Masters of War



If I can skip ahead for a moment, I’ll note that I remember watching Bob Dylan sing “Masters of War” on the Grammy’s in the dying days of the first Gulf War in 1991. It must have been spring break, because I was at the home of my parents. They thought that the performance, to celebrate his lifetime achievement award, was awful – mumbling and incoherent. I remember thinking that it was great that he would use that stage to sing a thirty year old indictment of war profiteering at the moment in American history. I’ll listen to that performance again sometime around September and re-judge for myself.

In the mean time, here’s Dylan singing it in 1963 at Carnegie Hall:

“Masters of War”, the third song on Freewheelin’, is extremely different from “Blowin’ in the Wind”. It’s an angry, bitter protest song that pulls no punches whatsoever. While Dylan often sings it as a dirge with repetitive guitar strumming, it can also be sung as a howl. It’s unflinching.

I think that the one of the peaks of my early interest in Dylan came when I was in high school and the book Lyrics 1962-1985 was published. I still have this book – it has survived many purgings of my library at various times. I remember reading it in high school English classes, but also while on vacation with my family in Los Angeles (possibly where I bought it), and, in particular, reading those lyrics while driving up Highway 1. At sixteen, and listening increasingly to punk bands, I thought that this was a pretty great song. Today I find the song itself a bit repetitive and tiresome, even while I still admire the sentiments.

It’s interesting to note that Odetta’s version – which makes it both longer and slower – dropped the final verse, which is the most bitter part of the whole thing. When I was young I thought that she just didn’t get it, but now I’m starting to think she was on to something. It’s an angry, angry tune – the only question is how biting you want to make it.

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan



Rebecca wants me to tell you that Joan Baez made Bob Dylan’s career. She may well even have a point. While it’s true that Dylan received incredible support from the folk acts of the early-1960s (Pete Seeger; Peter, Paul and Mary, many others) who recorded, performed and endorsed his songs and his skills, it was Baez that pushed him to the next level.

Baez broke onto the folk scene about three years earlier than Dylan, with her performance at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival. By the time Dylan was playing coffee houses in New York, she was already a successful performer who could be found on television. Dylan writes in Chronicles that he fell in love with her the first time he saw her on television (who wouldn’t have?), and though the two met at a show in New York very early in his career, it wasn’t until 1963 that they became a couple and performed together frequently on stage.

They seem to have met at the Monterey Folk Festival, where they sang a duet, “With God on Our Side”, on May 18, 1963 (nine days before the release of Freewheelin’). For much of May and June, apparently, Dylan lived with Baez at her home in Carmel. All through August of that year Dylan appeared at Baez’s live concerts as a special guest, performing a half dozen songs, while about half of her set was comprised of things that he had written (Robert Shelton reports that he was actually paid more for his supporting role on her tour than she was – nice to know that outrageous gender pay disparities existed even in the progressive folk scene of the day). Shelton indicates that he wasn’t that well received at the early shows on the tour, but audience reactions grew better over time.

Certainly Baez put Dylan over as a star by performing so much of this music on her tour, but more than that, and this is Rebecca’s point, it was her voice that helped him. Baez is one of the very few people who can convincingly duet with Dylan, who has significant limitations as a singer. Basically, you need to work around Dylan – there doesn’t seem to be much chance that he is going to harmonize with you. At the March on Washington, for example, she fills in the gaps around his voice. Her contributions to the singing are always more musically nuanced, and the strength and clarity of her voice take the rough edges off his. While there was a strong “hillbilly” tendency in American folk that would allow the scenesters to appreciate solo Dylan, for the vast mainstream of American music fans, folk meant the clear tones of Baez and Seeger, not the regional twang of Dylan. By lending her voice to his, Baez made him more credible as a solo singer for the pop world at a time when he might otherwise have just become a songwriter.

I don’t have a great deal of Baez and Dylan singing together from 1963, which is too bad because what I do have is so great. Here’s the one that I think you should listen to, “Troubled and I Don’t Know Why”, from Forest Hills Stadium (August 17, 1963). I had never heard this song before this week. I believe that Dylan wrote it, but am not exactly sure of it. His website seems to indicate it, and it also suggests that this is the only time he played it live. It’s a perfect example of Baez smoothing off Dylan’s rough edges and making him palatable. Plus it’s quite the foot stomper of a song – three chords and power right through. I’m going to learn it on my banjo!

Girl From the North Country


I’m hoping to set down a few words about every great Bob Dylan song as I make my way through this Long and Wasted Year. “Girl From the North Country”, the second song on Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, is certainly one of those. A truly heartbreaking song, it has genuine emotional power. Not for nothing did they use it as the emotional centrepiece of Silver Linings Playbook (although they used the Nashville Skyline version – more on that in about six weeks when I’m allowed to listen to it).

It’s a simple song, and a beautiful one. Based on “Scarborough Fair”, which he learned in London at the end of 1962, it has been covered by just about everyone from Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings to The Waterboys and Eddie Vedder. Rosanne Cash covered it on her album The List, on which she did only songs that her father had recommended to her as essential. Here she is talking about it and singing it:

Searching for a good early Dylan version of it on YouTube I ran across this curiosity. I’m pretty sure that this isn’t from 1963, so it’s out of place here, but I’m posting it anyway, because it is awesome:

This is one of the Dylan songs where I don’t think he ever did a bad version of it.

(Sorry to post three things right in a row – long day prevented me from getting things that I’d written up earlier. I’m going to bed to listen to the Carnegie Hall concert again)

The March on Washington



Bob Dylan’s role in the March on Washington (August 28, 1963) was a minor one, though it profoundly shaped the way that he was understood as a singer-songwriter, and as “the voice of a generation”. Without Dylan, the March would still be remembered as one of the key moments in American postwar history for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and for the enormity of the crowd and the righteousness of their cause. Without the March, Dylan’s image would have been significantly different. Interestingly, however, Dylan only rarely played such politicized events after this one – it does not seem to be something that suited him.

The best that I can tell, the folk song portion of the event was the fourteenth thing on the schedule (King was sixteenth, so Dylan’s performance was near the end of the day). Mahalia Jackson and Marian Anderson both sang, and then Joan Baez, with whom Dylan had been touring during the summer, sang “We Shall Overcome” and “Oh Freedom”. The two of them sang “When the Ship Comes In” and Dylan did “Only a Pawn in Their Game”, which was an interesting choice insofar as the lyrics suggest that Byron de la Beckwith was not the main reason for the death of Medgar Evers. Dylan’s suggestion of a larger social cause – something that he stumbled while explaining to Studs Terkel in their interview – is an awkward fit for the event. Peter, Paul and Mary also played at the event (“If I Had a Hammer” and Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”), as well as Odetta. The whole folk section of the day’s event ended with Len Chandler leading “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”, the song that was borrowed as the title for a remarkable PBS documentary about the civil rights movement.

Dylan, Baez, & Stookey In The Lincoln Memorial

Dylan’s place in the history of the event was a minor one, but it helped cement the relationship between the new folk scene and the civil rights movement. For some fans it helped lay the foundation for the sense of betrayal that they would feel as his music began to change by the middle of the next year.

There is a tremendous video on YouTube of the musical performances from that day, plus footage from the crowds. It’s well worth watching in its entirety. Dylan seems nervous in front of the crowd, while Baez is so confident as she strides in to provide harmonies. Do yourself a favour, watch the whole thing:

Studs Terkel and Bob Dylan



Of all the early interviews that I’ve now listened to with Dylan the best by far was conducted by Studs Terkel. The interview aired on WFMT in Chicago, and was recorded on April 26, 1963, the day after Dylan performed at The Bear. The interview runs for just over an hour, and Dylan performs seven songs. About half the time is taken up by a discussion between the two men, and you can hear the “voice of his generation” rhetoric really beginning to take hold.

Terkel is a very good interviewer for Dylan. He is cognizant of all the things that Dylan is interested in, and more. When Dylan says that he is going to sing “Boots of Spanish Leather”, Terkel immediately assumes he means The Gypsy Davy, a folk song of great note. Dylan’s version borrows a bit from that – and he performs a version of The Gypsy Davy on some of the earlier tapes – but it is a different song. Still, Terkel’s instincts were right, and he is able to talk easily with Dylan about Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

Probably the most interesting segment of the interview is when the two talk about the differences between the politics of the 1930s and the emerging politics of the 1960s, which Terkel identifies as a tendency towards group identification (in the 1930s) as opposed to individualism (in the 1960s), and which the younger Dylan sees as the difference between a politics that assumed a right or wrong, with me or against me logic, and one that sees the world as filled with greys. Dylan gets lost a bit on a tangent trying to present an argument about the root causes of evil, but the whole thing is quite revealing of where he might have been with his thinking at the time.

One thing that is striking about the interview is the off-handed way that it closes – Dylan suggests that he doesn’t really have an appropriate final song to sing, so Terkel says that they’ll just play something from his album (meaning Bob DylanFreewheelin’ wouldn’t be released for another three weeks) and then Dylan remembers that maybe he should play “Blowin’ in the Wind”. It’s a kind of cute moment where the young man seems to think “Oh, wait, I have a single to promote!”.

The other thing that is remarkable about the interview, as with the earlier one conducted by Cynthia Gooding, is how enamoured Dylan’s interviewers are with him. Terkel can’t stop raving about his song-writing, and about how he seems to represent an entirely new way of looking at the world. At one point he reads from a letter that he’s received from an alienated, young man and asks for Dylan’s commentary on it. You can tell that Terkel thinks Dylan is an entirely new kind of being, and Dylan, at this point at least, is not averse to running with it.

This interview is all over the web. Here’s the whole thing on YouTube: