But with Dylan, nothing is ever that obvious and indeed listening to the record tells another story. All of the songs are connected, either by title, or in the case of a very slight re-working of the blues classic Rollin’ and Tumblin’, by arrangement, of a song from the past. Workingman’s Blues takes the title of Merle Haggard‘s country hit, and a bit of its chorus, but replaces the major chord swing of the original song with a relaxed descending bass groove and lyrics that ruminate on the nature of age and work. Of course the problem with being Bob Dylan is that whatever you do; everyone’s going to assume you’re ruminating. To my ears, though, I don’t think this is one of Bob’s more personal records. If there is a theme to it, it’s that modernity encompasses both the past and the present. What technology accomplishes is the ability to embrace them both simultaneously. Pick any musical artist from the past and search them on the web. A biography, histories, musical samples, you name it; all are at your fingertips. Is this a good or a bad thing? A little of both, I think. It can rob the music of its sense of community, or it can introduce it to people that would have never heard it any other way. And there’s still plenty of banjo pickin’ going on. Just because it’s happening on your wireless web rather than on your front porch doesn’t mean that there’s any less of it. For Dylan’s part, he was asked why he played so much old material on his radio show. His answer was that he had nothing against new music, but there was so much more old music to choose from.
As for the record, Bob sounds like a man with nothing to prove. His band plays with restraint and mostly stays out of the way, and Bob sings with complete confidence and mastery of many genres of music, from blues to acoustic rock to gospel to western swing. The sound itself is pure and live. Not his best record, but probably his best casual one.
Speaking of modern adaptations of traditional music, Phoenix, AZ’s wonderful Canyon Records, overwhelmingly the main US distributor of Native American music, have released another good batch. The first of two that fits our theme is the re-release compilation of two wonderful vinyl LPs originally released in 1969, A. Paul Ortega‘s Two Worlds/Three Worlds (!!). Ortega, a Mescalero Apache, started as a bass player in a blues band, produced these two records that have light but constant grooves with rich vocal intonation. Nowadays we have the poetry of John Trudell and Robbie Robertson‘s Soundtrack for The Native Americans, but in 1969 there was simply nobody doing anything similar. The insistent pulse of his rhythm guitar and gentle sway of his voice superficially resemble Western African guitar music, the spoken introductions are nicely intoned bits of history and background. Ortega manages, with just his voice, his wonderful guitar playing and minimal percussion, to combine elements of acoustic blues with the insistent rhythms and chants of native songs and combines it into something his own. One of Canyon Records’ best releases yet.
Then there’s Pow-Wow singers Black Lodge, who’s More Kids’ Pow-Wow Songs (!) is a purely traditional recording of Pow-Wow songs except for one slight difference. The titles for some of the songs: Sponge Bob Square Pants, Scooby Doo, and Barbie’s Round Dance. While the simultaneous vocalizing and communal drumming that is common to pow-wow songs is in evidence, it’s an odd experience to hear the words “Sponge Bob Square Pants” repeated in an insistent chant. But the music is treated with respect and it doesn’t talk down to kids or sell short the traditional elements. Non-commercial sources are also embraced in To the Mother of Black Lodge and Prayer Song, but they still have the sense of humor to end one track by yelling out “Scooby Doo where are You?”
Finally, Boulder Acoustic Music Society has been quickly gaining a rep as one of the top acoustic bands in the world, and here’s where categorizing music can be problematic. BAS is probably identified as a newgrass band, but their music’s all over the place. While there are certainly bluegrass and jazz elements on 8th Color [independent release, www.boulderacousticsociety.net] probably the most winning element is their eclecticism. Start with their lineup to begin with- guitar, bass and fiddle, along with the occasional banjo, but also Scott Higgins’ marimba. There’s also ukulele and guests include Darol Anger on mandola and Sally Von Meter on Weissenborn guitar. The lead track, Thingy is jazzy, Waltz in Ragtime is what it says, there’s bits of surf and Brazilian music, delicate chamber pieces, funky blues, and the appropriately titled Kazoo Serenade. About the only unifying factor is that it’s all acoustic in nature.
All in all, it’s an eclectic bunch. Just the way I like it. No telling what I’ll have for you next time, but I’ll see you then.
[!!!]-Classic, sure to be looked back on as such for generations to come.
[!!]-Great, one of the year’s finest. If you have even a vague interest in the artist, consider this my whole-hearted recommendation that you go out and purchase it immediately.
[!]-Very good, with considerable appeal for a fan of the artist(s). If you purchase it, you likely won’t be disappointed.
[–]-Good/solid, what you would expect.
[X]-Avoid. Either ill-conceived, or artistically inept in some way.
Dave Soyars is a guitarist, electric bass player, a singer/songwriter, and a print journalist with over fifteen years experience. His column features happenings on the folk and traditional music scene both locally and internationally, with commentary on recordings, as well as live shows, and occasionally films and books. Please feel free to e-mail him at email@example.com or write him c/o FolkWorks.