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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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Wednesday, December 08, 2010


First I'd like to thank the person who has posted a generous number of comments (attached to several different posts) about the rich array of poetry and folksong from which Dylan may have derived the "yellow hair" he gives himself in the magnificent 'Angelina'. Really interesting stuff, so thank you.

Second, today it is 30 years since John Lennon died in New York City.

Third, it is 65 years since the death in Chicago, at age 53, of Richard Jones, pianist and composer of one of the greatest songs I think has ever been written: the numinous, rich yet simple 'Trouble In Mind'. (Not the Dylan b-side.) I've loved this song ever since hearing it by the Everly Brothers when I was about 15, long before I knew anything about the pre-war blues. And when it arrives unbidden as an earworm, it's always welcome.

Fourth, tomorrow Joan Armatrading, who was a support to Bob Dylan at Blackbushe back in 1978, will be 60 years old. I still like her stuff too.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks very much for that & hope you have a very good Xmas & New Year.

As a confirmed Pagan, not sure why they have to bring religion into one of our best festivals, though...

What i have found interesting following the "Yellow Hair' trail is the wealth of allusions Dylan can get into just a few lines...

Hadn't really noticed this before, but it has only further increased my respect for his work.

Thought this might interest you as well. It is a discussion of some other versions of the "Unfortunate Rake' that I hadn't seen before.

Keep up the good work. I think your chapters on Dylan & the Blues and on Dylan & the nursery rhyme tradition are by far the best writings on Dylan that I know of...

4:53 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Think I may have forgotten to add the link about the "Unfortunate rake"


4:56 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is also a long discussion here on various offshoots of the "Unfortunate Rake' stem:

5:13 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

And there's a long discussion of offshoots of 'The Unfortunate Rake' in my Song & Dance Man III chapter "Bob Dylan, Blind Willie McTell And ‘Blind Willie McTell’".

10:06 am  
Anonymous Chris Rubin said...

Thanks. I didn't know of Richard Jones and will look for Everly version.

There is a great Trouble In Mind on the Willie Nelson/Leon Russell album One For The Road. Excellent additional vocal by Maria Muldaur and Slide by Bonnie Raitt.

1:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was through your discussion in Song & Dance Man' that I got interested in the history of the "unfortunate Rake".

A friend of mine is teaching a course on "Folk?Roots Music" so I have been looking around for as many different versions as I can find as I think it would be a perfect subject for a lecture on the 'Folk process'.

4:53 am  
Anonymous Kieran said...

I love that chapter in your book, Michael. Incredible how much can be got from different versions and takes on the one idea, timeless idea though it is.

I don't know what you think of him (and his death was terrible) but am I the only person on the planet who thinks Lennon is over-rated? We use the word "great" too loosely nowadays. Mozart was great, and in comparison to true greatness, the Beatles/Lennon are in the tuppeny place. There's a kind of laziness nowadays about definitions, and also an accepted-without-challenge assertion that "something happened" in the sixties which was started by seers and counter-culture revolutionaries, etc. The music was apparently great then. And the people who made it are exalted without criticism.

This is why I like your forensic approach to criticism. You try to place these things in an historical context.

John was a good songwriter, occasionally, but he wasn't great, in my own humble opinion....

10:20 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not sure what you think of this idea but I think there is a similarity between the mythic landscape in "Changing of the Guards', "Jokerman" and "Angelina" - which might repay further study ('Hard Rain' may also occupy some of the same territory).

Not saying that Dylan's mythic landscape is as well developed as (say) that of Blake or Yeats, but I do think there is something there.

6:28 am  
Anonymous John Carvill said...

Can I respond to Kieran's point, when he asks whether he is alone in thinking that "Lennon is over-rated". Firstly, everything is relative, right? So bringing Mozart into a discussion of The Beatles doesn't really hold water. Secondly, The Beatles truly were a great pop group. Are they overrated? Again, everything is relative and you could argue it either way. To my mind, if you want to call Lennon overrated then you are essentially calling The Beatles overrated, which means you are basically calling popular music overrated.

In any case, I wonder am I the only person on the planet who thinks that accusing Lennon of being overrated, on the anniversary of his murder, is a little bit lacking in taste?

2:16 pm  
Anonymous Kieran said...

Hi John,

I don't think "everything is relative". I mean, it isn't a relative judgment, surely, to say that Mozart is great, and therefore, by comparison, John Lennon isn't. And therefore, by what measure do people think John Lennon is great?

Compared to true greatness, he comes up as being woefully inadequate. But - you say the Beatles were a "great pop band", which then begs the question, what can the word "great" mean when it's applied to pop music?

As you say, we end up essentially saying "pop music is over-rated." Surely I wouldn't be alone in that assessment, either. However, there is some great music in pop music, and the Beatles were responsible for their fair share. More than most, actually.

As for the anniversary of Lennon's death, it's been thirty years. I don't think it's at all tasteless to question his place in the scheme of things. That sort of thinking means we only concur with sycophants and lazy journos. It isn't hypocritical to abhor and regret his killing - and in the next sentence say that he was "a good songwriter, occasionally", but it's unfair to true greats - where Bob Dylan resides, on a lower floor - to include Lennon among their number.

Again, in my own humble opinion.

For the record, a more significant anniversary in my household was December 5th, the 219th anniversary of the death of Mozart, at the tender age of 35. We celebrated the great man by listening to Cosi Fan Tutte...

9:38 pm  
Anonymous John Carvill said...

Kieran: perhaps you should be subscribing to a more Mozart-centric blog?

John Lennon, a "good songwriter, occasionally"? Get real! After all, I could just as easily say Mozart isn't really 'great', based on my definition of 'great'. See how relative things can become?

Yes it's been thirty years since Lennon's death, but the anniversary of his murder was just last week, and sycophancy aside I feel it's an inappropriate time to be slagging him off.

As a person, Lennon was by all accounts a flawed human being. But then who isn't? Is Bob Dylan? Very likely. But what contribution do/did Dylan, Lennon, McCartney, etc. make to our world? I would say they made a massively positive contribution.

As for you old mate, Mozart - well, classical music can do things that popular music cannot emulate. Reverse that statement and it's still true, that's what classical music snobs sometimes have difficulty realising.

2:45 pm  
Anonymous Kieran said...

Hi John,

I knew it wouldn't be long before someone trotted out the well-worn phrase: "classical music snobs."

It has nothing to do with snobbery, and more to do with a useful definition of the word "great". Mozart didn't consider himself to be "classical music" - he was a working musician and performer, just like Dylan, just like Lennon.

There must be some measure of greatness, otherwise everything becomes both meaningless and mediocre. For someone (not you) to say, "well that's YOUR opinion, but I believe that Kylie is greater than Bob" wouldn't necessarily make it so. There's surely a measure in things, which would be to do with technique, effect, influence, durability, etc.

It has nothing to do with snobbery, nor is it an insult to John Lennon. I don't know why you think I slagged him off. I simply stated that the word "great" is being abused when we apply it willy-nilly. For the record, alongside Mozart, my most listened to artist is Bob, and that's why i come here.

I know they plough different fields and in each field there are different fruits, but I think in modern life we're far too promiscuous in attaching the labels "genius" and "great" to people with a slim body of work, when true greatness is a rare and wonderful thing...

5:55 pm  
Anonymous john Carvill said...

Well sorry, Kieran, but logging on to a Dylan-focused blog, and leaving multiple comments about how 'great' Mozart is, compared to the "tuppeny place" of The Beatles, does rather leave you open to accusations of snobbery. Let's skip that.

So after Mozart, your next favourite artist is Bob? Do you consider Bob 'great', or is he languishing with the Beatles, on the tuppeny end of the scale?

Equating a Mozart/Beatles comparison to a Dylan/Kylie comparison is not even close to being a valid argument.

Again, all is relative, which was my original point.

You decry the tendency for people to be ascribed the label 'great' for a slender body of work, but that does not apply to Lennon.

9:08 am  
Anonymous Kieran said...

Hi John,

It only leaves me open to an accusation of "snobbery" if you want to take that approach. I have no insecurities about whatever music people prefer. I like some classical, some rock, some folk, some blues.

I think of them all as being "music" and I don't make distinctions. Guys like Mozart - as I say - were working craftsmen, not posh geezers removed from life's realities.

And it isn't relative. That kind of thinking reduces quality to a mere matter of opinion. It would put Michael out of a job! It gets confusing. Imagine this: "Together Through Life is a great album when compared to Down in the Groove, but it isn't a great album when compared to L&T."'s both great AND not great, at the same time? It can't be both! Relativising things only reduces them. If you think there's an opinion that states that Mozart isn't great, but John Lennon is, then I'll sit comfortable and wait to hear it.

You may then say, well John is a better rocker than Mozart, which is exact. But is he still great? And would his work be as great as Mozart?

I don't want to make this some sort of Classical v Pop, Lennon v Mozart, thing, because they both have different functions, and operate in different ways. However, I insist on this, the word "great" is abused too freely these days and I would be reluctant to apply it pop/rock stars.

Except Dylan, who I believe has a dextrous and expressive body of work which makes him almost uncategorisable. He's as much akin to Yeats as he is to Elvis. He far exceeds the Beatles - collectively or individually - and I think his songwriting will stand the test of time.

Leonard Cohen sings about the Tower of Song, and places himself many floors below Hank Williams. He's probably correct. Then place Bob even higher again.

But in a taller tower, made of cast iron and gold, resides Mozart, top floor, penthouse suite. In the space of 4 weeks he composed two piano concertos which contiinued his revolution of the form, and the status of the piano itself. It defies belief. You should check him out - I think you'd like him...

[Sorry if this is a double-post - the computer acted up!]

11:48 am  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

I thought the Dylan vs. Keats debate of a few years back was arid and pointless. But Lennon vs. Mozart? Cripes! Even should anyone want to compare them, what would the criteria of comparison be? What critical apparatus exists to make such a comparison? (I think even Betsy Bowden would duck the challenge.)

It time for John and Kieran to get on with their Christmas shopping, isn't it?

12:56 pm  
Anonymous Kieran said...

You could be right, Frank! I DO need to do some shopping. It isn't about "Lennon v Mozart", for me it's about the abuse of the word "great", which is over-used nowadays until it becomes meaningless.

But I think I'll turn up the radio next time "War is Over" comes on and shout "bah, humbug!" at it!

Merry Christmas...

3:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion.

Sometimes, i think it would be simpler to only allow the designation 'great' to people whose music has survived, say 50 years after their death. Mozart, Beethoven, Bach etc have obviously passed through this test...

I think Dylan obviously will pass that criteria, but I am not sure how much rock music will actually achieve this designation.

It seems funny to me how the music of people who were once critically derided (like, for example, Rory Gallagher and Gordon Lightfoot) stans up much better today than does that of people who were far more lauded by critics at the time.

What is interesting also is that what we consider great about an artist is not necessarily what contemporaries did (see the shifting interpretations of someone like Dickens, for example) and it would be interesting to see how this works itself out in Dylan's case.

11:09 pm  
Anonymous John Carvill said...

Kiearn: I'm still not really sure what you were originally trying to say, or why. I'm also pretty offended by your comments on Lennon, given that you chose to make them at a time when teh world is marking the 30th anniversary of the man's brutal murder.

Frank: I am not comparing Mozart and Dylan. You seem to agree with me that such comparisons are invalid. Yet you tell me I should go get some shopping done rather than continue contributing to an 'arid' debate which, ironically, you have joined yet not added very much to. I would react more strongly were this not Michael's blog.

Anonymous: good points. Naturally there can be no doubt that Dylan will be very well-regarded indeed 50 years from his death. But the same goes for the Beatles. People will listen to the Beatles for as long as there are people listening to music.

1:59 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I agree with you that the Beatles are probably one of the few 'rock' acts that will still be regarded as 'great' in the future. And in this regard, if any rock music is great, I dont see how such a list could exclude songs like "Strawberry Fields". "All Across The Universe". "Julia", etc etc

I would also argue that Lennon's first two solo albums are also 'great' in their way...

"Give Me Some Truth" is one of my favourite songs ever & is still as "relevant' now as it was then..

I think there are very few rock musicians who deserve the designation 'great" - along with Dylan & the Beatles, I think the possible contenders would be people like Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed,Leonard Cohen, John Prine etc who have built up a body of work over their careers that probably earns them that designation.

11:38 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Should have added Elvis to that list, of course.

Funnily enough, have been listening to Kevin Coyne's great album "Marjory Razorblades" quite a lot recently & would suggest that it is probably a 'great' album, although I dont know how many people would agree with that assessment...

It is, of course, very difficult for contemporaries to know exactly what artists posterity will decide were great.

11:42 pm  
Anonymous Elmer Gantry said...

I think in many ways, there is little point in comparing Dylan to someone like Mozart, say as the musical styles in which they work are so different.
I think possibly the most valid comparisons between Dylan and classical musicians would be with people like Schubert and Schumann who also wrote songs and who, like Dylan, were strongly influenced by folk music (in their case, of course, German folk music).
They also, like Dylan, were very much concerned with the quality of the lyrics their music was set to - often using poets like Goethe, Heine, etc. etc.
Their influence on subsequent popular music is often underestimated. Reading books about Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers lately, I was struck by the fact that both men were heavily influenced by the German 'lieder' tradition.
This tradition also influenced Dylan directly, through Brecht and Weill, who worked within this 'art song' tradition, although they also subverted it.
Would be interesting to race the impact of this tradition on Dylan, but i can see a direct line through Scubert's Wintereise through Sinatra's Only the Lonely to Dylan's lood on the tracks.

3:30 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Should have added here that my favourite classical composer is Beethoven, whose music, it seems to me, fits Bob's lines about 'the crackin' shakin' breaking sounds...the only beauty I understand.' So while Beethoven could write heart-breakingly beautiful music (as in the late quartets and piano sonatas), he seems to me to show an understanding of the pain & struggle that life entails in a way that composers like Mozart & Bach (great as they are) do not.

1:24 am  

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