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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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Sunday, June 15, 2008


The other day I was thinking of writing an entry along the lines of What's the matter with me?/I don't have much to say... and If it keep on rainin' the levee's gonna break... that last bit because down here in the Gers, as all over mainland Europe, the weather has been atrocious just when it should have been terrific - flooding, a state of emergency in part of Italy, people killed by the weather in Germany; day in, day out, rain rain rain. However, now there's other things to say.

First off, I only learnt of the death of Bo Diddley yesterday (when Isis 1381/2 came through the door). So, farewell then, Bo. I saw you live once in the very late 1970s at Lewisham Odeon, second on the nostalgia bill below Carl Perkins. You wiped the floor with him.

Here's the entry on him in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (though why it should be under the Ds as Diddley, Bo, rather than under the Bs as Bo Diddley, I can't say...):

Diddley, Bo [1928 - ]
Otha Ellas Bates, later known as Ellas or Elias McDaniel, aka Bo Diddley, was born near McComb, Mississippi, on December 30, 1928, was adopted by his mother’s cousin in infancy and moved to Chicago in childhood. From 1946 to 1951 he played in The Washboard Trio but signed to Chess Records’ Checker label in 1955, swiftly establishing his reputation and imposing his defiantly zany persona on the worlds of R&B and rock’n’roll with the eponymous hit ‘Bo Diddley’, which utilised a distinctive and ‘primitive’ shuffle beat and laid down a blueprint for much of his own subsequent work as well as for records by others, notably including BUDDY HOLLY’s ‘Not Fade Away’ (which Bob Dylan began to perform in concert as from the first night of the opening leg of the 1999 part of the Never-Ending Tour). Bo Diddley employed an array of preposterously-shaped electric guitars (mostly custom Gretsches) and was an early live exponent, long before JIMI HENDRIX, of playing his instrument behind his head and with his teeth.

In Chronicles Volume One, 2004, Dylan recalls that one of his Minnesota-based singer friends, DAVE RAY, was ‘a high school kid who sang… Bo Diddley songs on a twelve-string guitar, probably the only twelve-string guitar in the entire Midwest’. Bob Dylan, Bo Diddley: spoken aloud, they’re strangely similar names.

At the rehearsal for his unusual Supper Club gigs in New York City in 1993 Dylan played an instrumental version of ‘Bo Diddley’. More significantly, George White’s 1995 book Bo Diddley - Living Legend claims that the debt of Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde track ‘Obviously 5 Believers’ is to a 1956 Bo Diddley track, ‘She’s Fine, She’s Mine’. Certainly you could make a case that the Dylan arrangement owes something to the shuffle-beat, maraccas and harmonica set-up that Diddley creates on that record, but White seems unaware of the earlier blues records upon which the Diddley song too is based.

If Bo Diddley and Bob Dylan both look back here to MEMPHIS MINNIE and her ‘Me And My Chauffeur Blues’, they also share the more unlikely repertoire item ‘Some Enchanted Evening’. Diddley, appearing live on the Ed Sullivan TV Show after having been told at rehearsal by the irrascible Sullivan to stop singing ‘Bo Diddley’ because it was wrong to sing a song mentioning his own name all the time, and to sing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ instead, duly did so - but segued into ‘Bo Diddley’ in the middle. Bob Dylan recorded ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ at a Los Angeles session for the 1990 album Under The Red Sky during March-April 1990; it remains uncirculated.

Under The Red Sky was the album on which Dylan explored nursery rhyme in an intelligent, resourceful and poetic way, befitting someone who understands that it is not a dismissable, trivial genre but a legitimate, often highly valuable branch of folksong. One of the many African-American recording artists who preceded him with a more conventionally playful (and often rather suggestive) recycling of better-known nursery rhymes was our friend Bo Diddley. A song called ‘Nursery Rhyme’ is on one Diddley album, while ‘Babes In The Woods’ and ‘Hey, Red Riding Hood’ are on others - this last on an album titled 500% More Man. RONNIE HAWKINS may or may not have known this when he made his immortal remark: ‘Abraham Lincoln said all men were created equal, but he never saw Bo Diddley in the shower.’

[Bo Diddley: ‘Bo Diddley’, Chicago, 3 Mar 1955, Checker 814, Chicago, 1955; ‘She’s Fine, She’s Mine’, Chicago, 10 May 1955, Checker 819, Chicago, 1956; Chuck & Bo, Volume 2, Pye International 44012, London, c.1963; Bo Diddley: ‘Nursery Rhyme’, Chicago, Spring 1959, Have Guitar - Will Travel, Checker LP 2974, Chicago, 1960 (1st UK-issued Bo Diddley Rides Again, Pye International NPL 28029, 1963); ‘Babes In The Woods’, Chicago, Jul 1962, Bo Diddley, Checker LP 2984, Chicago, 1962 (Pye International NPL 28026, 1963); ‘Hey, Red Riding Hood’, Chicago, 25 Jul 1965, 500% More Man, Checker LP(S) 2996, Chicago, 1965. Bob Dylan: ‘Not Fade Away’, 1st performed Fort Myers, FL, 26 Jan 1999; ‘Bo Diddley’, rehearsal, NYC, 16 Nov 1993. Dylan quote from Chronicles Volume One, p.256. Bo Diddley & Ed Sullivan as described by Paul Gambaccini, undated interview with Spencer Leigh, Baby, That Is Rock And Roll: American Pop 1954-1963, p.75; Ronnie Hawkins quote, ditto p.132.]

Second, today's date, June 15, holds an odd conjunction for me re my Dylan work. It was the day in 1999 when I finally completed writing Song & Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan, and the day in 2006 when The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia was published.

Third, I thought for a while that it was also going to prove to be the day this year on which the paperback of the Encyclopedia would be published, but I'm sorry to report that there's a further slight delay, and now the official publication date will be some time in mid-July. I'm waiting to be told the exact date. The better news is that copies should be around before that - in fact any day now, I believe.

Fourth, unhappily I haven't been able to get to see the Dylan Drawn Blank Series Exhibition, but this is the new entry that will be in the paperback, about the paintings, the original Chemnitz Exhibition and the book:

Bob Dylan: The Drawn Blank Series [2007]
An art exhibition and book, compiled from a series of 2007 paintings by Bob Dylan created at the prompting of Ingrid Mössinger, director of the Kunstsammlungen art museum in Chemnitz, in the former East Germany, and based on some of Dylan’s drawings and sketches from the late 1980s to early 1990s in Drawn Blank (1994: see entry), which Mössinger happened to find in a Manhattan antiquarian bookshop in 2005.

Dylan had explained in that book that the work was “sketches for paintings”, Mössinger took him up on this, and the result is by far the most interesting new work by Dylan since “Love and Theft”.

Digitally transferred to art paper, with duplicate copies in each case, the drawings were painted by Dylan in gouache and water colour over a period of eight months. He then offered Ingrid Mössinger her choice of any 170 paintings from the 320+ he sent through to her.

The great majority of the drawings published in Drawn Blank come bouncing to life in these paintings. What shouts from the paintings is that the influence of Guthrie is at least as strong as ever it was, that “the almost Van Goghian shaking vernacular chunkiness” is still more joyous and witty, and that many of the pictures reverberate far more shrewdly and observantly than dull eyes may have noticed before. Even the women depicted seem less bored now than they did.

The exhibition and the new book tend to show a sketch followed by several different painted versions of the same scene; sometimes one part of the picture is painted so that an apparently insignificant background object looms forward unexpectedly - the one ubiquitous effect of colour is to delineate more clearly, of course, between any one object and its neighbours - but generally speaking the objects in a scene remain the same. Now and then, though, Dylan more playfully changes the background entirely (as in four versions of ‘Rose On A Hillside’) or changes the person in the scene completely, several times over (as with the seated figure in versions of ‘Corner Flat’.

Overall this is the same work wrought anew, with the same interest in rooms and buildings, usually scrutinised singly, though not so in the case of the fine work ‘Bell Tower In Stockholm’, which is placed in its wider context.

Colour brings out too the echoes of Dufy in these works (‘Vista From Balcony’, especially) and the influence of Chagall as a colourist; elsewhere Dylan may be paying knowing homage to other grandees of art, mostly of an impressionist persuasion, as with the splendid ‘Woman In Red Lion Pub’.

The entry on Drawn Blank was wrong about a falling-away from the vigour of the work in Writings and Drawings. You’ve only to look at the cluster of tremendous works such as ‘Train Tracks’, ‘Horse’, ‘Horse Fragments’ and the marvellous ‘Truck’ - some very Guthriesque, some less so - to see that this is full-on, authentic Bob Dylan, irrepressibly at work.

The beautiful hardback book Bob Dylan: The Drawn Blank Series, edited by Ingrid Mössinger and Kerstin Drechsel and published by Prestel in Germany, documents the exhibition with many full-colour reproductions of the paintings on high-quality paper. An English-language edition is also available.

[Bob Dylan: ‘Bob Dylan: The Drawn Blank Series’ Exhibition, Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz, Germany, 28 Oct 2007-3 Feb 2008; on tour later in 2008; Bob Dylan: The Drawn Blank Series, Munich & Berlin: Prestel, 2007; English-language version London & New York: Prestel, 2007. Both contain essays by Jens Rosteck, Diana Widmaier Picasso and Frank Zöllner.]

Finally, thanks for coming back to this particular bump in the blogosphere.


Anonymous David Blakey said...

Hi Michael,

Diddley, appearing live on the Ed Sullivan TV Show after having been told at rehearsal by the irrascible Sullivan to stop singing ‘Bo Diddley’ because it was wrong to sing a song mentioning his own name all the time, and to sing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ instead, duly did so - but segued into ‘Bo Diddley’ in the middle.

I'm not sure where this story came from, but the songs that Bo Diddley had been expecting to perform on the Sullivan show that night were his hit song "Bo Diddley" and the then current hit by Tennessee Ernie Ford "Sixteen Tons".

A visit to YouTube will confirm that, on the show itself, he sang a complete version of "Bo Diddley", with no segue into or out of "Some Enchanted Evening".

Best wishes,

David Blakey, Webmaster,
BO DIDDLEY-The Originator
A Celebration of his Unique Contribution to Popular Music.

10:37 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Dear David
I'm grateful for your information, but very disappointed by it. I should love to have been able to hear Bo Diddley singing 'Some Enchanted Evening' even more than to hear Bob Dylan sing it.

A small compensation will be if YouTube gives us Bo singing 'Sixteen Tons'.

1:10 pm  

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