There’s not much video of Bob Dylan from 1970, because he barely appeared in public, with the exception of receiving an honorary doctorate from Princeton in June. He played no shows at all, and the only real document of his playing that year other than his two albums (and the recently released Bootleg Series album) is his appearance in a documentary about the great banjo player, Earl Scruggs.

Dylan recorded two songs with Earl and two of Earl’s sons in December 1970, and the film was released in 1972. It’s available on YouTube (below) and the whole thing is really worth watching. The Dylan parts – “East Virginia Blues”, a traditional tune, and “Nashville Skyline Rag” – are the first two things on the video if you only want to see his part. Of course if you turn it right off you’re missing out on Scruggs at the home of Doc Boggs, and it really just gets better from there.

Scruggs was an amazing musician and his influence on banjo may be stronger than any other musician’s influence on the playing of any other instrument. To say that almost all bluegrass banjo players fashion their playing style after Scruggs is an understatement. The first time I attended American Banjo Camp, which has more bluegrass players than clawhammer players (the style I play), I innocently asked someone at lunch why all the bluegrass players use two metal finger picks and a plastic thumb pick (why aren’t they all metal?). He stared at me dumfoundedly and said “that’s what Earl uses”, like I had just fallen off the back of a turnip truck. “That’s what Earl does” was all the reason any banjo player needed for any decision they made, and the desire to achieve the Scruggs sound is powerful among amateur players.

For much of the 1960s Scruggs and Dylan would have been seen as occupying enemy camps, and indeed many might see them as such even today. Their playing here is great, even if on his own composition Dylan has an intimidated look in his eyes that says “man, this guy is a real player!”.

Self Portrait (Introduction)



I woke up this morning at 3:00am, or, as my body clock knew it, 6:00pm Singapore time. To pass the time with the rest of the household asleep, I caught up with Robert Shelton’s biography of Dylan, No Direction Home. Yesterday I said that he largely ignored the Isle of Wight concert – that was incorrect. He actually does give it four or five pages, and notes that he was there, watching from the back about a quarter mile away. That said, he didn’t like it much.

Shelton also didn’t much like Self Portrait, but then again nobody else seems to have either. Actually, the album sold quite well (peaking at #7 on the charts), but it was reviled by the critics. When I posted the album cover as my Facebook avatar last night it immediately generated a discussion about how terrible this album is.

Self Portrait is, in many ways, the album that inspired this particular project. I downloaded Bootleg Series 10: Another Self Portrait when it came out last year, and listened to it a few times and thought it was pretty good. That album made me acutely aware of how little I knew of Self Portrait and New Morning, Dylan’s two 1970 albums, other than the fact that one was detested and one adored, and that they were recorded in quite close proximity to each other. I thought maybe I should sort that out, and that in turn led to this year long project.

When I was done with the Shelton (well, not done, but I’m up to the 1974 chapter and don’t want to read ahead), I turned to Dylan’s own autobiography, Chronicles v. 1. He has a shortish chapter in that about New Morning, although the chapter is almost as much about Self Portrait. It’s a great chapter in a great book. Dylan’s concerns are voiced in his own words very convincingly: after Woodstock became Woodstock ™ his “fans” and people who wanted things from him began to descend on the town where he lived with his five children, showing up on his property (he says on his roof). He acquired guns to protect his kids, and, finally, was forced to flee the town for New York. There he had to deal with people like A. J. Weberman leading protests against him in front of his house. Weberman felt that he’d sold out. Dylan is very eloquent about one thing: He didn’t want to be the spokesman for this generation, or any other one. I guess when a group like The Weathermen name themselves for something you wrote and then start blowing people up, you might want to just spend more time with your children too.

Dylan writes in Chronicles that he was aware that Herman Melville died almost forgotten. Moby Dick pushed the limits and nothing else he ever wrote was paid the attention that it was. He aspired in 1969/1970 to Melville’s status: kill the beast. Just disappear. Don’t tour. Don’t perform. Just escape into obscurity. He argues that Self Portrait was his effort to dump his fame.

It didn’t work, of course, but it did upset a lot of people. Greil Marcus famously opened his (insanely long) Rolling Stone review with “What is this shit?” before going on for about twenty pages about the album’s highs and lows. Marcus’s distaste is funny to me in retrospect, given that he wrote a whole book about The Basement Tapes, which are far more uneven (Marcus’s review is the second chapter in his collection Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010, and his New York Times review of New Morning is the third). Look, Self Portrait is uneven, but it isn’t a complete disaster.

The whole of Self Portrait is too long, too contradictory, too fascinating to deal with in one post. I already dealt with four of the songs, all of which are from the Isle of Wight concert. I’m going to write three other posts breaking the album into sections: pop song covers, traditional songs, and new Dylan songs.

In the meantime I’m going to have a nap. Did I mention that I’m still on Singapore time?