A review of...
The Formative Dylan: Transmission and Stylistic Influences, 1961-1963
[by Todd Harvey (Scarecrow Press 2001)]

by Paula Radice

This month's piece is a review of a book I've had for a little while, but - for one reason or (more likely) another - I haven't found time to give adequate attention. I must admit, straight away, that I still haven't read through it from cover to cover, but I hope it helps to give a quick overview of it, in case anyone's debating whether to get it.

It's a lovely looking book. I know that worrying about the external appearance of a book may reveal more about the superficiality in my character than I care for, but the pleasure of putting an attractively designed book on the shelves with the other Dylan books is all part of the book-collecting experience for me, I'm afraid. You may call me shallow, you may call me anally-retentive, you may call me R.J., you may call me Ray...sorry, got carried away there. Anyway, no matter what you say about my unfortunate book fetish, it is a nice looking book, with a Joe Alper photo of Baby Bob in his West Fourth Street apartment in 1961, looking about 12 years old, on the cover.


Harvey takes as his remit the 70 songs from the first three albums, the officially released outtakes from those sessions, and the Broadside recordings. There is a short piece about each song (listed in alphabetical order, rather than chronologically), in which he examines the lyrical and melodic roots of these earliest of Dylan's writings, and he also discusses the way that the songs evolve between contemporaneous performances of them that he has heard.

I must make another (big) admission here. If Harvey has made any major mistakes about recording or performance sessions, or dates, or other details, I am very unlikely to pick them up, and will have to wait for someone else, with a better memory and grasp of detail (and more patience and time), to point out if there are any real clangers here. I have never been able to remember the nitty-gritty of dates and details -which may give a slight clue as to why my career as an academic historian was rather a non-starter -and have always been far more interested in the much more general issue of the mysteries within the songs, and the way they work on the hearer. I have nothing but respect for those who have the ability and clearmindedness to catalogue and list and remember, but it ain't me, babe, no, no, no.

So, what can I offer on this book? Well, Harvey obviously knows his stuff as a musicologist. For each song, there is new information on how chord structures and melodic lines are altered between different performances, and also generally useful information about exactly how Dylan used the tunes and structures of earlier folk and blues when he started writing his own songs. However, there is very little detail. Every song is dealt with in less than a dozen paragraphs, however major the song.  Masters of War, for example, is covered in the same amount of page space as Pretty Peggy-O or Walls of Red Wing. I, personally, would much prefer a more detailed and balanced analysis of fewer songs. If Clinton Heylin's Daemon Lover is one end of the spectrum (i.e., a whole book devoted to one early Dylan-covered song) then this book forms the other extreme.

And, however significant we may now know a song to be within Dylan's oeuvre - like Hattie Carroll or Don't Think Twice - there is no attempt to chart the emotional effect of the music. Granted, Harvey is not setting out to analyse the lyrics, and can't therefore be criticized for not dealing with the impact of the words - indeed, when he does attempt a prose-poetry analysis (for Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie) his conclusions are strikingly banal and unhelpful - but without some discussion of the significance of the musical decisions Dylan made when writing and performing, the song analysis becomes, for me, rather pointless.  Perhaps that's why I've not been able to motivate myself to read the book fully through. It might be a good starting point for someone wanting to examine a particular song, especially if they wanted a musicologist's point of view - but as a study of the early Dylan as a whole it seems more than a little limited. Perhaps it might be more stimulating if Harvey's writing style were more exuberant, but the overall impression is of an unfortunately flat and understated approach that doesn't do the subject matter much justice. 

Most importantly, there is no detailed  conclusion, no overview, given as to Dylan's development during this period as a writer and performer, beyond a five and a half page introduction that gives just a glimpse of how much more interesting the book could have been. The last paragraph of the introduction is perhaps the most interesting section in the whole book, and Harvey's only real attempt to discern any patterns or generalities:

If each performance, for instance, were an exact repetition, then it
wouldn't be Dylan. Instead, he changes meter in the middle of  verse,
he alters his guitar arrangement, he plays harp on a song that had
never needed it before. These process-oriented attributes are central
to Dylan's aesthetic...It constantly varies  itself in an effort to assimilate
styles and in doing do creates an entirely new tradition.
  (p. xxv)

One for the book-collecting completists, I think.

Actually, I've just had an idea for a whole series of possible books.  How about individual studies of different songs, with a whole book given over to each song? Each book would chart its song's evolution in performance over the past however-many years, highlighting lyrical or melodic changes and their significance, comparing different critic's opinions of the song? You could have a team of writers, consisting of a musicologist (where's Wilfred Mellers?), a poet (I vote for Christopher Ricks, or maybe Stephen Scobie) and some passionate Dylanologists (has to be Paul Williams and Michael Gray), with Michael Gray to do the footnotes as well, and Michael Krogsgaard to check all the recording dates and details. Sounds like a winner?  Or perhaps, here in the real world, it could be a project for the Freewheelers? It'd be really interesting to have everyone's views on one song, with the different perspectives we could all offer.

On a completely different tack, following up last month's appeal (which met with an almost deafening silence... Don't you boys have any sense of priority?) the new kitten has a name. In a stroke of pure Dylan-synergy, she has already been named "Minstrel" by her current co-habitees (cats don't have "owners") and it just seems too apt to change, especially as my Grandmother's nickname was "Minnie". Minstrel will be coming to join Silvio and I at half-term.

Enjoy the warmer weather - and maybe see you at some of the shows? Look out for me at Brighton, Bournemouth and Docklands.