March 31, 2016


"This Barren Land": Bob Dylan's Gospel Variations (Max Nelson, LARB Quarterly Journal: Winter 2016)

SOME 70 YEARS before Bob Dylan recorded Time Out of Mind, the album that gave his career the most recent of its many jump-starts and reinventions, the Memphis street-corner gospel singer Blind Mamie Forehand and her husband -- a guitar player identified only as "A.C." -- laid down a chilling, funereal 78 that quickly found its way into the gospel-blues canon. The legendary Virginian country trio The Carter Family recorded versions of both sides in the 1930s; several decades later, an all-female a capella gospel troupe would take its name from the famous A-track's refrain. The song in question, "Honey in the Rock," is the kind of spectral, imposingly vulnerable performance at which certain prewar Southern gospel singers -- Washington Phillips, Blind Willie Johnson, and Homer Quincy Smith, among others -- were especially skilled: an eerie invocation backed by a quavering guitar and the regular chiming of a tiny bell.

Forehand's voice on the record's B-side, "Wouldn't Mind Dying If Dying Was All," is firmer and more assertive than on "Honey in the Rock." As the guitar trudges along behind her, she utters what might be a confession and what is certainly -- whatever else it is -- a warning:

After death, you're gonna have to stand a test
After death, you're gonna have to stand a test
After death, you're gonna have to stand a test
I wouldn't mind dying if dying was all

One of the most striking and elusive aspects of Dylan's recent music -- particularly the loose triptych of Time Out of Mind, Modern Times, and Tempest -- is the way it channels the tone of American gospel songs like these. The voice that dominates songs like "Love Sick," "Standing in the Doorway," "Trying to Get to Heaven," and many of the numbers on Dylan's subsequent records was a half-secularized variation of the one that still emanates from that couple's only 78: a voice that takes life for something tenuous, fragile, and short, that shuffles around on shadowy thresholds, that lives in a state of constant homelessness, that wouldn't mind dying if it could only be sure that dying was all.

Since the release of Time Out of Mind, Dylan has never stopped accruing myths and rumors, making feints, leaving false trails. He wanders vagrant-like into Long Branch, New Jersey, inquiring about buying Bruce Springsteen's old house. A self-trained boxer, he enters the ring with Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini and asks him, after some light sparring, to "take it a little easy on the head." He releases a critically lauded collection of original songs between an album of Great American Songbook covers and a Christmas record featuring, among other standards, a Latin rendition of "O' Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles)" and a shiver-inducing, menace-soaked "Little Drummer Boy."

His recent self-effacing insistence, during a rambling, caustic, and startling speech at the Los Angeles Convention Center, that anyone could have written "Blowin' in the Wind" who had sang "John Henry" as often as he had -- "I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way" -- was no new revelation. It's well known that Dylan's songwriting process has always been a matter of embellishing or reshuffling folk standards. Nor was it a new admission from Dylan himself, who once described (in his autobiography Chronicles, Volume One) having honed his skills as a young songwriter by "slightly altering" one melody over and over to produce new songs, once in a while "slipping in verses and lines from old spirituals or blues." But it was an invitation for critics to undertake the same sort of exercise on Dylan's later work that Greil Marcus and others performed on records like The Basement Tapes and Blonde on Blonde: a slapdash inventory of the ways in which certain strains of early American music found their way into the tone, texture, and mood of Dylan's songs. In the case of these more recent records, it's early American religious music that took a particular hold on Dylan's imagination.

Starting with Time Out of Mind, you could argue, Dylan made a sustained effort to capture the peculiar morbid tone of the old spirituals: their obsession with fretting over, guessing, or confidently asserting what comes after death. At the start of what would become one of his most celebrated songs, Washington Phillips asked himself what "they" were "doing in Heaven today." He gave himself a quick answer: "I don't know, boys, but it's my business to stay here and sing about it."

Posted by at March 31, 2016 2:59 PM