October 1992: They Were So Much Older Then

Our video for the day is the performance of Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages” at The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration.  The concert — held at on October 16, 1992 at Madison Square Garden — celebrated Dylan’s 30 years of recording.  And this performance featured Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and George Harrison.

It is an amazing collection of legends onstage doing on of Dylan’s great early songs.  “My Back Pages” originally appeared on his 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan.

What is amazing about this performance is how at the time of the concert, the singers were already legends and they seemed old at the time.  But looking at it now, they all seem so young.  Or maybe part of that is because I am so much older now.

Check out the video, which begins with Roger McGuinn singing the song, which he had previous recorded with The Byrds and released in 1967.  Then, the others follow until Dylan takes the lead himself.  In the meantime, one may watch Dylan’s face to make any guesses about what he is thinking as the others sing his song.

There are various interpretations of “My Back Pages,” although most read it as Dylan’s rejection of his younger idealism.  But like many of his songs, listeners may find their own meaning and a little of their own life in the song.  And, more than two decades ago, we found a little more connection to the song through many of the rock legends of our youth.

What is your favorite version of “My Back Pages”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Bob Dylan Croons “I Could Have Told You”

    Bob Dylan, who has already released two albums of American standards in recent years, is doing it again. But this time, he is releasing a triple-album of such standards called Triplicate. Like the two previous albums, Triplicate will include a number of songs previously recorded by Frank Sinatra.

    Bob Dylan surprised some by releasing Shadows in the Night in 2015.  Then, he followed that album with another album of standards, Fallen Angels in 2016. The triple-album announcement illustrates that Dylan is going all-in on this style of music, at least for the immediate future.

    Triplicate will include a number of well-known and some lesser-known American standards. The track list includes Sinatra classics like “The Best Is Yet to Come” and “September of My Years.” Also, the set includes “As Time Goes By” and “Stormy Weather.”

    The first release from the upcoming album is “I Could Have Told You.” Carl Sigman and Jimmy Van Heusen wrote the song. And Sinatra first recorded it in December 1953 during the same sessions with Nelson Riddle where he recorded “Young at Heart.”

    Below is the new recording of “I could Have Told You” by Bob Dylan.

    Below is Sinatra’s take on “I Could Have Told You.” The first time Sinatra included the song on an album was on Look To Your Heart (1959).  That collection featured singles and B-sides that he recorded between 1953 and 1955.

    Bob Dylan’s Triplicate set will hit stores and the Internet in various forms — including a Deluxe Limited Edition LP — on March 31, 2017.

    What do you think of Dylan’s take on the standards? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    A Famous Encounter and “Like a Rolling Pin”

    A “Talk of the Town” segment in The New Yorker featured a short profile of record producer Scott Litt, who had produced records by the likes of Nirvana and R.E.M. In the article, Litt told an interesting story about the first time he met Bob Dylan.

    More than a few decades ago, Litt was producing a Replacements album, working in the studio with the band. Dylan was working on his own record nearby, so he stopped by to check out the Replacements.

    When Dylan walked in the studio wearing a hoodie, it just happened to be the same time that the Replacements’ leader Paul Westerberg was singing a parody of Dylan’s hit song “Like a Rolling Stone” called “Like a Rolling Pin.”

    Westerberg did not notice Dylan standing there, and Litt failed to alert the singer, who continued with the parody. Finally, when Westerberg finished, Dylan asked, “You guys rehearse much?” Then he left.

    The lyrics to “Like a Rolling Pin” are nothing special, using phrases from Dylan’s original mixed with some small changes. I believe the song did not end up on the album at the time, appearing later with B-sides and unreleased tracks on All For Nothing/Nothing For All (1997). But the Replacements can sing the phone book and make it sound like a great song. So when they start off with a great Dylan song, one cannot complain.

    More than twenty years later, Litt finally got to work with the singer of “Like a Rolling Stone” when he was the engineer for Dylan’s 2012 album Tempest. While working with Dylan on Tempest, Litt did not mention their previous studio encounter. [Nick Paumgarten, Hello, Bobby, The New Yorker, 1 Oct. 2012: 22-23.]

    What is your favorite Bob Dylan cover? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Ramblin’ Jack and “Don’t Think Twice”

    Elliot Charles Adnopoz was born in Brooklyn, New York on August 1, 1931. Although his birth name and location are not generally associated with cowboys, the boy became fascinated with cowboys and at the age of 15 ran away from home to join a rodeo. Eventually, he would achieve a more cowboy-like handle, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

    Ramblin’ Jack

    The folksinger reportedly got his nickname from Odetta’s mother commenting on how Ramblin’ Jack tells rambling stories. But it is as an interpreter of folk songs that we recognize the man, who was largely influenced by his connections with Woody Guthrie.

    Elliott’s daughter made an excellent documentary about Ramblin’ Jack’s career and their relationship. It is worth tracking down the 2000 film, The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack.

    “Don’t Think Twice”

    When thinking about Ramblin’ Jack’s songs, it is difficult to pick a favorite. But it is hard to top his interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice.”

    Elliott tells a story about being snowbound, stuck in a cabin for three days after his wife ran off with another man. In the cabin, he had firewood, a bottle of whiskey, and a Bob Dylan record. So, in his pain, he listened to “Don’t Think Twice” for three days.

    Finally, the snow melted and Elliott drove to New York City and went to the Gaslight, where it was open mic night. There, Elliott began playing the Dylan song he had learned in the cabin. Suddenly, in the dark audience, a man stood up. It was Dylan, who yelled, “I relinquish it to you, Jack!” Elliott finished the song, and he has played it ever since.

    Elliott provides a weariness to “Don’t Think Twice.” Instead of interpreting it as an angry breakup song, he gives voice to an older man looking back through some years with regret. “Don’t Think Twice” is a great song when Dylan sings it; but it is a different great song with Elliott’s voice.

    Below, Elliott plays “Don’t Think Twice” in 2008. Check it out.

    Ramblin’ Jack remains an American treasure. Earlier this year, Folk Alliance honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

    What is your favorite Ramblin’ Jack Elliott song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    They’re Selling Postcards of the Hanging: The Real Lynching in Dylan’s “Desolation Row”

    On June 15, 1920, residents of Duluth, Minnesota lynched three African-American circus workers: Isaac McGhie, Elias Clayton and Elmer Jackson. An 8-year-old child named Abraham Zimmerman lived in Duluth at the time.  And he grew up to have a son named Robert, who would later become famous with the name Bob Dylan. So, the lynching that Zimmerman witnessed eventually played a role in what American Songwriter has called Dylan’s sixth greatest song of all time.

    Abe Zimmerman taught his son about the lynching.  The lesson was similar to the way Woody Guthrie’s father told him about a lynching he had witnessed (that similarly inspired Guthrie to write an excellent song). Zimmerman’s story of the lynching in Minnesota and its aftermath eventually provided the imagery for the opening of Dylan’s “Desolation Row.”

    The Crime and Arrests

    In 1920, McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson worked with the John Robinson Circus as cooks or laborers. On the morning of June 15, James Sullivan called the police.  He told them that one night earlier his eighteen-year-old son and his son’s nineteen-year-old companion Irene Tusken had been held at gunpoint. Sullivan reported that his son told him that Tusken had been raped.

    Reportedly, there was no physical evidence of the rape.  But the Duluth police rounded up around 150 circus workers.  Then, the police asked the teens to identify the attackers among the circus workers.

    Six African-American men were arrested — including McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson.  Then, tensions rose in the community. Newspapers reported on the arrests and rumors spread around town.

    The Lynchings

    Eventually, a mob of 6,000-10,000 stormed into the jail.  They met little or no resistance from the police. They broke into the cells where they could, and they took McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson.

    First, the mob beat and hanged Isaac McGhie from a lamp post, despite the objections of a priest. Then, they similarly beat and hanged Elmer Jackson and Elias Clayton.

    The Minnesota National Guard arrived the next day to protect the three remaining prisoners.  But they were too late to help McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson.

    Three men in the mob were convicted of rioting.  Each served less than 15 months in prison. Nobody was convicted of murder.

    Seven of the remaining circus laborers were indicted for rape, and one man was convicted. Further, eventually it came out that Sullivan’s teen-aged son had made up the story of the rape that had set everything in motion.

    As was the case with many lynchings of African-Americans during the early twentieth century, photos of the lynching were taken and sent as postcards. The photo features Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie, both shirtless, hanging from the street light with Elias Clayton’s body on the sidewalk,.  Members of the mob lean in to be part of the photo. Part of the photo is at the top of this post, but you may see the entire photo postcard here (warning: graphic image).

    Desolation Row

    Bob Dylan was born only 21 years after the lynching, and so he may have seen the photo postcards that circulated in the area. Thus, he begins his epic song “Desolation Row” with a reference to these photographs.

    They’re selling postcards of the hanging;
    They’re painting the passports brown;
    The beauty parlor is filled with sailors;
    The circus is in town.

    The song continues, perhaps with “the blind commissioner” being a reference to the failures of the police to protect the three men. Of course, it is generally impossible to interpret every line of a Dylan song.

    Yet, it is clear that the lynching is the jumping off point as Dylan delves into a number of themes.  “Desolation Row” continues with references to the circus imagery that provided the setting for the Duluth lynching.

    Here comes the blind commissioner,
    They’ve got him in a trance;
    One hand is tied to the tight-rope 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.

    Recordings of “Desolation Row”

    “Desolation Row” originally appeared on Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited in 1965. More recently, alternate versions from the original recording sessions were released on The Best Of The Cutting Edge 1965 – 1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12.

    Additionally, there are various live versions of the song.  One great live version appears on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live, 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall Concert.” Below is another live version where Dylan changes up the music a bit, as he often does.

    “Desolation Row” features some of Dylan’s greatest images, including the opening about the postcards of the hanging. In the book Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Oliver Trager describes the song as “science fiction noir where mythology and history’s heroes and heels lurk in the shadows of every alleyway.” He concludes that the song “is perhaps the the most nightmarish vision in Dylan’s canon.”

    Legacy

    It remains a mystery whether the three lynched men had committed any crime or whether the story was completely fabricated by the teen-aged boy. Race played a significant role in the lynching, and even today in typical criminal cases we know that eyewitness testimony is generally unreliable.

    The 1920 lynching, either way, was certainly a tragedy.  Mob mentality and racial animosity took the lives of the three men.

    Historically, lynchings occurred most often in the South against African-American men.  But it was not unusual for lynchings to take place in the North. There were at least 219 people lynched in northern states from 1889 to 1918. Although times have changed, we still see echoes of these acts of racial violence in the news today.

    The Duluth lynching, in particular, has haunted those connected to it in various ways. The great-grandson of one of the Duluth lynchers wrote a book several years ago called The Lyncher In Me.

    And Dylan’s “Desolation Row” is another kind of postcard of the hanging.  In the song, the lynching image mingles with other pictures that continue to haunt old and new listeners.

    Partial photo of lynching via public domain. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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