The "Soul" of Bob Dylan
Every once in a while, I need to be reminded that I’ve been taking something important for granted. Such was the case when PBS aired Martin Scorcese's Bob Dylan documentary ‘No Direction Home’. I certainly didn’t miss the boat on Dylan. Since my first Dylan purchase (Greatest Hits Vol 1, in 1976, from a friends record club acct, with the Milton Glaser poster...) I’ve probably owned (on and off) most everything he recorded between his 1962 debut and ‘Desire’ in 1976 (I kind of lose Bob after that, but my sister Melissa carries the post-76 Dylan burden for the whole family). However, my perception and consumption of Dylan’s music and persona has fluctuated wildly over the years, more or less in flux with my capacity for understanding his music in context with the times, and in relation to the music that inspired it and which it in turn inspired. My 8th grade perception probably ran along the lines of "Bob Dylan: Giant of Popular Music", a notion – simplistic but true – reinforced by the wide variety of material on the Greatest Hits LP, which included acoustic classics as well as wild-eyed boho skronk like ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’ (running basically up to ‘Blonde on Blonde). As far as my 13 year old self was concerned, those widely varied sounds may as well have been coming from the same period. A few years later a good friend hepped me to ‘Desire’ which was really the first “contemporary” Dylan I had experienced. As a slightly more sophisticated college kid, I grabbed ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, because I’d seen it on countless critics “best ever” lists, and didn’t want to be left with my cheese flapping in the wind. By that time, several years with my ear tied to “classic rock” radio (which hadn’t really been forced into that semantic ghetto yet) had exposed me to ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and I had fully accepted the ‘Dylan as rocker” idea (though I don’t think I fully appreciated what a work of genius that LP was for a few more years). By the time I was in my late 20’s, my interest in older music (i.e. original folk and blues) drew me deeper into Dylan’s early LPs, where the razor sharpness of his words was tempered by his Woody Guthrie/Ramblin’ Jack Elliot play-acting. My awareness of Dylan’s ties - symbolic and actual – to the Beats and my appreciation of the political nature of his lyrics (at least as it occurred tome) grew during this time. Soon enough I had digested ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ and ‘Blonde on Blonde’, getting the full picture of mid-60’s “electric” Dylan. Fast forward to my 30’s, and I began to get a grip on the “big picture”. This had a lot to do with finally being able to see where Dylan’s constant reinvention of himself intersected with his music and that they were not always the same thing. In other words, I was finally able to see past ‘Bob Dylan: Giant of Popular Music’ and finally see the master songwriter and the provocateur standing side by side, yin and yang. ‘No Direction Home’ wisely used archival footage where possible (the 1966 UK tour footage of Dylan and the Hawks was a revelation), the voices of those that were around Dylan during his greatest period of growth, and surprisingly enough the voice of Dylan himself, less to paint a picture than to bring an existing picture into focus so that the true details were revealed for the first time. It’s worth seeing if only for the Rashomon-like recollections of the storied ‘Dylan goes electric’ confrontation at the Newport Folk Festival. That said, one of the more important component parts of ‘Bob Dylan: Giant of Popular Music’, was his huge influence on the music of his time (and beyond). One need only look as the countless versions of ‘Blowin in the Wind’, as well as numerous Top 40 covers of other Dylan originals (by the Byrds, Peter Paul & Mary, Sonny & Cher, the Turtles and others) to realize that by 1965, Dylan had entered the zeitgeist in a big way (though it was funny to see Dylan express his distaste for the “folk rock” sound). Watching ‘No Direction Home’ got me to thinking about “soul” covers of Dylan material. I can’t say that many came to mind, but the few that did are worth mentioning. Both of today’s cuts hail from the 1969/1970 period, and from two very different kinds of singers. O.V. Wright was one of the many great 60’s soul singers to come out of a gospel background. He recorded a grip of amazing 45s and LPs in his short life, and had a supremely expressive voice. Wright lets his gospel roots show on his cover of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’. Produced by Willie Mitchell, the tune has a great southern soul vibe with a subdued instrumental backing that brings out the full power of the vocals. Phil Flowers was a Washington DC area vocalist who recorded for a number of labels (including Hollywood, Dot, A&M, and Epic) from the mid-50’s until the 70’s. He always added a “rock” edge to his performances (he ended up in a rock band called Jebediah), and that's evident on his cover of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. He lays into the tune with a high energy, ‘Billy Stewart meets Wilson Pickett’ attack backed by blaring horns and hard drums. The version of the 45 that I have is a promo that includes the version posted here (which clocks in at just over 4 minutes) and on the flip side, a six minute version that features a wholly superfluous psychedelic freak out. It may be the only version of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ that you can dance to.