Exhuming Bob IX: Chronicles I, Pensees 4

May 7, 2008


Exhuming Bob IX:

Chronicles Vol. I, Pensees 4


R.E. Prindle


     The gist of Chronicles is how Bob became a songwriter.  As an auto-biography of his life he is telling us nothing but as to his intellectual development he is telling us a lot.

      I find the Lost Land chapter the most interesting in the book.  Bob goes back and constructs little dioramas to illustrate the changes he was going through.  The chapter is kind of a literary version of Salvador Dali’s picture, The Persistence Of Memory.  What is visible has to be reconstructed and interpreted.  In the interpretation lies the interest.

     Bob is interested in telling us how he became Bob Dylan while wanting to give his impression of people and events.  He recalls a concert by Bobby Vee who was riding the crest of his popularity while Bob was a mere nothing waiting in line.  He seems to want to prove to us that Vee really did know him from back in Dakota thus verifying the fact that he did play with Vee’s band.  Bob sent in his name and Bobby Vee actually came out to talk to him.  The situation is reversed now, Bob is something and Vee is a has ben but Bob still has a place in his heart for him.  Touching story.

     And then he tells his Ricky Nelson story.  Bob seemed to think more highly of Rick as singer than I did.  Time has softened my attitude to Rick as well as his song ‘Garden Party’ that I have always liked.  As Bob said Ricky mentions him in his song- ‘there was Bob Dylan in his Howard Hughes disguise’- or words something like that.

     Rick’s song, I think, gave Bob the idea for the story he tells of Camilla Adam’s party.  It is actually two parties, the one at Comill’as and another at Alan Lomax’s that Bob loosely joins together around the persona of Mike Seeger.  It’s interesting.  Bob introduces the party thusly:  p.62

…then something immediate happens and you’re in another world, you jump into the unknown, have an instinctive understanding of it- you’re set free.  You don’t need to ask questions and you always know the score.  It seems like when that happens, it happens fast, like magic, but it’s really not like that.  It isn’t like some dull boom goes off and the moment has arrived- your eyes don’t spring open and suddenly you’re very quick and sure about something.  It’s more deliberate.  Its more like you’ve been working in the the light of day and then you see one day that its getting dark early, that it doesn’t matter where you are- it won’t do any good.  It’s a reflective thing.  Somebody holds the mirror up, unlocks the door- something jerks it open and you’re shoved in and your head has to go into a different place.  Sometimes it takes a certain somebody to make you realize it.

     Mike Seeger had that effect on me.

     So the rambling account of the Bob’s next few pages is going to be a story of how Mike Seeger put Bob’s head in a different place.  It’s going to happen at Camilla’s ‘Garden Party’ combined with Alan Lomax’s affair.  Did this party really take place or is this a dream sequence Bob builds up to explain the change he’s going through?  The population of the party strikes me as improbable but then I have attended very few celebrity parties and don’t feel I can put myself forward as a judge.

     Bob doesn’t tell us when these two melded parties built around Mike Seeger too place but as most of the stories in this essay take place in the winter- baby, it was cold outside- it must have been before 1963.  Bob arrived in NYC in the winter of 1960.  In relation to Harry Belafonte he does say:  ‘I’d be making my professional recording debut with Harry, playing harmonica on one of his albums called Midnight Special.  That album was recorded in ’62 so if that was still in the future as Bob makes it sound the intellectual development he’s taking about probably took place in the winter of ’61-’62.  He bagan dating Suze Rotolo in the summer of ’61 so the part-time girl friend he was with, Delores Dixon, must have been the part of the time he wasn’t with Suze.

     There were a lot of Folk people there but Bob says they all gave him the cold shoulder except for Pete Seeger.   p. 64

     I saw a lot of people here that I’d meet again not too far off, a lot of the folk community hierarchy, who were all pretty indefferent to me at the time and showed very little enthusiasm.  they could tell I wasn’t from the North Carolina mountains nor was I a very comercial, cosmopolitan singer either.  I just didn’t fit it.

     So if not outright rejection there was probably a feeling of you don’t have to pay attention to that guy, he ain’t goin’ nowhere.  So here we have the nucleus of Positively Fourth Street.  p. 64

     They didn’t know what to make of me.  Pete Seeger did, though, and he said hello.

     So, who among the multitude had the prescience to recognize the genius of Bob Dylan and said:  Hello.  That was enough for the moment for the boy in the sheepskin coat and motorcycle boots.

     An then Bob runs through a list of attendees:  Harold Leventhal the famous Folk manager, Judith Dunne a choreographer, Ken Jacobs the filmmaker, Pete Schumann a puppeteer, Moe Asch from Folkways, Theodore Bikel, Harry Jackson the artist, Cisco Houston.

     A whole slew of authentic labor agitators, not those phony bigwigs who went to Pureto Rico to party hearty.  Irwin Silber of Sing Out!,  There were a lot of Broadway and off-Broadway actors too, a lot of musicians and singers, Erik Darling, Lee Hayes, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.  Mike Seeger of course but also the creme de la creme Harry Belafonte.  Quite a gathering which makes me believe that Bob is romancing a little.

     Bob was knocked out by Belafonte.  He eulogizes over Harry.  For myself I never really cared for Belafonte.  Harry was from New York City.  born in ’27 so he’s about eighty now.  Still kicking.  He went to live with his grandmother in Jamaica for four years when he was from eight to twelve then returned to New York City.  Studied to be an actor but first drifted into singing, picked up a folk repertory from Huddie Ledbettor who he apparently knew.  He had a hit in 1953 with Matilda and in 1954 released his LP Mark Twain of which the title song became a hit.  Harry also did a number of Leadbelly tunes like the slave songs Bring A Little Water, Silvie and Jump Down, Spin Around.

     The lyrics in the latter baffled me for decades.  In one of those classic mishearings I heard:

Jump down, spin around

Pick a bale of cotton.

Jump down, spin around,

Pick a bale of hay.

          I could never figure out the connection between cotton and hay.  Then one day I realized, or read the lyrics, I forget which and learned the last line was ‘pick a bale a day.’  Ah, made more sense.

     I didn’t understand what it was about Belafonte I didn’t like until a while ago when I subjected myself to another hearing of the first double Carnegie Hall record of ’59.  Then I knew why.  Harry treated his vocal styling from an art song point of view.  He sang Folk but through a glass darkly.  (Finally got that old saw in.  Thank you Harry.)

     He was fighting the image of the Negro as an inarticulate lout so he over compensated.  He actually mocked the English of the English on the LP, his hatred flowing out.  So he sounds like he’s performing in Porgy and Bess or like John Raitt in Oklahoma or Carousel.  Stilted.

     If one compares the records of Belafonte to those of the Scotch Folk singer Lonnie Donegan, he began his ascent at the same time, the contrast is startling.  Donegan sings as a man of the people giving the songs, same songs, a meaning and value that Belafonte fails to do.  Compare both men’s rendition of Bring A Little Water Silvie.  Belafonte sounds like he’s singing for a soundtrack of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers or something.  Lonnie Donegan sounds like he’s out there in the fields asking Sylvie to bring him a little water as he picks his daily bale of cotton.

   All the difference in the world- Lonnie Donegan is the greatest who ever rode the Rock Island Line.

     It bothers me that Bob doesn’t seem to know Lonnie.  He wasn’t that big in the US but he was huge in Britain.  You might possibly know him from the song Does The Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor On The Bedpost Overnight.

     Of course Harry made it big when he made his sentimental Journey back to Jamaica to exhume a repertoir that really struck home.  Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) made it for him.  Then his acting career revived.  He was billed as the Negro Presence which is what Bob seems to referring to here.  Every effort was made to make Harry the Black Hero, before Poitier, transcending any Whiteness.  As popular as he was he never really caught on.  Carmen Jones, a Black takeoff on the opera Carmen was his big movie.  He not only sang like but acted like John Raitt.  The movie might have done alright at the box office, I don’t know, I didn’t think much of it and I knew it was my duty to like it too.

     That would have been 1954, the year of Brown vs. the Board Of Education, just at the time Eartha Kitt, also born in 1927, burst on the scene singing the fabulous C’est Si Bon.  Ran us right up the wall.  I always couple Belafonte and Kitt in memory.  Would have been a dream marriage, like Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor.

     Having written a great eulogy for this major influence in his life, Bob compares Belafonte with Gorgeous George.  He then gets to the crux of this story, the life changing event.  He moves immediately on to Mike Seeger.

     It was getting late and me and Delores were about to leave when I suddenly spotted Mike Seeger in the room.  I hadn’t noticed him before and I watched him walk from the wall to the table.  When I saw him my brain became wide awake and I was instantly in a good mood.  I’d seen Mike play previously with The New Lost City Ramblers at a schoolhouse on East 10th Street.  He was extraordinary, gave me an eerie feeling.  Mike was unprecedented.  He was like a duke, the knight errant.  As for being a folk musician, he was the supreme archetype.  He could push a stake through Dracula’s black heart…

      Bob rambles on, he’s got enthusiasm for Mike.  Bob’s eulogy of Mike Seeger exceeded that of Belafonte by a factor of 10, but he doesn’t say Mike could knock anybody out with one punch, his ultimate accolade that he uses for Harry..  Bob muses:

The thought occurred to me that maybe I’d have to write my own folk songs, ones that Mike didn’t know.

     And so the epiphany.  Bob knew he could never come close to equaling Mike Seeger as either a folk singer or instrumentalist..  He left the field of folksinger to Mike and apparently still feeling inferior having written some well received folk style songs he escaped Mike’s shadow by adding electricity.  There was no way Mike could go there.  And there Bob got bigger than any hundred or thousand Mike Seegers.




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