkeley, 1966; ‘You’ve Got Something There’, Memphis, 12 Jul 1939, CD-reissued Blind Boy Fuller: East Coast Piedmont Style, Columbia Roots n’Blues 467923, NYC, 1991 (insert-notes by Bruce Bastin), a representative sample of Fuller’s work, incl. ‘Log Cabin Blues’, NY, 26 Jul 1935 (a previously-unreleased take) but excluding ‘Step It Up & Go’.
Bob Dylan: ‘Weeping Willow’, NY, 17 Nov 1993, unreleased. Everly Brothers: ‘Step It Up & Go’, Nashville, autumn 1961, Instant Party, Warner Brothers W (WS) 1430, US, 1962; Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, Nashville, Aug 1958, Cadence CLP 3016, NY, 1958 (reissued as Folksongs By The Everly Brothers, Cadence CLP 3059 / CLP 23059, NY, 1962; CD-reissued on Ace CDCHM 75, UK, 1990). Merle Travis: ‘Step It Up & Go’, nia, Walking The Strings, Capitol nia. (Travis used the refrain of another Fuller song, 1935’s ‘Ain’t It A Cryin’ Shame?’, in his 1946 radio broadcasts.) Maddox Brothers And Rose: ‘Step It Up And Go’, nia, Maddox Brothers And Rose 1946-1951 Vol. 2 (along with ‘Dark As The Dungeon’, nia), Arhoolie 5017, El Cerrito CA, 1976. Harmonica Frank: ‘Step It Up & Go’, The Great Original Recordings of Harmonica Frank Lloyd 1951-1958, Puritan 3003, Evanston IL, 1973. John Hammond Jr: Frogs For Snakes, nia, Rounder nia, Somerville, MA, nia. Julia Lee & Her Boyfriends: ‘Gimme Watcha Got’, LA, Sep 1946, reissued Tonight’s The Night, Charly CRB 1039, UK, 1982. Elvis Presley: ‘Hard Headed Woman’ (composed Claude Demetrius, whose ‘Mean Woman Blues’ also uses the same tune), Hollywood, 15 Jan 1958, King Creole, RCA LPM 1884, NY, 1958. Blind Willie McTell: ‘Warm It Up To Me’, NY, 14 Sep 1933.
Blind Willie McTell: ‘Come On Around To My House Mama’, Atlanta, 30 Oct 1929, King of the Georgia Blues Singers: Blind Willie McTell, Roots RL-324, Vienna, 1968.) The Memphis Jug Band (billed the first time around as Picaninny Jug Band, and then as by Charlie Burse With Memphis Jug Band): ‘Bottle It Up And Go’, Richmond IN, 3 Aug 1932 & Chicago, 7 Nov 1934, both CD-reissued Memphis Jug Band Complete Recorded Works 1932-1934, RST Blues Documents BDCD-6002, Vienna, nia. Tommy McClennan: ‘Bottle It Up And Go’, Chicago, 22 Nov 1939, CD-reissued Travelin’ Highway Man, Travelin’ Man TM CD-06, nia. John Lee Hooker: ‘Bundle Up And Go’, Chicago 10 Jun 1958, unissued, & Detroit, Apr 1959, The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker, Riverside LP 838, c.1960; ‘Shake It Up And Go’, Culver City CA, c.1959, John Lee Hooker's Detroit, United Artists 3LP 127, US, 1973; ‘Bottle Up And Go’, Chicago, 1963, On Campus, VJ LP 1066, 1963, & NY, 23 Nov 1965, It Serves You Right to Suffer, Impulse LP 9103, nia. Snooks Eaglin: ‘Bottle Up And Go’, New Orleans, 1959, Country Boy In New Orleans, Arhoolie LP 2014, El Cerrito CA, nia, CD-reissued Arhoolie CD348, El Cerrito, c.1990. Sonny Boy Williamson I: ‘Got The Bottle Up And Gone’, Aurora IL, 5 May 1937, Sonny Boy Williamson, RCA 75.722 (Treasury of Jazz EP no.22), Paris, 1963, CD-reissued Sonny Boy Williamson Complete Recorded Works, Volume 1 (1937-1938), Document DOCD-5055, Vienna, nd.. Sonny Terry & Jordan Webb: ‘Touch It Up And Go’, NY, 23 Oct 1941.
Alan Lomax, The Land Where The Blues Began, London; Methuen edn, p. 374.
John Wesley Harding: ‘Good As He’s Been To Us’, Stereofile, US, Feb 1993.]

Monday, July 09, 2007


I see that we can now read online - courtesy of the journal Oral Tradition (published by the University of Missouri-Columbia) - the contributions of various scholars and others to the colloquium "Bob Dylan's Performance Artistry" held in 2005 at the Université de Caen-Basse Normandie. This is the link.

I'm told by Todd Harvey, author of that fine and refreshing book The Formative Dylan (2001), that Oral Tradition is one of the first established academic journals to become an entirely online publication. It was founded in 1986 to provide an international and interdisciplinary forum for discussing worldwide oral traditions and related forms.

The issue on "Bob Dylan's Performance Artistry" includes Harvey's interesting article 'Never Quite Sung in this Fashion Before: Bob Dylan's 'Man of Constant Sorrow'', as well as, among much else, Gordon Ball's 'Dylan & the Nobel', Richard Thomas' 'The Streets of Rome: The Classical Dylan' (written and delivered before the emergence of Modern Times, of course), and Catherine Mason's very acute and fascinating look at Dylan's use of McTell's work in particular, '"The Low Hum in Syllables and Meters": Blues Poetics in Bob Dylan's Verbal Art'.

As noted in the Bob Dylan Encyclopedia entry on Todd Harvey, he was born the day Bob Dylan finished recording Bringing It All Back Home.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


I'm pleased to report that Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell is now officially published, and in the shops - and doing well on at the moment. (And will do better still if you're inspired to click on the cover picture of the book in the RECOMMENDED list down the left-hand side of this blog, in order to buy it yourself, quickly, easily and very cheaply...)

There was a modest launch talk and signing at Summit Bookshop in Kirkbymoorside, which went very well, especially considering it was held at 11 o'clock on a Monday morning of torrential rain.

That stalwart contributor to Dylan fanzine The Bridge Terry Kelly has written a lovely review of the McTell book, published in The Informer (no. 61, July '07), a widely-distributed free listings magazine for the North-East of England. He writes:

Nobody Can Sing the Blues Like Blind Willie McTell

Acclaimed Bob Dylan critic Michael Gray turns his attention to a blues master in his latest book - with wonderful results. Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes - In Search of Blind Willie McTell (Bloomsbury, £25), is set to become the standard work on the charismatic twelve-string guitar player and singer. The press release rightly describes the book as a "personal and moving odyssey into a lost world of early blues music," with the author literally following in the footsteps of McTell in the singer's native Georgia. But this is no gonzo-style biographical extravagance, but a serious attempt to set McTell in his historical and cultural contexts, highlighting the resilience of the man himself in the face of great personal and professional hurdles and the magnificence of his musical legacy. Stretching back and forth, from the bloody battles of the American Civil War to McTell's final days, the book is distinguished by an unfailing attention to detail - often in the face of scant or non-existent records and census returns - and a stylish prose which rescues McTell from the shadows of cultural history.

The dust jacket is emblazoned with a lyric from a 1983 Bob Dylan recording: "Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell." The quote is as good a starting point as any for a biographical study of a country blues great whose death in 1959 makes him part of what Gray defines as "that surreal place, the recent past." Dylan's lyric indicates what made McTell the greatest blues singer ever to come out of Georgia. Willie McTell's light tenor voice could handle a rich variety of songs. Like Lead Belly, he would sing anything, from classic blues to popular numbers of his day, often for nickels and dimes on the highways and byways of his native state. But the blind McTell was not a fire-and-brimstone blues artist, like his sometime travelling companion and almost-namesake, Blind Willie Johnson. Nor did he (allegedly) sell his soul at the crossroads, in the manner of the haunted Robert Johnson. McTell was a musical chameleon, who could create magic with just a guitar and a voice, without the need of any supplementary musical mythology. But relatively little was known about McTell until Gray began his musical odyssey almost ten years ago. In one sense, Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes is an act of cultural retrieval, the author blowing away the dust of history to disentangle fact from fiction.

Quite apart from containing the fruits of painstaking research extracted from various libraries, public institutions and even Georgia funeral parlours, the book is also a hymn to McTell's native Georgia. Gray traces the routes the blind singer would have followed, in and around his native Thomson. Catching a bus from Atlanta with the author, the reader takes in the sights, sounds and smells of McTell's luxurious but also chaotic home state, a place where the American Civil War and segregation are still very much alive in the people and culture. There is a highly evocative description of the Jones Grove Baptist Church, where McTell worshipped. English irony meets the rich emotion of a gospel service, as Gray witnesses the church taken over by the religious fervour and melodrama that would have been McTell's natural environment as a churchgoer. There's a moving end to Gray's visit, as some of the church elders reveal how as children they would peek in at the old blues singer, often sitting alone with just his guitar, seeing out his final days with relatives.

As a poor black man, McTell was very much a victim of history, like thousands of others. The great-grandson of a white landowner, the singer's social standing was never in doubt, but Gray's book is fired by an admiration for McTell's personal and musical spirit, which failed to be vanquished by time and circumstances. Despite his lowly origins, McTell bequeathed us such standards as Statesboro Blues, Broke Down Engine Blues and the unimpeachable greatness of The Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues. McTell's music has proved an inspiration for everyone from Dylan to Led Zeppelin to the Allman Brothers. But the story of his final recordings, made in 1956, and very nearly thrown out with the trash, is almost a metaphor for the lost histories of millions of black Americans, whose lives and deaths went largely unrecorded in the segregationist Deep South.

To risk a cliche, Michael Gray's book is a labour of love. But it is also a history of the cultural landscape which produced the great blues singer Blind Willie McTell. Complete with a detailed discography, Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes will appeal not only to blues devotees, but to anyone interested in a musical detective story and the amazing resilience of the human and artisitic spirit.