My Photo

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

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]

Follow 1michaelgray1 on Twitter

Sunday, October 28, 2007


Sarah and I went to a house concert on Friday night, in a village outside York. House Concerts are a weird but wonderful affirmation of the small-is-beautiful principle. About 25 people bring their own drinks and collect in someone's sitting room to hear live music from up-and-coming performers/musicians/singer-songwriters. In our area this year these have been pioneered by Tony & Nicki (, so thanks go to them for organising and hosting Friday night's terrific event, which featured the excellent Romi Mayes.

It was the one UK date on her European tour! She flew in from Prague and tomorrow flies out to Milan for her next gig. Cheap flights have made this possible, of course, and there's a price to be paid for these, but they're cheap even when you pay the additional voluntary carbon-offset fee.

Anyway, Romi Mayes proved an exceptional talent, combining a well-judged amount of quick-minded, refreshing inter-song talk with self-penned songs that fuse strong melodies with ardent and intelligent lyrics, and beguilingly dexterous acoustic guitar playing. She has that alertness to the moment which brings together a high degree of musicianship, expressive feeling and responsiveness to others.

She also has style, and knows it. Witness the way that while the first five or six songs were all anchored and energised by her tremendous guitarwork, she never once looked at the guitar or her hands while they carrying this off. It was quick, resourceful and highly accomplished, and never flash. She doesn't take herself too seriously but she has the gravitas of the creative artist who knows what they're doing, and knows how to turn fleeting self-mockery into lasting song.

Her CD, Sweet Somethin' Steady, might (as so often) seem less distinctive than hearing her live and solo - maybe more musicians inevitably make records sound more like other records - but the songs are strong enough to come through for anyone, I'd have thought. It has won her two awards at The Western Canadian Music Awards this month: for Outstanding Roots Recording and Songwriter of The Year.

The tunes are not only strong but suggest an authentic steeping in other people's work. The lyrics are rich with quotable lines. I love, on the title track, this acute and economical expression of wanting to keep someone around but not buy the whole conventional package: "Please don't tell me your middle name"... But Romi Mayes knows better than to be clever-clever with rhymes. Less is more in such things, and what could be better than this rhyme (in the fine and challenging 'The Other Dame')?: "I'll ride in your Cadillac / You'll talk about Kerouac".

This is an immeasurably better thing to do with a Cadillac than Bob Dylan's decision, this year, to TV-advertise their new SUV. I write as an ex-Cadillac owner myself: mine was a white 1972 Eldorado convertible with red uphostery, bought around 1980, which did 15 miles per gallon on a motorway and 7 miles per gallon around town. We weren't half as conscious of the environmental damage then, though, and it was at least a thing of beauty. There's no excuse now for driving anything as anti-social, polluting and ugly as a 2007 SUV, and even less excuse for Bob Dylan, of all people, to take the money and run with them. The ads themselves are tantalising, not least for the strong hint of homage to that great early Spielberg movie Duel - but it's a shameful and sordid act on Dylan's part to have done this. Bad car to drive during a war on global warming.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


I'm back in Scotland on November 16th for what seems likely to be my last gig of the year. Details:

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Ming Campbell is exactly two days older than Bob Dylan.

Monday, October 15, 2007


Don’t you start to feel that there’s altogether too much Dylan in the mainstream media right now?

The BBC has become obsessed with him. Not for the first time, last night was a "Dylan Day", with three programmes about him on TV channel BBC 4, and much trumpeting about the Beeb bringing us the new Theme Time Radio Hour series, plus page upon page of the current Radio Times devoted to Bob, including the front cover. All this following hard on Bob Harris' compilation of the so-called "dream concert" of some of "Bob's greatest hits" (not my idea of the Dylan Dream Concert).

This BBC bombardment is all accompanied by mild but irksome examples of the kind of truth-stretching that they've been so shamed by lately (Blue Peter, the Queen Not Storming Out, and so on). On BBC 1 or 2 last night they trailed their "Dylan Day" by claiming that it consisted of "three new programmes" - but the third one wasn't new at all: it was just a repeat of the 2005 Arena In The Madhouse, a very disappointing documentary about Madhouse On Castle Street (the filmed play by Evan Jones that the BBC itself lost for 40 years after its first broadcast).

It was also economical with the truth to claim, as they do, that the main programme shown last night was Arena: The Other Side Of The Mirror, as if it was an Arena programme. It was nothing of the sort: it was Murray Lerner's film, and would exist with or without a BBC arts documentary series.

Meanwhile as well as the Lerner film there's the Todd Haynes movie I'm Not There, the Dylan 3-CD box-set, the new radio series, the current tour, the German art exhibition . . .

I wasn't able to see the Murray Lerner film last night, and hope to do so tonight instead, but I'm pretty confident that it will be the most compelling of all these Products, since Bob was so transcendent a genius in those days. Sarah and I were driving along through the sunny countryside on Saturday listening to the official Live at the Gaslight CD (bought from Belgian magazine Humo, not from Starbucks) - and apart from one ill-advised high-squawked line toward the end of ‘Cocaine’ (which wasn’t half as horrible as Jack White’s contribution to ‘One More Cup of Coffee’ onstage with Bob recently) - apart from this it was all so, so perfect: vastly more authentic as art, trusting as communication, and honest in its expressiveness, than, well, Modern Times. Not to mention his guitar-work, which was exquisite.

As for the new box set, I keep thinking: why do I need to buy this one, when I’ve got everything on it already?

I think I preferred things when Sony didn't market Dylan's albums and BBC television didn't like having him on. It strikes me as absurd that the record company should have created such huge waves over Modern Times when they barely knew where he was or what he was doing at all throughout the late 1980s to 1990s, and gave no visible support to either the early days of the Never-Ending Tour or to an album as fine as World Gone Wrong.

And there's surely something unsavoury and morally suspect about having the BBC push Dylan so hard at us these days, without any acknowledgment that they've spent most of his career neglecting and ignoring him. It isn't only that they lost Madhouse on Castle Street: this was the public-service broadcaster that threw away his last-ever solo concerts, which they filmed in 1965 and then decided they didn't have storage space to keep. It was the BBC, too, that then rejected as "not good enough" Dylan's numinous appearance on the 1969 Johnny Cash TV show. After that, they just ignored him altogether for most of his creative working life.

Bobwise, well, a happy medium would make the BBC a happier medium.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


I'm heading up to Dumfries and Galloway, in the Scottish lowlands tomorrow, to give a talk at the Wigtown Book Festival this Friday, after being interviewed on the Tom Morton Show on BBC Radio Scotland just after 2pm the same day.

Specifically, the gig is:

Michael Gray: In Search of Blind Willie McTell
9pm (yes, 9pm), Friday October 5
Bladnoch Distillery
Scotland DG8 9AB
Festival Box Office: 01988 403222
Tickets: £5

If you manage to attend, please do come up and say hello.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


Tomorrow, October 3rd, is the 40th anniversary of the death of Woody Guthrie. He died in Queens, New York, aged 55. Here's the Bob Dylan Encyclopedia entry on him. (It was only when re-looking at this entry just now that I realised it doesn't follow the book's normal format of starting with the facts of his birth - real full name, place and date of birth - and ending with the date and place of his death. This will need amending for the projected 2008 paperback, of which more in due course...)

[Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, on July 14, 1912]:

Guthrie, Woody [1912-1967]
Guthrie travelled around with LEADBELLY, SONNY TERRY and CISCO HOUSTON during the Second World War. Their recordings include a Leadbelly song, ‘We Shall Be Free’, on which Dylan based his own ‘I Shall Be Free’ and ‘I Shall Be Free No.10’. The tune is the same in all three songs, all of which belong to an older song cluster (see ‘I Shall Be Free’) and to the talking-blues genre. This genre is generally acknowledged to have originated (on record, at least) with the white artist Chris Bouchillon but when we attribute Dylan’s talking-blues style to Guthrie we tend to forget that black artists explored this form earlier than Guthrie did, and that Guthrie himself listened attentively to black music. (A particularly fine example is BLIND WILLIE McTELL’s ‘Travelin’ Blues’, recorded in Atlanta on October 30, 1929.)

Dylan’s early work includes a Guthrie Period, of course, and while one of the two self-composed songs on his first album is the direct address ‘Song To Woody’, the other, ‘Talkin’ New York’ also quotes from him, transcribing and reiterating his morality (‘Now a very great man once said / Some people rob you with a fountain pen’, which comes from Guthrie’s ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’): a morality that has remained crucial in Dylan’s work ever since. We meet it close to the surface again in the interestingly political 1980s song 'Union Sundown': a genuine protest song in the Guthrie tradition, and a honorable addition to it because it is observant about a reality that wasn’t there to be observed in the 1960s - a real and contemporary ‘state of the union’ survey, and with a title that carries among its many meanings one that echoes a far earlier Dylan sleeve-note poem in its recognition that the Guthrie era of noble, simple pro-union sentiment is no longer an available option.

Guthrie Americanised the ancient ballad ‘Gypsy Davey’ (CHILD ballad no.200), abolishing its ‘milk-white steed’; his was a version Dylan was recorded performing at the home of SID & BOB GLEASON in East Orange NJ, Feb-Mar 1961, and Dylan clearly knew it like the back of his lily-white hand when he was writing his own ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’.

Early Dylan can also use the tone of Guthrie’s autobiographical writing unaltered, can capture it exactly, in song. The chaotic scurrying around of cram-jam-packed humanity, which Guthrie describes so well in his tremendous autobiography Bound for Glory (1943), which Dylan is believed to have read in 1958 - particularly in the sequence about the box-car ride that opens and closes the book - is done precisely in this way: ‘Dogs a-barkin’, cats a-meowin’ / Women screamin’, fists a-flyin’, babies cryin’ / Cops a-comin’, me a-runnin’ / Maybe we just better call off the picnic.’ That is Woody Guthrie’s voice. It’s from Dylan’s 1962 song ‘Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues’.

Similarly, a line like ‘In the misty crystal glitter’ (from Guthrie’s song ‘Grand Coulee Dam’) clearly has its influence even on the Dylan of ‘Chimes Of Freedom’ - and you need only compare the writing and delivery of Guthrie’s ‘Talking About Songs’ (1944) with particular passages of Dylan’s ‘Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie’ (recorded in ‘live’ recitative performance in 1963 and finally released on the Bootleg Series I-III box-set, 1991) to hear yet another side of Guthrie’s voice: and it’s surprising to find his influence still so strong at this point. Here’s Woody Guthrie: ‘I hate a song that makes you think that you’re just / born to lose - bound to lose - no good to nobody, no / good fer nuthin’ because yer either too old or too young / or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that: / songs that run you down or songs that poke fun at ya on / account of yr bad luck or yer [pause] hard travelin’... / I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is / your world, that if it has hit you pretty hard and / knocked you down for a dozen loops, no matter how hard it’s run you / down or rolled you over, no matter what color, what size / y’are, how y’re built...’ and here’s Bob Dylan’s ambiguously titled ‘Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie’: ‘When yer head gets twisted and yer mind grows numb / When you think you’re too old, too young, too smart or too dumb... You need something to make it known / That it’s you and no one else that owns / That spot that yer standing, that space that you’re sitting / That the world aint got you beat / That it ain’t got you licked / It can’t get you crazy no matter how many times you might get kicked…’

Even Dylan’s 1960s drawings and paintings owe a lot to the quirky pen-and-ink sketches in Guthrie’s Bound For Glory. Look at the sketches published in Writings and Drawings by Bob Dylan in 1972 (a book dedicated to ‘the magnificent Woodie [sic] Guthrie and Robert Johnson…’) and the paintings on the covers of Dylan’s album Self Portrait and THE BAND’s first album Music From Big Pink.

Guthrie’s work was not always from that mythical terrain, the pure oral-tradition land of the folk. He seems to have based his rather awful poem ‘Belle Starr’ (in American Folksong, 1947) on the equally awful film Belle Starr (directed Irving Cummings, 20th Century Fox, 1941) - a poem that PETE SEEGER and RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOTT had no more sense than to put a tune to and record (The Bad Men [sic], Columbia L2L-1011, nia) and to publish in Sing Out! Vol. 15 no. 5, Nov 1965.

Dylan also recorded some of Guthrie’s children’s songs in early 1961, and kept them in his repertoire while he was conquering New York. These included ‘Car Car’ (East Orange NJ, Feb-Mar 1961, BONNIE BEECHER’s Minneapolis apartment that May, and at the Gaslight, NYC, Sep 1961) and ‘Howdido’ (Beecher’s, May 1961). Who knows why? You have never met a child (or adult) who enjoys listening to Guthrie (or Dylan) singing these dreary songs, with their plodding, morose jollity. And since Guthrie spent as little time as possible with his own children, it’s no wonder he misjudged his audience. (His son ARLO GUTHRIE and other relatives have apparently ‘revived’ these songs on a spooky 1990s album that mixes old Woody Guthrie vocal tracks with new recordings.)

In 1987 Dylan said that the first thing that struck him about Guthrie was his sound: not words but his sound - and interestingly, he added that he thought it quite close to THE CARTER FAMILY’s sound. Then Dylan uses the phrase ‘links in a chain’ to describe how people pass on what has gone before to those who come after; this comes in answer to questions about Guthrie’s influence upon him.

Dylan’s first public appearance after the motorcycle crash of 1966 was at the January 1968 Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert at Carnegie Hall. At the afternoon show he and The Band performed vibrant, fresh versions of Guthrie’s ‘I Ain’t Got No Home’, ‘Dear Mrs. Roosevelt’ and ‘Grand Coulee Dam’, and, with the ensemble of other performers, joined in ‘This Land Is Your Land’. At the evening show Dylan and The Band performed the same three songs and, ensemble, joined in ‘This Train Is Bound For Glory’. In 1972 one of Dylan’s many contributions to the DOUG SAHM sessions for the album Doug Sahm & Band was to play piano and organ on their recording of Guthrie’s ‘Columbus Stockade’ - a song Dylan himself first put on extant tape back in St.Paul, Minnesota, in May 1960. And in 1987, for the album A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, Dylan contributed a new recording of ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’.

Nowhere in song does Dylan throw us back to Guthrie - to song titles he’s written or performed, and to phrases associated with his work - more than within the multiple allusions, the deep soundings of meaning and memory that boom and rumble beneath the surface of the 1997 album Time Out of Mind.

In prose, Dylan has fully seized the opportunity, in Chronicles Volume One, 2004, to give Guthrie and his impact and influence a truly fulsome amount of careful yet warm attention. Woody is there on pages 9, 63, 83, 98-100, 227, 229, 243, 250, 251, 257, 270 and 283. Being ‘knocked out’ by Woody is on pages 243-246. Visiting his Coney Island house is on p.99-100. His repertoire is discussed on pages 247, 248 and 252. Songs and records by Woody are considered on pages 49, 53-54, 63, 98, 243-244, 246-247 and 279. Bound For Glory is cited on page 245. As ever, Dylan’s observations are as shrewd as they are romantic, as thoughtful as respectful. And the early period in which Dylan more or less tried to become Guthrie, and is tackled on the subject by JON PANKAKE, is candidly discussed.

The great folklorist ALAN LOMAX wrote of Guthrie that ‘he inherited the folk tradition of the last American frontier (western Oklahoma) and during his incessant wandering across the US he has recomposed this tradition into contemporary folky ballads about the lives of the American working class... No modern American poet or folk singer has made a more significant contribution to our culture.’ Well, except one.

[Woody Guthrie: The Library of Congress Recordings is a 3-CD set, Rounder Reissue Series 1041-1043, 1993, comprising ‘3 hours of songs and conversations’ incl. 22 monologues. For other recording details see Leadbelly: ‘We Shall Be Free’, NYC, May 1944 (with Woody Guthrie & Sonny Terry); Leadbelly Sings Folk Songs, Folkways FA 2488, 1962, CD-reissued as FA 2488, 1995.

Dylan 1987 remarks re Guthrie: Questions from Robert Noakes, aka Rab Noakes, 1970s singer-songwriter turned Scotland-based radio producer; recorded answers sent by Dylan’s office on a 9′ 27″ tape, 8 Jul 1987; parts broadcast in 4-program series Woody Guthrie, BBC Radio, and in A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, CBS-TV, 1987. (The whole tape of Dylan’s answers is in circulation.)

Dylan & The Band: ‘I Ain’t Got No Home’, ‘Dear Mrs. Roosevelt’, ‘Grand Coulee Dam’ & ‘This Train Is Bound For Glory’ issued Tribute To Woody Guthrie Vol.1, Columbia KC31171, 1972; ‘This Land Is Your Land’ issued Tribute To Woody Guthrie Vol.2, Warner Bros. K46144, 1972. Bob Dylan on Doug Sahm & Band’s ‘Columbus Stockade’, NYC, Oct 1972; unissued until the Doug Sahm limited-edition 2-CD set The Genuine Texas Groover, Rhino Handmade RHM2 7845, US, Nov 2003. Bob Dylan: ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’, prob. LA Apr 1987; Folkways: A Vision Shared - A Tribute to Woody Guthrie & Leadbelly, Columbia OC 44034, 24 Aug 1988.

The standard biography is Woody Guthrie: A Life by Joe Klein (New York: Random House, 1980) but the more recent Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie by Ed Cray, 2005, is also absorbing. There is too a collection of other Guthrie writing, Born to Win, edited by ROBERT SHELTON (1965). But above all towers the autobiography, Bound for Glory: a great book, written when its author was 30. Dylan’s copy was the 1st edition paperback, 1949.]

Monday, October 01, 2007


Sarah and I flew back into England overnight, arriving in Manchester this morning and reaching home this afternoon. This was from our trip to Georgia (Sarah's first). It was fab hot weather every day - high 80s to low 90s Fahrenheit. Not quite that way here in North Yorkshire; nor will it be in Wigtown, Scotland, where we will both be making appearances at the Book Festival this Friday, October 5th (Sarah at 4pm, me at 9pm. Details here.)

Agreeably surprised to hear, meanwhile, that Bob Dylan, perhaps thanks to Jack White, debuted 'Meet Me In The Morning' in concert last week (well over 30 years after its release on Blood On The Tracks).