St. James Infirmary iPhone Blues

I first heard “St. James Infirmary Blues” covered by Eric Burdon and the Animals, and the song really moved me, the horror of it, having to encounter the corpse of your lover “stretched out on a long white table/ So cold, so stiff/ She was dead.” Throughout the years, the song really stuck with me.[1]

The other night, Caroline and I were at the Lowfife Bar on Folly, and somehow the topic of public domain tunes came up. I mentioned that Dylan had borrowed the melody of “St. James Infirmary Blues” for his masterpiece “Blind Willie McTell.” In fact, I sang two verses of the Burdon cover right there at the bar.

Well, the very next day, an ad showed up on my Facebook feed for this book, which I’m eager to read.

Anyway, we can probably chalk up the ad’s appearance to coincidence, but, man, could it be some bot was listening to us via our phone?

Then last night at the Soapbox open mic at Chico a banjo player covered the song. WTF?

So, this morning, during one of my undelightful stints of insomnia, I composed this piece of doggerel in my head, which I consider a more productive use of my time in the wee hours than contemplating politics, my health, the past, or the future.

(BTW, occasionally, a reader accuses me of cultural appropriation one of these paeans to Black culture, but my conscience is clear on that score.)

St James Infirmary iPhone Blues

Tapping a cane,
Mr. Andre Beaujolais,
with some hoodoo magic
in his front pants pocket
bopped down St. Charles
on his way to see
Miss Hattie Dupree,
the one-time lover
of McKinley Morganfield,
better known as Muddy Waters,
King of the Chicago Blues.

Those who got bad mojo
go see Miss Hattie Dupree
for the inside dope
in the hope of counteracting
shenanigans ¬– hexes,
curses, wet nurses,
vexations, permutations,
marital relations.
genetic mutations,
Haitian sensations,
and genital truncations.

Mr. Andre Beaujolais
was on his way
to deliver a batch
of John the Conkeroo juice
to help some dude
whose private
conversations had
been swiped by
advertisers, enterprisers,
franchisers, monopolizers,
and merchandizers.

He’d been telling his gal
about Blind Willie McTell,
how the Dylan song
by the same name
was sung to the same tune
as St James Infirmary Blues.
Their moment of intimacy
the next day mysteriously
appeared in an ad
for a book being peddled
on the dude’s Facebook page.

“I Went Down to the
St, James Infirmary:
Investigations in the shadowy
world of early jazz-blues
in the company
of Bling Willie McTell, Louie Armstrong . . .
where did this dang song
come from anyway?
“That title don’t trip off the tongue,”
Mr. Beaujolais said when
he heard the dude explain.

“Hand me your phone,” Andre say,
then took off its cover,
whupped out the Conkeroo juice,
poured it over the device,
mumbled some discrete mumbo jumbo.
“Ta da! problem solved!”
“Wait a minute, “the dude hollered.
My phone’s quit working!”
“No shit,” Mr. Andre replied.
“That’ll be fifty dollars.
I’ll accept ten fives.”

[1] In fact, I asked Gary Erwin to play it at Judy Birdsong’s memorial service, which he graciously. BTW, Gary is an underappreciated Charleston treasure.

The Eclectic Musings of Bob Dylan

image courtesy of The Telegraph

I consider Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour one of the musical highlights of the early 21st Century. Each week from May 2006 to April 2009, for an hour Dylan aired a sort of parody of an AM radio show, except that the songs weren’t the latest hits from the Hot 100 but an eclectic, carefully curated set of tunes based on particular themes, like drinking, divorce, summer, etc.

Here are the songs from Episode 14, The Devil, compliments of Wikipedia.

  1. “Me and the Devil Blues” – Robert Johnson (1936)
  2. “Satan is Real” – The Louvin Brothers (1958)
  3. “Friend of the Devil” – Grateful Dead (1970)
  4. Devil In Disguise – Elvis Presley (1963)
  5. The Devil Ain’t Lazy – Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (193 ?)
  6. Christine’s Tune (The Devil in Disguise) – The Flying Burrito Brothers (1969)
  7. Suzanne Beware of the Devil – Dandy Livingston (1972)
  8. Devil In His Heart – The Donays (1962)
  9. Must Have been the Devil – Otis Spann (1954)
  10. Devil’s Hot Rod – Johnny Tyler (1955)
  11. Devil Got My Woman – Skip James (1931)
  12. Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea – Count Basie & His Orchestra with Helen Humes (1939)
  13. Devil With A Blue Dress On – Shorty Long (1964)
  14. Devil’s Haircut – Beck (1996)
  15. “Race With the Devil” – Gene Vincent (1956)
  16. “Way Down In The Hole” – Tom Waits (1987)
  17. “Go Devil Go” – Sister Lille Mae Littlejohn (1948)

In between songs Dylan plays the part of an avuncular DJ, telling jokes, taking calls from fictitious listeners and actual celebrities, and most interesting to me, providing oral liner notes on the history of the musicians and songs. Suffice to say that his knowledge of popular music is encyclopedic, as indeed the wide-ranging selection of musicians and genres of Episode 14 suggests.

Dylan brings the same spirit and encyclopedic knowledge to his just published tome The Philosophy of Modern Song. The book, a compilation of observations of 66 songs, runs 339 pages and is richly illustrated with photographs, movie posters, magazine covers, vintage advertisements, postcards, and paintings. Even non-Dylan fans might enjoy flipping through and checking out the illustrations.

Dylan doesn’t really analyze the songs, but instead paraphrases them in riffs often rendered in second person. For example, here’s his take on “Money Honey,”  a Jesse Stone song made famous by Elvis:

“This money thing is driving you up the wall, it’s got you dragged out and spooked, it’s a constant concern. The landlord’s at your door, and he’s ringing the bell.  Lots of space between the rings, and you’re hoping he’ll go away, like there’s nobody home.  You stare through the blinds, but he’s got a keen eye and sees you. The old scrooge has come for the rent money for the 10th time, and he wants it on the double, no more hanky-panky.”

This jaunty, somewhat down-home prose is reminiscent of his DJ persona’s voice (and might be the way he actually speaks for all I know).

And again, as in Theme Tme Radio, Dylan sometimes provides background by the way of bio.

After paraphrasing Eddie Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me,” Dylan provides some history:

“Eddie Arnold grew up on a farm, but he also worked in the mortuary field. He was managed by Colonel Tom Parker, who eventually dubbed him “the mortician plowboy” — not even Solomon Burke could call himself that.”

At other times, he philosophizes. Here’s the tail end of his treatment of Pete Townsend’s “My Generation”:

“Today it’s commonplace to stream a movie directly to your phone. So when you’re watching Gloria Swanson as faded movie star Norma Desmond proclaim from the palm of your hand, ‘I am big, it’s the pictures that got small,’ it contains layers of irony that writer/director Billy Wilder could never have imagined [. . .]

“Every generation gets to pick and choose what they want from the generations that came before them with the same arrogance and ego driven self-importance that previous generations had when they picked the bones of the ones before them.”

My approach is to listen to the songs via YouTube and read the lyrics, then read Dylan’s take. It’s a lot of fun, and I’m learning a helluva lot and discovering songs I’ve never heard of. Of course, you  can jump around, say from Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” on page 85 to Warren Zevon’s “Dirty Life and Times” on page 191, but I prefer to go in order, one revelation at a time.

“The Best Bad Dylan I Ever Saw”

In a not so shocking development, Bob Dylan’s coming to Charleston, South Carolina, in his Never Ending Tour.[1]

The cat’s indefatigable: March 16, Austin, March 18 Shreveport, March 19 New Orleans, March 21 Montgomery, March 23 Nashville, March 24 Atlanta, March 26 Savannah, March 27 Charleston . . . [2]

And the beat goes on, as they say.

I just checked the last set list from December of 2021, and if you’re planning to attend a show, I strongly suggest purchasing the album Rough and Rowdy Ways because a majority of the songs performed (at least in December of 2021) come from the album, his first album of original songs since 2012.

Here’s the first paragraph of Jon Parleles’ review in the Times:

Latter-day Bob Dylan is for die-hards. His voice is tattered and scratchy, not always bothering to trace a melody. His lyrics can be cryptic or throwaway when they’re not downright bleak. His music is adamantly old-fashioned, and he’s not aiming to ingratiate himself with anyone.

And the last:

And in “Black Rider,” a string-band ballad that tiptoes along, pausing each time Dylan takes a breath, he addresses a mysterious figure — Death, perhaps — with alternating sympathy and aggression. “Don’t turn on the charm,” he warns. “I’ll take a sword and hack off your arm.” For all he has seen and sung, on “Rough and Rowdy Ways” Dylan refuses to settle down, or to be anything like an elder statesman. He sees death looming, but he’s still in the fray.

I should add, perhaps, that his shows are for die-hards as well. Sometimes, because he has changed the melodies and his voice is indistinct, you might not recognize a song, even an iconic one like “Blowing in the Wind,” until it’s almost done.

Obviously, I’m one of the die-hards, and I’ve seen some fantastic concerts, one in Columbia, SC, in 1988, one at the North Charleston Coliseum in which he played a killer electric guitar, and my favorite, at the Orange Peel, a bar in Asheville, during the 2004 election campaign.

I’ve also seen some less than stellar shows, the worst outside at the Joe with Willie Nelson as the opening act.

But I’ve never seen one quite as bad as my pal, fellow die-harder, Jeremy Jones described to me last night at Low Life, one of Folly’s coolest spots. Anyway, I’ll let Jeremy tell it.

“The best bad Dylan I ever say was at the Saegner Theater in New Orleans. He was as drunk as a skunk. The band went into the Hendrix version of “All Along the Watch Tower,” and he stumbled to the mike and started singing “Like a Rolling Stone,” and the band was like, what the? I mean it was absolutely fantastic.”

This occurred in the Aughts, so I suspect we’ll not witness something so conjunctificated, but if we do, I’ll be smack dab in the middle of Row A in the orchestra, if Dylan and I are still among the quick, that is.

illegal photo by my son Ned Moore

[1] It began 2 June 1988 and has featured 3,066 shows and counting. Of course, one day it will end, when ol’ Bob succumbs to something or another. Certainly, Keith Richards will be named one of the pallbearers.

[2] No wonder is voice is raspy.

The Late Nanci Griffith’s “Other Voices, Other Rooms”

The very best Christmas present I ever received from an in-law is Nanci Griffith’s masterpiece Other Voices, Other Rooms, a collection of covers from songwriters who influenced Griffith’s own music making. My sister-in-law Linda Birdsong gave it to me in 1994, saying she thought I’d enjoy it. Understatement of the century Clinton years.

I ended up purchasing ten or so more CDs to check out the work of some of the featured songwriters, which include Kate Wolf, Vince Bell, Townes Van Zandt, Frank Christian, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Ralph McTell, Tom Paxton, Woody Guthrie, Janis Ian, Gordon Lightfoot, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Malvina Reynolds and Harry Belafonte, just to name fourteen.

The magic begins with a cover of Kate Wolf’s “Across the Great Divide,” an incredibly beautiful composition that embodies concretely the passage of time in both terrestrial and temporal images.

Here are the first three verses, but I encourage to go to YouTube (who won’t allow me to embed a link) and check out a live version:

I’ve been walkin’ in my sleep
Countin’ troubles ‘stead of countin’ sheep
Where the years went I can’t say
I just turned around and they’ve gone away

I’ve been siftin’ through the layers
Of dusty books and faded papers
They tell a story I used to know
And it was one that happened so long ago

Although they’re all excellent, the next song that blows me away is the third cut, Townes Van Zandt’s “Tecumseh Valley,” a duet Nanci performs with the great Arlo Guthrie. 

Other personnel featured on the album include Dylan himself, who plays harmonica on “Boots of Spanish Leather” and Guy Clark on the Woody Guthrie’s “Do-Re-Mi.” Also, Emmylou Harris and Iris Dement are sprinkled about, and the final cut “Wimoweh” features Odetta, the Indigo Girls, John Prine, James Hooker, Holly and Barry Tashian, John Gorka, Dave Mallet, Jim Rooney, and Nanci’s father Marlin Griffith.

Demonstrating just how much of life is fraught with loss and longing, the overall mood is melancholic with “From Clare to Here” (featuring Peter Cummin), Jerry Jeff’s “Morning Song for Sally,” Michael Burton’s “Night Rider’s Lament,” and “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” (featuring John Prine who wrote the song).

Of course, Nanci produced an admirable body of work herself, and she’s certainly going to be missed. From everything I’ve read about her, she was a lovely person, generous, intelligent, somewhat scholarly.

Sad, sad, sad.

Sam Cooke, Shreveport, and “A Change Is Gonna Come”

Sam Cooke’s plaintive, moving civil rights ballad “A Change Is Gonna Come” was born in 1963 of discrimination after he and his wife were turned away from a segregated Holiday Inn at Shreveport, Louisiana. Incensed when the desk clerk lied and claimed no vacancies, Sam made a scene in the lobby, vociferously protesting, and while driving off, he and his entourage honked horns and lobbed insults like Molotovs as their taillights disappeared into the night. 

When Sam and company arrived at the Black hotel downtown, the police were waiting. However, the arrests created abysmal p.r. north of the Mason-Dixon line after the NY Times and UPI caught wind and publicized the discriminatory arrest of an affable fellow (at least he sounded affable on his records) who only wanted a place to sleep after twisting the night away. In 2019, Shreveport’s mayor apologized to the Cooke family and awarded Sam a key to the city – a mere fifty-six years after Cooke’s death at thirty-three. Nothing like a posthumous award to salve the wounds of a no-longer-sentient being.

According to Peter Guralnick’s biography Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” also spurred Sam to compose “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Sam, the story goes, felt chagrined that a White fellow had written such a moving civil rights song. In fact, Sam admired “Blowin’ in the Wind” so much that he included it in his live performances not long after its release. 

Of course, the songs are much different. In “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Dylan asks in third person a series of questions that ponder “how long” it’s going to take to end discrimination. “A Change Is Gonna Come,” on the other hand, is deeply personal, written in first person, and cites incidents of hurtful slights and expresses existential despair. However, despite the dirge-like tone of the song, the narrator feels certain that eventually “a change is gonna come” and justice will prevail, so the overall effect is hopeful rather than depressing.

Well, despite the election of Obama and the proliferation of people of color in national advertising, we’re not quite there yet, and it seems that many in the South have recently become emboldened to unfurl and wave their inner Stars-and-Bars, not to mention Republican-led state legislatures’ ongoing successful attempts to make voting more difficult for African Americans. 

In fact, to me, 2021 feels an awful lot like 1961, though at least now, Sam would have no trouble checking into a Holiday Inn – though he might turn up his nose at one – and Confederate statues are coming down as opposed to being erected. 

Post-Election Electrification

Post-Election Electrification

For Stacey Abrams

There’s a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Bob Dylan, “Blind Willie McTell”

Back in my wilder days of manic
Boppa-bop-a-bebop – PAR-DEE,
I’ll admit I got arrested a couple of times,

blinded by them PO-lice lights
swirling and stuttering blue
in the nightscape like a UFO landing.

I’ve survived slope driving in suburban Atlanta,
not looking both ways before crossing streets,
trafficking in whatever to make ends meet,

have tossed and turned a couple of nights in jail,
which amounted ultimately to next to nothing,
except for experience to cross reference and relate.

I once told my late wife’s oncologist,
“Doc, I guess you’ve never spent a night in the clink.”

His blank stare a tacit no-he-hadn’t.

“But that’s what it’s like in the middle of the night,
when you’re waiting for the biopsy
to drop the next day.”

Experience to cross reference and relate.

Nowadays the Boppa-bop-a-Bebop – PAR-DEE,
rarely sparks in my nervous system circuitry –
except it actually did yesterday –
when James Brown’s Georgia,
when Otis’s Redding’s Georgia,
when Little Richard’s Georgia,
when Ray Charles’s Georgia,
when Ma Rainey’s Georgia turned a very light shade of blue.

Blind Willie McTell himself
Had limped past the President.

So I stepped outside on the deck,
took in a deep breath,
opened my mouth,
and scat-bellowed at the top of my lungs into the wild blue yonder:

Geetchie geetchie yappa yappa – woo!

On the Utility of Memorizing Poetry

illustration by David Rowe from "Financial Review" website

illustration by David Rowe from “Financial Review” website

Each year, our English Department requires all students to memorize a poem of at least fourteen lines and recite it in front of their classes.

Students choose the poems they recite, so the first step in the process is for them to read poems in search of a ditty or two that strike their fancy. Obviously, it forces them to read poetry.  Of course, every year a student asks if he can recite song lyrics instead, and I say no.

I explain that very few song lyrics can stand alone on the naked page without musical accompaniment. I recite these lyrics from Dylan’s “To Ramona (which, of course, I’ve memorized):

From fixtures and forces and friends

Your sorrow does stem

That hype you and type you

Making you feel

That you gotta be exactly like them

I’d forever talk to you

But soon my words

Would turn into a meaningless ring

For deep in my heart

I know there is no help I can bring

Everything passes

Everything changes

Just do what you think you should do

And someday maybe

Who knows, baby

I’ll come and be cryin’ to you.

And then I recite these lines from Yeats, which, again I know “by heart.”

Now all the truth is out,

Be secret and take defeat

From any brazen throat,

For how can you compete,

Being honor bred, with one

Who were it proved he lies

Were neither shamed in his own

Nor in his neighbors’ eyes;

Bred to a harder thing

Than Triumph, turn away

And like a laughing string

Whereon mad fingers play

Amid a place of stone,

Be secret and exult,

Because of all things known

That is most difficult.

The difference is palpbable.


Of course, the question of why memorize comes up. What’s the purpose? You’ll just forget it anyway, etc. I explain that in times of despair that poetry can provide solace by articulating powerfully the human condition, which has remained essentially the same over the course of centuries.

Ben Jonson’s dead son is my brother-in-law’s dead son.

My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy.

Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,

Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.

Oh, could I lose all father now!

I tell them that possessing a storehouse of poetry in the record collection of their minds can also come in handy at cocktail parities. Why rely on your own feeble wit when you can conjure TS Eliot?

On November the 9th, one of my colleagues asked me what I thought, and I said,

“I think we are in rats’ alley

Where the dead men lost their bones.”

If he’d asked me how I felt, I would have said, “like ragwater, bitters, and blue ruin.”

Anyway, this year, I’ve decided to memorize a poem myself, and I have chosen Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”

Call the roller of big cigars,

The muscular one, and bid him whip

In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.

Let the wenches dawdle in such dress

As they are used to wear, and let the boys

Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.

Let be be finale of seem.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.


Take from the dresser of deal,

Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet

On which she embroidered fantails once

And spread it so as to cover her face.

If her horny feet protrude, they come

To show how cold she is, and dumb.

Let the lamp affix its beam.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

What in the hell does that mean? Here’s one cool, jazzy take from Kenneth Lincoln:

So a wench is dead, stretched out cold at the ice cream party. The dresser deal “knobs” transpose to “horny” bunions, glass to skin calluses. No empty jar lies here, rounding the wild, but a woman’s body in its cool opaque skin, thickened from walking the earth. Her “horny feet” index a prosaic, if bewitching reality, bunioned and “dumb” as the “slovenly wilderness”: feet are the earthen root, nonetheless, the vulgate “base” of a poetic meter iambically shamanic. She embroidered “fantails” on her bedsheet, her tail-end art. Those curlicues may rover her face, if they cannot mask her feet, which grounded her in reality, finally in death. So, for a fourth and final call, “Let the lamp” of nature “affix its beam,” the sun its sundown flame, as the seeing eye celebrates an inner light in mortal darkness, a comeback optics of imagining sunrise reborn at sunset.


With rhyming comic finality (come/dumb/beam/cream), the refrain rides on a boisterous iambic pentameter, “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” The fourteen syllables curdle in a spondee (as with the twelve-syllable, shaggy last line of “The Snow Man”). There’s a youthful break in the pace, a jump-rope skip completing the Falstaffian form. From bunioned foot to embroidered fantail, earthly base to fanciful end, this elegy resists loss by making art of what seems to be, seeing what is, delightfully. It is an act of the imagination at a wake; the final test, to return to childhood joy in “cream” made of “ice” (Carolina “aspic nipples” sweetened). A concupiscent summer is whipped up from winter’s absence, the snow man’s “nothing” curdled by sweet belief.

So, fast-forward to that future cocktail party where some jackass is plastering lipstick on some political or theological or philosophical pig.

Simply say, “Let be be the finale of seem/The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.”

Chances are his rejoinder won’t be in “boisterous iambic pentameter.”


Shadow Boxing Earlier in the Day: Clay vs. Ali

cassius_clayIn my boyhood, before adolescence, I began each day by retrieving the newspaper from what we called the front porch, though, in truth, it was more like an elevated stoop, a 6 x 6 concrete slab. If there were a big story, like the suicide of Marilyn Monroe, I’d read it right there, or if there were an untelevised sporting event I cared about, I’d rip open the sports section to discover the outcome. That was the case on 25 February 1964 when Cassius Clay, as he was called in those days, upset Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight Championship of the World. It was the outcome I had fervently hoped for, and it had happened, despite 7 to 1 odds. I remember sitting on the steps of the stoop, reading the account that included the accusation that Liston had thrown some type of blinding powder in Clay’s eyes.

My father had been an amateur boxer in his youth, a welterweight who developed his skills on the sidewalks of Spring Street in Charleston, SC, during the Depression. Every Friday night he’d watch the fights broadcast on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports as he sat on the sofa smoking cigarette after cigarette, leaning into the television, screaming suggestions to the combatants even though they were hundreds of miles away at Madison Square Garden. He had bought my brother and me boxing gloves and roped off the living room and taught us how to box, to crouch, to throw punches with our “hips” instead of our “arms.” I hated it, being at once weak, blinky, and adverse to pain.

My father in his Spring Street Days, aged 15

My father in his Spring Street Days, aged 15

But I did enjoy watching the matches, and we liked “Cassius Clay,” because he was funny, brash, clever, a rhymer, and, I’m sorry to say, perhaps because he was “light-skinned,” unlike Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier.   Clay, and later, Ali, was also too aware of this distinction in skin tones. Here’s a snippet from Robert Lipsyte’s superb obituary from the Times:

But Ali had his hypocrisies, or at least inconsistencies. How could he consider himself a “race man” yet mock the skin color, hair and features of other African-Americans, most notably Joe Frazier his rival and opponent in three classic matches? Ali called him “the gorilla,” and long afterward Frazier continued to express hurt and bitterness.

Ali would also play upon racial and ethnic stereotypes. Here is a joke he told at a fundraiser in Louisville in 2005:

“If a black man, a Mexican and a Puerto Rican are sitting in the back of a car, who’s driving? Give up? The po-lice.”

And here he is explaining to a Soviet reporter in 1960 why he’s proud to be an American citizen.

“It may be hard to get something to eat sometimes, but anyhow I ain’t fighting alligators and living in a mud hut.”

In some ways, like my father, he was a man of his times.

However, even though these quips might have gotten Ali dis-invited from a speaking engagement at Oberlin, in the course of his life, he displayed more courage than any other athlete I can think of. Ali was a man of his convictions, willing to make unpopular brand-tarnishing decisions like converting to the Nation of Islam and facing the prospect of prison for refusing to be drafted into the Viet Nam War. “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong,” he said, adding, “They ain’t never called me no [racial expletive].”

And Ali sacrificed three prime years when boxing commissions around the country stripped him of his titles, and although the backlash was fierce and many journalists refused to call him by his new name, he earned the respect over time for his principled stands, and, even my father, not exactly a devotee of Malcolm X, continued to pull for Ali upon his return to the ring.

Perhaps it was because Ali was such a beautiful, graceful fighter, poetry –not doggerel — in motion or because he was so witty, possessed such a generous spirit, and these attributes transcended by father’s homegrown prejudices.  Later in life Ali said, “Color doesn’t make a man a devil. It’s the heart and soul and mind that count. What’s on the outside is only decoration.”

At any rate, it says something positive about our nation that at his death Muhammad Ali was virtually universally admired by his fellow citizens, even, it would seem, Donald Trump.

All leave you with this ditty from the great Bob Dylan:


I was shadow-boxing earlier in the day

I figured I was ready for Cassius Clay

I said “Fee, fie, fo, fum, Cassius Clay, here I come

26, 27, 28, 29, I’m gonna make your face look just like mine

Five, four, three, two, one, Cassius Clay you’d better run

99, 100, 101, 102, your ma won’t even recognize you

14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, gonna knock him clean right out of his spleen”



Review of Elijah Wald’s “Dylan Goes Electric”

Dylan Goes ElectricI’ve just sailed through the uncorrected proofs of long-title-lover Elijah Wald’s latest, Dylan Goes Electric: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night that Split the Sixties. The book is slated for publication on 15 July 2015, almost fifty years to the day after Dylan shocked the Newport Folk Festival by going electric, and I encourage anyone interested in popular music to check it out.

Wald’s previous books include Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues and How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll: An Alternative History of Popular Music. A musician himself, Wald possesses that rare ability to weave meticulous research into engaging narratives propelled by conversational but polished prose. It’s as if someone with an advanced degree in history and musicology who witnessed the events first hand is talking to you.

Wald begins his chronicle in 1949 with the story of Pete Seeger, yet another one of Harvard’s incredibly successful dropouts. We follow Seeger through the ‘40s and ‘50s as he becomes both an archivist of traditional music and a creator of original “folk songs” like “The Hammer Song (If I Had a Hammer)” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” The folk scene of the 50s and early 60s was no love fest, or as Wald puts it, “[The] tendencies and cliques of the American folk scene [. . .] were endlessly tangled, but Seeger served as a guide for virtually everyone, whether they considered themselves traditionalists, revivalists, agitators, or potential pop stars.” Nevertheless, even Seeger himself received criticism from the most rigid of folk purists for associating himself with the Weavers whose polished performances weren’t authentic enough for their tastes.

The-Kingston-Trio-Lemon-Tree-548846This static between the rawness of down-home renditions by performers like Doc Watson and the dulcet harmonies of groups like the Kingston Trio (arrayed in matching outfits) crackles throughout those decades, and Wald does an excellent job of providing a historical context, especially in his depiction of the Red Scare. Wald concludes the first chapter with Seeger’s sentencing in 1961 for contempt of Congress when he refuses to name names of associates with connections to the Communist Party.

The next few chapters detail the familiar but time-obscured transformation of Hibbing-bred Bobby Zimmerman into that self-created icon we call Bob Dylan (whose fanciful verbal autobiography had him hoboing his way across the continent). Wald provides some clarification for those early days, noting that unlike many adolescents who were ignorant of rock ’n’ roll’s R&B roots, Bobby Zimmerman through late night radio broadcasts, especially Frank “Gatemouth” Page’s No Name Jive, discovered the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Wald notes, “Dylan was getting the music direct from its southern source and valued it in part because it was secret knowledge.” Again, we see tension between the authenticity of artists like John Lee Hooker and the co-opting of roots music by white performers like Elvis and Buddy Holly. That Dylan was enamored of R&B before he became a folk singer is well-known but worth repeating, given his eventual embrace of rock ’n’ roll.

In the chapters chronicling Dylan’s hero-worship of Woody Guthrie, his move to New York, his ascent, and eventual coronation as once and future king, we see the continuation of the motif of contention among the folk music community, and at the Newport Folk Festivals of the early-to-mid 60s, these rifts widen into chasms. Wald does a masterful job of relating the events of the festivals, cataloging in detail the eclectic mix of performers that range from obscure yodelers, rock icons like Chuck Berry, blues masters like Lightening Hopkins and John Hurt, Bluegrass legends Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, folk interpreters including the Weavers, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins. How fortunate those aficionados who could attend the workshops, scheduled but informal get-togethers where a group of performers swapped songs and provided instruction. Dig this, at the ’64 festival:

“[R]elatively small contingents gathered to hear successive guitar and banjo workshops that included Muddy Waters, Robert Pete Williams, the Hawaiian guitarist Nolan Mahoe, and [Doc] Watson, and then Mike Seeger again with Ralph Stanley, Frank Profit, and Elizabeth Cotton. Meanwhile, over two-thousand people were watching Mike’s half-brother Pete host a topical songs workshop, and although it began with older artists from Ireland, Cuba, and the United States, most of the audience was there for the who’s who of Broadside writers Len Chandler, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Malvina Reynolds, Hedy West, and Dylan.

Among the diverse crowds, we again see animosity of roots music devotees towards college-aged pop fans, and with the British Invasion of the Beatles, Stones, and Animals, folk music had in fact begun its decline in popularity. Of course, the  culmination of the schism occurred on Sunday night, 25 July 1965, when Dylan, as Wald title puts it, goes electric.

Wald’s meticulous detailing of previous festivals makes it crystal clear that Newport was no stranger to amplified music. At the ’65 festival, “[t]here were more amplifiers in evidence [. . .], and they were recognized as a sign of change, but few people considered them as a sign of sacrilege.” The Paul Butterfield blues Band played an electric (and by all reports electrifying) set Saturday as an illustration of the amplified Chicago Blues made famous by Muddy Waters. This performance was part of a sonic history of the folk music presented as a lecture by Alan Lomax, and indicative of the animus inherent in the various authenticity camps, Lomax, a stickler for authenticity, and Alan Grossman, a developer of musical acts (and Dylan’s manager), broke into a a clownish bout of fisticuffs over Grossman’s objections to what he considered Lomax’s disrespectful intro of the Butterfield Band. Wald’s depiction of this incident – a sort of kaleidoscopic presentation from various, sometimes conflicting, witnesses’ perspectives – is alone worth the price of purchase.  Here’s a snippet:

Lomax tried to push Grossman aside, or maybe it was Grossman who pushed Lomax. Either way, in seconds the portly prophet of tradition and the portly purveyor of mammon — “two big bears,” in Maria Muldaur’s description — were throwing inept punches and rolling in the dust.

guitar-at-newport-history-detectivesOf course, all of the various in-fighting that Wald writes about leads up to Dylan’s performance that Sunday night. Because of the not so simple existential fact that except for edited film, all we have to go on is a jumble of individual perspectives from various people sitting in different locations with different attitudes towards Dylan and with memories perhaps corrupted by the passage of time. Wald provides us with a sort of cubist painting, sharing with us a host of individual takes, including a present-tense rendering of the film. He suggests that Dylan’s decision to go electric was impulsive. Perhaps it was a reaction to Lomax’s less than glowing introduction of the Butterfield Band whose guitarist Mike Bloomfield had worked on Highway 61 Revisited and its electric hit “Like a Rolling Stone.”

The make-up of the band also suggests a hasty decision.  It consisted of a hodgepodge of musicians, some of whom were unfamiliar with the tunes. The drummer Sam Lay had heard “Like a Rolling Stone” on the radio but didn’t know who Bob Dylan was. Almost all agree the volume was ear-splitting, especially Bloomfield’s guitar, and the performance uneven (a charitable assessment) with much time wasted on stage tuning up, struggling with the tempo, getting started. According to Wald, the bassist Jerome Arnold played essentially one note throughout much of the performance. Dylan, who had grown accustomed to being idolized, heard perhaps his first boos since high school, though the boos were mixed with cheers. The proportions of boos to cheers (60/40? 50/50? 40/60?) seemed to depend on where you were sitting.

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger

Most upset by the debacle of Dylan’s performance was Pete Seeger who is reported by some to have sought shelter in his car or by others to have run around screaming to turn down the sound, and Wald forever puts to rest the apocryphal story of an ax-wielding Seeger eager to sever the cables.

Wald manages to place the reader in the visceral world of that concert, no mean trick, and wisely avoids ever attempting to psychoanalyze Dylan, who as we all know by now is a restless soul who changes the tunes of his classics when the mood suits him. As an extra added treat, Wald slips into his prose without quotation marks phrases from Dylan’s lyrics, as in the following from the last chapter’s first sentence, “For many people the story of Newport 1965 is simple: Bob Dylan was being born, and anyone who didn’t welcome the change was busy dying.” I think we can all agree — or at least almost all of us can agree — Dylan’s genius could never be constrained within the confines of folk. I don’t know about you, but I prefer Highway 61 to Freewheeling.

Note: As I said, I read the uncorrected proofs so the book is bound to be even better than my version. It’s heavily noted, has a bibliography, and although my copy lacked an index, one will appear in the final edition. As far as errors, I only ran across a couple of typos, except for the phrase, which I hope someone catches — “the nameless protagonist of Albert Camus’s Stranger.” The protagonist’s name is Meursault.