The blues runs in Bob Dylan´s veins, and it always did. His first album is soaked in it, and on his second we find this statements about how he sees it:
“Down the Highway” is a distillation of Dylan’s feeling about the blues. “The way I think about the blues,” he says, “comes from what I learned from Big Joe Williams. The blues is more than something to sit home and arrange. What made the real blues singers so great is that they were able to state all the problems they had; but at the same time, they were standing outside them and could look at them. And in that way, they had them beat. What’s depressing today is that many young singers are trying to get inside the blues, forgetting that those older singers used them to get outside their troubles.”
(From Nat Hentoff´s liner notes, Freewheelin´Bob Dylan)
He sings the blues like he owns it. He is 21 years old, already an expert, both singing, playing, writing and knowing the history of the blues and the great blues artists, even covering Henry Thomas´song “Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance” from 1927. But this is only the start, of course, both of his knowledge and his ability to look at life, both his and others, from the outside, and transform it into song, into blues, singing it like it comes from the inside, from the soul. He drinks the blues, and he uses it.
Like in “North Country Blues” where he combines both folk, blues and a sociological view on society, making it a touching story about real people, living real lives, here and now.
On “Another Side of Bob Dylan” he makes his debut as a piano blues player in “Black Crow Blues”, in an album where he leaps forward as both a poet and a singer.
And, of course, when Bob Dylan “goes electric” at Newport Folk Festival in 1965, he is backed by a blues band, singing his own electric blues, “Maggie´s Farm”.
When he´s bringing it all back home at the album where “Maggie´s Farm” comes from, it oozes of blues in different forms, but even more in spirit.
On Highway 61 Revisited the direct reference to the great blues artists are showing also in the lyrics:
“Georgia Sam, he had a bloody nose.” The name was one of many alter egos for Willie Samuel McTell, the georgian blues singer better known as Blind Willie McTell. First time mentioned in a song by Bob Dylan.
In a strange scenario one of the great female blues singers, Ma Rainey, even meets another classic: “Where Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll /
Tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole”. Ma was a great inspiration to all the great blues singers that would arise the years after her, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House and lots of others. Even Dylan. As Thomas Dorsey once said: “She possessed listeners; they swayed, they rocked, they moaned and groaned, as they felt the blues with her.”
At “Blonde on Blonde” you can hear the inspiration from Robert Johnson and Elmore James in “Pledging My Time”, and in the great song, “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat”, the spirit of Lightning Hopkins´”Automobile Blues” lives on.
As in all the genres Bob Dylan has worked in, the inspiration goes both ways – lot of great blues artists have made wonderful cover versions of a long string of Dylan songs. As Freddie King with “Meet Me In The Morning”, one song not so often covered, but Freddie knows the blues when he sees it:
The great Taj Mahal makes his version of “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”, a song loaded with classic blues imagery.
One of the greatest female blues singers of them all, Bonnie Raitt, made a wonderful version of Dylan´s “Million Miles” from “Time Out of Mind”:
Bob Dylan was invited to the Grammy´s in 2002, winning a Grammy himself for “Love And Theft”, but played in return a no-nonsense-fire-and-brimstone-version of “Cry Awhile”. Bonnie Raitt was in the audience, over the moon about Dylan´s tough and hard rocking blues performance.
On the same album, “Love And Theft”, Dylan dedicates one of the songs to one of his blues heroes – the song is “High Water (For Charlie Patton)”, partly inspired by Patton´s song “High Water Everywhere”:
Dylan takes his nobel prize winning pen and extends the lines that were started by Patton. Charlie would have been really proud, I´m sure.
On his next album, “Modern Times”, he makes his own version of “Rollin´ And Tumblin´”. Some people thought it was bad that Dylan didn´t credit Muddy Waters for the song, when it obviously was adapted from this.
Maybe he should have credited someone, but when it comes to the blues, it´s not always so easy. It´s like folk songs, in many ways, people copying and quoting eachother through the years. And if someone should have been credited this time, it might have been “Hambone” Willie Newbern, recording his “Roll And Tumble Blues”, released in 1929, long before Muddy Waters had tumbled his way to the song. Of course Bob Dylan knew this. But who did “Hambone” learn the song from? If any?
In 2009, on “Together Through Life”, Bob Dylan actually do credit one of the kings of the blues, Willie Dixon, at his song “My Wife´s Hometown”. The riff unmistakably from “Just Wanna Make Love To You”, or as Muddy Waters called it in the first release of the song, “Just Make Love To Me”.
Bob does have a good time, even laughing a devilish laughter before the song ends.
On Bootleg Series, the “Tell Tale Signs” edition, there is lot´s of wonderful outtakes and rarities. Among those there is a fine version of Robert Johnson´s “32-20 Blues”. Dylan told us in Chronicles what he thought of the man who made a deal at the crossroads.
“Robert Johnson´s words made my nerves quiver like piano wires. They were so elemental in meaning and feeling and gave you so much of the inside picture. It’s not that you could sort out every moment carefully, because you can’t. There are too many missing terms and too much dual existence…. There’s no guarantee that any of his lines… happened, were said, or even imagined…. You have to wonder if Johnson was playing for an audience that only he could see, one off in the future.”
On the last shows in Britain, one of the higlight each night was the blues song “Early Roman Kings” from Dylan´s last album of originals, “Tempest” (2012). A classic blues riff, used by many artists, most known Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters.
Blind Willie McTell wasn´t mentioned just one time by Bob Dylan, as we know. The wonderful lonesome blues from the recordings of “Infidels” didn´t fit in on that album, but, praise the Lord, the song was later released on the first “Bootleg Series”-box in 1991. I just hope that the following fabulous version also will be released one day – it contains, both in words and even more in Dylan´s vocals, the whole story of the blues.
Bob Dylan – always the blues man.