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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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Saturday, November 24, 2007


Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of the death of country-music giant Roy Acuff, who survived to the age of 89. Here's the entry on him in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (which explains the title of this post):

Acuff, Roy [1903 - 1992]
Roy Acuff was born in miniscule Maynardville, Tennessee, on September 15, 1903, though his family later moved to Knoxville. He grew up wanting to be a sportsman but after suffering from a severe sunstroke that precipitated a nervous breakdown he turned instead to music, learning violin, joining a medicine show and then the Tennessee Crackjacks, who had a radio outlet on WROL in Knoxville.

Acuff’s first session, as by Roy Acuff & His Crazy Tennesseeans, yielded him a big hit with an old gospel song, ‘Great Speckle Bird’ (cut in Chicago in 1936), and he went on to record 120 pre-war sides, including ‘Wabash Cannonball’. When he sang ‘Bird’ on the Grand Ole Opry in 1938 it was a sensation all over again, clinching him a regular slot (on condition that the group change its name to the Smoky Mountain Boys) and launched his climb to huge stardom. He swiftly became so big a cultural figure that when Japanese troops went into battle at Okinawa in WWII, reputedly they shouted ‘To hell with Roosevelt, to hell with Babe Ruth, to hell with Roy Acuff!’ as they charged. Postwar Acuff flourished but chose to concentrate more on touring than recording. (He released no singles between 1947 and 1958.) In 1962 he became the first living person to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

One of Acuff’s pre-war recordings was of the popular song ‘Drifting Too Far From The Shore’, also recorded pre-war by the Monroe Brothers (and by country acts the Carolina Gospel Singers, Arty Hall and Judie & Julie). Dylan re-used the title, though nothing else in the song, in his own Knocked Out Loaded number ‘Driftin’ Too Far From Shore’. In the MARTIN SCORSESE film No Direction Home the era of country music Dylan heard on the radio when he was growing up, and the kind of 78rpm records people had in their homes up in Hibbing MN, are suggested by the playing of a post-war recording of the Acuff song by Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys. . . which is problematic, to say the least, because Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys didn’t record the song till 1962, and then only released it on an LP; so it was never a 78, and didn’t exist when Dylan was growing up. Nor is the version played in No Direction Home the pre-war Monroe Brothers recording - though that was a 78rpm record, recorded at their first session back in 1936, so it’s possible that’s what should have been illustrated in the film.

Dylan sings a version of Roy Acuff’s ‘Freight Train Blues’ (one of Acuff’s earliest hits) on his first album. It’s not widely known that the vocal on Acuff’s version was not by him but by band member Sam ‘Dynamite’ Hatcher; Acuff’s is the train whistle vocal effects.

Dylan also says in Chronicles Volume One that his own ‘Let Me Die In My Footsteps’ is based on an old Acuff ballad - though he doesn’t say which, and it’s hard to think of any relevant Acuff song. Dylan also remembers that Acuff, always introduced as the ‘King of Country Music’, was MC on the Grand Ole Opry the first time he heard HANK WILLIAMS.

One more song strongly associated with Acuff, ‘Wait For The Light To Shine’, was introduced to Dylan’s concert repertoire at Spokane, Washington, on October 5, 2001. Between then and the end of the year, he performed it 22 more times, adding a further 7 renditions in 2002.

Acuff co-founded the Acuff-Rose music publishing company with Fred Rose in 1942, and among other achievements nurtured the career of Hank Willams. Acuff-Rose sold recently for 100 million dollars. Roy Acuff died in Nashville on November 23, 1992, aged 89.

[Roy Acuff: ‘Drifting Too Far From The Shore’, Memphis, 6 Jul, 1939; ‘Freight Train Blues’ Chicago, 21 Oct 1936; ‘Wait For The Light To Shine’, Chicago or Nashville, Dec 1944. Bill Monroe & his Blue Grass Boys: ‘Drifting Too Far From The Shore’, Nashville, 16 May 1962, I’ll Meet You In Church Sunday Morning, Decca DL 4537, NY 1962; Monroe Brothers: ‘Drifting Too Far From The Shore’, Charlotte, NC, 17 Feb 1936. Bob Dylan, Chronicles Volume One, pp. 270 & 95.]


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