Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh, Free for CAPC Members
In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh manages to emphasize the vast goodness of spiritual giants while also humanizing them.
Every Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.
What’s an anniversary without a celebration? For the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home, I asked a bunch of music lovers to share their perspectives on the lasting power and influence of that record. They responded with historical insight and personal passion.
If you haven’t been following this series—it began with some testimony from David Robinson, my former high school history teacher (who introduced me to the album). Then came reflections from one of my favorite artists, whose work is clearly touched by Dylan’s inspiration: Joe Henry.
In this, the third and final installment in the series, I’ll share several more of my favorite responses. And if that’s not enough for you, check out this Facebook post, where my followers lined up to praise the record. One of them was Michael Knepher, who wrote:
My dad had a couple of Dylan albums (I seem to recall Freewheelin’ and the Greatest Hits), but I never really got into him until I met John R. Williamson in college and he turned me on to him as more than just a “classic rock” act. Bringing It All Back Home became my favorite album, and whenever I hear [the name] “Columbus” I say in my head, “and I just said good luck.”
Here’s a cover of the song in question, performed by Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues band:
I also heard from David J. Fowlie:
There’s some amazing songs here, but “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” always has my attention. It’s comical, creative, and a little crazy, and was probably the first type of storytelling song I had heard in my teens that can go all over the place. It broadened my understanding of songwriting. It also has quite a memorable beginning.
And then I found that others had responded via email.
* * *
It was a pleasure to exchange emails with Bryan Rust, a Seattle singer-songwriter whose concerts I’ve been attending around the Pacific Northwest for twenty years. I admire his guitar-playing, and I’m humbled by his unfailing dedication to his art. He has never hesitated to wear his influences on his sleeve (Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Richard Thompson) in respect and reverence. And I can tell you as an eyewitness that his record collection is astonishing. So I knew he’d have a thing or two—or ten—to say about Bringing It All Back Home. And his email back to me did not disappoint.
Overstreet: When did you first hear this record?
Rust: I first heard Bringing It All Back Home in the tenth grade, when I checked it out of my beloved local branch library in non-beloved Fort Lauderdale. Except for individual songs, the first full Dylan album I had heard was New Morning (1970). I was pleased to be given the chance to explore Auld Bob from ‘way back in 1965. And blessings on whoever was in charge of acquisitions for that library branch.
Overstreet: Which track do you love best?
Rust: “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” still moves me every time. It opens with a declaration of love worthy of Willie the Shake:
My love, she speaks like silence
without ideals or violence
she doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
yet she’s true like ice, like fire.
Shivers as I type that. And it didn’t dawn on me for decades that it’s a blues song.
Overstreet: What would you say to someone who finds it difficult to accept Dylan’s vocal style?
Rust: Listen to the sheer range of the vocals on this album. Tenderness, rage, befuddlement, despair, exhilaration, humility. But it’s the naked honesty that always gets me, which is ironic, as he has used nine or ten different voices during his stint in show biz. It’s also good to remember that critics wrote the same thing about Billie Holiday, another artist discovered by John Hammond. But, hey, if it doesn’t work for you, don’t beat yourself up.
Overstreet: Where do you clearly hear Dylan’s influence?
Rust: Rockabilly on “Suberranean Homesick Blues,” Harry Smith on “Maggie’s Farm,” the Beats on “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” and Woody Guthrie on “Gates of Eden.” And no one on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which is a wholly original work.
* * *
I sent a similar list of questions to my two favorite music reviewers, and I heard back right away from both of them.
One—Thom Jurek, who writes for All Music Guide—was on vacation, but he took the time anyway to respond with this:
I can tell you my late mom brought this record home to me in 1971. She was working in a department store with a large record dept. One of her younger colleagues who knew I was deep into Motown, Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Led Zeppelin , and Miles—among others—told her to get it for me. I remember hearing it like it was yesterday. It ripped my head off and the world opened up. Though I knew some of Dylan’s earlier music, this was a whole different thing, like he was meeting me where I was and, because he’d already been there, taking me further than I even knew I wanted to go. It was my first Dylan record and I immediately bought Highway 61, Blonde On Blonde and Another Side. I abandoned listening to anyone else except Niles and Marvin Gaye for six months. Then I spent years digging into early electric and Delta blues and rockabilly.
* * *
Andy Whitman, an Ohio-based music critic, has been published in most of the periodicals I faithfully read: Paste, All Music Guide, Christianity Today, and Image. I owe him for introducing me to many favorite artists and albums.
And I’m also grateful for this—the personal recollection of Bringing It All Back Home that he sent in answer to my questions. And as he went into such detail, I’m going to give him the last word in this series. I hope that if nobody in this series so far has convinced you to spend some time with—or revisit—Dylan’s masterpiece, well . . . Andy Whitman should do the trick.
I bought Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home at the same time I bought a batch of other Bob Dylan albums; the entire catalogue up to that point, in fact. I was 15 years old, and New Morning was the new album at the time.
I’d been reading about Bob Dylan. I was hopelessly infatuated with a young woman with long blonde hair and an acoustic guitar who kept telling me that Bob Dylan was the best songwriter on the planet, and I had saved up what was for me a handsome sum of money via babysitting and lawn-mowing gigs. So where other kids bought bicycles or saved up for a car, I blew my life’s savings on the Bob Dylan catalogue. And I spent virtually the entire summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school taking in the music. It was almost all I listened to.
Because of the unusual circumstances, I don’t have particularly distinct memories of Bringing It All Back Home. It was another album in a stack of about ten that essentially reconfigured my notions of what pop music could be.
En masse, I remember the words and the voice. Words, words, words, spilling out in torrents—protest songs and love songs and strange, shadowy, surrealistic nightmares. No one else was making music like this, and perhaps no one else could have made music like this.
Much of it, to my fifteen-year-old mind, was inscrutable, and frankly, some of it still is. But there were bursts of such clarity and incisive commentary that they indelibly seared themselves in my brain. “Twenty years of schoolin’ / And they put you on the day shift.” How could I have known, at age 15, how prescient that would be? But it surely sounded profound and right. “But even the president of the United States / Sometimes must have to stand naked.” That was about Nixon, the crook, the liar, us kids knew, even though Bob Dylan had written it in 1965 and couldn’t have possibly written it about Nixon. So perhaps it was true of politicians in general. “If my thought dreams could be seen / They’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” Oh yeah, how did he know?
Those were just a few of the lines from Bringing It All Back Home. There were many others, and many others on the other albums as well.
By the time of Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan had begun to cast his vast influence over popular culture, although he still wasn’t being played on the radio, and he was still one album away (Highway 61 Revisited) from completely re-wiring the way America, as a whole, heard popular music.
But The Byrds surely knew about him, as did Peter, Paul and Mary, and The Turtles. Simon and Garfunkel couldn’t have existed without him. Within a year or two there would be a new generation of songwriters who were battering down the gates and insisting that the old, familiar, stale platitudes simply wouldn’t do anymore.
Dylan put all this across, of course, with a voice that was just as unfamiliar and startling as the words; shrill, raw, and utterly compelling. There are the persistent few who will always claim that the man couldn’t sing. And I will always counter that the man could sing perfectly, that music that was intended to grab you by the lapels and shake you until your teeth rattled simply wouldn’t have been effective if it had been delivered in a polite croon. There was nothing polite about this music. It demanded much of the listener. It demanded that you redefine your sensibilities. It demanded that you pay attention, really listen. It still does.
Bringing It All Back Home is a nearly perfect album. Only “Outlaw Blues,” a somewhat pedestrian 12-bar blues, is a slight stumble, and it’s still wonderfully weird. I’m ever so thankful for the man and his music. And for the girl with the long blonde hair. No, my newfound Dylan appreciation didn’t help me win the girl. It’s fine. All I got out of it was an introduction to the man who is arguably the greatest songwriter of the twentieth century. I’ll take it. Life is sometimes tough outside the gates of Eden.
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