Mixed Up Confusion

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The thing that has most surprised me about listening to nothing but Bob Dylan’s 1962 recordings this week is that he invented folk rock several years before he invented folk rock.

Folk rock is understood as the combination of folk song traditions and electrified instruments and amplification. It also is indicative of the presence of a band – particularly a drummer. Obviously lots of folk groups existed before folk rock – The Weavers, The Kingston Trio, and so on. Performing as a “band” wasn’t the shift, it was playing with a “band”. This is what Dylan would do in 1965 at Newport that would lead to his excommunication. But then how do we explain “Mixed Up Confusion”?

In fall 1962 Dylan had begun recording his second album, Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. This would be his breakthrough in 1963. Before the end of the year, however, Columbia Records released his first single: Mixed Up Confusion (with Corrina, Corrina as the b-side). Corrina, Corrina made it onto Freewheelin’, and it is the only non-solo acoustic song on that album (it even has a, very subtle, drummer).

Mixed Up Confusion was totally at odds with the rest of the album and it doesn’t appear on it. Allegedly written in a cab on the way to the session, it featured George Barnes and Bruce Langhorne on guitar (one electrified), Dick Wellstood on a prominent, driving piano part, and a rhythm section of Gene Ramsey on bass and Herb Lovelle on drums. Band. Electric guitar. Hard driving rhythm. This was a rock song. A folk rock song three years early.

The single went nowhere. Researching it, I came across this site that breaks down various versions and takes and issues of it. This is too much for me, though I appreciate that there are people out there in the world who do this kind if analysis.

Mixed Up Confusion is an incredible selection for a first Bob Dylan single – almost unbelievable given how he was understood at the time by fans, peers, and media. When I first heard it, on Biograph, as a teenager, I must have placed it much later in his career. I’ve always liked it, and even when I didn’t listen to it for years and years I would still occasionally break out into its memorable opening whine – “I’ve got mixed up confusion, aaaaaand it’s a-killin’ me!”. It was really only this week that I comprehended its place in his development, and it still seems out of place.

A premonition of what was to come, Mixed Up Confusion has a title that seems to define its position in Dylan’s evolution across 1962.

Mixed Up Confusion on YouTube

The Witmark Demos

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The flight from Calgary to Chicago that brought me to the MLA meetings yesterday is about two and a half hours in the air, which, as luck would have it, is the length of The Witmark Demos. I listened to them in their entirety, which meant that it was the first time I skipped ahead in this project – the collection covers 1962 to 1964. Without the liner notes I wasn’t sure where to stop. It’s just as well – the demos play like the great early-Dylan album that Dylan didn’t release.

Dylan initially contracted his song publishing to Leeds Music (hence the bootlegs of that material) but switched later in the year to Witmark. Some of what he recorded in their offices were songs he had no interest in for himself, and which he hoped others would record. Others are him getting down the lyrics and tunes for rights purposes. The recordings are rife with false starts, verses and lines sung multiple times for the sake of clarity, and spoken asides where Dylan says “I’ll write this out for you later”. It’s a very intimate recording, perfect for a plane trip.

Listening to it all, I found myself wondering why I preferred it so strongly to Bob Dylan, the self-titled debut album. I’ve now listened to that album once per day for five days and I like about half of it. Actually, I’d keep exactly seven of the thirteen songs. Not a terrible ratio, but not fantastic.

According to Robert Shelton, Dylan sort of agreed. The five month gap between recording the album and its release meant that he semi-disavowed it by the time it came out – he’d moved on, essentially. So I asked myself, based on his recorded demos and the tapes made after the Bob Dylan sessions and before the album came out, could he have made a stronger debut?

The songs that I’d keep are Talkin’ New York, Man of Constant Sorrow, Pretty Peggy-o, Highway 51, Gospel Plow, Song to Woody, and Baby Let Me Follow You Down. I would put House of the Risin’ Sun on the maybe list – I don’t really care for it, but given Dylan’s debt to Dave Van Ronk it probably should be there.

So what would I have added? More songs by Dylan. The album has only two, but I think he should’ve considered I Was Young When I Left Home, Baby Please Don’t Go, Man on the Street, and Standin’ on the Highway. I’ve already written about I Was Young, which is great and beautiful, and the others are all good. None are overlooked classics, but they’re more interesting than his version of See That My Grave is Kept Clean.

The omission from the debut album that seems strangest in retrospect is Hard Times in New York Town, a very witty and charming song that pops up on a lot of Dylan’s live recordings during the year, but which doesn’t make it onto the album. There was a lot of strong material that fell through the cracks between Bob Dylan and Freewheelin’, some of it sort of mystifying in its lack of release, but none so much as that.

A few explanations seem to suggest themselves for the choices he made: timidity – Dylan, who was incredibly young, may have been reluctant to expose himself to that much scrutiny; traditionalism – other folk artists, like Joan Baez, released albums of standards, so why shouldn’t he?; and, I think most importantly, the fact that the singer-songwriter tradition was not yet so much fixed. It would take Freewheelin’ to make that happen.

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