Episode 16. “Hard Times in New York Town” and Dylan’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech. June 15, 2017. The Apartment. Rainier’s.
To open (1:45), Kelly and I discuss the song. We listened to three versions – on from The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3, one from The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos 1962-1964, and one from Folksinger’s Choice recorded in early 1962 with Cynthia Gooding. Daniel waxes poetic (3:00) about the chances, o the chances (or the desire for our brains to have order and meaning, especially after the black hole of Dylan & The Dead) that the attendant’s at the Tower of Song would pair one of Dylan’s earliest songs — from Bonnie Beecher’s apartment during the holidays in 1961 — with his Nobel Prize in Literature speech delivered on June 4, 2017.
Kelly (4:40) loved the song and found herself singing it throughout the week. It’s simple, its short, the musicality prevails through the strong finger-picking. We try to determine (5:00) if we could hear the noted progression from his pre-New York self, his post-Columbia contract self, and his post-Bob Dylan self. Each version was unique in its own way — but none more proficient than another. (Once we flesh out this period, give The Minnesota Hotel Tapes a proper listen, and maybe raise some money to get that dang , we’ll speak more on the subject.) Kelly’s favorite was the slower Witmark version, which had an extra verse (7:35):
The weak and the strong and the rich and the poor
Gathered there together, ain’t room for no more
Crowded up above and crowded down below
When someone disappears, you never even know.
In David Pitacshe’s book, Song of the North Country: A Midwest Framework to the Songs of Bob Dylan, he notes (8:00) that New York is a town of “the kickers and the kicked.” “Dylan links the the kicked poor with the country — while wealthy urbanites like ‘Mr. Rockefeller’ and ‘Mr. Empire’ sit silently on their comfortable perches” (pg. 28). Not to disparage lovely Iowa, but I compare the excising of the above line with the omission of,
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me. The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’ But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing. This land was made for you and me
One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple, by the relief office I saw my people. As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if God Blessed America for me
from “This Land Is Your Land” (and is similar to what Dylan would encounter in a few months with “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”). Coca-Cola conceptions of America juxtaposed with a radical conception of freedom, liberty, private property. Why did Dylan keep “country” in on of the versions he sang? (He’d swap it with “city” in another.) Kelly felt it was “country” in the macro sense, hard times in America, while Daniel kept in the Midwest and imagined “New York Town” as somewhere the author was trying to conceptualize to fit into his ever-changing sense of scope. It’s the push and pull of being woke and contending with where you came from.
In the end, what always gave this song oomph was its finale — When I leave New York, I’ll be standing on my feet. It just feels good to sing, good to dream on. So far, that and Dylan singing, Don’t ask me nothin about nothin / I just might tell you the truth in “Outlaw Blues” are two of Kelly’s favorite Dylan moments.
History of New York (11:30): “that was a big theme this week, go figure.” Daniel wants the beginnings of New York. “What was once New York, er, is now New Amsterdam, or the other way around.” Henry Hudson, in 1609, “found” the island of Manhattan, also known as Manna-hatta that was occupied by Algonquins. Hudson went to the Dutch king guy and said there’s some cool stuff in Manhattan and the Dutch king, Schure, creates West India Trading Company — for beaver. In 1624, 30 Dutch families roll into Manhattan. In 1626, Dutch buy Manhattan. Urban legend of $24 is wrote. They paid (with the help of Mr. Minuit, in Dutch money (not shekels, gilders!) equivalent to about $1,000. We own Manhattan and the Lenape ain’t happy but they’re sellin their beaver, we’re sellin our beaver. There’s windmills. There’s 36 bars. Priorities. This guy Jonas Bronck shows up and buys some land. Wilhelm Kiff, becomes leader of New Amsterdam, he builds a wall to keep out the “savages” — this becomes Wall Street. Peter Stuyvesant was peg-legged. People liked him: “Everything is cool. He’s not obsessed with building walls. Everything is going great. We’re drinkin, we’re smokin…” Hold up!,” Stuyvesant shouts from the back. He wanted to keep people out of New Amsterdam — not just drunks and criminals, but also Jews and Quakers… Everyone: “Guess what, while you weren’t paying attention over the last 40 years, people here aren’t really Dutch anymore. We’re kinda from everywhere.” Enter: King Charles II. III? II. One of the Charles’s sends a fleet and is, like, “Hey!” Not a single shot is fired as the English take control of New Amsterdam. Charles’ brother was the Duke of York. Yeah, you’re piecing this together!
19:00 – Bio of Cynthia Gooding! Kelly loved her voice and just wanted to know everything. She was born in Minnesota — “where Bob Dylan was born, see, I remembered!” — and moved to New York City — “see, it’s all relevant!” Elekra Records president found her a “folk party” (let that sink in) in Greenwich Village. She sings in Spanish, Italian and Turkish. She recorded “La Bamba” years before Ricky Vallance did. Folksinger’s Choice on WBAI in NYC. First interview with Bob Dylan. We listened to the final song of the program. She moved to Spain to record flamenco music. Worked for the National Endowment of the Humanities. Died in 1988 in NJ. We talk about her in relation to Alan Lomax. And excerpt her talking with Dylan at the end where she asks if he’ll wear the hat when he’s rich and famous. He says he’ll never rich and famous. Can’t ask for a better segue into the present.
The Nobel Prize (23:45): It’s a lot to wrap your head around, especially if you haven’t been around for the entire ride. It was nice to hear more about his life (see The Supplemental Series 001: No Direction Home for more), especially with the piano underneath. The connection of American songwriting with him — through Buddy Holly (who transferred his powers to him) onto Leadbelly and forward. From The New Yorker
“What he is saying is that he learned his consummate literary technique—how to wield metaphor and make simile sing, how to sew his songs with rhyme and spin a whole uncanny scene from a perfectly worded image—from the great vernacular tradition of American songwriting, a vast library stored not on shelves but in minds and chord-picking fingers.”
Dylan rhapsodizing (27:45) was one of the highlights for Daniel. Then… the book report (29:30)! Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey. Heylin notes, Dylan “saw himself as part of this process — as an interpreter of a hoary ol’ tradition of self-expression, not as an originator of new forms of song” (Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions 1961-1994, pg.2). While we aren’t under any kind of microscope that Dylan is under, we are all products of our time and culture and the myth of Dylan’s original sin is something that we also carry around as distraction from the truth that the love we project, the words we write, the proclamations we attest to are just sirens of our shared history writ large. Better to own that than try to explain your originality.
So what about all this plagiarizing? (32:00) headline: TFW the book report is due tomorrow morning and it’s midnight already. Importantly, they note: “Dylan began (and will likely end) his career recording covers before he decided to toss Biblical archetypes and pop-culture references together and set them to electric folk-rock, so he’s a synthesist by nature.” was out for blood but their interviews with academics was gold:
Longtime Dylan fan and George Washington University English professor Dan Moshenberg told me no alarm bells went off for him while reviewing the passages. Gwynn Dujardin, an English professor from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, had more issues with Dylan’s approach, noting the irony that “Dylan is cribbing [from] a contemporary publication that is under copyright instead of from Moby-Dick itself, which is in the public domain.” A final reviewer, Juan Martinez, a literature professor at Northwestern University, said, “If Dylan was in my class and he submitted an essay with these plagiarized bits, I’d fail him.
As The New Yorker put it, after Dylan claims to have read Don Quixote and A Tale of Two Cities in grammar school, “Welcome to Dylan Self-Mythologizing 101.” To close with Dylan’s speech (34:00):
That’s what songs are too. Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says, “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.
Dylan will die one day but these songs will live on. Who hasn’t gone for lists of Nobel, Man Booker, National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize winners to pick the next book, play, poem? Dylan will be unique on this hypothetical list for some hypothetical kid discovering him a hundred years from now. Hopefully he isn’t asking, “What’s music?” or lamenting that guitars don’t work well under water, but if there is a world then, that person will be stumbling upon a treasure trove of people — like us, in our so-far small way — who devote time and resources to this artist.
All of that and Kelly kept replaying the ending to Battletar Galactica. Typical! Then Daniel got all personal and macro about life beyond the podcast… though Kelly got stoked about a future space episode! (38:00)
Recommendations: Kelly (41:20). DMX. Wu-Tang. Not Smashing Pumpkins (though she thinks she invented the phrase “Chicago grunge”) and the podcast Throwing Shade.
Daniel (43:20): our Spotify playlist, Spotify’s Summer Rewind, and Titus Andronicus’ 2010 album, The Monitor (and an easter egg on the episode’s excerpt of “The Battle of Hampton Roads”).
Closings (46:00): I surprised Kelly with two drawings from random.org (who should just sponsor us at this point). First, we pick 3 numbers, 1 through 98, for Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour, our next in The Supplemental Series. Kelly selected three incorrect numbers but chose “Dreams.”