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.
In that column I shared some of rapper Kate Tempest’s testimony about the influence of the song “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” This led me to contact the guy who introduced me to the album: David Robinson, my former high school history teacher and the editor of the audiophile endeavor called Positive Feedback—a guy who has “ears to hear.”
You can read that recollection and conversation here.
Then I asked friends and correspondents about their own Bringing It All Back Home memories. And their answers are making the album new for me.
Several who responded are people I count alongside Robinson among my own most influential musical mentors. I’ll share one of those today and more next week.
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It’s easy to hear the influence of Dylan’s lyrics on another masterful singer-songwriter: Joe Henry. Henry has recorded a string of albums that you’ll find on my shelf of all-time favorites, including his recent work Invisible Hour.
Henry is also a Grammy-winning producer who has coaxed out some of the finest work recorded by Over the Rhine, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Allen Touissaint, Hugh Laurie, Solomon Burke, Mavis Staples, Aimee Mann, Loudon Wainwright III. . . should I go on? Because that’s just scratching the surface.
Here’s a Bob Dylan cover that Henry produced: Richie Havens’ take on “Tombstone Blues.”
What’s more, Henry’s knowledge of American music history is formidable and far-reaching.
So I should have known that he’d have a lot to say about Bringing it All Back Home. And, lucky for me I found him with some time on his hands as he was waiting for a plumber. We made good use of the time.
Overstreet: Which of Dylan’s songs on Bringing It All Back Home mean the most to you?
Henry: This question is hard to answer in any way that could be fully trusted, as it is a moving target, and I move with it. But I can share a few thoughts on one that remains most viscerally alive for me. . .
He has matched it many times, but the man has never written a better song than “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” It is terse and romantic, compassionate and yet eviscerating simultaneously. It stands upon the precipice of changing times, and is seeing both forward and back; and as it does, it is tender in regards to the past, and impatient for what needs next to crack open. Even the melody strikes this balance between the sublimity and raw urgency.
My memory says that I first heard this at age eleven, courtesy of my brother David (the conduit of much youthful revelation), and it struck me like a hammer. To this day, I pause whatever I may be doing to acknowledge the passing of these lines, whenever I encounter them in the air, as if they were a slow train moving at the edge of town, carrying home body of a beloved dead president:
the vagabond who’s rapping at your door
is standing in the clothes that you once wore
Overstreet: Do you remember the first time you heard this album? Was it your first Dylan record?
Henry: As I suggested [before], I heard several of these songs at age eleven—any and all contained within the delivery system of the first two Greatest Hits albums; and likely encountered the whole as a complete statement a very short time later, when I was also hearing The Freewheelin’, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde likewise in the full bloom of their expansive intentions/inventions; thus it would have been 1972, in Bath, Ohio—when I was still riding a school bus daily with Jeff Dahmer.
Overstreet: Clearly, this was an influential record. But what influences do you hear in this record? Who was Dylan drawing from?
Henry: Yes, it was an intensely influential record, and I believe we can hear it influencing the artist himself in the real-time of its realization.
Side one—“the electric side,” as it is often referred—allows us to glimpse the raking clean of a table, and the invention of a new vocabulary. Some of the more tossed-off pieces (“Outlaw Blues,” “On The Road Again”) seem to exist only for the purpose of finding that new tone, and shedding the expectations of a grammar that had become weary-making. “Outlaw Blues” for instance doesn’t say enough in and of itself to be memorable (anymore than did, say, “Motorpsycho Nightmare” a year earlier); but the words stand as scaffolding for what will soon be constructed; and their play is goose-grease upon the wheel that would very soon roll through the stoplights and find the open road that allowed the discovery and revelation of “Desolation Row” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”; “Ballad of a Thin Man.”
And you can hear in the very sonics of the electric side that everyone, the artist included, was chasing a new comet’s tail, and with barely a butterfly net with which to capture it. Producer Tom Wilson and the recording engineers on Bringing It All Back Home do their best to keep things balanced and even; and session players who populate the room—and who may have just come in from a session with Johnny Mathis—are committed to hitting their marks. . . following and amplifying whatever the young upstart was unspooling.
Compare that to very sound of Highway 61 Revisited later that year, where everyone is out on the wire of a new frontier: the vocals are aggressive and distorted, the playing raw and shot full of holes. . . everyone seemingly high, and reverently irreverent. It is a room full of freaks—none of whom, needless to say, will be in service to Mr. Mathis later in the week.
Bob’s excitement is palpable; and by the time he reaches the brooding intensity of the “acoustic side,” the words themselves—his vocal delivery, and his determined approach to banging out aggressive rhythms on his 1930 Gibson Nick Lucas Special—no longer need electricity to telegraph his intentions. “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is as explosively challenging, fierce, and aware as anything that preceded it.
The man was clearly drawing on a lyrical freedom that the so-called beat poets had instilled; and at the same time, he was channeling the raw and liberating energy of Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. Likewise, “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” draws closer to Woody Guthrie’s agitation than does, say, “Talkin’ New York” or even “Talkin’ World War III Blues”—and even with full band trailing behind, it is a truer estimation of the unbroken bloodline, fully intact.
Overstreet: And whose music wouldn’t we have today if it weren’t for Dylan’s early material? Who did this inspiration fuel?
Henry: Without this album in particular we certainly would not have had The Clash, as one important example. Subterranean Homesick Blues remains the obvious template for the good humor of that seminal band’s commitment to spirited and true revolution.
Coming full circle, we see too that this album and what immediately followed it worked on poets like Allen Ginsberg as surely as Allen had turned a key for the younger songwriter.
I’ll just close by offering that, in addition to all of the above, this record lives beneath perhaps the most perfectly conjured—and subversively appropriate—album title in rock’s history.
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Here’s Bonnie Raitt, produced by Joe Henry, singing Bob Dylan’s “Standing in the Doorway.”
And speaking of “standing in the doorway,” next week I’ll share reflections from music critics Andy Whitman and Thom Jurek, singer-songwriter Bryan Rust, and more.