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Bob Dylan: Breaking Down The Incomplete Discography

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The broadside recordings and the rise of blind boy grunt

In the Fall of 1963 (according to best information) Dylan made a number of recordings for Broadside Records — really, for the Broadside scene. Sitting in on this session were Gil Turner, Phil Ochs, Gordon Friesen, and Sis Cunningham. Three of the cuts recorded have been released on an LP, still available, called Broadside Ballads No. 1, Broadside Records BR-301, issued November 1963. The songs include "John Brown" (discussed below in the "live" section), "Only A Hobo," a rather poor song about the death of a tramp (of which a couple of other versions exist), and "Talking Devil," which is a gas. The song predates a verse from the Stones' "Jigsaw Puzzle": "The gangter looks so frightening/With his luger in his hand/ But when he gets home to his children/ He's a family man." Dylan's "Talking Devil" is the brief tale of a nightrider, "the devil," and BBG asks, "Wonder if his kids know who he is?" It's the only bit of humor on the whole Broadside LP.

None of the other Broadside recordings have been released, perhaps because of contract problems or perhaps because Bob chose to keep them in the past. The most surprising of these is "The Cough Song" — none other than "Nashville Skyline Rag" for guitar and harmonica! The harp sketches out the part the band plays on the 1969 recording, and keeps right on until Dylan laughs (Garbo Talks!) "That was the end. Right there before I coughed. It fades out." And then everyone cracks up.

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Bob Dylan

The other recordings don't stand up so well, save for "Walking Down the Line," a fine road song with a bit of displaced humor: "I saw the morning light/ I saw the morning light/ I'm an early riser, 'cause I didn't go to sleep last night." Another version was also cut for a publishing demo. "Hey, Hey, I'd Hate to Be You on That Dreadful Day" is a rough blues that might have surfaced as a tough rocker had Dylan held on to it and worked it out; as it is, the cut has a few flashes: "You're gonna walk naked, can't ride in no car/ Everyone's gonna see just what you are." "Playboys and Playgirls" reveals Dylan claiming he won't be sold down the river by the Hugh Hefner crew; "Train-a-Trailin" is just that; and "Cuban Blockade" is a stiff number about that day "when everyone thought the world would end." As one of Broadside's editors said when Highway 61 Revisited hit the stores, "I wouldn't mind what he's doing now, if only he'd just write one good song against the war . . . "

Howdy, East Orange

References to the bustling metropolis of East Orange, New Jersey pop up occasionally in Dylan's career: one "Talkin' New York" from the first album, in the little folk tale about a coffeehouse recorded for the "Minnesota Tapes." Sometime in early 1962, it seems, Dylan recorded a number of Woody Guthrie songs at the home of Sid and Bob Gleason, in, as the gig would have it, East Orange, N.J. Bob never released a Guthrie song commercially, though many of his songs have rung changes on Guthrie themes  — most recently, "John Wesley Harding." Strangely, it was Dylan's love for Guthrie, not Bob's own music, that brought him his first national attention. Years ago, Time ran a short story about an itinerant folk singer who'd journeyed across the country to visit the dying man, a kid hyped as a perfect choice to play Guthrie in a film biography. And that is a project still talked about.

Thinking back, it seems odd that given the nature of industry packaging Bob never recorded an album of Guthrie songs. It would have been a natural product for Columbia to suggest, along with the raft of other folk singers with their Guthrie albums and country singers, with their Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams records. Simply, Dylan was pushing ahead of the game, making up his own songs, looking for his own music even as he reached for a surer hold on his roots.

Most of the numbers are pretty much straightforward run-throughs, lacking in projection or feeling, adding little to the music, though the takes would no doubt delight Dylan fans simply because of the nature of the material. "San Francisco Bay Blues," "Jesus Met the Woman at the Well," "Gypsy Davy," "Jesse James," and "Remember Me" receive this sort of performance — careful, studied, and a bit stiff. And then, in contrast to the rest of the session, Dylan begins to draw on that incredible reserve of spirit and tension that has made him a performing curator of the museum of American music. Slowly picking out the notes to "Pastures of Plenty," to his harp for the first time on the takes, he captures a sense of age the song perhaps never knew before — a sense of passing. The pastures of plenty are a memory, a desire, a hope — never a reality. The "journey through valleys till the day that I die," the broken witness "on the edge of your cities," is more a search than an affirmation, an attempt to find what has been lost, what perhaps never existed at all.

It happens again with "On the Trail of the Buffalo." Guthrie set the song in the 1880's, but its power came from the fact that Guthrie himself was on that trail, looking for those endless herds that formed their own horizons. The harsh strumming of Dylan's guitar gives the song a deathly, scary tone; you know there was never a chance for the animals to last. The beasts were doomed even before they had captured our imagination, and the threat of death hovers over the cowboys of the song, riding the trail the buffalo had cut into the earth. "Outlaws watching to pick us off/ From the hills of the buffalo." It's "this sense of forgotten history, alive in the soul of a man in the present, that is the source of the power of best American music, music that reaches for America, wherever and whatever it was, always with the sense that if we can uncover what it feels like to live when the country is old.

Dylan's "As I Went Out One Morning" and "The Wicked Messenger" and "Tears of Rage," the Band's "Rockin' Chair," "Across the Great Divide," and "King Harvest" are all songs of age, songs of a spiritual, not a factual adolescence. Unlike the "rock and roll revival," these songs and those that Guthrie wrote do not have to be "revived." They endure, and they last, and it is the burden of age that they carry that fixes their agelessness.

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