2004-12-16: Chronicles

Chronicles

Volume One (2004)

by Bob Dylan (1941-)

I ran across a mention of this book more or less at random, and requested it from the library catalog.

This is a more straightforward work than some of Dylan’s other writings, and covers parts of his life from childhood to about 1987. There is a surprising amount of information about his early days in the Minneapolis folk scene from 1959 to about 1961, and his early New York years. The material is presented out of order, and without many actual dates, but it is possible to keep it more or less straight.

From about 1961, he has this to say about the Beats:

Within the first few months that I was in New York I’d lost my interest in the “hungry for kicks” hipster vision that Kerouac illustrates so well in his book On the Road. That book had been like a bible for me. Not anymore, though. I still loved the breathless, dynamic bop poetry phrases that flowed from Jack’s pen, but now, that character Moriarty seemed out of place, purposeless – seemed like a character who inspired idiocy. He goes through life bumping and grinding with a bull on top of him.

After his success led to celebrity, and after he had a family, he felt trapped by the hordes, becoming a tourist destination. Around 1968 he withdrew and abandoned his supposed leadership of the music and youth scene, “spokesman for the new generation”.

What mattered to me most was getting breathing room for my family. The whole spectral world could go to hell. My outer image would have to be something a bit more confusing, a bit more humdrum. It’s hard to live like this. It takes all your effort. The first thing that has to go is any form of artistic self-expression that’s dear to you. Art is unimportant next to life, and you have no choice. I had no hunger for it anymore, anyway. Creativity has much to do with experience, observation and imagination, and if any one of those key ingredients is missing, it doesn’t work. It was impossible now for me to observe anything without being observed. … I had never intended to be on the road of heavy consequences and I didn’t like it. I wasn’t the toastmaster of any generation, and that notion needed to be pulled up by its roots. Liberty for myself and my loved ones had to be secured. I had no time to kill and I didn’t like what was being thrown at me. This main meal of garbage had to mixed up with some butter and mushrooms and I’d have to go to great lengths to do it. You gotta start somewhere.

He then describes how he went about wrecking his public image to get people off his back. My favorite part of this passage is the part in bold (my emphasis) above.

His father didn’t seem to understand him, asked if art wasn’t something that painters did. However, in one phone call home, Dylan recalls his father saying, “Remember, Robert, in life anything can happen. Even if you don’t have all the things you want, be grateful for things you don’t have that you don’t want.”

In Chapter 5, River of Ice, about his Minneapolis days he mentions a lot of artists who influenced him in that period. He listened to a lot of Folkways records, and mentions Foc’sle Songs and Sea Shanties by Dave Van Ronk and others. Van Ronk would later get him his first steady gig in New York. He also mentions the Electra record Sampler, which had Peggy Seeger among others, and the cowboy song “Doney Gal”. He listened to John Jacob Niles’s songs “Maid Freed from the Gallows” and “Go Away from My Window” a lot. He mentions old ballads he heard from Harry Webber, such as “Old Greybeard”, “When a Man’s in Love”, “Roger Esquire”. He heard someone’s record with Tom Darby and Jimmy Tarleton singing “Way Down in Florida on a Hog”.

At some point someone let him listen to a collection of Woody Guthrie records; prior to this, he had only heard Guthrie singing on records with other people, singing traditional songs.

I put one on the turntable and when the needle dropped, I was stunned – didn’t know if I was stoned or straight. What I heard was Woody singing a whole lot of his own compositions all by himself . . . songs like “Ludlow Massacre,” “1913 Massacre,” “Jesus Christ,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Hard Travelin’,” “Jackhammer John,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues,” “This Land Is Your Land.”

All these songs together, one after another made my head spin. It made me want to gasp. It was like the land parted. I had heard Guthrie before but mainly just a song here and there – mostly things that he sang with other artists. I hadn’t actually heard him, not in this earth shattering kind of way. I couldn’t believe it. Guthrie had such a grip on things. He was so poetic and tough and rhythmic. There was so much intensity, and his voice was like a stiletto. He was like none of the other singers I ever heard, and neither were his songs. His mannerisms, the way everything just rolled off his tongue, it all just about knocked me down. It was like the record player itself had picked me up and flung me across the room. I was listening to his diction, too. He had a perfected style of singing that it seemed like no one else had ever thought about. He would throw in the sound of the last letter of a word whenever he felt like it and it would come like a punch. The songs themselves, his repertoire, were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them. Not one mediocre song in the bunch. Woody Guthrie tore everything in his path to pieces. For me it was an epiphany, like some heavy anchor had just plunged into the waters of the harbor.

That day I listened all afternoon to Guthrie as if in a trance and I felt like I had discovered some essence of self-command, that I was in the internal pocket of the system feeling more like myself than ever before. A voice in my head said, “So this is the game.” I could sing all these songs, every single one of them and they were all that I wanted to sing. It was like I had been in the dark and someone had turned on the main switch of a lightning conductor.

A great curiosity respecting the man had also seized me and I had to find out who Woody Guthrie was. It didn’t take me long. Dave Whittaker, one of the Svengali-type Beats on the scene happened to have Woody’s autobiography, Bound for Glory, and he lent it to me. I went through it from cover to cover like a hurricane, totally focused on every word, and the book sang out to me like the radio. Guthrie writes like the whirlwind and you get tripped out on the sound of the words alone. Pick up the book anywhere, turn to any page and he hits the ground running. Who is he? He’s a hustling ex-sign painter from Oklahoma, an antimaterialist who grew up in the Depression and Dust Bowl days – migrated West, had a tragic childhood, a lot of fire in his life – figuratively and literally. He’s a singing cowboy, but he’s more than a singing cowboy. Woody’s got a fierce poetic soul – the poet of hard crust sod and gumbo mud. Guthrie divides the world between those who work and those who don’t and is interested in the liberation of the human race and wants to create a world worth living in. Bound for Glory is a hell of a book. It’s huge. Almost too big.

His songs are something else, though, and even if you’ve never read the book, you’d know who he was through his songs. For me, his songs made everything else come to a screeching halt. I decided then and there to sing nothing but Guthrie songs. It’s almost like I didn’t have any choice. I liked my repertoire the way it was – stuff like “Cornbread, Meat and Molasses,” “Betty and Dupree,” “Pick a Bale of Cotton” – but I’d have to put it all on the back burner for a while, didn’t know if I’d ever get back to it. Through his compositions my view of the world was coming sharply into focus. I said to myself I was going to be Guthrie’s greatest disciple. It seemed a worthy thing. I even seemed to be related to him. Even from a distance and having never seen the man, I could perceive his face with a clearness. He looks not unlike my father in my father’s early days. I knew little about Woody. I wasn’t even sure if he was alive anymore. The book makes it seem like he was a character from the old past. Whittaker, though, had got me up to date on him, that he was in ill health somewhere in the East and I pondered that.

During the next few weeks I went back a few times to Lyn’s house to listen to those records. He was the only one who seemed to have so many of them. One by one, I began singing them all, felt connected to those songs on every level. They were cosmic. One thing for sure, Woody Guthrie had never seen nor heard of me, but it felt like he was saying, “I’ll be going away, but I’m leaving this job in your hands. I know I can count on you.”

I’d say Dylan was somewhat influenced by Woody Guthrie.

His girlfriend took him to hear a Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil production that included a song called “Pirate Jenny”, which also had a great influence on his approach to writing.

In about 1963, Dylan was given a pre-release copy of Robert Johnson’s blues songs being released by his record company, Columbia. This also impressed him:

When Johnson started singing, he seemed to like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor. I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard. The songs weren’t customary blues songs. They were perfected pieces – each song contained four or five verses, every couplet intertwined with the next but in no obvious way. They were so utterly fluid. At first they went by quick, too quick to even get. They jumped all over the place in range and subject matter, short punchy verses that resulted in some panoramic story – fires of mankind blasting off the surface of this spinning piece of plastic. “Kind Hearted Woman,” “Traveling Riverside Blues,” “Come On in My Kitchen.”

Johnson’s voice and guitar were ringing the room and I was mixed up in it. Didn’t see how anybody couldn’t be.  But Dave wasn’t. … The record that didn’t grab Dave very much left me numb, like I’d been hit by a tranquilizer bullet. … Over the next few weeks I listened to it repeatedly, cut after cut, one song after another, sitting staring at the record player. Whenever I did, it felt like a ghost had come into the room, a fearsome apparition. The songs were layered with a startling economy of lines. Johnson masked the presence of more than twenty men. I fixated on every song and wondered how Johnson did it. Songwriting for him was some highly sophisticated business. The compositions seemed to come right out of his mouth and not his memory, and I started meditating on the construction of the verses, seeing how different they were from Woody’s. Johnson’s words made my nerves quiver like piano wires. They were so elemental in meaning and feeling and gave you so much of the inside picture. It’s not that you could sort out every moment carefully, because you can’t. There are too many missing terms and too much dual existence. Johnson bypasses tedious descriptions that other blues writers would have written whole songs about. There’s no guarantee that any of his lines either happened, were said, or even imagined. When he sings about icicles hanging on a tree it gives me the chills, or about milk turning blue . . . it made me nauseous and I wondered how he did that. Also, all the songs had some weird personal resonance. Throwaway lines, like, “If today were Christmas Eve and tomorrow were Christmas Day.” I could feel that in my bones – that particular yuletide time of the year. … Everything for Johnson is legitimate prey. There’s a fishing song called “Dead Shrimp Blues” unlike anything you could expect – a screwed up fishing song with red-blooded lines that’s way beyond metaphor. …

I copied Johnson’s words down on scraps of paper so I could more closely examine the lyrics and patterns, the construction of his old-style lines and the free association that he used, the sparkling allegories, big-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstraction – themes that flew through the air with the greatest of ease. I didn’t have any of these dreams or thoughts but I was going to acquire them. I thought about Johnson a lot, wondered who his audience might have been. It’s hard to imagine sharecroppers or plantation hands at hop joints, relating to songs like these. You have to wonder if Johnson was playing for an audience that only he could see, one off in the future. “The stuff I got’ll bust your brains out,” he sings. Johnson is serious, like the scorched earth. There’s nothing clownish about him or his lyrics. I wanted to be like that, too. …

In a few years’ time, I’d write and sing songs like “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Who Killed Davey Moore,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and some others like that. If I hadn’t gone to the Theater de Lys and heard the ballad “Pirate Jenny,” it might not have dawned on me to write them, that songs like these could be written. In about 1964 and ’65, I probably used about five or six of Robert Johnson’s blues song forms, too, unconsciously, but more on the lyrical imagery side of things. If I hadn’t heard the Robert Johnson record, when I did, there probably wouldn’t have been hundreds of lines of mine that would have been shut down – that I wouldn’t have felt free enough or upraised to write. … To go with all of that, someplace along the line Suze had also introduced me to the poetry of French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. That was a big deal, too. I came across one of his letters called “Je est un autre,” which translates into “I is someone else.” When I read those words the bells went off. It made perfect sense. I wished someone would have mentioned that to me earlier. It went right along with Johnson’s dark night of the soul and Woody’s hopped-up union meeting sermons and the “Pirate Jenny” framework. Everything was in transition and I was standing in the gateway. Soon I’d step in heavy loaded, fully alive and revved up.

Of course, Dylan has been through some significant changes in his outlook, and it is impossible to know how the current Dylan really sees his earlier versions, and how he has censored himself. Nonetheless, the book is interesting and if there is ever another volume, I’ll read it.

 

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