The Minnesota Tapes — Off Highway 61
Back in December, 1961, Bob Dylan recorded twenty-six songs in a hotel in Minneapolis. In this voluminous session, he put down a good bit of his repertoire — a young artist searching out his own material, perhaps for an audition tape to be used to gain jobs or as preparation for a recording date. Having returned to Minnesota from New York, the tapes reflect things Dylan most likely learned from Dave Van Ronk, and others as well as songs that might have been picked up in any part of the country. There's a much greater range in this session than in the material that eventually surfaced as Dylan's first album. There is little sense of "packaging" or image; from the old Lord Buckley rap about Hezekiah Jones to the pounding gospel — rock of "Wade in the Water," from the clumsy, happy "Sally Gal" to the difficult "Man of Constant Sorrow," this is a young man attempting to understand American music, and beginning to succeed.
A brief run-down, with highlights: (1) "Candy Man." (2) "Baby Please Don't Go" — one of Dylan's best blues performances — a stinging, harsh vocal and rough, rhythmic guitar, with a bass drum pushing it on. Very similar to the brilliant hit version by Them. This number would have shaken up a lot of people had it been included on Dylan's first LP. (3) "Hard Times In New York" — Dylan finds the big city unpleasant and polluted, yearns for wide open spaces, etc. (4) "Stealin'" — Bob's version of the old blues theme of infidelity; rough, clumsy, and a lot of fun.
(5) "Poor Lazarus" — the depth of talent that made Dylan a young sensation begins to come clear on this number. It is simply not that easy for a twenty-year-old to sing a song about death and treachery and carry it off, but Dylan does it. He could play the roles of fathers and sons as he sang about them; and if he could not yet sing with the presence of Robert Johnson, he was begining to understand what it might mean to do so. (6) "Ain't Got No Home" — a crude version of the Guthrie song. (7) "It's Hard To Be Blind" — a reworking of the old "It's Hard To Be Poor." "I wrote my own words to it," says Bob. (8) "Dink's Song" — "I learned it from a lady named Dink. I don't know who wrote it." The number has an infectious rhythm; it would make a great rock and roll performance. The drama of Dylan's soft guitar almost makes the listener feel strings have been added — there is that much projection in the take. It's a simple fare-thee-well, but unspeakably lovely, and a hint of what was to come with "Corinna, Corinna," and "Boots of Spanish Leather." (9) "Man of Constant Sorrow" — another brilliant version of the song included on Dylan's first LP. (10) "East Orange, NJ" — a long shaggy dog story about the perils of being a musician in a hick town. Dylan would never have made it as a stand-up comedian, though. (11) "Only Wise" — a lovely, ancient song of lost love and death. (12) "Wade in the Water" — an up-tempo charged. Today they'd call it "heavy." Dylan's bottle-necking gives the take its guts.
(13)"I Was Young When I Left Home" — "I sorta made it up on a train," Bob says. This is the most brilliant song of the session; an aching, desperate marriage of several traditional songs, and modern themes: "Five Hundred Miles," Bobby Bare's "Detroit City," and others. "It's so blue," said a friend when he heard it. One has the image of a single, solitary young man floating in his mind from station to station, riding whatever train might pass through with the old hope of someday finding someone there to meet him when he gets off at the end of the line. "I was young when I left home . . . an' I been a ramblin' round . . . and I never wrote a letter to my home." It has a maturity youth deserves to be spared. (14) "Get Lonesome Sleeping By Yourself" — a mean blues, with dirty, beautifully restrained harp and percussion. (15) "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" — a long, wildly exuberant take of the number that illuminated the first album. (16) "Sally Gal" — "I'm gonna get you, Sally Gal!" Why not? (17) "Gospel Plow" — again, on the first LP. (18) "Long John" — one of those superethnic Dave Ray train hollers, and pretty dismal. (19) "Cocaine Blues" — not exactly up to the job Dave Van Ronk has done on this, but a lovely, relaxed version of the song every East Coast folk singer had to master. "Yonder comes my baby, all dressed in purple/Hey, baby, I wanna see your nipples."
(20, 21, 22 & 23) The Infamous Medley: "VD Blues," "VD Waltz," "VD City" is the best of them — it might remind one of "Heartbreak Hotel" — "The cold horrible dungeons, where the victims of syphilis lie . . . there's a street named for every disease here, Syph Alley and Clap Avenue . . . must you pay your way to this city with an hour of passion and vice . . . " (24) "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" — repeated on the first album. (25) "Ramblin' Round." (26) "Black Cross" — the Lord Buckley story of a black non-believer from a Southern town, lynched for his honesty. Dylan's vocal mannerisms are a clear debt to or cop from Buckley, but it's a better effort than, say, "The Death of Emmett Till," which Dylan had recorded three months earlier on a radio show for WBAI FM.
That show was never aired, for some reason; included were Izzy Young, Pete Seeger, Sis Cunningham, and Gil Turner. Dylan performed a song called "The Ballad of Donald White" as well, an interesting tale of a man demanding to be returned to prison because he cannot function in normal society. White kills a man, and is hanged instead of being allowed to find a home in prison. This number prompts Young to announce, in a beautifully patronizing tone, that "this is the first phychological song," which was nonsense, but part of the game that was being played in those days. The interview includes a few other priceless bits, including one where Pete Seeger asks Bob how he writes songs. "Do you just spread out the newspaper in the morning until you find a story that gets you upset?" Bob Dylan, re-write man. The show closes with a moanin' and groanin' of "Blowin' in the Wind." "I really do just take 'em out of the air," Bob had been saying.
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