Friday, November 14, 2014

Love and Theft

Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft"--his 31st studio album and the second album in his late 90's/early 2000's comeback (Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, Modern Times)--is an essential album for anyone looking to sample "American Music", and is a highly recommended album for anyone regardless.

The album achieves such an accurate representation of what “America” is with what David Mcnair calls a “complete artistic synthesis. On "Love and Theft,"country, blues, folk, swing, and rock all converge with Dylan's husky growl into a form of music that he has himself described as "all mashed up." Throw in some F Scott Fitzgerald quotes, pecan pies, and a wide cast of jokers, gamblers and other operators of the iconic neon midnight big city american scene… put that over Dylan’s growling voice that sounds like it’s been soaked in Wild Turkey and left in a smokehouse for a decade, and you have pure extracted AMERICA in music. It’s something that very few can get close to pulling off (maybe Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash?).

The title of the album, “Love and Theft”, is based on the same titled book by Eric Lott which describes the history of minstrelsy in America.

Dylan’s song is greatly influenced by the negro blues. To quote Eric Lott, "High Water" sounds the most like actual minstrel show music from the 19th century, which is interesting not only since it's dedicated specifically to black blues singer (donor?) Charley Patton but also because it's a song of high seriousness, as though ultimate truths are rooted in cultural plunder.”

Lott goes on to defend Dylan (not that there’s really any criticisms) by saying “He's one of those rare people, like Michelle Shocked, in fact, for whom cultural miscegenation is a spur to cultural newness and uniqueness. Dylan goes his own way”. Basically, Dylan’s not playing the part of mistral in the creation of this album, but is still acknowledging his negro folk blues influences with the title “Love and Theft”.

Don’t expect the album to be a “Blonde on Blonde” and you would be crazy to expect something on the level of “Blood on the Tracks”, but this is still a very good Dylan album and is another testament to his status of one of the greatest artists of all time (seriously, who comes out with one of the best albums of the decade--check out the reviews--as their 31st studio album?!?).

Best songs: “Mississippi” and “Summer Days”. Look them up on spotify or something cause they aren’t on youtube (Dylan’s stingy about his copyright).

I'm a get up in the morning, I believe I'll dust my blog

The blues has been a significant aspect of African American culture, influencing many writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and most significantly Richard Wright. In his essay "Richard Wright's Blues", Ellison defines the blues as the following: 

"The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger it's jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism." 

Buddy Guy (a blues guitarist) reflects this sentiment quite well in his song "All that makes me happy is the blues" 

i've been .. so bad, since she's been gone
i've tried to take comfort
in some old sad song
cause i feel a little better
knowing someone hurts the way i do
yeah! when i'm this far down
all that makes me happy is the blues
all the talk on TV
shouting about something
nobody listening
nobody saying nothing
seem like my old guitar
is the only place i find the truth (yeah)
this whole world is gone crazy,
all that makes me happy is the blues
i'd love to hear that sweet Memphis soul
and that good old funky rock n roll
oh but when i need some healing
there's only one thing i turn to
when I'm this far down
all that makes me happy is the BLUES

Generally, blues does not take the shape of an extremely in-the-moment pain infused expression (like a Nine Inch Nails album might). Instead, it's more of a communal head-nodding understanding between those who have had the blues (And, as Albert King said in his song Blues Power, "Everybody understands the blues. Everybody from one day or another have the blues"). This is partly what Ellison means when he calls the blues a "near-tragic, near-comic lyricism". 

Ellison goes on to call the blues "an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically". We can see how this could parallel certain ways that authors may draft their stories. The example Ellison uses is Richard Wright's Black Boy, which is an autobiographical novel that echoes the blues expression.Right underwent the "personal catastrophes" in his early life: His father left his family when he was a baby, he was later lodged in an orphan asylum, he was constantly hungry, he became a drunk as a young boy, etc. Wright expresses that "near-tragic, near comic lyricism" when he writes the seemingly paradoxical image of a protagonist who "sings lustily as he probes his own grievous wounds". 

Singing lustily as you probe your own grievous wounds? Sounds just like the blues. 

While the blues as a musical form was developed by blacks in the south (early 20th century), the blues as way to "keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger it's jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism." did not develop with the rise of black literature. Joyce, Nehru, Dostoievsky, and countless other authors have expressed catastrophic personal events through near tragic, near comic lyricism in their writings.

Some blues songs to check out:

1. Albert King: I'll play the blues for you
This is pretty smooth, sounds very 70s. It was hard to pick a single Albert King song to put on this list. I highly recommend his 67' album "Born Under a Bad Sign" for some real blues revival.

2. John Bonamassa: Sloe Gin
This is an extreme exception to the near-comic head nodding of the blues. This is one of the most emotional songs I know (up there with NIN's "Hurt"). The "I'm so damn lonely, I aint even high" line is killer. The guitar playing creates a mood much better than most blues songs... this is because John doesn't base his blues on traditional american blues but on a sort of english/irish fusion blues. I wanted to include an exception to the "Near comic near tragic lyricism"... this is it. 

3. Robert Johnson 32-20 blues

This is in my opinion the most listenable Robert Johnson song. Y'all should read about Robert Johnson, he's one of the pillars of blues history. His music is so old that it's not super listenable, even though Clapton and Keith Richards will blow steam up his ass all day. 

4. He's better than BB King. He's better than Buddy Guy. He's way better than Clapton. SRV is the master of the blues. The way he controlled the guitar tops even Hendrix's control. Evidence? Listen to any damn Stevie Ray Vaughan song.

Here's my favorite... first of all it's live and sounds 2000% better than the studio version (that's already an accomplishment). He also brings on Johnny Copeland which is a really nice addition.

I present, SRV's live "Tin Pan Alley"

If you like this stuff, other artists to check out are Freddie King, BB King, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Robert Cray. I'm not a huge Howlin Wolf/Muddy Waters fan, but if you liked the Robert Johnson delta blues stuff you might be into that pre-blues revival acoustic based stuff.