With God On Our Side



I guess I find it necessary to address my teenaged self. When I was sixteen or seventeen I thought “With God On Our Side” was one of the great Bob Dylan songs. Today? Not so much.

Here’s why I don’t like it. It is sort of droningly repetitive. It is dull and predictable. It is musically inert and lifeless. It goes on way too long. There seems to be very little that can be done with it to improve it. It has one of the all-time worst Dylan rhymes (on the Holocaust, he says of six million dead “In the ovens they fried” – hey, there are only so many things that rhyme with “side” and he’d already used ‘pride’, ‘hide’ and ‘died’). I have to say that it’s semi-embarrassing that I ever touted this as a great anti-war anthem.

Here’s why I did like it. It marched through the history of American war exploits as a lament, and in a mid-1980s Cold War atmosphere filled with fractionally talented punk rock lyricists, this seemed like poetry in comparison to more contemporary bands that I was listening to. The song has a profundity that probably seems most profound to the young.

Here’s what I still like about it: the penultimate verse, about the betrayal of Christ. That’s still a good piece of writing for a pop song.

Dylan did a great version of this at Town Hall, where he first performed it, but the most interesting version to my ear is the Carnegie Hall show in October 1963. During that rendition, the crowd applauds on a couple of occasions at the conclusion of verses, including the one about the Second World War and the fact that “we forgave the Germans, and then we were friends”. It’s a really telling moment for me, indicative of certain attitudes about that war among the young people of the 1960s that have been obscured over time.

Listening to it now, I find versions are better or worse depending on what Dylan puts into it vocally. With its minimalist instrumentation, it’s a good showcase for his lamenting voice when he lets it be. Overall, a song that’s fallen a great deal in my estimation, but once upon a time it was a favourite.

The image at the top is from its release as a single in France. Here he is singing it on the BBC in 1964:

The Times They Are A-Changin’



Released fifty years ago this month (January 13, 1964), The Times They Are A-Changin’ marks the end of the second phase of Dylan’s career. His first phase, the Woody Guthrie acolyte who sings traditional folk songs, carried him through 1962. The second phase, the great writer and singer of topical and political songs, made him a star, but was also incredibly short-lived. After this album, Dylan only very rarely recorded the kind of directly political songs about injustice that can be heard here (“Hurricane”, is an extremely notable 1970s version of a song like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”). By mid-1964 Dylan would move in an entirely new direction, marking the third period of his very young career.

The Times They Are A-Changin’ came into this project as one of my favourite of his albums, and that hasn’t changed. As a teenager, I listened to Dylan over and over in the basement of my parents’ house while playing pool. We had a turntable there and a pair of speakers. This is the album that I played to death, and I can probably still sing most of these songs by heart. I hate to say it but the teenaged me liked the militant Dylan – and I probably would have been one of the people booing him in 1965.

The album was recorded in August and October 1963, combining several songs that Dylan had been playing live for a while with some all new compositions. The album (his first to contain only his own songs) has a large number of ballads, and very little humour. It is as dour as the black and white photo of him that graces its cover. Perhaps not surprisingly, the songs that have survived the longest are also some of the least topical and the least tied to their moment.

The album opens with the eponymous title track, a song that was deliberately written to be an anthem of its time – now it gets played over the montage that opens every single documentary about the legacy of the 1960s. It’s still a great song, no matter what the filmmakers have done to it. “Ballad of Hollis Brown” had been around a while, and is a darkly grim tale of despair: “There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm…”. “One Too Many Mornings” is another great song, though this arrangement doesn’t particularly show it – Dylan retooled it later on to make a better live version. “North Country Blues” is actually a really good song about outsourcing and the economic decline of mining, but he never really used it (his website indicates that it was played live only twice). “Boots of Spanish Leather” has persisted as one of the best folk songs that he ever wrote, and “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is, by far, the best topical song of his career.

Interestingly, Times marked the conclusion of a lot of these songs. Dylan played “With God on Our Side” for the first at the Town Hall show, but he rarely played it subsequently (only thirty times in his career), and “Only a Pawn in Their Game”, which he played at the March on Washington” he only played nine times live.

Times continues a run where Dylan ended his albums with pretty weak material. “Restless Farewell” was added late. Dylan recorded nine takes of this at the last session for the album on Halloween 1963. Robert Shelton sees the song as a direct response to the unfavourable Newsweek article about him. Dylan only played it live twice – it seems that classic songs are rarely written as angry responses to Newsweek.

Here’s “Restless Farewell” from the CBC show Quest in 1964.

Carnegie Hall, October 26


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Dylan’s last major concert of 1963 was at Carnegie Hall on October 26. It was the first time that his parents had seen him perform live since he had left Minnesota. It was a good show, but not as strong as the Town Hall show from earlier in the year. It is clear from the crowd reactions that he was now drawing a different, younger crowd to his concerts. Dylan-mania was taking off. No folk crowd “shushing” on this one.

The show came in the middle of the recording sessions for The Times They Are A-Changin’, and that is the song with which he kicked off the show. I’m quite interested in the way that Dylan incorporated new songs into his sets, often months before they were recorded and released on albums. He seems to have shed his early songs quite quickly, and was constantly moving on to the next thing whether the audience was ready for it or not. It makes this year by year approach to listening to him occasionally odd, as when an album comes along I’ve already heard about a half dozen live versions or demo versions of many (but not all) of the songs.

The Carnegie Hall show was originally intended to be released as a live album (Bob Dylan in Concert), but that never came to fruition. Columbia has done a rather confusing job of releasing this material. Two songs (“Who Killed Davey Moore” and “Talking John Birch”) were released on the first Bootleg Series. Scorsese used “Hard Rain” and “When the Ship Comes In” so they are on Bootleg Series 7. Six songs were released on the Live at Carnegie Hall EP in 2005, which means that ten of the nineteen songs are legally available in the US. The other nine were released in Europe for copyright reasons on the 50th Anniversary Collection. If you want to listen to the concert straight through you have to assemble it for yourself, and, worse, the applause is faded out so there is a sense that you’re missing something. Ideally this concert would be given a much better presentation.

Dylan would have a rupture with his family around this time because of their participation with an unflattering article on him in Newsweek in which they contradicted a lot of the self-mythology that had built up around him. In November, of course, John F. Kennedy would be assassinated, and this would have a major impact on Dylan – and the rest of the folk community – and seems to have helped push him further away from political songwriting. He would emerge in 1964 with two new studio albums rather than this as a live album, and they would mark the end of the second phase of Dylan’s career, and the beginning of the third. The mutations just came faster and faster.

Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright



The last great song on Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”. The first track on the second side, it could almost actually be the best thing on the whole album (it’s not, but it’s close), which is saying quite a lot. Dylan will go on to write a whole raft of break-up songs, but this is the template for all the rest of them. These are the cool lyrics, with an undercurrent of hurt, and with the false veneer that says ‘nothing really bothers me’. This is the kind of song that most people wish they could sing when they getting dumped, but few of them actually can.

In the summer of 1963 Dylan was seeing both Joan Baez and Suze Rotolo (his longtime on-again off-again girlfriend who is hugging his arm on the cover of Freewheelin’). Baez performed this song during her set at the Newport Folk Festival, and introduced it, with Rotolo in the audience, thusly: “Here’s another Bobby song. This is a song about a love affair that has lasted too long”. Rotolo, of course, walked out. Some day someone is going to make the great Bob Dylan romance film, and it’s going to be all about the summer of 1963. I have to say, my mental of image of Baez is so gauzy and clouded with her semi-saintliness that I just can’t imagine her being cruel to someone. I probably need to snap out of that.

I should note that I haven’t written about Dylan’s break-out performance at Newport this week because I haven’t been able to watch The Other Side of the Mirror, the documentary about his three Newport performances. I ordered a copy from Amazon, and it looks now like it will arrive next week. I may wait and just review all three years of Newport shows at once in two weeks time. There’s a lot of material on YouTube, of course, but it seems preferable to just watch the film.

Back to the topic at hand: “Don’t Think Twice” is a major accomplishment for the young Dylan, an inspired and hauntingly emotional song that helps establish his range.

Having listened to Freewheelin’ every day for a week, this is how I’ve got it broken down:

Girl From the North Country

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright

Blowin’ in the Wind

Oxford Town

Masters of War

Bob Dylan’s Dream

The rest of the album is fine, but not particularly memorable in the grand scheme of things.

Here’s Joan, but not from Newport. Still a great version though:

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:

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall



One couplet makes all the difference.

Despite what Nat Hentoff claims in the liner notes for Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the singer wrote A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall in the summer of 1962 – well before the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted in October of that year. Indeed, Hentoff’s claim that the song is a reaction to that crisis is demonstrably false as Dylan performed it on stage for the first time on September 22, 1962.

That performance, part of a hootenanny organized by Pete Seeger, is a fascinating one. Dylan performed all five verses of the song that runs over seven minutes (apparently each of the performers was given only ten minutes of stage time, something that he violated) with some slight variations to the lyrics as they were recorded and are regularly performed. Some of these may be simple errors that come from singing a lengthy song in public for the first time. Dylan says that he has climbed to the “top of six misty mountains” rather than to the “side of twelve”. In the third verse he regularly uses the verb “saw” rather than “heard”. In the final verse he sings “dark forest” rather than “black forest”. As I say, minor stuff.

There are two big differences between the Carnegie Hall performance and the final version of the song. In the third verse, he adds a final line that eventually disappears: “I heard the sound of a one person who cried and was human”. It’s a nice line, but it doesn’t add a whole lot to the verse, and, indeed, seems slightly redundant. The line appears on the version of the song he recorded for the Witmark Demos, but it is gone from Freewheelin’.

The more significant difference, and one that has a huge impact, is the change to the first two lines of every verse. Dylan asks in the first verse: “Oh where have you been, my blue-eyed boy? Oh, where have you been, my baby, my own?”. This is a striking alteration from the familiar version which rhymes “blue-eyed son” with “darling young one”. It’s jarring, not simply because it is unfamiliar, but because the elegance of the rhyming couplet is absent. Dylan seems to have recognized this quickly, as it is only at Carnegie Hall that he seems to have sung it this way – by the time of the Witmark Demo recording it has reached the final version.

The extra line and the change to “son” are interesting examples of Dylan editing his work, and you can see the song evolve over a number of recordings before it crystallizes. In the 1970s (and later) Dylan would begin to tamper dramatically with the structure of his songs (compare this version with the one from the Rolling Thunder tour show at the Montreal Forum that can be found on Bootleg Series 5, which is the most uptempo and fun apocalyptic vision of all time (well, except maybe REM. And Timbuk 3)).

A Hard Rain is my favourite song from Freewheelin’. Unlike Blowin’ in the Wind, there is a lot that can be done with it (again, the Montreal show is a great example of this). Lyrically it’s a remarkably complex song, full of starkly dramatic imagery. A great deal has been made of interpreting Dylan’s symbolism (he does this himself during his 1963 interview with Studs Terkel, telling him that “pellets of poison” are the lies of the news media), which, as a professor of English literature I should probably endorse. But I don’t. I like the song’s images as images and have no desire to nail them down. And more to the point I love the way that Dylan wails “haaaard” on this one like a primal scream. Blowin’ in the Wind is the song that has the simplicity to speak to millions, but I prefer Hard Rain for its ability to show us Dylan in full-on poetic mode, channeling the symbolists. In time this tendency will overwhelm him, but in 1963 it was all so fresh and powerful.