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The Friday Morning Listen: Bob Dylan

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First posted on Mark Is Cranky:

This must be literary hootenany week. Last night, just a few hours after that Hot Topic literary foolishness, I was sitting around flipping through the winter issue of the The Threepenny Review. My first thought, exactly the same as when I read the previous issue, was “Gee…Why the heck am I receiving this publication?” Turns out that TheWife got an ad card for it in the mail and signed me up. Fantastic. There are so many perks to being married to a fellow bookworm. (There are disavatages too…like lack of free and open wallspace due to bookcase dominance).

“Stories of a Bad Song” is a Greil Marcus essay that chronicles the lives of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”. The lives? The first was the initial, protest song, Freewheeling-era unveiling. The second was when Dylan brought the song back into his playlist in the 80’s followed by the bizarre performance at the 1991 Grammy Awards. The third was at a talent show at Boulder High School in 2004.

I’m going to talk about how meaning is generated in cultural work, over time; I’m going to talk about how it is that bad art, a bad song, can make its way through time so persistently that questions of good and bad may become absolutely moot. I’m going to talk about a very old song by Bob Dylan.

I’ve never really thought about the lives of particular songs, for me it’s mostly albums that count. Still, Marcus does point out (to me anyway) that sometimes pieces of music can grow beyond their humble (or not so) beginnings to encapsulate so much more. So when somebody slings around the word “nostalgia” as some kinda sneery verbal mud, they’re discounting the fact that this stuff means something to folks. It’s not just madly wiggling air molecules, it’s a part of life.

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About Mark Saleski

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is a top five Dylan song for me, I think.

    I guess it wouldn’t be correct to call this album underrated per se, maybe under appreciated. I know I discovered it later than some of his others. It didn’t hit me at first. It certainly has now.

    To the more specific point in your review… so many of Dylan’s songs have changed a lot over the years. He keeps writing some of them and changes the lyrics and music (and certainly the delivery). I wonder if he ever thinks of a song as truly ‘done.’

    I have often wanted to ask some of the songwriters I respect how often a song maintains its original meaning to them and how often they feel the meaning of their songs evolve or change. Interesting to consider.

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    Mark, i agree totally with this. Most certainly songs have lifespans, evolve and such through time without neccesarily changing form in any way. the one that jumps to mind immediately (although lyrics were changed a bit) is Candle In The Wind. a fairly “meh” ballad for quite some time, nice an all, but hardly overloaded wi cultural resonance, now a fella can’t hear it without seein all those folks stood on the streets watchin Diana’s funeral unfold. just how it is. also, in Dylan’s case, he’s often said the song he has on the record isn’t neccesarily the definitive version, that these things grow and progress over time. sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. those versions of A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall from the Rolling Thunder tours, for example, are pleasant enough to hear for a time, but hardly any serious contender to the stark beauty of the Freewheelin version.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    true. i happen to be listening to the Rolling Thunder live record at this very moment.

    i remember reading a review of the Live at Budokan record where the reviwer was just freakin’ livid that Dylan would actually change the song structures.

    i really like the bizarre versions, but they’re SO different that it’s like listening to a tribute record or something.

  • godoggo

    Of course, he never does a song the same way twice anyway, and the demo versions of a song as different from the version generally considered definitive as can later reinterpretations. It’s really a bit of a historical accident, I think, that a particular interpretation out of the countless that he may have done, either for tape recorder of for the gods, becomes the one with which we become familiar.

    You know, like jazz. I like jazz.