A Musical Expeditionary Disguised as a Master of Song; Ruminating on Bob Dylan’s 46th album “Together Through Life” by Jared Feldschreiber
1. Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
2. Life Is Hard
3. My Wife’s Home Town
4. If You Ever Go To Houston
5. Forgetful Heart
7. This Dream Of You
8. Shake Shake Mama
9. I Feel A Change Is Comin’ On
10. It’s All Good
I’m not a musical historian, nor a musician, but I do know a lot about Bob Dylan’s immeasurably varied influence on musical genres and his cultural impact. Refusing to be pinned down and modestly obstinate to the role as ‘lyrical genius’ or ‘poet; – Dylan once said something along the lines of, ‘poets don’t go to P.T.A. meetings,’ insisting he is merely a regular guy with real-life concerns. Often in Dylan interviews, I am reminded of D.H.Lawrence’s “never trust the artist, trust the tale.” But in Martin Scorsese’s “No Direction Home” (2005), Dylan does say something that he has consistently proven to be, as he celebrates his 46th album, “Together Through Life.” He says he always had seen himself as merely a ‘musical expeditionary.’ This has proven to be ever so true within him: a purveyor of American roots music.
In 1961 he sang in his “Song to Woody:”
Here’s to Cisco an’ Sonny an’ Leadbelly too,
An’ to all good people that traveled with you.
Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men
that come with the dust and are gone with the wind.
This song refers to Cisco Houston, Sonny Boy Williamson and Huddie William Ledbetter as the three standard-bearers of American folk music, who were also musical compatriots of Woody Guthrie, Dylan’s lifelong musical idol. It seems that whenever Mr. Dylan is misinterpreted or even worse, misunderstood for his graveling, he reminds us that his artistry displays a remarkably seeking musical wisdom. “Those old songs are my lexicon and prayer book,” Bob Dylan said in 1997. “All my beliefs come out of those old songs… You can find all my philosophy in those old songs. I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back toward those songs.”
Upon listening to the first few tracks, like “Behind Lies Nothin’,” “Life is Hard” or “If You Ever Go to Houston,” the audience realizes that Dylan does not just possess rich musical taste; he idolizes and seeks to render them to fit his own style. He brings his listener to the sounds of a late night soiree at a Parisian café or a 1950s hamburger joint or even to New Orleans Zydeco nightclub one has always fancied to go.
Together Through Life is accompanied by a vintage 50s Beatnik style jacket with the main photograph of lovers in a car by Bruce Davidson. Everything about the album seems to be so defiantly unique, yet wholly good-natured. Each song has that distinct Dylan twang and lyrical irony, which makes him such a great musical artist. “Life is for love/and they say that love is blind,” sings Dylan. “If you wanna live easy/Baby, pack your clothes with mine.” The album is much breezier than his previous album, “Modern Times,” which does not mean it is better per say, but it is just as compelling and all the while, a curious listen. This is an album to cherish as if listening to someone who is a master (and yet also a life-long student) of his trade.
Together Through Life is homage to the varied singers who played on Chess Records, the record label based in Chicago, which specialized in rhythm and blues, gospel, and early rock and roll. Laced throughout it is Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo who plays the Zydeco-induced accordion. With his graveling voice, Dylan often sounds like Muddy Waters and like the Mississippi Delta bluesmen he always idolized, as he has sounded for about 15 years now. This is clearly Dylan probing deeper in the foundation of Americana music, too— ‘Good as I been to You” (1992) and “World Gone Wrong” (which won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 1994) were albums in which he only sang Americana cover songs, the likes of Blind Willie McTell, Tom Paley and Doc Watson. Ever since then, it seems as though Dylan is manifesting his personal pledge to emulate those Americana musical artists, while constructing new tracks that are also remarkably personal. It’s also apparent Dylan, in one his 9th track on the album is self-aware of his own image as the ‘master of song,’ deftly interweaving, “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver/And I’m reading James Joyce/Some people tell me I got the blood of the land in my voice.”
Sure, Dylan has the reputation to be mysterious, often giving cryptic interviews (having once said, “some people work in gas stations and they’re poets. I don’t call myself a poet because I don’t like the word. I’m a trapeze artist,”) therein lies in his art that he continually seeks and often finds his infinite wisdom. As he continues to tour with other voices of Americana, like Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, ‘this musical expeditionary,’ as he always claims he’s been, also proves him worthy as the master of song.
Many Thanks to Jared.