04.17.09

Dylan, Sunny Side Up

Bob Dylan’s official historian-in-residence, Sean Wilentz, gets an early listen of the bard’s new album. Protest anthems? Out. These are the songs of the consummate American musician.

Listening to the third track of Bob Dylan’s new album, Together Through Life, it hit me. The melody of the song, “My Wife’s Home Town,” is basically a note-for-note reprise of the Muddy Waters classic, “I Just Want to Make Love to You," written by the Chicago blues great Willie Dixon, first recorded by Waters in 1954, and later recorded by, among others, Etta James and the (early) Rolling Stones. The tempo is a little slower; and David Hidalgo’s accordion drifts in and out of lines played on the original by the pianist Otis Spann and the harmonica virtuoso Little Walter; but the melody’s the same, and the arrangement comes mighty close.

Dylan’s voice, with age, has mellowed (if that’s the word) into a blues rasp close to that of yet another Chicago blues great, Howlin’ Wolf.

I wondered if Dylan was paying homage to Waters or Dixon or James or Mick Jagger, or maybe all of them. But what hit me was something else: how Dylan’s voice, with age, has mellowed (if that’s the word) into a blues rasp close to that of yet another Chicago blues great, Howlin’ Wolf. And so, on an old song that Dylan has rewritten into a wicked number about an archetypical Evil Woman, strange revenants appear—ghosts from Chess Records sessions dating back more than half a century that suddenly take flesh as Dylan, Hidalgo, and the rest of the band that Dylan has assembled for Together Through Life. An album of songs about women and love (with most of the songs’ lyrics co-credited to Robert Hunter, the Grateful Dead writer who has written with Dylan before), it is also about music that Dylan has travelled with through his own life.

The new recording is in some ways very much of a piece with Dylan’s recent work dating back to Love and Theft, released in 2001. Sounds, melodies, country and pop-song lyrics (“the boulevard of broken dreams” becomes “the boulevard of broken cars”) and snatches of classical poetry (Ovid makes a brief appearance here, unnoted, as he did on Dylan’s last album of original songs, Modern Times) get permuted and recombined into something new that also sounds old. And as in Dylan’s other work of late (including his deeply underrated film, Masked & Anonymous), the simplest of the songs can contain layers that approach allusion, but only just. In her 1973 hit, “Jolene,” Dolly Parton pleads with a raving beauty, “with flaming locks of auburn hair” and “eyes of emerald green,” begging her not to steal her man. In Dylan’s version—a toss-off steady rocker with the same title and a nice guitar hook—Jolene’s eyes are brown and Dylan sings as the king to her queen, packing a Saturday night special and grabbing his dice. A plain enough sex song—but lurking in the lyrics and the music there are also hints of Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues,” as well as Victoria Spivey’s album recorded in early 1962, Three Kings and the Queen (on which a 20-year-old Bob Dylan, no king, played harmonica in back of Big Joe Williams).

Even when the songs tell of loss and longing, the album has a musically warm, at times almost sunny atmosphere, which comes largely from the Tex-Mex strains from Hildalgo’s squeeze box (best known from the recordings of Hidalgo’s regular band, Los Lobos), at times paired with Dylan’s current road band regular, Donnie Herron, playing a mariachi trumpet. And there is a good deal of throwback here, to Dylan’s own music as well as to that of others. Dylan has used Tex-Mex sounds effectively in his own work since at least 1965, when he added, at the last minute, brilliant guitar swirls, (reminiscent of Grady Martin’s on Marty Robbins’s ballad, “El Paso”) by the visiting Nashville sideman, Charlie McCoy, to the studio version of “Desolation Row.” At the very moment he broke with the more conventional forms of 1960s folk music, Dylan publicly acknowledged his admiration for the work of his friend, the San Antonio genius Doug Sahm, and Sahm’s Tex-Mex rock band with a British invasion name, The Sir Douglas Quintet.

The sound of much of Together Through Life fits well with the mythic Old West setting, which (along with the Civil War and the bluesmen’s land, from Mississippi to Chicago, circa 1938 to 1955) have repeatedly sparked Dylan’s imagination: matrices of American myth. Hildalgo is also the latest in a string of master keyboard players with whom Dylan has played and recorded over the decades, including Paul Griffin, Al Kooper, and Augie Meyers, not to mention his own often overlooked piano and organ playing. Dylan’s fans and critics have made a great deal out of what he once called “that thin… that wild mercury sound” that he captured on Blonde on Blonde. Dylan built that sound out of a vortex of guitars, harmonica, and, above all, Kooper’s organ. Together Through Life bears no obvious resemblance to Blonde on Blonde, but the metallic glow Dylan was talking about reappears, sometimes shining softly, sometimes shimmering in a rollicking jump.

As the early press reports have revealed, the album grew out of a commission for a song to appear in a forthcoming film directed by Olivier Dahan. Nothing odd about that either: At Dylan’s live shows, he shows off, perched on one of the amps, the Oscar he won for “Things Have Changed” (and which makes him, along with the likes of Aaron Copland, one of the few artists ever to receive both a Pulitzer Prize and an Academy Award). That initial movie song, “If You Ever Go to Houston,” takes us back for a little while to the 1870s or so, in the voice of a veteran of the Mexican War, instructing the listener on how to walk in that city (the album has a thing about keeping your hands in your pockets), with some site check-offs for Texas cities (like the Magnolia Hotel in Dallas), but mainly with a lush soundscape of Tony Garnier’s bass, what sounds like Mike Campbell on a gut-stringed acoustic guitar, and Hidalgo, playing a repeating tune of descending note-pairings.

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Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

There are no Dylan epics like “Highlands” here, nor too much, really, to tax the brain, but there is plenty to dance to, shake to, even laugh to. Together Through Life is above all a musical album, which may disappoint the Bob Dylan wing of English departments throughout the land. The album’s look drives that home. The front cover, already spread around the Internet, is one of Bruce Davidson’s photographs of a Brooklyn gang taken in 1959, depicting a serious make-out session in the backseat of a speeding car: Love and Sex. But the album’s back cover is completely musical—a Josef Koudelka photograph, taken in 1968, of a band of Romanian gypsy musicians, with an accordionist right in the middle.

There is, yes, a protest song, but more humorous than accusatory, sending up the inane, omnipresent, motivational-speaker cliché, “It’s all good!” (Politically minded fans who might have expected a Dylan song entitled “Feel a Change Coming On,” to pick up where Sam Cooke or maybe Barack Obama left off will be surprised by its reflective later-in-the-day love lyric in which the singer announces his high-low taste in books and music, and which has a bridge that some will hear as Dylan himself truly speaking: “Dreams never worked for me, anyway/ Even when they did come true.” The song also includes a lovely, poignant lifting from Nehemiah 9:3 about “the fourth part of the day” —a time of confession and prayer in the Bible—being nearly gone.)

In 1965, the year that Dylan famously played electric at the Newport Folk Festival, the fetishists of authenticity (along with fans who just loved great American music) clung to the re-discovered black blues artists who were enjoying a last taste of celebrity singing the songs they had recorded in the 1920s and 1930s for the Vocalion and Okeh and Bluebird labels. There was Son House (who was 63 years old), and Mississippi John Hurt (in his early seventies), and Mance Lipscomb (exactly 70), as well as a younger cohort that included Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim, who were both 50. Now the untamed young musical expeditionary of 1965 is right up there with the old guys—he turns 68 in May—yet he’s not just reinventing and performing his old songs for college kids, but turning the old into the new and then back again, with fresh myth-laden music that achieves the amazing feat (which Dylan says has noticed in Obama’s writing, which he say he admires) of making you think and feel at the same time. This time out, though, maybe more than ever, he also rouses you to dance and dance, and then dance some more, before heading for the exits, and then, well… then seeing what more might develop.

Sean Wilentz is a history professor at Princeton University whose books include The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln and The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008. He is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and historian-in-residence at Bob Dylan's officialW eb site.