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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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Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Following our Winterludes, Summer Days and Slowly Into Autumn Weekends, I'm pleased to announce a range of New Winterlude Weekends for this coming November.

Arrive on a Friday, stay till the Sunday and enjoy a winterlude of great food and Bob Dylan Discussion here at our house in southwest France, 40-odd miles from the Pyrenees and the Spanish border. The house, an 1870s maison bourgeois, lies on the edge of a small village in deep countryside but within easy access of airports and train stations.

These weekend breaks are limited to a maximum of six guests each time. Meals, with good local wines, are provided by Sarah and taken communally. We offer two en suite double rooms and one en suite twin room.

See the New Winterlude Weekends webpage for full details. Act now!


Many of us felt that 'To Make You Feel My Love' was one of the dreariest, most calculatedly commercial, no-other-raison-d'etre songs Bob Dylan had ever offered: a song as glutinous and abjectly Tin Pan Alley as, say, 'Feelings', 'People Who Need People' or 'If I Ruled The World'. Then it was a huge countryish hit by Garth Brooks and widely covered by others.

Along came British singer Adele and had another hit with it. This is hers:

Ever since, the song has been spreading across musical genres like a species-hopping virus. Strange but true, it seems more plausible as a soul/R&B song than as any other kind, and it's been more interesting to see how readily black British performers and listeners have taken to it than it's ever been to hear. Now on the list of songs current X Factor contestants could choose to perform to Simon Cowell and his co-judges at the end of so-called Boot Camp, Cowell has been obliged to listen to innumerable versions of it. Does he even know it's a Dylan song? At any rate it's the Dylan song he deserves. Of course its composer would never have got through the first round of the contest. Not even if he'd sung 'To Make You Feel My Lurve'.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Bob took part in a Reality TV show called Pawn Stars a few days ago; this is it. He's comporting himself more youthfully and relaxedly than on stage, it seems to me. He's 69 years old. Of course he has the advantage that the other guy is as charmless and aesthetically unappealing as a cheeseburger.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Tomorrow would have been Ray Charles' 80th birthday. Here's his quite lengthy entry in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Charles, Ray [1930 - 2004]
Ray Charles Robinson was born into rural poverty in Northern Louisiana on September 23, 1930 and went blind in childhood, a process that began soon after the accidental death of his younger brother. He was brought up by his mother. Taught piano informally, in the late 1940s he took a bus up to Seattle and got into music, meeting Quincy Jones and LOWELL FULSON and joining the latter’s band. Signed to Swingtime Records, his first recordings catch him as a Nat King Cole soundalike. Signed to Atlantic Records by Ahmet Ertegun in 1954, he found his own voice and made a series of mostly self-composed hit singles, in part by a flagrant and controversial secularisation of gospel songs (as with ‘I Got A Woman’, ‘Leave My Woman Alone’ and ‘Hallelujah I Love Her So’).

When his contract with Atlantic came up for renewal, Charles, a shrewd businessman, signed instead to ABC Paramount, a major label, in a deal that gave the artist, unprecedentedly, ownership of his own master recordings. In the early 1960s he was banned from performing in the state of Georgia after refusing to play to segregated audiences; a state government ceremony, attended by Charles, gave him an official public apology in 1979. He died of cancer of the liver on June 10, 2004, aged 73.

The influence of his (mostly 1950s) R&B records on Dylan is one thing, and the influence of his seminal soul-country crossover work of the early 1960s is another.

First, Charles appears to be the source for a very early piece of near-plagiarism by Dylan. The fragment of a song called ‘Blackjack Blues’, which Dylan’s first biographer, ANTHONY SCADUTO, says Dylan had told him was his ‘first original folk song’, comes almost verbatim from Charles’ 1955 R&B-charting single ‘Blackjack’. The Dylan lyric fragment is: ‘Blackjack blues, yea yea yea / How unlucky can one man be? / Every quarter I make / Old Blackjack takes away from me.’ Ray Charles’ first verse ends with this: ‘How unlucky can one man be? / Well, every quarter I get / Blackjack takes away from me.’

A later, less plagiaristic use of Ray Charles’ R&B material by Dylan occurs in the mid-1960s. ROBERT SHELTON says that Dylan and PHIL SPECTOR were in an LA coffee-shop when they heard Charles’ ‘Let’s Go Get Stoned’ (written by Ashford & Simpson) on the jukebox, and were struck by the open upfrontery of the lyric. A few months later Dylan recorded ‘Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35’, with its chorus of ‘Everybody must get stoned’. As the webmaster of a ‘Ray Charles is God’ website says of the song that inspired this (and what is says about Charles): ‘He could be particularly pleasingly dark and wilful in his humor. Notably, he recorded “Let’s Go Get Stoned” some scant few months after kicking a 20 year heroin addiction.’ (He gives a better example: ‘On SNL during the Carter administration, Ray waxed sentimental about their mutual Georgia roots, claiming to feel a special closeness to the president on the grounds that “his grandad used to own my grandad.”’)

It might also have been Ray Charles’ late 1950s recording of the old blues song ‘(Night Time Is) The Right Time’, included on his 1961 album The Genius Sings The Blues, that prompted Dylan’s importing of the lines ‘The night time is the right time / To be with the one you love’ into his own Nashville Skyline song ‘To Be Alone With You’.

Decades later, Dylan performed Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I Say’ with TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS at rehearsals for Farm Aid (LA, 19 September 1985) and then performed Charles’ Freddy Jones-penned ‘Unchain My Heart’ in US concerts in June and July 1986, soon after three attempts at recording it at early Knocked Out Loaded sessions that April and May - sessions at which he also twice attempted ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, another song that many associate with Ray Charles, thanks to the memorably outrageous version he recorded in the early 1960s. (Britons find it hard not be hit over the head with renditions by the awful Gerry Marsden - he of Gerry & the Pacemakers - because he can always exploit a perverse fondness for it among crowds at football matches.)

Charles’ R&B hit singles also almost foregrounded the back-up singers - he gave the Raelettes some of the lines in the lyrics, rather than just having them echo his own (again importing the devices of the gospel performance into the secular song). In London in June 1978, backstage at Earl’s Court, ROBERT SHELTON remarked to Dylan in my hearing that a review of his warm-up dates in LA at the start of the month had said that his back-up singers sounded like the Supremes. Dylan retorted: ‘Oh, no: not the Supremes - the Raelettes, maybe!’

This was a shrewd remark: in retrospect, it’s striking that many of Dylan’s live 1978 song renditions had a distinctly Ray Charles flavor, both in his own exuberantly R&B phrasing and in his use of the back-up singers (his equivalent of the Raelettes), to whom he, like Charles, allocated a number of midsong lead vocal lines. A similar Ray Charles flavor can be detected on the tapes from Dylan’s 1981 European tour too.

Charles’ crucial crossover album was Modern Sounds In Country And Western, released in 1962. Regarded as a ‘sell-out’ by R&B purists, but widely welcomed as bringing fresh life into country and pop, it was influential and immensely successful, as were a number of hit singles taken from it - one of which was the lovely ‘You Don’t Know Me’, 1962. Dylan introduced this song into his concert repertoire, performing it with great affection, in Andrarum, Sweden, 27 May 1989, and sang it at five further 1989 concerts and at five in 1991, including at South Bend, Indiana, 6 November 1991: an exceptional performance, managing to be both the ultimate prom band moment and an affecting tribute to Ray Charles.

(‘You Don’t Know Me’ was written by Eddie Arnold and Cindy Walker. As with Dylan’s contribution to the WILLIE NELSON-Bob Dylan song ‘Heartland’, it is alleged that Arnold wrote only the title of ‘You Don’t Know Me’ and his co-writer all the rest.)

The Ray Charles version of ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ also seems the prompt for Dylan’s performances of this beguiling, neo-minstrel pop song, which he may have recorded in 1971 at the session that yielded the ‘Watching the River Flow’ single, and which he certainly offered in concert at Farm Aid, Champaign Illinois, 21 September 1985, at 23 concerts in 1986, at Madison Wisconsin, 5 November 1991, in Hollywood, 19 May 1992, and at the so-called ‘free rehearsal’ at Fort Lauderdale, 23 September 1995.

There is at least one further small connection between Ray and Bob. The main soloist in the Ray Charles band of the 1950s to early 1960s was Dave ‘Fathead’ Newman; he and Dylan play together behind DOUG SAHM on the track ‘Me & Paul’ on the fine album Doug Sahm & Band, 1972. Fathead is one of many long-suffering musicians in Ray Charles’ band given sympathetic treatment in the vivid, old-fashioned biopic Ray.

[Ray Charles: ‘Blackjack’, Atlanta, 18 Nov 1954, Atlantic 1076, NYC, 1955; ‘The Right Time’, NYC, 28 Oct 1958, Atlantic 2010, NY, 1958, & on The Genius Sings The Blues, Atlantic 8052, 1961; ‘What’d I Say’ NYC, Feb 1959, issued as 2-part single Atlantic 2031, NY, 1959 & on What’d I Say, Atlantic NY, 1959; all reissued on the 3-CD set Ray Charles: The Birth Of Soul - The Complete Atlantic Rhythm & Blues Recordings, 1952-1959, Atlantic & Atco Remasters Series, Atlantic 82310-2, NYC, 1991. Ray Charles: ‘Unchain My Heart’, NYC, May 1961, ABC-Paramount 10266, US, 1961; ‘Let’s Go Get Stoned’, LA, late 1965, Crying Time, ABC-Paramount & then as single, ABC-Paramount 10808, US, 1966; ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, nia, Modern Sounds In Country And Western, ABC Paramount 410, Hollywood (HMV CLP 1580 & CSD 1451, London), 1962; ‘You Don’t Know Me’, Hollywood, 15 Feb 1962, ABC-Paramount 10345 (HMV POP 1064), 1962; ‘That Lucky Old Sun’, Hollywood, 10 Jul 1963, ABC-Paramount 10509, 1963. The Ray Charles website is at
Bob Dylan: ‘Unchain My Heart’, Topanga Park CA, 29 Apr, 1 May & 2 May 1986, all unreleased & uncirculated; ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, Topanga Park CA, 28 & 29 Apr 1986, unreleased & uncirculated; one version overdubbed with different bass player 28 May 1986, ditto. Dylan’s remark re the Raelettes in this writer’s presence, London, 17 Jun 1978; ‘That Lucky Old Sun’, reportedly recorded NYC, Mar 16-19 1971. Doug Sahm & Band: ‘Me & Paul’, NYC, Oct 1972, Doug Sahm & Band, Atlantic SD-7254, NYC, 1972. Ray, dir. Taylor Hackford, written Hackford & James L. White, Anvil / Baldwin / Bristol Bay, US, 2004.]

Saturday, September 18, 2010


On this day 40 years ago, Jimi Hendrix died in London at the age of 27; on this day 65 years ago Blind Willie Johnson died in Beaumont, Texad, at the age of 48.

Tomorrow - to celebrate an anniversary of someone still alive - Dave Bromberg will be 65.

Friday, September 17, 2010


The front cover of Antonio Curado's Spanish paperback 20/20 Vision;
a song & dance man, too . . .

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


It was dispiriting to read in The Observer last Sunday, in a generally negative review of Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan In America by Geoff Dyer - here - that in “the chapter on Blind Willie McTell…Wilentz has found out everything you could want to know about the singer on whom Dylan based his greatest song of the past 30 years.”

Now Wilentz’s book credits me quite properly (also citing Sam Charters’ The Country Blues, Paul Oliver’s Blues Fell This Morning, and John Lomax’s The Last Cavalier) and makes quite clear that he’s relying on the work of other writers and has done no research of his own on McTell. But there’s Geoff Dyer effectively denying the existence of my years of research and my resultant book Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes - despite its James Tait Black shortlisting just two years ago and its terrific reviews - because he hasn’t troubled to read any of Wilentz’s notes or acknowledgments.

This might be too bad for me but an understandable carelessness on a reviewer’s part - except that when Geoff Dyer is the writer, he doesn’t find even small mistakes forgiveable at all.

When Peter Schjeldahl, art critic of the New Yorker, made an error in reviewing Dyer’s novel Jeff in Venice (nice title), Dyer published a whole screed of abusive protest on Saatchi Online Magazine. Schjeldahl mistook 2005 for 2003. This is part of Dyer’s diatribe:

“I thought I’d take the opportunity to respond to the remarkable ‘reading’ of the Venice part by Peter Schjeldahl ‘or (to quote Philip Larkin on Hugh MacDiarmid) however the cunt spells his name.’ … as I point out in the notes at the end of the book – ‘2003 was the scorcher.’ 2005 was actually quite mild; it even rained a bit. Now, obviously, what’s at stake at this point is not Schjeldahl’s opinion of the book but something far more elementary: his fitness to proceed, his mental health. If he can’t get a simple thing like that right how can we have confidence in anything else he says? Or to put it more simply, just how stupid can a fellow be?”


Saturday, September 11, 2010


Among other September 11th anniversaries, today it is twenty years since the release of Dylan's Under The Red Sky album. Twenty years! (I think of it as one of his recent records...)

The first paragraph of the entry on this album in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia still sums up my take on it pretty well:

"The first Dylan album after Oh Mercy shows Dylan characteristically retreating from that album’s mainstream production values and safe terrain, and refusing to offer a follow-up. Nevertheless his penchant for recently-modish producers has him turn this time to DON & DAVID WAS of Was Not Was, who offer a rougher and less unified sound. It’s a pity Dylan pads out the album with some sub-standard rockism (‘Wiggle Wiggle’ and ‘Unbelievable’) and the ill-fitting, foggy pop of ‘Born In Time’, because the core of the album is an adventure into the poetic possibilities of nursery rhyme that is alert, fresh and imaginative, and an achievement that has gone largely unrecognised."

Friday, September 10, 2010


After more than ten years in print since its first publication - in the UK, two weeks before the end of the 20th Century - Song & Dance Man III has now gone out of print. The seventh and final reprint came out in 2008 and is now out of stock.

I'm sorry to see it go, of course, though it's done well to stay around that long - and when I give talks I'm often asked for it by people who, coming to Dylan in recent years, already own The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia but have never caught up with Song & Dance Man III.

I have just one spare paperback copy of the original UK printing from 1999 - the only one published under the old Cassell Academic imprint; all the subsequent printings, including the original US paperback of March-April 2000, are from the Continuum imprint. I'm going to put this copy up for auction on eBay this weekend, if anyone's interested. It's in excellent condition (and hasn't, as in the copy photographed above, got the bend, top right, on the front cover).

The 7-day eBay auction opens at 11.30pm British Summer Time tonight (Saturday), and therefore ends next Saturday at lunchtime on the US west coast, teatime on the east coast and late enough in Europe that people needn't miss it by still being in the pub/bar at the time.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010


Photo: Daily Mail/Rex Pictures

The British booking agent Tito Burns, whose heyday was the 1960s, has died aged 89. Here he is tactfully handling Cliff Richard in 1958, the year they acquired each other. He didn't look so tough when Albert Grossman was humiliating him in 1965, as seen in Don't Look Back (the D.A. Pennebaker film of Dylan's last solo acoustic tour, which was, as it happened, in the UK that spring). Burns was an ex jazz band leader who hated rock'n'roll but put up with it.

In The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia entry on the film, he gets this mention:

"[The film is] also mordantly funny: never more so than when the soon to be Newcastle High Sheriff’s Lady comes to call on Bob backstage, or when Albert Grossman gets together with one of the pompous big-name hustlers of the British ‘entertainment industry’, Tito Burns, forces him to negotiate British TV appearances for Dylan right there in front of us all, and makes this wily bully-boy look a bumbling fraud alongside Grossman’s genuine article."

The obituary in the Daily Telegraph reports that "The Searchers complained that Burns worked them too hard, and it was said that another of his pop acts, the Zombies, lived up to the name on account of being permanently exhausted."

Not only that but "In 1986, with his wife, Burns took up golf with a passion..."

Tuesday, September 07, 2010


I'm home after an excellent weekend in the Shetland Isles, 1530 miles away. I managed to attend various other people's events as well as both of my own, and it's the first time I've ever walked to Tesco's entirely by strolling along a footpath by the edge of the sea and then crossing a road. We were all lucky with the weather too: it never rained and the sun shone. A local remarked that "this weekend is in fact our summer".

Meanwhile I note that yesterday would have been the 85th birthday of the postwar R&B/blues star Jimmy Reed (whose 1957 'Odds and Ends' suggests itself strongly when you hear Dylan's 'Pledging My Time'), and was the 25th anniversary of the death of Eurreal Little Brother Montgomery (in Chicago, aged 79) whose 1930 'No Special Rider Blues' is one of only four pre-war blues songs to use the phrase "special rider" - the phrase that Dylan inspiredly chose as the name for his main music-publishing company, making it, as I remark in Song & Dance Man III, a telling way for him to choose to refer to his muse.

Meanwhile too, I note that Dylan's current tour leg is over - Seattle on the 4th was the last date - but that he begins again with a mostly college tour of Florida in early October:

Oct 6: Don Taft University Center, Nova Southeastern Univ., Ft. Lauderdale
Oct 7: Sun Dome, University Of South Florida, Tampa
Oct 8: Stephen C.O. Connell Center, University of Florida, Gainsville
Oct 10: UCF Arena, University of Central Florida, Orlando
Oct 11: Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center, Tallahassee.

Thursday, September 02, 2010


Wednesday, September 01, 2010


The Danish National Gallery's exhibition of Bob Dylan's new paintings The Brazil Series opens this week in Copenhagen - selected from around 50 he painted specially for this gallery over the course of the last year (that's more or less one a week, in addition to his touring and whatever else).

The Gallery's website, which is excellent, includes a short video survey of the paintings selected for the exhibition opens this week (with Danish talking heads), and a really interesting article for the uninitiated about how the exhibition was created by the gallery. There's also a brief piece by the curator, skirting around the question of whether the pictures are only of interest because they're by Bob Dylan.
It's interesting that nowhere in either article does anyone make any claim at all as to the quality of the paintings. But on the basis of the brief glimpses afforded in the video, some of them look terrific: in particular, perhaps, the one with the washing hanging on the line. This is not something dashed off carelessly.

(My attention was drawn to all this by today's Desolation Row Information Service e-mail newsletter, run by John Baldwin.)