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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, March 30, 2007


Got back last night from the Dylan Symposium at the University of Minnesota, which began with a pre-conference bus tour up to Hibbing last Saturday (24th). I've been to Hibbing twice before but the guided bus tour made it well worth going a third time around.

You always see new things on a revisit, and see the old things in different lights; you meet up with people you missed before; and you re-meet people you remember. For me it was fascinating to drive, as the young Bob Zimmerman did on his motorbike, out past the mining communities that still cling on between the trees outside of town, amid so many old railroad tracks - no wonder they're such a presence in his early poems and his songs - and to find the spot where Echo Helstrom lived with her family. It didn't have a WalMart across the road in those days. It was an honour to meet, for the first time, the splendid B.J. Rolfzen and his wife Leona, and to meet up again with LeRoy Hoikkala, Bob and Linda Hocking from Zimmy's, and Gregg French, current owner of Bob Dylan's boyhood home. A pleasure too, to take another walk around the truly remarkable Hibbing High School. Even now, they spend that little bit more than most high schools: in the library, all the computers are Apple Macs, not mere PCs.

The other special pleasure of the bus trip, naturally, was the other people on the bus, who included my old compadre Stephen Scobie; the warm and gracious Gordon Ball; Colleen Sheehy (the Weisman Art Museum's Director of Education), who had organised the symposium with mega-admin assistance from Heather Dorr; the very nice, and funny, Alessandro Carrera, Italian translator of Lyrics and Chronicles Volume One; and Celestial Monochord blogger Kurt Gegenhuber, whose photo from inside Hibbing High I have nicked.

Weird to go there in March and have a sunny, windless day. As we stood around in North Hibbing looking out into that famously "largest manmade hole on the planet", locals said the utter lack of wind up there was unprecedented, and strange. Even downtown, it seemed odd. My own previous visit had been in mid-April 2001, and there was snow piled up at the edges of the sidewalks then. This time, the frozen lakes still looked frozen, but there was almost no snow anywhere, and none at all downtown.

In Minneapolis, over the three days of the conference (Sunday 25th to Tuesday 27th) we had an odd stretch of weather too: one day it was 81 degrees and the next day half that.

I thought the conference itself a big success: surely the most intensive programme of Dylan studies ever assembled at one time, with some big-name speakers, many people from university departments and a wide spread of other writers and musicians, from Beat poet Anne Waldman to Bobby Vee, and from Koerner & Glover to Tangled Up in Bob film director Mary Feidt. So much going on that it was gratifyingly impossible for anyone to catch all the talks and discussion panels they thought sounded interesting. More on this in Part 2.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael, I enjoyed meeting you at the Dylan Symposium at the Weisman in Minneapolis. I was able to catch the first part of your talk on Tuesday, and especially enjoyed hearing Big Joe Williams and Young Bob play Sittin' on top of the World. The fidelity was excellent. I had to refrain from yelling "Go Electric!" when they were fiddling with your microphone in the beginning, kind of wish I had now. I had to leave early but wanted to make a comment about She Belongs to Me. Although the lyrics are fashioned in a verse-verse-kind of chorus,way there is something else that has always struck me about that song and others. And that is Dylan's unique use of chord changes. It is something that I don't think Dylan gets quite enough credit for. In She Belongs to Me, in particular, there is an interesting twist. A standard blues change usually revolves around what is called the 1-4-5 set of chord changes (i.e. in the key of C, it would be C-F-G.)Blues songs, or country or folk songs, usually go from the one chord, to the 4 chord, and then to, at some point to the 5 chord, eventually resolving back to the 1 chord.) What makes She Belongs to Me unique, and interesting, besides the lyrics, is that it never goes to the 5 chord. Instead it utilizes a Major 2nd Chord (In the key of C that would be a D chord) but never goes to the 5 chord (in this case, G.)That is rarely done in music. In fact, I think when Dylan recorded it, and I think in Don't Look Back, he actually tunes the low E string down to a C, giving it a very droning sound. That is rarely done as well. To my ears, the Major 2nd (the D, if played in C) functions as the 4 chord, and the F, functions as the 5 chord, in a way. I hope this is not too confusing, but it is the unique chordal quality of this tune that, I believe makes it special. Perhaps at the next Dylan Symposium, songwriters could talk about this angle of Dylan's music. My friend Jimmy LaFave (one of the best Dylan interpreters on the planet, based in Austin, Texas) have talked about this several times. I am much looking forward to your book on Blind Willie McTell. Dylan's tune of that name, though loosely based on the chord changes to St. James Infirmary (he name checks the St. James Hotel)are another interesting set of chord changes. Keep up the fine work! Your friend, Paul Metsa, Minneapolis, MN, USA.

8:24 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Thanks for your interesting comments. I think you're right about Dylan not getting enough credit for his unusual (I wouldn't quite say unique) use of chord changes. Though it's also true that by and large he's always relied on the simple basic chords instead of ornate or complex melodic exploration - which is why all those music professors in the mid-1960s got so excited about the Beatles and ignored Bob Dylan.

Your message was timely, too, because it came in just about an hour after Sarah and I had been listening to your own version of 'She Belongs To Me' on the CD you gave me, White Boys Lost in the Blues' by you and Sonny Earl (, US, 2007). What we liked especially, was the care and attention you paid to the performance. It made Sarah say she wished Bob would bother that much . . .

So thank you again, and best wishes~

12:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I had a lovely time in Hibbing last summer and did many of the things you did. I think I was adopted by the Zimmy's crowd. Like you I got a piece of tile from Frenchy and I even got to have a day with Mr + Mrs Rolfzen. He loved the word 'homage'.

David Leaver

8:59 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Think I put a post on here a while back about the Irish song "Lock Hospital' (which also has English variants) & its connections with the "Streets of Laredo" & 'St. James' Infirmary.'

There is a version of it on Christy Moore's album "Prosperous" (which also, incidentally, has a version of Dylan's 'song to Woody").

It apparently is about a VD hospital for soldiers in Dublin.

There is a rather odd version of it on You Tube:

12:19 am  
Anonymous Elmer Gantry said...

spraking of Irish influences on Dylan's music, I wondered if Bob has ever mentioned the great Irish sean-nos ["old-style"] singer, Joe Heaney. in this regard.

Heaney lived in the U.S. for many years and supplied peop;e like the Clancy's with numerous songs etc. He also sang at Newport in the year that Bob went electric...

Have been listening to a lot of his music recently and some of it has tangential Dylan connections - including an Irish-language version of Lord Randall, a song called "Caroline and Her Young Sailor Bold", which is related to "Canadee-I-)" and a version of "Barbary Ellen"...

6:03 am  
Anonymous Elmer Gantry said...

Just saw the following quote from Shane McGowan on Joe Heaney:

“One is Joe Heaney, who I actually met as a kid, because I was brought up in a party house, many times he came to our house. Joe Heaney had a whole thing, from the saddest song he ever heard in English to the saddest song he ever heard in Irish, to ‘The Old Woman From Wexford’ to ‘Arthur McBride’ to ‘Fuck-the-Brits’ songs, stuff like that. There was a great record called ‘The Road To Carna,’ Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger collected songs from the Irish, about 20 years before he died, and it’s the best recording. But with sean nos, essentially the words don’t mean that much, it’s total expressionism, like Coltrane.”

The cd he is taking about is actually called "The Road From Connemara" which I recommend highly.

1:15 am  
Anonymous Ramblin' Gamblin' Willie said...

From the evidence here it appears that Heaney appeared at Newport with Liam Clancy in 1966, not 1965, which means he wasn't there for Bob's electric performance in '65:

There is a fine Heaney concert from 1983 (not long before he died) at this site:

12:14 pm  
Anonymous Elmer Gantry said...

Speaking of Joe Heaney, there is an excellent new book about him by Sean williams and Lillis O Laore: Bright Star of the West, Joe Heaney: Irish Song Man. The blurb for it runs as follows:

'Bright Star of the West traces the life, repertoire, and influence of Joe Heaney, Ireland's greatest sean-nós ("old style") singer. Born in 1919, Joe Heaney grew up in a politically volatile time, as his native Ireland became a democracy. He found work and relative fame as a singer in London before moving to Scotland. Eventually, like many others searching for greater opportunity, he emigrated to the United States, where he worked as a doorman while supplementing his income with appearances at folk festivals, concerts and clubs. As his reputation and following grew, Heaney gained entry to the folk music scene and began leading workshops as a visiting artist at several universities. In 1982 the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Heaney America's highest honor in folk and traditional arts, the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship. Heaney's works did not become truly popular in his homeland until many years after his death. Today he is hailed as a seminal figure of traditional song and is revered by those who follow traditional music.

Authors Sean Williams and Lillis Ó Laoire address larger questions about song, identity, and culture. They explore the deep ambivalence both the Irish and Irish-Americans felt toward the traditional aspects of their culture, examining other critical issues, such as gender and masculinity, authenticity, and contemporary marketing and consumption of sean-nos singing in both Ireland and the United States. Comingling Heaney's own words with the authors' comprehensive research and analysis, Bright Star of the West weaves a poignant critical biography of the man, the music, and his continuing legacy in Ireland and the United States.'

It seems to me that many of the issues the book deals with it - questions of authenticity, the tension between musical purists and artists seeking to find their own voice and the ambivalence felt by an audience which connected heaney's music with poverty & backwardness link in with similar issues faced by the great bluesmen.

10:06 am  

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