At first, Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series, starting in 1991, came around the bend like a slow train. These days, it’s really picking up speed. More like a freight train, actually. While we had to wait seven years for the second release, “Live 1966”, this year’s release follows “More Blood, More Tracks” from last year, “Trouble No More” from 2017 and “Cutting Edge” from 2015. Combined with other archival releases as this year’s “Rolling Thunder Revue” set and “The Live 1966 Recordings” from 2016, and the copyright extension sets from 2012, 2013 and 2014, both the wide scope that is covered, the contents and the frequency is quite mind-blowing.
A source close to Dylan spoke to Rolling Stone in June, discussing possible new projects. There is of course doubtful that the well will run dry, but monitoring the market for physical releases obviously is an important criteria for new releases. I guess more is yet to come, and I really hope they’ll, when the time is right, find digital solutions that will make it possible to continue this great work of curating and distributing archival material. What about a Never-Ending Tour Series, making some of the wonderful shows from each year available? Actually, it’s a well of its own. Well, it’s a relief that the Bob Dylan Archives exists, and surely will keep up the good work, one way or another, taking care of this fabulous treasure chest for the future.
Even if the release of this set first will be in November, there’s already a lot to be said and told of the content of the release, thanks to the information and advertising already at reach.
What really happened in 1967-1969? We already got “Basement Tapes Complete” covering what happened most of 1967, in the basement with The Band, but Dylan’s trip alone to Nashville in the fall, resulted in “John Wesley Harding”, released 27th of December. This is one of the very few albums where absolutely no alternative takes has appeared through the years, making the ‘Travelin’ Thru” set especially interesting. The first song is already out, a beautiful alternate take of “I Pity The Poor Immigrant”, quite different from the one released on “John Wesley Harding”.
We will get alternate versions of seven of the albums twelve songs, while the remaining five might have been first takes, though there has been some talk of “lost tapes” for the last session. (Like it was confirmed of the alternate takes from the Minneapolis part of “More Blood, More Tracks”). In a year where Beatles worked in studio more than a hundred days with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band”, the three sessions that made “John Wesley Harding”, in more way than one, showing us that Dylan chose his own direction unaffected by the sign of the times, when it came to recording albums. Dylan played live in studio. Actually he asked Robbie Robertson if maybe he could add something to the tapes, but Robbie’s answer was: No. Thanks, Robbie.
“Nashville Skyline” was recorded in February and released 9th of April in 1969, Dylan still living in Woodstock with his family, now including five kids. We get alternate takes of eight of the ten songs, also counting an extra version of “Girl From The North Country” with Cash. “Travelin’ Thru” also includes an extra song, “Western Road”. (Maybe the same song as earlier has been rumored as “Going To Chicago”, maybe again the same as the one just named “Blues” from the 13th of February sessions recording sheet.)
“Another Self Portrait 1969-71: Bootleg Series 10” (2013) also covered the year of 1969, and already included take 1 of “I Threw It All Away” and an alternate take of “Country Pie”. The first taste is an alternate and really swinging take of “Tell Me That It Isn’t True”, far from the slow version included on the album. Personally I prefer the album take, but this is another proof of how Dylan worked in studio, trying completely different arrangements before choosing the one he thought brought most justice to the sentiments of the song. Most of the time.
The opening of “Nashville Skyline” was of course the well-known duet of “Girl From The North Country” with Johnny Cash. This was just one of many songs Johnny and Bob recorded together in studio these days of ’69, some of them widely bootlegged, one of them, a very nice, even funny version of “One Too Many Mornings”, was included in the great documentary “Other Side of Nashville”, but this set will also include many duets never heard (and even never bootlegged) before. Dylan demonstrates his ability to sing and chew gum at the same time.
1969 was also the year of many recordings later used on “Self Portrait”, the outtakes from this sessions already well documented on “Another Self Portrait”. The deluxe version of this box set also included Bob Dylan’s famous concert from the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1969.
On “Another Self Portrait” there was one song included outside the timeframe for the set, “Minstrel Boy” from 1967. In the same way “Travelin’ Thru” includes a few songs outside the given timeframe, this time from May 1970, songs recorded when Dylan visited the famous bluegrass banjo picker Earl Scruggs, some of the recordings later to be included in the documentary “Earl Scruggs – Family and Friends”. What’s also interesting is that the classic bluegrass duo Flatt & Scruggs recorded many Dylan songs between 1966 and 1969. This fact might be part of the reason for Dylan’s appearance. Still, I guess it, whatever the reason, was a proud moment for Dylan, always the bluegrass fan, to be included as a friend of Earl Scruggs.
The distance between “Blonde On Blonde” (1966) and “John Wesley Harding” (1967) is not so long in time, but in both vocal, lyrics and style they are quite different. “Blonde On Blonde” ends with one song occupying all of the last side of the double album, the complex love song “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, while “John Wesley Harding” ends with the three short and down-to-earth verses of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, Hank Williams-style, hinting of more country music to come. “Blonde on Blonde” was in another lifetime.
The change in vocal style is substantial these years, most radical on “Nashville Skyline”, Dylan here choosing his beautiful country crooning tenor voice to match the new material.
Bob Dylan’s recording of “Blonde On Blonde” in Nashville was a brave musical move, but with the recordings of “John Wesley Harding” and “Nashville Skyline” he went a step further, Dylan recording country music of his own, more than ever paving the way for country rock. For many rock fans this might have been surprising, as was the duet with country artist Johnny Cash. Still, many would know that Johnny Cash was standing up for Dylan in Columbia Records as early as in 1962, and that Cash wrote a letter to “Broadside” in 1964, standing up for Bob when he started to write a different kind of songs, and some of the critics didn’t like “the new Dylan”. “SHUT UP AND LET HIM SING!” was Johnny’s message. Johnny later the same year gave Bob Dylan his Martin guitar, the first time they met, at Newport Folk Festival.
“Johnny wrote the magazine… [saying] to shut up and let me sing, that I knew what I was doing. This was before I had ever met him, and the letter meant the world to me. I’ve kept the magazine to this day.” (Bob Dylan)
They even met in 1966, duetting backstage on “I Still Miss Someone”.
Johnny Cash had at this time already recorded several Dylan songs, among them “Don’t Think Twice, Its All Right”.
Many years later, in 1999, Bob Dylan contributed to a tribute concert for Cash, by satellite, singing a heartfelt “Train of Love”, touchingly introducing it by thanking Johnny for “standing up for me, way back when…”
Following the death of Johnny Cash in 2003, Dylan contributed his thougths to Rolling Stone: “I was asked to give a statement on Johnny’s passing and thought about writing a piece instead called “Cash Is King,” because that is the way I really feel. In plain terms, Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him — the greatest of the greats then and now.” (Read it all here). I guess that in retrospect the weight of Dylan’s words tells a lot about what it meant for him to be standing beside Cash in studio the winter of 1969.
Later, Dylan elaborates more about his great respect for Johnny Cash in “Chronicles” (2004):
“I Walk the Line [was] a song I’d always considered to be up there at the top, one of the most mysterious and revolutionary of all time, a song that makes an attack on your most vulnerable spots, sharp words from a master …
Johnny didn’t have a piercing yell, but ten thousand years of culture fell from him. He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire, or in the deep snow, or in a ghostly forest, the coolness of conscious obvious strength, full tilt and vibrant with danger.
“I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.” Indeed. I must have recited those lines to myself a million times. Johnny’s voice was so big, it made the world grow small, unusually low pitched – dark and booming, and he had the right band to match him, the rippling rhyhm and cadence of click-clack.
Words that were the rule of law and backed by the power of God. When I first heard I Walk the Line so many years earlier, it sounded like a voice calling out, “What are you doing there, boy?” I was trying to keep my eyes wide opened, too.”
Back to “Travelin’ Thru” – in February 1969 Dylan and Cash met in studio for the first time, singing both each other songs and songs from the great songbook they both loved and knew better than anyone, both of them wandering encyclopedias of both folk and country, blues and rock´n roll. “Travelin’ Thru” will surely be a touching document and reminder of the great musical kinship between those two giants, the respect they had for each other, and it will of course also remind us of similarities in their own artistic development, both of them men of strong artistic integrity.
From what we’ve heard from those sessions, before we get to listen to this new release, it’s very much an impromptu jam-session where the spirit moves them through a bunch of songs, more or less familiar for them both. From the advertising we now know it will include Cash Songs as “I Walk The Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues”, Dylan songs as “Don’t Think Twice” and “Wanted Man”, as well as songs made known by Cash’s fellow compadres from Sun Studios, “That’ All Right, Mama” (Elvis) and “Matchbox” (Carl Perkins, who also appears in the studio on some of this tracks, often a member of Cash’ backing band). But they also dig deeper in American Music History, singing a couple of Jimmie Rodgers medleys, singing “You Are My Sunshine” made known by Jimmie Davis, the old hymn “Just A Closer Walk With Thee”, even “Careless Love”, made known by Bessie Smith. Having a good time saluting their heroes and each other. According to the song list presented, one time they even sings Woody Guthrie’s “This Train Is Bound For Glory”. They are going full circle.
In his epic Musicares Speech in 2015, Bob Dylan mentions the Cash song, “Five Feet High And Rising”, telling us that he wrote “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” with “Five Feet High And Rising reverberating inside my head. I still ask, ‘How high is the water, mama?'” On “Travelin’ Thru” a version is included in the Dylan/Cash section.
The connections are many, and the Dylan/Cash-sessions covers about half of the tracks on “Travelin’ Thru”, but we will also get the three tracks from Dylan’s appearance on the Johnny Cash TV Show in 1969. Included are also a couple of left-over outtakes from Self Portrait Sessions, that is a natural part of the Dylan/Cash connection – Dylan’s versions of “Ring of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues”. (Dylan would later return to the first of them in studio, in the late nineties contributing a beautiful version of it to the soundtrack of the movie “Feeling Minnesota”. Dylan has played “Folsom Prison Blues” nineteen times at Never Ending Tour.)
“John Wesley Harding” was fueled by the spirit of “Basement Tapes”, but not at all a part of it – according to Dylan this was the first biblical rock album, bathed in biblical imagery and themes. As we know, this was an album Jimi Hendrix listened closely to, covering both “All Along The Watchtower” and “Drifter’s Escape”. Today, “All Along The Watchtower” is the song Dylan has played most of them all, 2268 times. (Last time I heard it, last fall in New York, it was in a nice reggae version.)
“Nashville Skyline” was fueled by, and tipping the hat to, the spirit of country music, not least in “Tell Me That It Isn’t True”, with the opening line “I have heard rumors all over town”, closely linked to Hank Williams song “You Win Again”, with the opening lines: “The news is out all over town”. A very short album, just 27 minutes. His sharing of possible names for the album is just hilarious, as he told Rolling Stone:
“Certainly couldn’t call the album “Lay, Lady Lay.” I wouldn’t have wanted to call it that, although that name was brought up. It didn’t get my vote, but it was brought up. “Peggy Day Lay, Peggy Day,” that was brought up. A lot of things were brought up. “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With Peggy Day.” That’s another one.
Some of the names just didn’t seem to fit. “Girl From the North Country.” That was another title which didn’t really seem to fit. Picture me on the front holding a guitar and “Girl From the North Country” printed on top. [Laughs.] “Tell Me That It Isn’t Peggy Day.” I don’t know who thought of that one.”
Dylan’s meetings and collaboration with Johnny Cash and Earl Scruggs are Dylan going back to the roots of American Music, as he often would, to music he listened to before he made his own records and songs, but this time also back to songs from his own first albums, he himself now being a part of The American Songbook.
Some really great songs, some really great music and some really great performances were made, also in this relatively “quiet”, but not least productive, phase of Dylan’s career. Later he spoke of “giving up art for family” in this particular period, indicating that being with his family and his children was the most important of all. Of course it was. Still, when “Travelin’ Thru” appears 1st of November, it will remind us that even this years had its great hidden musical gems.