One of the things I've noticed about your shows is that starting in the 1990s they grew more and more musical. You've opened the songs up to more instrumental exploration and new textures and rhythmic shifts — like you're trying to stretch or reinvent them — and you seem very much at the heart of that. You're your own band director at this point.
Well, I don't think you've seen me play too many mindless jams. What I do is all done with technique and certain stratagems. But they're not intellectual ones; they're designed to make people feel something. And I understand that it's not necessarily the same for everyone who hears me play and sing. Everyone is feeling a different thing. I would like to be a performer who maybe could read and write music and play the violin. Then I could design a bigger band with more comprehensive parts of harmony in different arrangements, and still have the songs evolve within that. But if anything, I do know my limitations, and so I don't try to transcend those limitations. Or if I do transcend the limitations, it's all done with the technique I was talking about. Which is to say, you can do it whether you feel good or you don't feel good, or no matter how you're feeling. It really doesn't matter. It has nothing to do with personality. It's difficult even to find the words to talk about it.
It seems that some of your most impassioned and affecting performances, from night to night, are your covers of traditional folk songs.
Folk music is where it all starts and in many ways ends. If you don't have that foundation, or if you're not knowledgeable about it and you don't know how to control that, and you don't feel historically tied to it, then what you're doing is not going to be as strong as it could be. Of course, it helps to have been born in a certain era because it would've been closer to you, or it helps to be a part of the culture when it was happening. It's not the same thing, relating to something second- or third-hand off of a record.
I think one of the best records that I've ever been even a part of was the record I made with Big Joe Williams and Victoria Spivey. Now that's a record that I hear from time to time and I don't mind listening to it. It amazes me that I was there and had done that.
In Invisible Republic — Greil Marcus' book about you, the Band, the Basement Tapes sessions and the place of all that in American culture [now retitled The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes] — Marcus wrote about the importance of Harry Smith's legendary Anthology of American Folk Music and its influence on all of your work, from your earliest to most-recent recordings.
Well, he makes way too much of that.
Why do you say that?
Because those records were around — that Harry Smith anthology — but that's not what everybody was listening to. Sure, there were all those songs. You could hear them at people's houses. I know in my case, I think Dave Van Ronk had that record. But in those days we really didn't have places to live, or places to have a lot of records. We were sort of living from this place to that — kind of a transient existence. I know I was living that way. You heard records where you could, but mostly you heard other performers. All those people [Marcus is] talking about, you could hear the actual people singing those ballads. You could hear Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, Dock Boggs, the Memphis Jug Band, Furry Lewis. You could see those people live and in person. They were around. He intellectualizes it too much. Performers did know of that record, but it wasn't, in retrospect, the monumental iconic recordings at the time that he makes them out to be.
It wasn't like someone discovered this pot of gold somewhere. There were other records out that were on rural labels. Yazoo had records out. They weren't all compiled like they are now. In New York City, there was a place called the Folklore Center that had all the folk-music records. It was like a library, and you could listen to them there. And they had folk-music books there. Certain other towns had it, too. There was a place in Chicago called the Old Town School of Folk Music. You could find the stuff there. It wasn't the only thing that people had — that Anthology of American Folk Music. And the Folkways label itself had many other folk recordings of all kinds of people. They just were highly secretive. And they weren't really secretive because they were trying to be secretive. The people I knew — the people who were like-minded as myself — were trying to be folk musicians. That's all they wanted to be, that's all the aspirations they had. There wasn't anything monetary about it. There was no money in folk music. It was a way of life. And it was an identity which the three-buttoned-suit postwar generation of America really wasn't offering to kids my age: an identity. This music was impossible to get anywhere really, except in a nucleus of a major city, and a record shop might have a few recordings of the hard-core folklore music. There were other folk-music records, commercial folk-music records, like those by the Kingston Trio. I never really was an elitist. Personally, I liked the Kingston Trio. I could see the picture. But for a lot of people it was a little hard to take. Like the left-wing puritans that seemed to have a hold on the folk-music community, they disparaged these records. I didn't particularly want to sing any of those songs that way, but the Kingston Trio were probably the best commercial group going, and they seemed to know what they were doing.
What I was most interested in twenty-four hours a day was the rural music. But you could only hear it, like, in isolated caves [laughs], like, on a few bohemian streets in America at that time. The idea was to be able to master these songs. It wasn't about writing your own songs. That didn't even enter anybody's mind.
In a way, this line of talk brings us to your newest album, Love and Theft. On one hand, parts of this record sound like work that might have heralded from the early forms of twentieth-century folk music we've been discussing. Its sense of timelessness and caprices reminds me of some of the songs we hear on The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding — records that emanated from your strong folk background. But Love and Theft also seems to recall Highway 61 Revisited and that album's delight in discovering new world-changing methods of language and sharp wit, and the way in which the music digs down deep into ancient blues structures to yield something wholly unexpected. Just as important, Love and Theft, like your other albums I just mentioned, feels like a work made specifically from inside an American temperament — the America we live in now, but also the America we have left behind. Or am I reading too much into this record?
For starters, no one should really be curious or too excited about comparing this album to any of my other albums. Compare this album to the other albums that are out there. Compare this album to other artists who make albums. You know, comparing me to myself [laughs] is really like . . . I mean, you're talking to a person that feels like he's walking around in the ruins of Pompeii all the time. It's always been that way, for one reason or another. I deal with all the old stereotypes. The language and the identity I use is the one that I know only so well, and I'm not about to go on and keep doing this — comparing my new work to my old work. It creates a kind of Achilles' heel for myself. It isn't going to happen.
Maybe a better way to put it is to ask: Do you see this as an album that emanates from your experience of America at this time?
Every one of the records I've made has emanated from the entire panorama of what America is to me. America, to me, is a rising tide that lifts all ships, and I've never really sought inspiration from other types of music. My problem in writing songs has always been how to tone down the rhetoric in using the language. I don't really give it a whole lot of soulful thought. A song is a reflection of what I see all around me all the time. I'm only speaking about . . . [Pauses] See, I'm still back on your other question. I really don't think it's fair to compare this album to any of my past albums. I mean, I'm still the same person. You know, like Hank Williams would say, my hair's still curly, my eyes are still blue. And that's all I know.
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