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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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Friday, July 31, 2009


BJ Rolfzen 2008; photographer uncredited at

I'm very sorry to learn of the death of Boniface J. Rolfzen, Bob Dylan's high-school English teacher for two years in the 1950s. He was born in April 1923 and died, aged 86, on Wednesday. He retired from teaching only in 1985, and until recent illness required him to live in a nursing home, he and his wife Leona lived on East 24th Street in Hibbing MN.

My own encounters with Mr. Rolfzen were limited but memorable (on my side, anyway). He came to my talk in Hibbing Public Library in April 2001, and though he wasn't one of those who came up and spoke to me afterwards, I heard later that he had delivered a most complimentary verdict about it; and then on March 24, 2007, arriving in Hibbing for lunch at Zimmys on the bus trip to the town organised as an optional extra for speakers at the Dylan Symposium organised by the University of Minnesota, I was among those who met and chatted to both BJ and his wife. By then I had been able to send him a copy of The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, and in return he gave me, and inscribed, a copy of his self-published The Spring of My Life: a memoir of growing up in a small town in central Minnesota during the Great Depression years 1923-1941.

I respected him greatly, and only this spring on my tour of Bob Dylan & the Poetry of the Blues talks I was enthusing about his contribution to Dylan's strikingly early self-confidence in and around English and American Literature.

"Alex from Grand Rapids Minnesota" (here), reports that BJ told her this about when Dylan was in his class: “Robert was shy. I can see him coming through the door of classroom 204. I remember it distinctly because he was always doing the same thing. He always came in to class alone. He always sat in the same chair, three seats from the door in the first row. Right under my nose for two years.”

Got to get up near the teacher if you can, if you wanna learn anything...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Sarah and I have decided to offer, for the first time, five weekends of Bob Dylan Discussion at our house in southwest France (40-odd miles from the Pyrenees and the Spanish border) next February and early March. 3-6 people per weekend can be accommodated.

Anyone interested can find further details on our newly-created

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Some people who've attended a gig of mine over these last eight years will have heard the story (which I told only a few times but always went down well) of the one time I met Bob Dylan, backstage at Earls Court during Bob's run of concerts there in 1978 - and how my son Gabe came with me that night, and so met Bob too, and didn't know that back then you weren't supposed to seek Dylan's autograph (it was too uncool to ask), but that since he was nine years old at the time he asked and he received. Well, in a personally terrifying example of how time flies, Gabe will be 4o tomorrow.
Happy birthday, Gabe!

Sunday, July 26, 2009


well-known soldier, unknown photographer

So soon after the death of 113-year-old Henry Allingham (see earlier post) comes the death of 111-year-old Harry Patch, who was the last-surviving soldier of any nation to have fought in the trenches in the First World War. He fought in the battle of Passchendaele, at Ypres, in 1917, in which over 70,000 died, including his three closest wartime friends.

He was a particularly nice man, thoughtful and with a fine and modest sense of humour. Again, no particular obituary stands out but he's well worth reading about, and no doubt you can find him on YouTube. Like Henry Allingham, Harry Patch did not speak about the first-hand horrors of the war until he was older than most of us ever get, when it became pressing to speak out before he and the other few survivors were silenced forever.

Dylan fan Andrew Motion wrote a longish poem about him, called The Five Acts of Harry Patch 'The Last Fighting Tommy'. I wonder what he thought of it.

Meanwhile to less tenuous Dylan-connection deaths. Musician, singer and songwriter Kenny Rankin died on June 7th of lung cancer - a mere three weeks after it was diagnosed. He was 69. Forty-four years earlier he had been asked to play some guitar on the Bringing It All Back Home sessions by producer Tom Wilson. Everyone seems rather vague about which tracks he's evident on, if any.

Three days after Rankin, Barry Beckett died at home in Hendersonville TN. He was 66. Here's his entry (obviously now outdated) in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Beckett, Barry [1943 - ]
Barry Beckett was born in Birmingham, Alabama on February 4, 1943. He started his musical life as a pianist for a dancing school, but moved on to become a keyboards session player and eventually a record producer. He first became involved with Rick Hall’s Fame studio, on a session for James & Bobby Purify, and then replaced SPOONER OLDHAM in the Muscle Shoals band. He co-produced Mel & Tim and his later production credits include work with JOAN BAEZ, Joe Cocker, Etta James, JOHN PRINE, Delbert McClinton, Alabama, the Staples Singers and McGUINN-Hillman.

Beckett was co-producing with JERRY WEXLER when, in 1979, Dylan called on Wexler to produce the Slow Train Coming sessions in the Muscle Shoals studio in Sheffield, Alabama. Beckett not only co-produced the album but played piano and organ throughout. He did not go on the road as a gospel tours musician behind Dylan, but he was back in the studio with him in February 1980 to co-produce, again with Wexler, the album Saved, on which he was replaced on keyboards by Spooner Oldham and TERRY YOUNG after the session of February 12, 1980 and so does not play on ‘Saving Grace’, ‘Pressing On’, ‘In The Garden’, ‘Are You Ready?’ or ‘Covenant Woman’, but does play on the album’s title track and on ‘Solid Rock’, ‘What Can I Do For You?’ and ‘Satisfied Mind’. On the album liner notes Beckett is billed as co-producer and as ‘special guest artist’.

In 1985 Beckett moved to Nashville, working with Warner Brothers’ A&R department before running an independent production company. He is also a partner in BTM Records. He has never worked with Dylan again since the Saved sessions.

Friday, July 24, 2009


As you may know, 2009 is the 50th anniversary year of Blind Willie McTell's death. He died in the early morning of August the 19th (1959) in Milledgeville State Hospital. He was 56 years old.

More by chance than good planning, the North American edition of my biography of him (Hand Me My Travelin Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell) will be published on September 1.

I shall be doing a promotional stomp round a few bits of the USA - mainly in Willie's home state of Georgia - in October.

I'm right at the beginning of organising this tour of talks, and so far the only firm dates I have are these:

OCT 8, 11am - Ward Hall Great Room, Farmingdale State College (SUNY), Long Island NY
OCT 22, 7pm - Zach S. Henderson Library, Georgia Southern University, Statesboro GA
OCT 23, 7pm - Averitt Arts Center, 33 East Main Street, Statesboro GA 30458

I'm hoping that between Oct 8 and Oct 22 I can arrange a further sequence of talks in Georgia, in the other places that were significant for Willie - Atlanta, Macon, Athens, Thomson, Milledgeville and maybe Augusta.

The talk I'm offering in Georgia is SEARCHING FOR WILLIE McTELL: A British Writer in Georgia and it will include playing records and slideshows of both vintage photos and photos I took while researching the book.

If any reader has contacts at, or even just suggestions for, good venues in any of these places, please do let me know by posting a comment to this blog. All blog comments get moderated - ie I read them before deciding either to publish them or not - so any information you send me this way can be sent privately and in confidence.
Many thanks.

Monday, July 20, 2009


Since I so often commemorate the passing of interesting artists on this blog, I should like to mark the passing of Henry Allingham, who died on Saturday morning. I don't feel able to recommend any particular obituary but if you have a moment I recommend you read about him somewhere. A remarkable man, who lived on more than 80 years after the end of the 1st World War - and for almost all of those, preferring to remain silent about the horrors that haunted his memory and gave him, as if he hadn't suffered enough, the additional ineradicable guilt so many survivors feel when they witnessed the daily slaughter of those all around them, day in and day out, in the most atrocious conditions and for so little point.

And yet Henry Allingham did survive, and did so, he suggested, by not worrying in later life. And by coincidence I heard a doctor of some kind say on the radio (BBC Radio 6 Music) only about ten days ago that people who live to be 80 or even 90 are of widely varying personality types, that those who live to be 100 are less dissimilar and that those few who live to be 110 are almost identical in fundamental personality - that is, they are not worriers: they cope well with stress.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


This is an unusually preposterous car, even by French standards, but no less desirable for that. Born the same year as I was, it's a 135 break-de-chasse, 1946 . Interesting firm, with good wartime politics.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


I don't know why I didn't know two months ago, but I just found out from reading the very small print at the bottom of page 49 of the June issue of M, the PRS Members* Music Magazine, that Stephen Bruton had died, from complications from throat cancer, on May 9, at age 60. He died at home but was in the middle of working in LA with T. Bone Burnett on the film Crazy Heart, as music producer and composer.

Here's his entry (without the now-necessary updating) in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Bruton, Stephen [1948 - ]
Turner Stephen Bruton was born in Wilmington, Delaware on November 7, 1948 but brought up in Fort Worth, Texas, with a jazz-drummer father who ran a record store. A teenage friend of T-BONE BURNETT, he became a guitarist equally keen on bluegrass, blues and soul, as well as a songwriter. In 1970 he joined KRIS KRISTOFFERSON’s band and stayed with him for well over 10 years, though also touring with Bonnie Raitt and others. He moved to Austin Texas in the mid-1980s, producing other artists’ records and having his songs covered by WILLIE NELSON, Waylon Jennings, JOHNNY CASH, Little Feat, Jimmy Buffett and others. Starting with Kristofferson’s film A Star Is Born, Bruton has also built a Hollywood bit-part career and has appeared in Convoy, Heaven’s Gate, Miss Congeniality, Sweet Thing and The Alamo. As a studio session musician he has played on the Kristofferson & RITA COOLIDGE album Full Moon (1973) and on records by Delbert McClinton, ELVIS COSTELLO, Carly Simon, THE WALLFLOWERS and many others.

More importantly, however, Stephen Bruton played guitar on the Mexico City session for the Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid album (on January 20, 1973), from which came the album track ‘Billy 4’, while a bit of the instrumental ‘Billy Surrenders’ was used in the film - and then 17 years later Bruton played guitar with Dylan’s band for a few nights in August 1990: August 19 in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada; August 20 in Vancouver; August 21 in Portland, Oregon; August 24 in Pueblo, California; August 26 in Des Moines, Iowa; August 27 & 28 in Merrillville, Indiana; and August 29 in St.Paul, Minnesota - and then he returned to play both guitar and mandolin on October 11 in Greenvale, New York and October 12 in Springfield, Massachusetts.

(* The lack of an apostrophe is c/o PRS, not me.)

Monday, July 13, 2009


Joe Barry's hit single 'I'm A Fool To Care' (1961) is one of those one-hit wonders that may sounds wholly insignificant to anyone encountering it now yet which will never be forgotten by those who heard it and bought it when it was new. Here was a Latino-white guy who sounded uncannily like Fats Domino - and at a time when Fats' records were always in the UK charts. The song had been a hit in the 1950s for Les Paul and Mary Ford. Barry's recording, produced by Huey P. Meaux, was released on the tiny Jin label and then re-pressed for national distribution by Mercury's subsidiary Smash. According to Wikipedia it reached the top 20 in the US Black Singles chart, although I'm sure they didn't call it that in 1961. Surely though it influenced Doug Sahm and many other so-called Swamp Rockers.

After Fats Domino quit Imperial and signed to ABC Paramount he issued a cover version of 'I'm A Fool To Care' - and to hear it is to hear Fats imitating Joe imitating Fats. Joe's version is better.

Joseph Barrios was born in Cut Off, Louisiana 70 years ago today - and died in the same place almost 5 years ago - in August 2004. According to he "suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, chronic asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, cariomyopic disease, diabetes and an infected immune system."


If you think you know any over-the-top collectors of Bob Dylan rarities, consider how they measure up against the obsessive (and necessarily very rich) collectors of old blues 78s. Most of us know that these fetch big money, but this online New York Times article (adapted from yesterday's print edition) gives some interesting details, and talks to a couple of key collectors.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


Sarah and I went to see Leonard Cohen in concert in Toulouse on Thursday night. Sarah is a great deal keener on him than I am, but I've never seen him live before and had wished to do so for a long time. He was tremendous - almost three hours on stage, a graceful acceptance of centre stage in front of an impeccable ensemble - while giving every musician/singer his and her time and space for solos - every word clear, not a single fluff anywhere all through those lengthy songs, a clear pleasure in communing with his audience, a generosity of spirit, and a lithe and cool presence (at the age of 73).

All this lies in strong contrast to what you get at a certain other person's concerts these days. And yet.... and yet.... I wouldn't want to go again: I'm certain if we went another night, everything about the show would be exactly the same, and I missed the riding-blind-in-the-moment element Bob Dylan always brings.

What I really missed, in other words, was Bob Dylan's 1978 tour - when he too had an impeccable, alert ensemble, allowed the musicians to play solos, had perfect sound, played for almost three hours, took centre stage to give out with unstinting generosity and heart, and yet it all shook and shone with the excitement of spontaneity too, and was not the same every night.

And, of course, offered superior songs, sung with an incomparably more expressive, beloved voice.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009


The train station at Asmara (now in Eritrea) 70 years ago.
No particular Bob Dylan connection so far as I know.
Pretty good general rail romance material though.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009


Mister Policeman, you probably can't be his pal...

Monday, July 06, 2009


So. Hewitt played better than he has for years, which was terrific to see; Sharapova fell early, which wasn't; Safina - no.1 in the world rankings - was thrashed 6-1, 6-0 by the great Venus Williams, but Dementieva almost beat Serena, losing only through a faltering of the mind (which is surely inevitable whenever she glances up at her mother: a woman so fretful-faced and nervy that just to see her there, as the camera too often did, was to feel your soul shrivel a bit).

Murray went down fighting, but will come up again; and though you had to feel sorry for Roddick, given what was at stake for him and after how magnificently he played his last matches - and how hugely his range of shot has improved - I passionately wanted Roger Federer to win . . . and I want him to go on to win many more Grand Slam tournaments yet. He’s so clearly an artist on a whole other level that to want to see him break all records is merely to want to see justice done.

Saturday, July 04, 2009


Yesterday (July 3rd) marked the 40th anniversary of the death of Brian Jones (aged 27); today it's 40 years since the death in Nashville TN of Alton Delmore of the Delmore Brothers (aged 55); tomorrow, Robbie Robertson turns 65.


Georgia Tom, aka Thomas Dorsey, would have been 110 on July 1st. Here's his entry from The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Dorsey, Thomas A. [1899 - 1993]
Thomas Andrew Dorsey was born in tiny Villa Rica, Georgia on July 1, 1899, the song of a Baptist preacher. As a child he worked as a circus water boy, moved to Atlanta at age 11, started selling soda pop at the city’s 81 Theatre and there encountered the likes of Bessie Smith ‘doing those blues numbers and shaking everything they had.’ He became a successful vaudeville pianist, moved to Chicago in 1916, kept his options open by joining the Pilgrim Baptist Church and studying at the Chicago School of Composition and Music. He was Ma Rainey’s pianist and bandleader - and travelled the south with her Rabbit Foot Minstrel show - from 1924 to 1928. He had begun to write songs, especially for Paramount and Brunswick/Vocalion Records and was a staff arranger for the Chicago Music Publishing Company. As Georgia Tom, he and Tampa Red had the biggest hit of 1928 with the hokum’n’innuendo of ‘It’s Tight Like That’, followed by more in the same vein both with Tampa Red and with BIG BILL BROONZY, and in the 1930s worked with many others including MEMPHIS MINNIE.

At the same time, he was active in performing church music, and in 1930, in the middle of playing a church concert, Dorsey received a telegram reading ‘Hurry home. Your wife is very sick. She is going to have the baby’; he telephoned back to be told that she was dead; the baby died shortly after. This made him turn away from his career as a bluesman to writing hymns, though only after resisting the impulse to do the opposite. He felt that ‘God had been unfair’ and wanted to plunge back fully into the secular blues; but his turmoil resolved itself the other way and he was able to say afterwards: ‘I was doing alright for myself but the voice of God whispered, “You need to change a little”.’ Though influenced by composer C.H.Tindley (who founded the Tindley Methodist Church, Philadelphia, where Bessie Smith is buried), Dorsey brought to his sacred songs blues feeling and syncopation, and this powerful combination of styles created the musical revolution that was modern gospel music. He became the first black publisher as well as composer of songs in the genre, a prolific writer and can be said to have been a shaping force in African-American consciousness.

In 1933 he founded the still-active National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, and he composed over 500 published songs, among them the best-loved and most widely recorded in the entire gospel repertoire, including ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’ (aka ‘Take My Hand Precious Lord’) and ‘Peace in the Valley’, propelled to popularity partly by the new power of radio and partly by a working alliance with Mahalia Jackson, whom he’d first met in 1929. He became her musical advisor and accompanist from 1937 to 1946, and she sang his songs in church programs and at conventions, promoting his compositions. Her signature song became ‘Precious Lord Take My Hand’ (which she would eventually sing at Martin Luther King’s funeral in Atlanta in 1968).

The new style of Dorsey’s religious songs was not without controversy, though. In ALAN LOMAX’s The Land Where The Blues Began, he deplores these new me-me-me gospel songs of the ’40s as against the old spirituals of an earlier era, and deplores Dorsey’s ‘Precious Lord Take My Hand’ especially. He says the new songs elevated the preacher to a new primacy over the congregation that suppressed the previous democracy of worship (though it certainly wasn’t every church that had an all-participating congregation before the Dorsey generation came along).

The pull between secular and religious music was ever-present in Dorsey’s life, as for so many of the singers of the pre-war era, and it is unsurprising that his influence on the music world Bob Dylan inherited should be detectable on both sides of that divide. Today it would be impossible to read these four consecutive lines from Georgia Tom’s 1928 ‘Grievin’ Me Blues’ without being reminded of Dylan’s mid-1960s work; re-formulated, they infuse at least the chorus of ‘Tombstone Blues’, the opening of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and something of the spirit of both:

‘Daddy’s got the washboard, mama’s got the tub
Sister’s got the liquor and brother’s got the jug
My water-pipe’s all rusted, water’s running cold
Someone’s in the basement trying to find the hole.’

Of course, only something of the spirit of the Dylan lines is there - the upbeat rhythmic facility - because the innovative transformation Dylan makes is via the context in which he places his own so-similar lines. The context removes the tone of jolly family just-folksiness, replacing it with an opposite consciousness: that of the alienated loner at odds with, yet surrounded by, people obdurately going about their own incomprehensible business and, ‘in the basement’, communing with their own drug-paranoia.

In fact, though, the Dorsey of this period wasn’t really ‘just-folksy’ at all but a cool, sly, city dude. There’s a wonderful photograph of him, republished in Paul Oliver’s book The Story of the Blues, in which, dressed sharper than we’ll ever be, he’s cupping his hands to light a cigarette. His eyes, feral and knowing, pierce the camera-lens: except for the fact that he’s black, it’s a shot the Hollywood of ’40s film noir would have killed for [reproduced above].

On the religious side, no-one interested in popular or gospel music could have avoided the impact of Thomas A. Dorsey’s work, and Dylan’s own gospel compositions would have been different had Dorsey’s not existed. More specifically, Dylan must have grown up knowing the early 1950s hit version of ‘Peace in the Valley’ by white artist Red Foley (which was a hit with black audiences too), and then the immaculate and gloweringly powerful ELVIS PRESLEY recordings of ‘Peace in the Valley’ and ‘Take My Hand Precious Lord’ from 1957. Presley’s are classic soul-in-torment versions, and his ‘Peace In The Valley’ recognises the song’s genius: indeed makes it a work of darker genius, emphasising the intense, gothic spookiness of the lyrics, in which, for instance, ‘the night is as black as the sea’. Its pinnacle is this re-statement of the biblical vision of the peaceable kingdom:

‘Well the bear will be gentle and the wolves will be tame
And the lion shall lay down with the lamb
And the beasts from the wild shall be led by a child
And I’ll be changed, changed from this creature that I am.’

(See also ‘the lion lies down with the lamb’.)

The song was performed much less satisfactorily by Bob Dylan in concert in 1989 (Frejus, France, June 18).

Probably the last survivor of the key figures born around the turn of the century who were originally recording in the 1920s, Dorsey died in Chicago on January 23, 1993, aged 93.

[Georgia Tom: ‘Grievin’ Me Blues’, Chicago, c.6 Sep 1928, Rare Blues of the Twenties, No.1, Historical HLP-1, NY, 1966. Tampa Red & Georgia Tom: ‘It’s Tight Like That’, Chicago, 24 Oct 1928. Dorsey photograph in Paul Oliver, The Story of the Blues, London: Penguin, 1969, p.99. Sources includes Michael W. Harris, The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992 edn., Dorsey 2nd quote p.219, telegram p.217; Dorsey 1st & 3rd quote, seen online 29 Jul, 2004.]

Thursday, July 02, 2009


This is, as I write, the latest comment to be sent in to this blog on the subject of Bob's current album. It's from Lee Morgan, and I agree with it so wholeheartedly - not just in its verdict or its general thrust but in its acute, observant, well-argued detail - that I want to reproduce it here, rather than just in the murky deep of a now-elderly posting (TTLBNRN1). Lee writes:

It amazes me that people can try to categorise this album with Nashville Skyline. While that was a comparatively minor album in the context of what came before, it remains a classic of the country genre; one with carefully considered lyrics, rich vocals and beautiful melodies. Together Through Life has none of these things. On Nashville Skyline, Dylan’s focus and enthusiasm engages totally and, even though it’s forty years old, the bristling musicianship is light years ahead of the dreary, listless playing on his latest release(s).

People argue that the ½ hearted nature of Together Through Life is a reflection of old age– the sound of Dylan embracing his mortality. If embracing his own mortality means lazy song writing wouldn’t we much rather he embraced his earlier genius? I have never found this argument particularly convincing anyway. It is an apologist’s stance that allows people to apply four stars to shoddy work and always seems slightly desperate to me, as if people are so desperate to hear a great new Dylan album they convince themselves that they're doing so.

It is also slightly condescending (old age = a total pervasion of cynicism and dearth of good humour) and disregards the fact that, eight years ago, Dylan gave us a work that embraced old age and harked back to the finest qualities of his greatest masterpieces. Old age need not mean an end to insight and enthusiasm. “Love and Theft” proved that decisively.

His current sloppiness is an issue in concerts too. Leonard Cohen at seventy-four, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits at fifty-nine, they approach their concerts with the same vigour they have always done; understanding that the audience exists to be engaged, not ignored.

Dylan could take a lesson from these men, reducing his touring schedule, resting his voice and performing selected dates with renewed energy and focus. Staying on the road might be a romantic concept for him, but for the fans, buying overpriced tickets for bland and often incomprehensible performances is not. Sadly this is unlikely to change, with Dylan seemingly in a state of denial with regard his touring band:

“My band plays a different type of music than anybody else plays. We play distinctive rhythms that no other band can play. As far as I know, no one else out there plays like this: today, yesterday and probably tomorrow. I don’t think you’ll hear what I do ever again.” - Rolling Stone interview, May 14th 2009.

Is he really so sheltered from criticism that he believes this?