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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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Monday, November 29, 2010


Brownie McGhee was born in Knoxville Tennessee 95 years ago tomorrow. Here's his entry in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

McGhee, Brownie [1915 - 1996]

Walter Brown McGhee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee on November 30, 1915. He was the older and smoother brother of Granville Sticks McGhee, composer of ‘Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee’, with whom Brownie played in New York in the early 1940s, and on whose brother’s huge hit record of 1949 Brownie too played and sang. He learnt ukelele, 5-string banjo, piano and guitar but concentrated on guitar, met harmonica-player SONNY TERRY in 1939 and off and on worked with him for 40 years thereafter.

McGhee first recorded in August 1940 in Chicago (his début track was ‘Pickin’ My Tomatoes’), and being an exemplar of the Piedmont blues school (if, in fact, there ever was such a thing) he was promoted as the successor to BLIND BOY FULLER, with whom he and Sonny Terry had both worked shortly before Fuller’s death. He made one gospel session in 1941 - as it happens, the day before Bob Dylan was born - billed as Brother George and his Sanctified Singers and he was recorded for the Library of Congress in 1942.

With and without Sonny, Brownie recorded for Folkways from the mid-1940s till the late 1950s (though moonlighting under pseudonyms for many other labels) and the two became an omnipresent part of the folk revival and blues revival scene in New York City (McGhee had even played on the soundtrack of Elia Kazan’s 1957 film A Face in the Crowd, and both would do more filmwork later).

By the time Bob Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village they were perhaps the world’s best-known still-active blues artists. McGhee’s Leroy Carr-inspired ‘In the Evening’ was in Dylan’s repertoire by the time he went back to Minneapolis in December 1961 to show his old friends there his greatly-improved skills and knowledge.

Dylan mentions Sonny & Brownie alongside THE BEATS and the jazz musicians when listing, in the Biograph box-set interview of 1985, the constituent parts of the underground, bohemian scene that he found and tagged onto just before it was too late. But as Tony Russell sums it up, ‘They were around for so long that they began to be overlooked or underestimated. Their blues stories, once new and fascinating, were still worth listening to but they had told them too often and like pub bores they…lost their audience. Still, for a generation they had been despatch riders of the blues…’

Sonny & Brownie, as it was sufficient to call them, played all through the 1960s and survived beyond them, recording, in 1973, a ‘contemporary’ album (itself just called Sonny & Brownie) on which they were joined by CLYDIE KING, Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris, JOHN MAYALL and even (on a cover of Randy Newman’s splendid song ‘Sail Away’) ARLO GUTHRIE and included versions of ‘People Get Ready’ and SAM COOKE’s ‘Bring It On Home To Me’.

By this point, though, the two could hardly stand each other though their duo continued until 1982, after which McGhee recorded with the inferior harp player Sugar Blue. He long outlived his ex-partner and died of cancer in Oakland, California on February 16, 1996, aged 80.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


A New York Times report ( about the 50th anniversary of Arhoolie Records, mentions in passing a surprising (at least to me) but rather pleasing aspect of Dylan's interaction with the blues:

"To commemorate its 50th anniversary, Arhoolie is about to release a four-CD collection of songs, ranging in style from the blues of Jesse Fuller to the free jazz of Sonny Simmons, that Mr. Strachwitz recorded between 1954 and 1970 in the San Francisco Bay area. Called “Hear Me Howling: Blues, Ballads & Beyond,” the package also includes a 136-page book that tells the history of the label; the set will be available for purchase at the company’s Web site,, beginning next week and from music stores early in 2011... For a generation of folk- and blues-inspired performers, from Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones to Bonnie Raitt and T-Bone Burnett, Arhoolie has been a lodestone. In his autobiographical “Chronicles Vol. I,” Mr. Dylan, a member of the advisory board of the nonprofit Arhoolie Foundation, [my emphasis] credits the label as being the place 'where I first heard Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Charlie Patton and Tommy Johnson.' "

Thursday, November 25, 2010


The list of tour dates is growing all the time, so this is the up-to-date but unfinished list of events already clinched:

FEB 17
Liverpool University School of the Arts
Bob Dylan & The Poetry of the Blues

MAR 24
University of Alabama New College, Tuscaloosa AL
Bob Dylan & The Poetry of the Blues

MAR 30 University of Georgia, Athens GA
Bob Dylan & The Poetry of the Blues

MAR 31 University of Georgia, Athens GA
Searching For Blind Willie McTell

APR 6 The New School, New York City NY
Searching For Blind Willie McTell

APR 9 Riverbank Arts Centre, Newbridge, Ireland
Bob Dylan & The Poetry of the Blues

APR 12 Passionfruit Theatre, Athlone, Ireland
Bob Dylan & The Poetry of the Blues

APR 13 The Dock Arts Centre, Carrick-on-Shannon, Ireland
Bob Dylan & The Poetry of the Blues

APR 14 Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar, Ireland
topic not yet decided

APR 15 The Loft, The Locke Bar, Limerick, Ireland
Love Me Slender: the Genius of Early Elvis

APR 16
Cúirt International Festival of Literature, Galway, Ireland
Searching For Blind Willie McTell

APR 20 Cork World Book Fair, Cork, Ireland
Love Me Slender: the Genius of Early Elvis

APR 21
Droichead Arts Centre, Drogheda, Ireland
Bob Dylan & The Poetry of the Blues

MAY 19/21 University of Vienna Bob Dylan Conference, Austria
How did Bob Dylan’s version of Americanness impact British culture?

Saturday, November 20, 2010


I'm working on building a new tour of my own performances - mostly on Bob Dylan, some on Blind Willie McTell and a couple on Elvis Presley.

These will be mostly in the US and Ireland, from late March through till late April. They'll all include audio and visuals and they'll be...

Bob Dylan & the Poetry of the Blues

Searching For Blind Willie McTell: A Biographer in the South


Love Me Slender: the Genius of Early Elvis (& the Myth that he Ripped Off Black Music)

Dates will be listed soon, and then more details later, when tickets go on sale. If you see me, say hello.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Heavy snow fall caused more than 400 traffic accidents in Minnesota Saturday, as drivers battled early wintry conditions. The storm... came in late Friday night. Several inches of snow were dumped in Minneapolis. Scientists say to expect El Nino winter weather.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


I see that Bob was in concert last night in the Stabler Arena, Bethlehem (PA). Can't help but wonder if there was straw on the floor and frankincense during the encore.

Yesterday, with mild existential serendipity, was the anniversary of both the birth of Screaming Lord Sutch (1940) and the death of Richard Lord Buckley (1960). There's an entry on the latter, but not the former, in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. It ends like this:

"...Dylan once called him, rather grandly, 'the fuel to my success'. Lord Buckley died in Columbus Hospital, New York, on November 12, 1960, probably from a stroke. He sounded about a hundred years old but he was only 54. His death certificate nonetheless read 'natural causes'. His ashes were scattered in Red Rock Canyon, just west of Las Vegas."

And earlier in the entry, writing of Bob Dylan's early recording of Buckley's 'Black Cross' (written by Joseph S. Newman, uncle of actor Paul Newman), I have this to say:

"He comes to ‘Black Cross’ very early on, performing it at his first concert - at the Carnegie Chapter Hall in New York City on November 4, 1961; recording it on the December 22, 1961 tape made privately back in Minnesota a month after he’d recorded his début album in New York, and performing the song again in 1962 at the Gaslight - it is, unfortunately, one of the numbers omitted from the official release Live at the Gaslight (2005), though it has circulated.

The Minnesota recording is simply great. He took it from Lord Buckley, but incontestably he made it his own. No-one in the world can deliver a talking song or a half-talking song as Bob Dylan can. It’s a facet of his genius that he has remained in full control of, and it’s certainly evident when he produces the perfect mimickry of the white voices and the black voice on ‘Black Cross’: not just a mastery but his audible joy in exercising it: a generous, sharing joy."

Sunday, November 07, 2010


Rebecca Ferguson sang 'To Make You Feel My Love' on X-Factor last night - so well as to redeem the song.

The detailing in her voice and delivery, her discretion and judgment in handling the dodgiest phrases in the lyric are a delight and a lesson to everyone else who's sung it. The first time the awful title line comes around, she sings "my love" - not "ma lurve" - with ineffable modesty. The vainglorious boasting of "you ain't seen nothing like me yet" and the hollow, lazy bathos of "No there's nothin' that I wouldn't do" are both made close to acceptable by an understatement that manages to claim back some rectitude that the song never had in the first place.

And then - and yet - there's the sheer imaginative freedom she lets loose at other moments - as when her voice soars joyously on "blue", yielding a thrill of surprise and bringing inventive complexities of meaning to the phrase "black and blue".

It's all soulful, heartfelt and disarming, with an utter lack of hamminess and an unwavering attentiveness. There are very few times when I prefer to hear someone else's version of a Dylan song. Despite the overblown, glutinous X-Factor setting, this is one of them:

Friday, November 05, 2010


Today is the 5th anniversary of the death of Link Wray. He died from heart failure at home in Copenhagen. He was 76. 'Rumble', his first record, was his biggest hit and a strong influence on a generation or two of musicians. It was released on the Cadence label - the small label run by Archie Bleyer that was also responsible for the early Everly Brothers records.

Wray was born in Dunn, North Carolina and grew up there and then in Norfolk Virginia. He had four wives and nine children.

Wikipedia's Link Wray page is excellent. The photo above (photographer unknown) was given to me by Rob Stoner for use in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia and shows Stoner, Link Wray, Robert Gordon and Anton Fig. (The photo wasn't used in the end; I used one of Stoner as a child, taken by his father, of Rob sitting on Trigger with Roy Rogers.)

About Rory Gallagher: sometimes people come to this site by finding something in its Archives, and so if they then leave a Comment, it's automatically glued to the bottom of the archived posting - which means that even though the Comment is new, no-one looking at the new posts sees it. So this is just to say that several interesting Comments about Rory Gallagher and Dylan have arrived in the last two or three days. Worth searching back to find them.

Monday, November 01, 2010


Above: Dylan's staircase painting; below: Staircase painting by Marie Jaouan (date unknown).

You can see more of Marie Jaouan's paintings and pastels at