Thursday, May 23, 2019

2019 WUMB "Day of Dylan": A Conversation

Friday, May 24th of 2019 marks Bob Dylan's 78th birthday, and to celebrate WUMB will play Dylan songs all day - interpretations, collaborations and his own recordings- from 6 AM until 10 PM. Tune in to 91.9 FM in the Boston area or stream at for "Day of Dylan".

The following is a conversation between WUMB Morning Show host Brendan Hogan and blog contributor Mike Mellor.

Mike Mellor is a librarian and music lover. He was editor for the Boston Blues Society in 2009-2010 and ran The Killing Floor blog from 2009 to 2013.

Mike is interested in U.S. history through the lens of its music, both as primary source and revisionist narrative. He believes the musical artifacts left to us tell stories that were largely untold by other media and offer a uniquely diverse look into American life.
Brendan Hogan: It's no surprise to people who listen to WUMB that I love Bob Dylan's music.

He is our Shakespeare, and people are already writing about Dylan like they write about the Bard of Avon. Someday, as with Shakespeare and other cultural heroes, we'll lose the connection with Dylan as a living, working artist of our time. (Was Shakespeare one person, after all, or a collective of writers?)

There will forever be a "before" and "after" in reference to him, but we're lucky to experience at least some of his sorcery firsthand. Magic can't be quantified, though, and it's not even worth trying to account for it. It just is. Any cultural impact Dylan has had can't be measured, either, because he has changed our culture. Dylan is like a cultural portal; he exists and so our dimension has shifted. That which could not exist before someone like him, or that which was inaccessible, is now laid out in the open.

Yes, I think highly of Dylan's art. But to me, his music has always has always been personal. Why? Because Dylan isn't magic. He isn't a figment of our imagination or a hybrid of legends passed down, written into a static, unreachable figure by history. He's a man who has shaped his own story, who has absorbed influences, and who exists in the makeup of our time. That's what I'm interested in talking about today.

Mike Mellor: You bring up an important point. Whenever I get going on Dylan I'm afraid people think I'm hero worshiping when I actually care very little about who he is as a day-to-day human being. Unlike some "Dylanologists" I don't collect paraphernalia or gossip about his affairs.

What I care about is his artistic contribution to the world: what he took, what he did with it, how it came out, and how it changed society. He's the most prolific and influential popular artist when it comes to bridging the American folk tradition with "arts and letters". His art made it a regular thing to express Post-structuralist ideas in songs about sailors and homeless people, or to tell Existentialist dirty jokes. It brought Mississippi Fred McDowell up to the Ivory Tower and F. Scott Fitzgerald down to the gutter. He's never settled long on genre or instrumentation, but his work has been a consistent cry for egalitarianism and compassion.

That is some pretty serious stuff. But where did it all start? Well, the legend goes that his ambition upon graduating high school was "to join Little Richard".

Brendan: That's the thing about Dylan: We're never really sure of who he is. Is he a man of the heart like a blues musician, of the mind like a poet, or does he want to sing about sex like Little Richard? He's all those things because he can be. Dylan is the ultimate manifestation of what it means to be an American; to be whatever you say you are. It's something he has cultivated from his earliest days as a public persona, and he's carried on laying down the chaff ever since.

Dylan doesn't use his given name, for starters, and even in his very first radio interview he spun a story about running away with the circus as a young boy. All that coupled with the mysticism and canny insight of his writing makes him a very compelling figure. I couldn't care less about his personal life, either, but I definitely filter the way I perceive the world through the lens his presence as an artist has shaped.

It's interesting that you suggest Dylan leveled the playing field between "high" and "low" cultures. I've heard people suggest that Dylan came along and broke all the rules, as if he alone had the power to do so. It's true that he did affect and represent a massive change in the way music was published, marketed, and sold, but that's not art; that's commerce. Bob Dylan is an iconic figure because he managed to exist in both the worlds of art and commerce while maintaining a high level of integrity. But nobody exists in a vacuum.

Tell me Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love" from 1956 doesn't stand up to anything on Bringing It All Back Home.

Mike: I'd never tell you that. I'd even go a step further and say Diddley's guitar beats anything Mike Bloomfield put on the Highway 61 album. Even the cartoon mythology of "Who Do You Love" seems like a prototype for "Highway 61" the song. So much of Dylan's "electric period" is right there.

I don't think Dylan leveled the playing field, if by "playing field" you mean society. If you mean "playing field" to be his own worldview, where he believes there is artistic and philosophical merit to be found in every station from beggar to king, then I agree with you. A large part of his gift is to amalgamate it all into something new, yet wholly referential and reverential. He is essentially a pastiche artist.

Speaking of running away with the circus, I wouldn't doubt it if he stole that biographical detail from Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Elliot was an important figure in Guthrie's life when Dylan went to find him laid up in a mental hospital, and was an important figure for Dylan when he was finding his folk sound.

Dylan eclipsed that moon only a few years later but Jack is still around today to tell us the stories, and to perform amazing renditions of Dylan's early material. But before Elliott ever recorded a Dylan song Dylan (under the pseudonym Tedham Porterhouse) played harp on a Ramblin' Jack record.

Brendan: It's funny how Dylan was copying Ramblin' Jack Elliott copying Woody Guthrie. He did a good job of it, too. Some of those very early Dylan recordings sound exactly like Ramblin' Jack, down to the way he phrases words and even speaks. It's a wonder Elliott was so forgiving and their friendship endured. Artists imitate, though; genius steals.

Dylan must really be a genius, then, for lifting the melody and story of "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" for his song "4th Time Around". A lot is made of his influence on The Beatles, but it actually went both ways.

Mike: Then he must really be a genius 12 times over for his love and theft of Junichi Saga's Confessions of a Yakuza.

I understand why this was a controversy, but in a way it's just Dylan being Dylan. He understands that the folk tradition knows no such thing as copyright and he made a completely separate and self-sufficient work with pieces of another. The vast majority of art does this sort of "stealing" all the time. What is Art History, after all, but a catalogue of who riffed off of whom?

My only beef is that Dylan could at least have thrown Saga's name in the liner notes. You know, credit where credit is due, especially when you borrow from a living source so unlikely to be noticed by others.

Brendan: That's his argument, too, and I tend to agree with him. An idea has to start somewhere, and more often than not it starts where someone else left off, or in the exact same place. He has the ability to internalize and codify his influences in such a way that his writing expresses a hybrid of wide-ranging ideas. It's personal and universal at the same time, and I don't think you can set out to do that. It just happens.

I suppose problems usually arise when one party makes money and the other doesn't. Dylan happily cashes his checks, I'm sure, but I've never been under the impression that he got into the game for that. In fact, he's made some pretty heavy sacrifices himself.

But stealing is a murky subject. And from Edison to Jobs to Dylan, it's very American, too.

Friday, May 10, 2019

John Paul White Interview

Morning Show Host Brendan Hogan recently chatted with Singer/Songwriter/Producer John Paul White ahead of his show at Once in Somerville on Monday, May 13th.

BH: Congrats on the new record! By the summer of 2014, after years on the road and much success with The Civil Wars, you decided to move on. I imagine that must have brought a sense of relief; to have time ready to spend with your family. Now you're back with your second solo album in 3 years. How are you feeling?

JPW:  "I’m feeling more comfortable with this vagabond style of life than I have in a while. It’s been a bit of a learning curve - how much is enough, how much is too much - and it probably always will be. I’m getting better at balancing my need to connect with people through my songs and my longing to just sit and hold my babies" 

BH: Tell us about The Hurting Kind. On this album you enlisted the help of some Nashville icons to help co-write (i.e., Whisperin' Bill Anderson and Bobby Braddock) and create the sound of the album (i.e., Pat Bergeson and Lee Ann Womack). Seems like you were going directly for a big countrypolitan/Nashville sound?

JPW: "I was going at it indirectly. I wanted those countrypolitan elements involved, but I wanted to steer clear of making a retro, throwback kind of record. Early on I realized that my voice and melodic sensibilities were always going to give it a unique spin, as I’m not a traditional country singer. That allowed me to immerse myself in the instrumentation and arrangements, but not worry too much about sounding dated."

BH: You are a tremendously gifted singer and songwriter. Which came first, and do you still approach your music that way?

JPW: "That’s very kind! I’m the most self-deprecating guy out there when it comes to my voice. I’m tweaking constantly to try to improve. Singing was my first love, by far. I never wanted to be a songwriter when I was young. I just wanted to sing and catch the girl’s eye. It was college before I started seriously realizing why I loved this, and that was due to my songwriting. I dug into the bones of what really was going on inside me when I’d get those chill bumps from music. 

BH: The Shoals region of Alabama has for decades been a hot bed of great music via FAME Studio, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, and all of the incredibly soulful records that came out of those places. Today it's artists such as yourself, The Alabama Shakes, Jason Isbell, The Secret Sisters, Patterson Hood and others. Any thoughts as to what makes the area special?

JPW: "Back in the day it was sheer determination and ignorance. Our founding fathers and mothers around here were blissfully unaware that you had to be in New York Or LA or Nashville. They figured a hit was a hit was a hit. That sort of blind confidence seeped into the town and the generations that followed. I think we all had a leg up on other communities, knowing that if you build it they will come - instead of the other way around. That allowed us to create in our comfort zone instead of a rat race. 

BH: Anything you want to share that is on the horizon for John Paul White?

JPW: "At the moment I’ve got my head down and am stoked to tour for the next 4 months. I’ll be hitting pretty much the whole lower 48, and then off to the EU. But...songs are starting to pop in my head left and right. That really makes me excited about the future."