Alternatives To College


by Michael Crimmins


Black Cross

I feel it might be a little unwise at this early stage to say too much on the subject of Chronicles, especially knowing how unpredictable Bob Dylan can be, except to say that I don’t feel that there was any great need for it! Songs such as “Talkin’ New York” “Ballad in plain D” “Sara” and a whole heap of others, added to the work of Scaduto and Shelton should give us a broad enough picture. I am though; glad that he bothered and I enjoyed Vol I immensely.         

A good song is a time capsule. It travels to us only because IT IS a good song. It can be an emotional vault only to be unlocked with all ears and heart open. Too much emphasis can be placed on genre! Blues/Folk/Jazz. Up to a point it is all folk music!  Bob Dylan is the pioneer that brought this point home to me over the years. We all know that he, most of the time, defies classification. Dylan has a lot of faith in the power of song. The songs, as he says, are his lexicon. Sometimes environment and access, or non access, to certain musical instruments can play a part in shaping what genre, certain musicians will fall into. The circumstance that led to John Hammond laying a copy of, the then unreleased, “King Of The Delta Blues Singers” by Robert Johnson on Bob Dylan, probably had a great effect on the outcome of his debut record. 

Bob Dylan is as good a blues singer as you are going to find inside of a white skin.  Blues is an expression. As a genre its credentials lie within the song lyrics. There is of course a recognisable and widely accepted format for the blues and that is of course the twelve bar structure! As CP Lee pointed out in his recent Freewheelin’ “Blues is bunk” article, the record companies initially ‘encouraged’ their artists, for the sake of commercialism, to adhere to this tried and trusted formula, in other words to make pop music. It was the same article and the reading of Chronicles Vol 1 that got me a thinking about Dylan and the blues. 

Two very different artists, Josh White and Billie Holiday felt compelled to record Lewis Allan’s “Strange Fruit”. Both artists witnessed lynchings as very young children and both artists felt the need for this REAL blues story to reach as many ears as possible.  Both artists to their detriment performed the song in the south.  Allan himself wrote the song after witnessing a scene similar to the one depicted at the head of this article. One can’t help but be reminded of Dylan singing “Black Cross” when looking at that ghastly scene where the only people who look slightly perturbed are the little children present. Children who have very possibly just experienced the same as did White and Holiday at around that same age. That IS the blues! 

When people talk about ‘feeling the blues’ I’m not sure if that is what they mean, but that is the vibe, and it is nothing to do with eight twelve or sixteen bars or fiddles and banjo’s. 

Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
Blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
The scent magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
for the rain to gather
for the wind to suck for the sun to rot
for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop 

Abel Meeropol (Lewis Allan) 

In 1994 Bob Dylan was the recipient of a Grammy award for best traditional blues album. That record was ‘World Gone Wrong’. In 1961 his debut album ‘Bob Dylan’ carried this praise from Stacey Williams (Robert Shelton):

‘…His talent takes many forms. He is one of the most compelling white blues singers ever recorded. He is a songwriter of exceptional facility and cleverness. He is an uncommonly skilful guitar player and harmonica player…’

Personally I found that first record, although I loved the sound of it, a little forced. Dylan’s New York Gaslight performance of October 1962 on the other hand I found stunning and far more authentic than a young white kid singing traditional ballads and work songs should possibly be! 

There are many examples of Dylan’s understanding of the blues idiom. In many ways Dylan has empathised with it, rather than try to become a part of it. With his 1983 masterpiece “Blind Willie McTell” his understanding of the blues is extraordinary! Dylan, while giving us his best (by far) vocal performance in years, almost apologises for his  ‘ineptness’ by stating:                                                                                 

“(Yeah) nobody can sing the blues like blind Willie McTell”.

I mentioned earlier Dylan’s version of “Black Cross” the song made popular by Lord Buckley. Dylan performed this song to perfection at the Gaslight. Also known as “Hezekiah Jones” this is a song about racial and social prejudice. A black man is lynched on the pretext that he has no religion. His real crime though is his audacity in trying to educate himself. Even though Dylan did not write this song, he gets right inside of it, so much so that when he slyly delivers the line “I’m good! Good as my neighbour” the listener knows that this is the moment that Hezekiah sealed his fate. With “Blind Willie McTell” years later, Dylan communicates, as he did by performing “Black Cross” his empathy with these poor souls. The song is not so much about Willie McTell as it is about what he represents as a blues singer and why the blues came to exist. 

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a moaning
(I can see) the undertakers bell
(Yeah), nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell

“Blind Willie McTell” knows of songs like “St James Infirmary” and “Strange Fruit” it respects them.  This great song was left off the album ‘Infidels’ in 1983. Could it be that Bob Dylan truly believes that nobody should sing the blues, or claim to, who does not truly represent it? The itinerant and reoccurring theme of the blues man has after all not been shown much in the way of respect. That is to say that it is definitely not the romantic notion that modern blues men, and in particular those from Great Britain, in the sixties, would have us believe!

Although the civil war in America eventually brought about the abolition of slavery, many sharecroppers, as the more ‘fortunate’ slaves became, more often than not, due to exorbitant rent, owed their white landlords so much money that the only solution was to disappear, get out of town. Post war blues music retains its authenticity in relation to its slavery roots because of the continuation of its main artery, intense poverty and hardship. Songs that once told of the drivers lash (not that it wasn’t still in existence) now, more often than not, told tales of hunger and moving on. The common denominator of poverty imposed by agricultural capitalism from the landed aristocracy upon both ‘dirty nigger’ and ‘white trash’, particularly in the south instigated a greater integration of musical styles than otherwise might have come to exist. Music was one of the few areas conducive to any form of racial harmony in these times of deliberately imposed racial tension. A good example of this is the recordings of Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston where they join forces with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. The popularity of blues music especially among white folk that prospered in America in the twenties and thirties, in one respect is distorted by the still enduring and cruel myth perpetrated initially by black faced minstrels. This is the one given a huge push along the way by Hollywood, and one that goes along the lines of the ignorant although well fed darkie singing happily while he worked under the watchful eye of the master whom he adored.                 

Of course the recorded music that people such as Alan Lomax, love him or loathe him, pioneered, takes away the rose coloured spectacles and opens our hearts and minds to the reality.

Should’ve bin on the river in 1910
they were drivin’ the women just like the men

That line of course comes from Leadbelly’s “Ain’t no More cane on the Brazos” another song that Bob Dylan performed at the Gaslight in New York that same October night that he sang “Black Cross”. The same night that he performed another of Leadbelly’s “No More Auction Block” Blind Willie Johnson’s “Motherless Children” Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See that my grave is kept clean” and Robert Johnson’s “Kind Hearted Woman Blues” What has become known as the second Gaslight performance, would in my opinion make a great addition to The Bootleg series. 

Dylan sings blues songs and he is good at it. If you doubt that at all have a listen to “Milk Cow Blues” from the Freewheelin’ outtakes. Yet Dylan’s own blues compositions tend to lend themselves to that of onlooker, listener! He is careful not to exploit through carelessness. Good examples of Dylan in a blues mode, but not stance, are “Catfish” “Blind Willie McTell” and “New Pony”. Bob Dylan weaves a tapestry of blues throughout his work. Arguably, Dylan gets to the heart of the blues as a genre in songs such as “North Country Blues” where he bravely tells the tale of a white mining community’s struggles from a woman’s perspective. In placing the word blues in the song title he intelligently realises the genre’s credentials and by doing so furthers the cause of racial harmony, just as with another song from The Times They Are-A Changin’ “The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll” he does so by not mentioning the fact that Hattie Carroll is black.

With “Desolation Row” Dylan gives us the grim opening line of “They’re selling postcards of the hanging”. He undoubtedly is referring to Duluth, Minnesota’s shameful tragedy of June 15 1920. Three black roustabouts of John Robinson’s travelling circus, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie were lynched as a result of the alleged rape of nineteen year old Irene Tusken. An examination of Tusken by Dr David Graham yielded no sign of rape or assault. The Chicago evening post at the time carried this “This is a crime of a northern state as black and as ugly as any that has brought the south in disrepute”.

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlour is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tightrope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row.

Pictures of the hanging were actually printed and sold as souvenir postcards in Duluth. 

Well I have been a barrel of laughs this month haven’t I?


For information on Michael's band "Dylanesque", including a gigs guide, go to his website.