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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, January 08, 2010


One of the people I interviewed for my biography of Blind Willie McTell (Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes) was the Wobbly and folktale teller Bruce Utah Phillips, and in telling me about the one time he met Willie, which must have been in 1958, he tells me something very interesting about Willie's alertness and receptiveness to contemporary music right up there towards the end of his life. Utah said:

"Delta blues, Piedmont blues: I was not familiar with that completely. And I had the yen, you know, I had just from listening to people talk understood that these blues men that I - that I got to know later on, you know... I became good friends with John Jackson and especially Robert Pete Williams - and Mississippi Fred McDowell, because we worked together a good bit - and Junior Lockwood - but to that point, you know, I had a yen to understand that the music, it wasn’t very old but it had a long tradition and that all these people used to play that music when they were young - when they were young men, when they were my age at that time: when they were in their late teens or early twenties. And I knew that then there’s a long period of time that no-one pays much attention to them at all, like Son House, and then finally were “discovered” because of the folk-music revival. But I was curious about what this music, when it was in the jazz houses and the jook joints: what did it sound like? When you were young, what d’you sound like? And McTell said “You want to hear what we sounded like when we were your age, you listen to early Elvis Presley, old Elvis Presley.”


Anonymous wee tommy said...

Presumably, in 1958, people weren’t already talking about ‘early Elvis Presley, old Elvis Presley’? But this is a very intriguing story. A meeting with McTell is a very different matter to a meeting with any of those other bluesmen he mentions, all of who were active in the blues revival and toured widely. Wikipedia is not always the most reliable of sources, but it seems to think that Philips was in the US army in 1958.

4:07 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

When I was trying to pin him down on the timing of his McTell encounter, Phillips told me: "I was tramping round when I got back from uh - when I got back from Korea, on the troop ship, I was tramping a good bit, on the freight trains, just to kinda sort my thoughts out." I can't say we ever reached anything like an incontestable specific date, though.

As for the "early Elvis", well I do take your point somewhat, and of course it's impossible to know whether Utah, in recalling the conversation so many years later, was rephrasing what he thought of as Willie's own words from back then. But I think those with an ear on Elvis' music - and unbeguiled by his heartthrob power and sensational fame - could certainly perceive and make a distinction between his early hillbilly-blues-fusion records for Sun and the far more commercial rock'n'roll hits for Victor and in the Hollywood movies he was making by 1958 (Jailhouse Rock, King Creole). They've been making that distinction ever since, and were at least as likely to feel it keenly at the time.

Nor would it be the only time a four-year gap in Presley's output seemed huge. The torrid rock of 1958 ('Jailhouse Rock', 'King Creole', 'Hard-Headed Woman') and contemporaneous shuddering balladry like the bluesy 'One Night', seemed to many of us to be nothing less than betrayed by the pap of 1962 ('She's Not You', 'Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello').

Likewise there were plenty of people (including some as old as McTell was in late 1958) who didn't wait till decades later to speak of "the old Dylan" of 1962-3 when Bob went electric in 1965.

11:06 pm  

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