“The cuckoo is a pretty bird….She wobbles as she flies…. She never hollers coo coo…. until the fourth day of July”….Clarence Ashley ,the Harry Smith Smithsonian Collection of American Folk Music.

Like most people, I have my own heroes in the endeavours of literature ,art and music.They are many and varied, because my tastes are quite diverse and encompass a multitude of styles and genres.It’s been a good year for myself and my heroes .So far ,David Attenborough has already graced me with a hand-written letter and Bob Dylan has just today been awarded with the Nobel Prize for literature. This is a first for a songwriter anywhere in the world but simply adds to the the long list of accolades that Robert Zimmerman , who invented this “Bob Dylan” alter-ego many years ago,has so far accrued. The list includes Grammys, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Best performances, Best Music Video, best Vocal Performance, Best album, Lifetime Achievement, Best Traditional Folk Album, Best Album of the Year,Grammy Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,Academy Award, Golden Globe Award,Tom Paine Award,Honorary Doctorate at Princeton University, Songwriters Hall of Fame, Commandeur des Artes et des Lettres, Doctorate of Music ,St Andrews University, Scotland, Pulitzer Prize,Officier de la Legion d’honneur, Prince of Asturias Awards .. …and so on .I’ve probably missed a few , but you’ll no doubt get the picture…but that is only part of the story.

I wrote about Bob Dylan some fourteen years ago and it went something like this……

I was born on the 3rd of July 1952, almost fifty years ago as I write(this was back in 2002, remember).There’s a running joke in my family, often referred to wryly especially when my mother was alive, concerning the actual date of my birth. Apparently, when it came to registering my particulars, my father and grandfather, doubtless a little too overjoyed at the birth of the first boy- child, got the birth date wrong and registered the great event as the 2nd of July instead of the 3rd.My dad later reasoned that when I reached Sixty five, I’d get my pension a day earlier. So I’ve gone through life with this “stolen” twenty four hours, a constant reminder that everything in life is not what it seems and is at best arbitrary.Long ago, I mentally compounded the joke by celebrating my birhday annually on the 2nd, the 3rd, and …what the hell,the 4th of July too!!! American Independence Day. They even let off fireworks in my honour!!!!
“We carried her in our arms on Independence Day……” ,Bob Dylan on the “Basement Tapes Bootleg”.


Back in 2002 “the Basement Tapes”, Bob ‘s collection of lost songs from the 1960’s was still very much an unknown quantity except to us mad fans and collectors who had most of it on a collection of bootlegged albums and tapes. It has recently been officially released in a variety of expensive packages.
Music…? For me the music has always been there. Maybe it was Louis Armstrong in some old film, or Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra. Maybe Lonnie Donegan or the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, or the old folk /murder ballad” Tom Dooley”{Tom Dula}hitting the top of the charts when I was a boy.Maybe Burl Ives and “A Little Bitty Tear” or his version of that old Depression lament,” the Big Rock Candy Mountain”.It could have been my grandfather playing the bagpipes or uncle Larry on the squeezebox at those old country family gatherings when I was a child and my aunts would sing old Irish folk ballads and parlour songs of love and loss.Just before television killed it all off and my grandfather started watching “Perry Mason” , “Wagon Train” or “77 Sunset Strip”…My Liverpool cousins raved about their new heroes , the Beatles, and sent copies of “Merseybeat” to keep my older sisters up to date…Whatever….Something in the music, cutting across all the genres and little boxes that people enjoy compartmentalising things into ,cut deeply into my psyche.It left me with an ageless love of music ranging through every style age or taste imaginable…..from rock and roll,jazz, reggae, folk,blues , Cajun,Indian,classical,South American,North African, Cuban……you name it, and somewhere in my music collection, there’ll be a nod or a wink in reference to a plethora of musical styles and tastes.
Oh, I have favourites , and there are musics for an assortment of times of the year and the mood of the time.Overiding it all is a great love of blues music, which is basically a folk music which gathers together the folk styles of all the immigrant American communities… African , Irish, Scottish,French,English and so on. It mixes tales of murder ,lost loves, errant gamblers, highwaymen, slavery, old time religion, saints and devils, Civil War Ballads and enforced immigration and stirs them all into a deceptively rich stew.It is played in a wide range of styles, each unique to the individual performers.
Listening to some of those old songs now, they appear to exist in some other land far removed from the everyday experience, but at the same time ,are even more real than that experience.
The man mainly responsible for re-invigorating the form in all it’s various incarnations, and for carrying it right into the mainstream in the twenty first century is Bob Dylan.Throughout the last fifty years, he has gathered together the many strands of folk, blues, jazz, old- time ,jugband and “tin- pan alley” music, into a long series of albums , but mainly in constantly bootlegged concert performances , and kept it before a huge public. He tours constantly , performing as an old time troubadour.Much of this music would almost certainly have been largely lost by now if not for him, and may only have been heard in small clubs. His take on the music has spawned songs in the folk -blues tradition, country music, albums of gospel songs with a nod to the Carter family at one time ,or to the Stanley brothers or Blind Willie McTell, at another. At all times, he has woven something new and uniquely his with each flurry of creativity ,while at the same time envigorating and inspiring many other performers along the way.Crucially , he also realised that literature and poetry did not exist soley on the shelves of dusty libraries , but also issued from the pens and mouths of people and performers like Smokey Robinson, Hank Williams , Woody Guthrie and any number of popular songs and songwriters from any period in time.
Dylan didn’t simply do this by accident. He had his own many influences, many blaring out of the radio of his childhood. There was country and western and blues , but there was also a long list of writers such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer and Richard Rodgers. Besides that there was the storytelling Chuck Berry and Doc Pomus, writing precise rocknroll fables.Besides Woody Guthrie,the one that probably bit deepest for Dylan, initially ,was a legendary semi- bootleg collection of songs released by a painter called Harry Smith in 1952.I was born that year, totally oblivious to the effect that this semi-bootleg collage of weird sounds would have on the shape of my world in the span of a lifetime.It was probably this collection which did more to change the face of music than anything else in the twentieth century.If any record could be said to have revolutionised not just the music industry, but to have sown the seeds of a cultural social revolution beginning in the late 1950’s, and blooming into full flower in the mid 1960’s, then this one could justly hold that title.Not that a lot of people in the mainstream took much notice of any of this . Life goes on and many fine points are missed, but those people who became aware of the music on this collection would each go on to influence, not just fellow musicians, but like tumbling dominoes, key people from entire generations, who passed on more palatable versions of the music and the ideas that it held .You may well ask what was so special about the record or the music it contained.I’ll attempt to explain some of the connections and how Dylan’s world view became so entwined with the feel , the sound and the arcane poetry of this collection of songs, and how even the Beatles fell under Dylan’s growing spell ….and why Irish folk musicians from those times, such as local musical heroes, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem,drew on the same kind of connections to feed their own music.



That Christmas back in 2002, I finally treated myself to the new cd boxset re-issue of this wonderful collection of music, parts of which I’d heard throughout my life in various places.Other times, I’d only heard the strangely archaic names of some of the musicians in passing or maybe a stolen or borrowed version of one of these musician’s songs or tunes. A lot of the names are still quite familiar, but most will only be known by aficionadoes.Everyone should ‘ve heard about the Carter Family, for example, if only because Johnny Cash married into the clan by taking a daughter June as his wife, or because they heard a version of “Hello Stranger”on an Emmylou Harris album.The same goes with Blind Lemon Jefferson , when even Ringo of the Beatles recorded “Matchbox”, way back when on a Beatles session.
The Harry Smith Smithsonian Collection is full of these kind of connections.This is where Dylan found a large part of his early repertoire and ethos.Some of these performers were from a weird and lost America which pre-figured and ran alongside the perceived America and the American imagined that everyone accepted from the films.This is where the dastardly murderer, Stagalee, came into the picture. This is where the cuckoo flies or where graves are dug with a silver spade…..where graves are seen to be needed kept clean.This is the place where Gerry Garcia found “Casey Jones” and gave it to the Grateful Dead . It’s the place where Albert “dun” Frankie wrong and she shot her lover down.This is where Ry Cooder found the roots of a whole guitar style in the bottleneck playing of Blind Willie Johnston’s” John the Revelator” and subsequently parlayed a career colouring movie soundtracks with this swampy fluid slide style.Maybelle and Sara Carter as part of the legendary Carter Family perform the autoharp and guitar driven “Little Moses” which Dylan has consisteantly returned to in concert throughout this past forty years.
He’s currently touring with a band, looking for all the world like a riverboat gambler in the Rhett Butler mould from “Gone With The Wind”, or as some huckster tent- gospeler or carnival hustler.He could be selling snake-oil or religion to some sensation -hungry country rubes in some little backwoods town ,sometime in the early years of the last century.His bass player could be nursing a dodgy hand of cards in the corner of some old western saloon.{As Dylan was wont to joke drolly in concert introductions, …”he left his job as mayor of {….fill in a town of your choice} to come and play with me….”.} All characters straight out of these songs.Dylan was always able to get inside a song and live and act out the lyric in performance.The insider joke was in trying to spot the filmic , literary or artistic references that he’d cobbled together into wonderful collages. Of course, you could take it all very seriously and miss a lot of the crafty fun.Many times he was those characters, whether they were evangalistic soul- savers in full gospel flight ,broken down wastrels, or fallen women in the houses of the rising sun, slaves or whiskey bootleggers.These original templates are now available ,spread over six cds complete with original artwork and notes, and even some cd rom video material of Harry with the likes of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. The original performers are a varied bunch .Some of Harry’s paintings and artworks are also featured.In the songs is the genesis of the folk revival, which in England ,Lonnie Donegan brought to a thousand homes and inspired the first skiffle groups,the Beatles, beat groups and finally the revival of rock and blues groups which tore up the entire 1960’s and 1970’s.
In Ireland, Tommy Makem,who was raised and grew up in a village about five miles from me,and the Clancy Brothers, and later, the Dubliners were to spearhead this new interest in their own old {and almost lost} heritage of songs,both bringing them back to an American audience already prepared by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seegar and the likes of Big Bill Broonzy and Leadbelly{Huddy Ledbetter}in the folk clubs.This all helped the likes of John Mayall and the young Rolling Stones in their revivals of Muddy Waters Chicago style blues.
It was all folk, blues, rock and roll and traditional, until Dylan intuitively, like some primitive musician-poet-painter rolled the whole lot into some seamless new form, which while gathering all the elements together ,somehow held it all as a timeless whole, which was as puzzling and enigmatic as it was ageless, and which sounded ancient and newly -minted all at once.It could be profound and funny ,silly or wise in equal measure.All of this cawed out in an ancient, rheumy, rusted , centuries- spanning wrecked ship of a voice,abrim with understanding, love ,loss and pathos.It was a voice, as has been said of it’s owner ,that had so many sides to it, that it was round.Even when he couldn’t actually sing the sweet notes, he reached into places that technically better singers simply missed entirely ,or skimmed over unknowingly,and emoted with an authority way beyond his years or background.
Like all great art, it was as much to do with what you could hear and see as it was to do with what was left out or left for your own eyes and ears to fill in.The truth is ,you either got it or, unfortunately, you didn’t. Dylan’s longevity bears witness to the influence he made on the culture of the twentieth century.He took the songs on the road, first by himself, and then , to broaden the palette, with the Band (a blues band from some other planet!),to mixed reactions. The loud and primitive amplification drowned out his words .Some were slow to embrace these unsweetened truths too.His vision , though, never left that strange and ancient America that Harry Smith’s collection of now bizarre characters, inhabited, and which ,he, like every other folk musician of the time, used as a talisman or touchstone.Of course, Dylan also reminded people that this was folk music .This was peoples’music to be tackled by anyone with the need to sing and play, and not simply for exhalted concert performers. In other words, the music was reclaimed by the folk, and anyone could have a go.Forty years later, Dylan is still showing his contemporaries how to act……
The writer Greil Marcus has pointed out some of the connections between the Harry Smith selection of some eighty odd songs, and the legendary Basement Tapes that Dylan and his band of musicians recorded during the Spring, Summer and Autumn of 1967 while the rest of the musical world spun out of control with harsh electronic trickery and psychedelia .This is Dylan’s own home made version of the Harry Smith Collection. The idea is virtually the same, although Dylan probably created it intuitively, rather than with some great world plan. It was like a primitive painting or film.Dylan returned to the source for sustenance and came up with about one hundred performances ranging through the ramshackle and the perverse to nonsense tales and downright mystical oddities. They were no more odd, of course, than anything to be found on the Harry Smith collection. In fact in retrospect, they are cut from the same otherworldly cloth that Marcus refers to as America’s Hidden Republic.Dylan fills the songs with characters and tall tales who would be quite at home on the Smith collection. It’s the same timeless place where god and murder and rubber -tyred hearses still roam.Tiny Montgomerey and Quinn the Eskimo…even the biblical burning wheel which turned up again , still on fire, on the soundtrack of television’s “Absolutely Fabulous”, a few short years ago. All of it timeless, in some time- forgotten land.
To all the new songs, he also added old Johnny Cash numbers,folksongs from Canada, such as “Four Strong Winds”; a calypso called “Joshua Gone Barbados”.Old Elvis “b” sides , nonsense songs snatched from the air and pre-war blues. While Dylan and his fellow musicians were busily crafting this rackety sonic collage of old- time weirdness, folk music had largely fallen out of favour, so when Dylan’s next official release reached the shops,the Basement Tapes, were quietly shelved as an errant experiment that was too big and really too uncategorisable to easily market.It was only officially released in a much truncated form some ten years later, but all the juice had been squeezed out of this official release. His public were shocked at the rootsy return that was the album “John Wesley Harding”. It seemed the oddest follow up to the triptych of hallucinatory albums of Rimbaud inspired poetry, surrealism and Chicago Blues that preceeded it, culminating in the wondrous “Blonde on Blonde”. His audience had conveniently forgotten where those albums had come from in the first place.Hendrix was on the same wavelength,though, and was able to relate to and transcend the song by turning the old time religion of one of it’s tracks, “All Along The Watchtower” transforming it into a storming sound-painting painting of apocalypse. Dylan was later to repay this compliment by consistantly using Hendrix’s arrangement in concerts throughout the years.
Bringing everything right up to date …. in February 2002 (SIC), Dylan was recepient of a Grammy Award for his uncategorisable album “Love and Theft”, apparently for being the best folk album of the year.There he was , as usual, transformed once again.The riverboat gambler theme is still current.This time he and the band seemed to be crammed into a little corner with just room enough to swing their instruments.Although no stranger to these awards ceremonies over the years, amid all the smaltzy glitz , Dylan looked, as usualy, shyly myoptically distracted{He really should wear his spectacles sometimes!}, turning to the ceiling as if looking for any way out, as he and the best group of musicians he’s worked with for years, powered through a blues full of the sort of changing time- signatures guaranteed to test the mettle of many a player. He treated it all with an offhand grace.Ultimately, it was left to the expressions of some of the audience to tell the tale.Amid all the other music on display that night , it was obvious that this kind of raw revelation was either new to them, or they had never had the opportunity before to witness Dylan in a live context before.


Sometimes you just have to be there…..
…and so to October 2016 when Bob Dylan is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature…..obviously not just your average pop singer then…..