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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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Sunday, December 18, 2011

happy christmas

& new year TO ALL

Monday, December 12, 2011


This morning I had my attention drawn to this version of the great Dylan song 'Jokerman', thanks to our old friend C.P. Lee and via BBC radio producer Peter Everett. On first hearing of the first few lines, I thought it was just going to be one of those clumsy, slightly embarrassing vocals by someone whose first language is so obviously not English, but then I changed my view and have come to appreciate the rhapsodic shine of the musical performance, including the vocal.

I'm curious to know how others respond.

Friday, December 09, 2011


A beautiful thing...

Thanks to zimmermanlive on YouTube and @bobdylantheband in Twitter


I've just discovered this fascinating and warm account by Happy Traum of the very informal, relaxed recording session he did with Bob Dylan in 1971. I love the way Traum went down from Woodstock on the bus. The account, first online on November 24 this year, is here at Happy Traum's Homespun Blog  -  including a fine rare photograph. I'm re-publishing his words below, but you have to go to his site to see the photo:

by Happy Traum

Just about 40 years ago, in October of 1971, I got a call from Bob Dylan asking me if I'd like record some songs with him for his "Greatest Hits, Volume II" compilation. Could I do it tomorrow, and would I bring my guitar and banjo -- and, oh yeah, how about a bass, too?  (Never mind that I didn't own a bass, and had never played one in public before.  I borrowed one -- fast.)

Now I realize that for most fair-to-middlin' guitar fingerpickers the odds of getting a call like this are about as likely as John Glenn calling to see if you'd like a seat on the next space shuttle, but I was fairly casual about the whole thing.  You see, I had been friends with Bob since the early sixties, and had already recorded a song with him on a Folkways recording called "Broadsides, Vol. I." Of course, that was when he was recording his first lp for Columbia; now he was the best-known singer/songwriter in the world!  Nevertheless, as neighbors in Woodstock, NY, we often picked together informally, so it wasn't a great leap to take what we had been doing in the living room into the studio.  But was I excited? You bet I was!

So,  laden with all sorts of instruments, I took the bus from Woodstock to New York City and made my way to the Columbia studios on West 54th Street. To my surprise,  the entire session consisted of just Bob and me (and the engineer) in the big, nearly-empty studio. The first song Bob suggested was "Only a Hobo," one of the tunes he had recorded eight years earlier (as "Blind Boy Grunt") on our "Broadsides" session. The machines were turned on, Bob started playing, and I followed along as best I could. After two takes it was obvious that it wasn't coming together, so Bob dropped the song.

Fortunately, the next one, "I Shall Be Released," immediately caught the right spirit and we relaxed into the music.  We started the song with a slightly more bouncy feel than I had heard on the Band's famous recording of the song, and it fit right into the bluesy fingerpicking style that I have always favored.  Bob played it in A, so I capoed up to the fifth fret and played out of the E position, accenting the ends of lines with bass note hammer-ons and sliding 6ths and pull-offs in the treble. I joined in singing on the chorus, and before I knew it Bob was grinning and we were on to the next song. Now I was starting to have a good time!

I had heard "Down in the Flood" in bits and pieces during the Basement Tapes sessions, but the version that we did at this recording was totally impromptu -- at least for me. It's a blues in G, so it wasn't hard to find some things to play. Again, Bob was strumming the rhythm with his flatpick, so I just tried to compliment his singing with some sliding licks and bluesy, fingerstyle fills on the high strings. The whole thing went by so fast that I didn't realize it was a take until we played it back.

Finally, we cut what turned out to be my favorite of that day's session, "You Ain't Going Nowhere." Bob set the pace with a strong rhythmic strum, and I tried to give the tune a rollicking, joyous feel with a frailing banjo part. I think it worked. We nailed it in two takes, singing and playing together, again with no previous rehearsal. After listening to it we decided it needed a little extra kick, so I made my debut as a bassist.  I must admit it was a pretty visible way to start playing in public, but Bob and the engineer seemed to like what I did so my part stayed in. Not long after that session, Bob invited me to play bass on a date he was producing for Allen Ginsberg, so my career as a bassist stayed high-profile for a little while longer before disappearing into a merciful obscurity.

As I re-listen to the CD today I can still hear the informal, home-style picking that so many listeners have told me they like about those particular performances. There's a relaxed intimacy there that I like to think is partly due to our friendship, and to the many occasions in which we sat around the house playing the old songs. Of course, much of it was due to Bob's studio technique at the time: establish a good "feel," play the song as if you really mean what you're singing about, and get it in one or two takes. If you need more than that, it's not happening, so move on. It's a way of working that has created some unbelievably great recorded performances over the years, and I have always been incredibly proud to have been a part of these three.


I'm delighted to learn that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are going to pay for Hubert Sumlin's funeral. The story, announced by Hubert's partner Toni Ann, is in Rolling Stone magazine here.

I'm told that Keith Richards also paid for Sumlin's cancer treatment.

It's good to see rich rock stars put their hands in their pockets to help those whose music has so helped them...

Thursday, December 08, 2011


Harold Lepidus, who runs the site Bob Dylan Examiner, has just put up an interview he conducted with me earlier this week. It's here and also here, including his very complimentary intro:

What do you get for the Bob Dylan fan who has everything? Chances are he or she already owns the usual suspects - Christmas In The Heart, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, Brandeis 1963, The Witmark Demos, The Original Mono Recordings. It's time to think outside the box set.

My first suggestion for this holiday season is an audio CD by renowned Bob Dylan expert Michael Gray. Earlier this year he released Bob Dylan Encyclopedia Greatest Hits, a compact disc featuring eleven "chapter" readings from his mammoth book, Bob Dylan Encyclopedia.

If you are not familiar with Gray's work, you should know he wrote Song & Dance Man, the first serious, long form study of Dylan's music back in the early 1970s. That seminal work, which has since been updated twice, is the bedrock of all current Dylan criticism. When I read the second edition of Song & Dance Man in 1981, it opened a door into Dylan's musical and literary roots that I could not have imagined existed. Gray's writing was so insightful and powerful that it took me a while to figure out my own separate opinions of Dylan's oeuvre.  It reinvigorated my own Dylan fanaticism, landed me in used record stores all over Boston, and made me an outcast among my co-workers who couldn't understand my fascination with this supposed has-been.

Gray still loves to discuss and dissect Dylan's work. He even sounded envious that I saw Dylan and the Band in 1974, though he witnessed the legendary 1966 Liverpool show with the Hawks that produced the much sought after live b-side, "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues."

Here is Gray discussing his new CD, writing liner notes for the recent live Brandeis CD, and talking about Dylan for a living.

How was your recent speaking tour?

I couldn’t call it a tour  -  it was a short trip to deliver a talk at a Dylan Birthday Celebration Conference at the University of Cardiff in South Wales, and also to take part in a panel discussion about connexions between Bob Dylan and the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (who had been a hero to the Beats). In the end, because of the illness of one of the other scheduled speakers, I gave two talks rather than one. And after Cardiff, those of us on the platform for the panel discussion staged a similar event at the lovely Taliesin Arts Centre in Swansea (also in South Wales).

How did you come up with the idea of putting out your own spoken word CD?

Well, I’ve been noticing the increased popularity of audio-books for a long time now  -  people get tired of trashy radio stations when they’re driving around, and the new technology  -  things like the iPod  -  make it so much easier to listen to things doing other stuff. And while most people feel they’re too busy to have much time for reading, an audio-book means someone else can be reading to you while you’re doing other stuff. But of course the book The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia is 750,000 words  -  far too big to be an audio-book (or, for that matter, to be translated into other languages) -  so the only option was an audio-book of selected entries. So it’s about an hour’s worth, a reasonable single-CD’s length, in a really attractive digipak. Well I think so, anyway. Of course, you don’t have to buy it as a CD, you can download either the whole thing or just individual tracks.

My favorite aspect of the CD is when you place Dylan's activities in the context of its time (Records found in the rear of department stores behind vacuum cleaners, only going to one local concert per tour, etc.). How important was that in your writing?

Placing Dylan’s past in the context of the time has always been important to me. Dylan’s work is music, but it’s also history. And the work you’re referring to in those examples is from the 1960s, and the world was different then in so many, many ways. In my case I’m old enough that I can describe how things were, and how they were perceived, in the 1960s from personal experience  -  and part of the pleasure of being able to draw on that experience in writing about it almost half a century later is to be able to smile, ruefully and fondly, at my own generation’s innocence, folly, enthusiasm and hope. Naturally if you just drone on about the 60s, people who are young now will turn off  -  but if they’re interested in Bob Dylan’s work, and as you know, many are, then they’re interested in the context. All kinds of things they might assume are as natural as the air we breathe in fact had to be invented, and so for today’s youthful music fans, the odd shaft of light received from the quaint, vanished world of the recent past can be compelling. Mostly people can relate easily to the music of the 1950s onwards, but they’re hearing it from within a very different reality. And few things have changed as radically as how we access music now.

The CD reminds me of a great lost bootleg, with all periods of Dylan's career covered in a random order,  from long, rhapsodic meditations of great works like Blood On The Tracks and "Love & Theft" to imagining Dylan frying an egg on stage. How did you choose what to include, and in what order? Did the thought of a Dylan bootleg even cross your mind when deciding what would make the final cut?

Never thought about Dylan bootlegs at all, at the time. I just wanted a broad sample of kinds of entry  -  in terms of period, of length of text (and therefore length of track), of subject and of mood. I found that process of choosing very challenging, but fun. I decided early on, for instance, not to try to include any of the entries on specific literary or musical figures who had been big influences on Dylan  -  not because they’re less interesting than other kinds of entry: on the contrary  -  but because unless it was going to become a 5 or 6-CD box set, it would be really out of balance to have, say, 15 minutes on Robert Johnson or 10 minutes on Hank Williams or, you know, 42 minutes on William Blake when so many other equally important influences would have to be missed out. And this made it so clear that one of the main criteria for choosing entries had to be, how long does it take to read this entry aloud? Which led to deliberately looking for a couple of really short ones and balancing that out with a couple of long ones. It wasn’t hard to remember the one about frying an egg on stage, when I was thinking about short ones, and for lengthy ones it seemed only right to choose entries that concentrated on major Dylan works. The entry in the book on Blonde On Blonde is too brief, but we tried Blood On The Tracks and that came in at just over 10 minutes, which seemed appropriate  -  and then I especially honed in on “Love and Theft” because I’ve always felt, right from the moment I first heard it, that it’s one of his major albums, and it has the extra virtue of being from the 21st Century, and I didn’t want the audio-book to just be harking back to the earliest decades. It was also the album that doesn’t feature in my previous large Dylan book, Song & Dance Man III, because that book was completed before “Love and Theft” existed. And the entry on Duluth, the place, begged to be included in the audio-book because it took us all the way back, way back further than the 1960s, to Bob Dylan’s birth.

After decades of music analysis and criticism, what was it like to record your own CD?

I can’t say it felt strange to be recording an audio-book  -  after all, it’s entirely spoken word, and I’ve been giving talks at arts festivals and colleges and so on for around ten years now: and that is the tremendous contrast to writing the books. When I’m writing, my working life is spent alone at the word-processor. To get out and have a live audience, and meet some of my readers, and to be standing on a stage speaking in public instead of sitting at home writing in private: that’s the great contrast. And actually one of the tracks on Bob Dylan Encyclopedia Greatest Hits is about the song ‘Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat’  -  about how it’s so uniquely Dylan yet also coachbuilt on the chassis of an old Lightnin' Hopkins song  -  and that’s an entry I’ve often read out to audiences at my talks. So I’ve known how that works when it’s read aloud: and of course for people who buy the CD version of the audiobook at the end of one of my talks, that track works as a souvenir of the event.

I can imagine Dylan fans enjoying your CD on a long drive (preferably to a Dylan concert), or as a surprise track when listening to their iPod on shuffle. Did you have any preconceived notions of how Dylan fans would listen to the CD, and what has been the feedback so far?

My only preconception was that people would probably use a shuffle feature, much like the way that people use the book  -  by dipping in and out of it, opening it at random, that kind of thing. Feedback has been good  -  but, you know, it hasn’t soared up the charts or anything!

What was it like to write the liner notes to the second version of Dylan's Brandeis CD? How did it come about?

It was a pleasant surprise to be asked, though it is, I have to say, a very minor album. The notes I wrote necessarily had to big it up  -  but yes, a good surprise to be approached. I was e-mailed by someone at Special Projects at Sony-Legacy, and they asked me, and I said I’d be happy to do it, and they FedEx’d me the material (though of course I had it anyway!) and then when I’d written the piece, I sent it to them and they ran it past Jeff Rosen and he said it was “great” and there you have it. I have to say I don’t like the design they’ve used for the notes on the CD, but the vinyl version looks really terrific  -  the whole sleeve, back and front, has been made to look exactly as if it’s an LP from 1963... except that, very kindly, they let me put my website address under my name: which of course is a jarring note in terms of period, but a kindness to me.

How can people order the CD, or any of your books?

They can get Bob Dylan Encyclopedia Greatest Hits as a download from the record company, or from all the usual suspects, iTunes included, and they can buy the CD directly from my website: and if they do that, they have the option to either receive it still shrinkwrapped or else unshrinkwrapped but signed. My books, well, Song & Dance Man III is finally out of print, after eleven years, but the 2008 Bob Dylan Encyclopedia paperback and my biography of Blind Willie McTell, Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes, can be bought from any good bookshop or from Amazon, and if people want a signed and/or inscribed copy, they can get them from my website. Meanwhile, thanks Harold  -  pleasure to talk.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011


Awakenings: A Kronos Quartet Residency

Early Music

27 January 2012 / 19:30
Wilton's Music Hall

Graces Alley
E1 8JB

For this concert, the group is interpreting "early" in broader ways than the common definition of Early Music. In some cases they are early works in a composer's output;  in the case of Lizee's Death to Kosmische, it's a reference to early electronic music  - and the group plays some rudimentary electronic instruments like Stylophones in the piece.  "Early" can also refer to a different mode of human existence, as in the traditional works programmed.  

Nicole Lizée 

Death to Kosmische UK premiere
Hildegard von Bingen (arr. Marianne Pfau) 

O Virtus Sapientie 
Traditional (arr. Kronos, transc. Ljova) 

Tusen Tankar (A Thousand Thoughts) 
Anton Webern 

Six Bagatelles, Op. 9
Philip Glass (arr. Kronos Quartet) 

Modern Love Waltz European premiere
Valentin Silvestrov 

String Quartet No. 3 World premiere

Charles Ives 
Morton Feldman 

Bob Dylan (arr. Philip Glass, additional orchestration by Kronos)  

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right UK premiere
Dan Visconti 

Love Bleeds Radiant UK premiere
Traditional (arr. Jacob Garchik) 

“Zari” Ritual Lamentation UK premiere
Traditional (arr. Jacob Garchik) 

Boyiwa (Song of Mourning over a Corpse) UK premiere
Witold Lutoslawski 

“Funebre” from String Quartet
Rahul Dev Burman (arr. Stephen Prutsman / Kronos) 

Nodir Pare Utthchhe Dhnoa (Smoke Rises Across the River) 
Alfred Schnittke (arr. Kronos) 

Collected Songs Where Every Verse is Filled with Grief 

Programme subject to change 

The Kronos Quartet : 
David Harrington violin 
John Sherbaviolin 
Hank Dutt viola 
Jeffrey Zeigler cello 

Tickets: £20 / 25 Unreserved seating


Tuesday, December 06, 2011


Hubert Sumlin, guitarist, died the day before yesterday, at the age of 80. My own tribute was written while he was still alive, inside the entry for Howlin Wolf in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. I wrote that...

... the main guitarist Wolf used from 1954 onwards was the consummate Hubert Sumlin, whose best work is amongst the finest electric guitar playing in the universe. He plays solos of divine, deranged descending notes, tense as steel cable, grungy as hot-rod cars crashing, and as piercing as God cracking open the sky. Howlin’ Wolf brought Sumlin up to Chicago from the south... Hubert Sumlin’s influence is as plain as lightning on MIKE BLOOMFIELD - you can hear it on ‘Maggie’s Farm’, Dylan’s electric début performance at the Newport Folk Festival of 1965 - and on ROBBIE ROBERTSON, as you can hear equally on the 1966 Dylan concert performances and the later album Planet Waves.
I'd like to add that regardless of whom he influenced, Hubert Sumlin was it. If you want just one sample of his shuddering prowess, listen to Howlin Wolf's completely brilliant 'Goin' Down Slow' (on which the monologue is not by Wolf but by Willie Dixon). Sumlin was young then, while the song asks the singer and speaker to sound old, and the way Sumlin brings together the pent-up passion of youth and the song's dramatic thrust is sheer genius. It's my single all-time favourite slice of guitarwork, and it's here:

Monday, December 05, 2011


And now, Bob Dylan for children: the Blowin' In The Wind children's book: here  -  a page on which you'll see Bob involuntarily keeping very bad company: Piers Morgan even. I mention it as a public service warning. Just writing his name makes me feel unclean.