Live By No Man’s Code! Bob Dylan’s “Travelin’ Thru, 1967-1969, Bootleg Series, Vol. 15”

“Arise, arise,” he cried so loud
In a voice without restraint
“Come out, ye gifted kings and queens
And hear my sad complaint

A week where the debate of Bob Dylan’s voice is “trending” in social media, might be the perfect week for the release of “Bootleg Series, Vol. 15”, most of all an underlining of the fact that the term “Bob Dylan’s Voice” only makes sense if you understand that it’s not the term for a singular voice or one particular sound that you remember, but the term for a tool, “The Bob Dylan Swiss Army Knife of Song”, used by Bob Dylan, the craftsman, to put the songs across. Dylans contain multitudes in so many ways, also when it comes to voices, when it comes to singing. “Travelin’ Thru” reminds us of a few of them. Some think it is some of the best singing he ever did, but that’s a matter of taste, of course.

It wasn’t like Dylan “came to Nashville”, riding on a white horse, in the fall of 1967. He started the “Blonde on Blonde” sessions in Nashville February 1966, not satisfied with the progress in New York, in Nashville finding musicians who helped him fulfill his vision for the classic rock album.

It wasn’t like Dylan “arrived in country music” in the fall of 1967. He lived and breathed country music from his childhood years, listening to Hank Williams, Hank Snow and all kind of Hanks. He sang country songs backstage both in 1965, with Joan Baez, and, in 1966, with Johnny Cash, and above all he bathed what should become The Band, in country music, both his own, and the tradition, in a Woodstock basement, earlier this year.

I guess coming to Nashville the fall of 1967 was like coming home for Dylan, to a known place, and to known musicians, the fabulous multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy, who this time played bass, the great pedal steel player, Pete Drake, and the drummer with the gentle touch, Kenny Buttrey. A perfect match for the suite of songs Dylan brought with him. When Robbie Robertson later was asked if he had something to add to the album, praise God he said: No. “John Wesley Harding”, the first biblical rock album, was perfect as it was, the ultimate less-is-more-project, the opposite direction and the road less traveled, in rock music, in 1967. Dylan was busy travelin’ thru. This is where the new volume of Bootleg Series starts.

Bootleg Series, Volume 15 – Six chapters.

  • John Wesley Harding Sessions – alternative versions 1967
  • Nashville Skyline Sessions – alternative versions and outtake 1969
  • Dylan/Cash Sessions February 1969
  • Bob Dylan on Johnny Cash TV Show, 1st of May 1969
  • Self Portrait Sessions – outtakes, 3rd of May 1969
  • Bob Dylan With Earl Scruggs, 17th of May 1970

John Wesley Harding Sessions

For hard core Dylan followers, this might be the most interesting part of the set – nothing has been revealed from these sessions, and this major album, before.

The whole collection starts with the sad complaint from “Drifter’s Escape” (Take 1), even sadder than the released version, no wailing harmonica at the start, a slower version, driven by Dylan almost crying his delivery. A fabulous first take. A fabulous start.

A beautiful “I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine” (Take 1) is delivered with a slow beat different from the “original” version. Without the harmonica at the start and with a bit stronger drums, Take 3 of “All Along The Watchtower” is slightly more an obvious rocker than the one we knew before Jimi opened everybody’s eyes for that fact.

“John Wesley Harding” (Take 1) starts with a nice harmonica intro, has slightly different phrasings, but feels like one of the songs most close to the released version.

Maybe my favorite of the whole set is the cool and beautiful waltz of “As I Went Out One Morning”. Dylan’s singing is plain superb, just the way he sings “I offer´d her my hand” brings tears to my eyes. If you twist my arm and begs me to pick one version on this set that is even better than the released, this would be the obvious choice. That said, as usual, this is not the right question, we are just lucky to get to know all this beautiful songs in different shades and colors, also like here, as sketches from the master’s studio.

“I Pity The Poor Immigrant” (Take 4) is a more up-tempo version than the one on the original album, this one has no long harmonica intro, but is really high on energy and with great phrasing. When it comes to “I Am A Lonesome Hobo” (Take 4), it’s the other way around, the released version the most up-beat version, the new is more quiet and laid-back, almost a waltz.

All of the new versions are complete and finished, and none of them would have made “John Wesley Harding” a lesser album than it is. On the contrary, these tracks just emphasizes the greatness of this major work in Dylan’s canon.

As he himself said of the lyrics: ‘What I’m trying to do now is not use too many words. There’s no line you can stick your finger through. There’s no blank filler.” The same could be said of the album as a whole, both vocals, music and lyrics, also including the alternative versions on “Travelin’ Thru'”.

Nashville Skyline Sessions.

“Nashville Skyline” was recorded in February 1969. In many ways a lighter project than the previous, but still an important album, building Dylan’s bridge between rock and country music even stronger. 10 short songs, one of them an instrumental, only 27 minutes long.

The same trio of musicians makes the core of the band, but Bob Wilson joins in on piano, with more guitarists on some of the tracks.

“I Threw It All Away” (Take 1) is one of the three tracks already released before this set, then included on “Another Self Portrait”. A very fine version, bu pretty close to the version released on the original album.

“To Be Alone With You” (Take 1) hints at Dylan’s wish to make a song for Jerry Lee Lewis, still, it’s a more obvious first take than most of the alternative versions, everybody is learning the song.

“Lay, Lady, Lay” (Take 2) is pretty close to the original version, especially when it comes to Dylan’s vocal, but this is a more naked version musically. The same could be said of “One More Night” (Take 2).

The one new song is called “Western Road”, and it’s a 100% straight blues! Both as rumor and as heard before, it’s been referred to as “Going To Chicago”, and as we know, in Chicago you’ll get the blues. Dylan is playing with the lyrics, and it all ends with Dylan laughing. Nice, but it’s easy to understand that it didn’t fit into the “Nashville Skyline” project.

“Peggy Day” (Take 1) is very close to the original, while “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” (Take 2) is the track most removed from the track on “Nashville Skyline” – this almost pop arrangement is far, far away from the deep sorrow and the blood in the original track, this is a nice swinging up-tempo version, but one that don’t really match the darkness of the song’s sentiments. In my opinion. “Country Pie” (Take 2) is also very close to the original.

“Nashville Skyline” are usually not regarded at the same high level as John Wesley Harding. Even if all alternative takes are nice work, none of them is actually able to change this. On the other side, the historical significance can hardly be overstated. Dylan’s embracing of country music is total and official, and the partnership with Johnny Cash, both on the album’s first song, Cash’s great Liner Notes, and later Dylan’s appearance in the first “Johnny Cash Show” (ABC) in June, taped at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, sealed this fact once and for all time.

(Of course, this wasn’t Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan’s first encounter, read more of their relationship in this piece I wrote about the backdrop for Bootleg Series, Volume 15)

Dylan/Cash Sessions.

Many Dylan fans will be familiar with some of the performances from this session – of course “Girl From The North Country”, but parts of the session is also widely bootlegged through the years. What’s really great is that “Travelin’ Thru” consists a much broader view of the sessions than heard before, complete with studio chatter and more songs.

The songs are recorded the 17th and 18th of February, 1969. The 17th is a “Nashville Skyline” session, Cash passing by at the end of the day, and they are recording several takes of the Cash song “I Still Miss Someone” (Take 5), Dylan elegantly phrasing the verse, and harmonizing with Johnny on the refrain. Cash then introduces an idea, a mash-up of his own “Understand Your Man” and Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”. It takes a second before Dylan understands his man, but he joins in, after awhile he insists taking over Cash’ lyrics – Cash laughs – happy to learn that Dylan knows his song, a song openly based on Dylan’s – even though Cash suggests that they both stole the idea from the same song, most likely Paul Clayton’s “Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons When I’m Gone”. Or maybe he is thinking of the old music hall song “Who’s Gonna Buy Your Chickens When I’m Gone”, that inspired Clayton? Who knows. It’s called song writing.

The next day they’re backed by Johnny Cash’ band, including Marshall Grant on bass, and, part of the day, the one and only Carl Perkins on guitar. Today it’s Dylan that are Johnny’s guest. This is also the spirit of the session, Johnny takes the lead, Dylan is playing a nice second fiddle, even if he sings a verse here and there, and more sophisticated than his older hero. Still, it’s interesting to register that Dylan, in many ways at the top of his game, is playing such a humble role in the studio these sessions, it tells us a lot about him, and a lot about his deep respect for Johnny Cash.

“One Too Many Mornings” (Take 3) is a more finished version, but less funny, than the one we know from the great documentary “Other Side of Nashville”. Dylan sings beautiful in his highest register against the deeper voice of Cash, still with unmistakably dylanesque variations in the timing and phrasing.

Johnny takes the lead on most songs, as he does in the classic country standard “Mountain Dew”, having the time of his life, then continues with a more finished version of “I Still Miss Someone”, one of Cash’ greatest and most beautiful songs, Dylan singing beautiful close harmony. “Careless Love” is much fun, the two giants swapping and improvising verses throughout, when you don’t hear them laugh, you can hear them smile. The song is recorded at least 186 times, Bessie Smith was one of the first, followed by an impressing string of singers, among them Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, Bing Crosby, Eddy Arnold and Ray Charles – Cash and Dylan is obviously connecting to more than one part of tradition with this song.

With Carl Perkins in studio they just have to play some Sun music, starting with a steaming version of Perkins’ “Matchbox” (Take 1), certainly a proud moment for Dylan, backed by one of the kings of rock’n roll on guitar. Next out is the historic Crudup song “That’s All Right, Mama” (Take 1), great energy and great guitar. Dylan recorded it first time at the “Freewheelin'” Sessions, always the Elvis fan. “Mystery Train” follows, none of them remembering the lyrics, Cash then suggests the Guthrie classic “This Train (Is Bound for Glory)” but also this song collapses after the refrain. Back on track they are on safe ground with “Big River”, another Cash classic, one we know Dylan loved from the first time he heard it, recording it also in the Basement in 1967. Then we can hear June Carter from the control booth, suggesting “Girl From The North Country” – Dylan is not sure if he can remember the words, and he doesn’t, Cash helping him through a very charming rehearsal, before they nails it in Take 1. Next up is another Cash’ classic, “I Walk The Line” (Take 2), Dylan more sure of the Cash’ lyric than his own.

Johnny introduces a visitor in studio, the great Cowboy Jack Clement, and Johnny takes the lead of one of his classics, written by Jack, “Guess Things Happen That Way”, in what becomes a rehearsal, before they get the lyrics written down. Dylan phrases the verses perfect in Take 3, included here. Dylan mentioned “Five Feet High And Rising” in his Musicares Person of the Year Speech in 2015, claiming he still asks the questions of the song, and that it was an inspiration for “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”. Here we can hear the two sing it, and laugh it, together. Great stuff! The country classic “You Are My Sunshine” (Take 1) is next up, a very fine version, Dylan with smooth harmony vocals, Johnny singing lead. More Cash’ classics follows with “Ring of Fire”, with no trumpets, but with one of the songwriters, June Carter, in the control booth. Johnny asks: “June, did you like that?”, but June is eager to remind Johnny that he must learn the melody to “Wanted Man”, a song Dylan wrote and gave to Cash – here we can listen to the tutorial for the melody, Cash recording it the next week, as part of his historic concert “Live In San Quentin”.

When Johnny Cash started out in the fifties, all he wanted to do was gospel songs, but Sam Phillips in Sun Records wanted a different, more secular, kind of songs. Here Johnny asks Dylan: “What religious songs do you know, Bob?”, Dylan quickly answers: “Anyone!”, and in the next second they are rehearsing “Amen”, before they sing a touching version of the classic hymn “Just A Closer Walk With Thee”, Dylan harmonizing and humming like a bird, not too familiar with the lyrics. After releasing “Tempest” in 2012, Dylan told that his plan, originally, was to release some religious songs, in the style of “Just A Closer Walk With Thee”, but that he didn’t have enough songs. Well, let’s hope we’ll get to hear them, one sunny day.

The Dylan/Cash Sessions chapter of the set, ends with two takes of a Jimmie Rodgers medley. Both of the encyclopedic music lovers in the studio could trace much of their inspiration back to just this man, even if the title “Father of Country Music” is limiting for all what he stands for. As Dylan himself said, years later, in liner notes for the tribute album he himself was the master behind: “A blazing star whose sound was and remains the raw essence of individuality in a sea of conformity, par excellence with no equal. Though he is claimed as The Father of Country Music, the title is limiting and deceiving in light of today’s country music and he wouldn’t have understood it.”

The medley in Take 1 starts out with the natural beginning, “Blue Yodel No 1“, more known as “T for Texas”, Johnny fighting to make Dylan yodel, not succeeding, but they’re also drifting in and out of “The Brakeman’s Blues” and “Blue Yodel No 5”.

Take 2 starts with “Waiting For A Train“, another classic, where Johnny alone gives a gentle, quiet rendition, even gives the yodel a try himself. Then we get “The Brakeman’s Blues“, completely with “The Yodeling Dylan” – of course a Jimmie Rodgers medley needs some yodeling! They are mixing lyrics from the three different Blue Yodels, but in the end, when Johnny wants more yodeling from Dylan, he quietly replies: “I’m not gonna do it another time.” Still, we now have the official proof that Dylan also has yodeling in his great portfolio of voices.

The friendship and the mutual respect flows through the tracks in this part of the set, words as “charming” and “touching” comes to mind all the way. It’s a loose, gentle and free jam-session where the spirit moves them, and this is the perfect way to experience what happened. An attempt to just pick out the most finished and complete tracks would give us less than we gets the way it is presented here. This is a meeting among giants, but also among friends, and we are invited in. It is truly the right choice to release this wonderful happening like a documentary, more than a record.

Bob Dylan on Johnny Cash TV Show.

Until now the sound has been great on all tracks, but when it comes to the TV show tracks, it’s a step down. Still, the versions of “I Threw It All Away”, “Living The Blues” and “Girl From The North Country” are all great, the last one of course the highlight, also a very significant performance in the history of music. (The first and the last of the songs were included in the compilation DVD from the Johnny Cash Shows, released in 2010.)

Self Portrait Sessions.

Dylan’s versions of “Ring of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues” are obviously more rock versions than the country versions with Cash. The first one almost funky, the last a bit rushed. Personally I by far prefer the country feel of the songs. (My absolute favorite version of Ring of Fire is the one from the «Feeling Minnesota» Soundtrack, 1996.)

Bob Dylan With Earl Scruggs.

This part starts with a little interview with the great bluegrass man Earl Scruggs, eagerly waiting for his famous visitor. Not nervous, though, he tells us. I guess his young sons are as eagerly waiting as their father, and maybe more nervous.

The first song is the traditional “East Virginia Blues” with Dylan’s vocal blending perfectly into the bluegrass world. A song that would have fit well on Dylan’s first album, a song well known by both Carter Family, Joan Baez and Ralph Stanley at this time. Then, suddenly, another highlight of this set arrives, Dylan starts out what becomes my favorite version of “To Be Alone With You”, one just great, funky, swinging bluegrass version of the song! Perfect! “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance” is next up, perfect for the party, they’re doing Dylan’s version from “Freewheelin'”, clearly adapted and inspired from the Texas songster Henry Thomas’ recording in the twenties. As the finale, Earl Scruggs, suggests “Nashville Skyline Rag”, a great instrumental jam highlighting Dylan’s sense of tradition in his melody making.

Even if these last recordings exceeds the time frame for the set, it’s a beautiful ending of a set that in many ways reminds us of the richness of this relatively “quiet” period in Dylan’s career, with no touring and much time at home with his growing family.

“Bootleg Series, Volume 15”, combined with Bootleg Series, Volume 11: “Complete Basement Tapes”, “The New Basement Tapes: Lost on the River” and Bootleg Series, Volume 10, “Another Self Portrait”, seen together, is an overwhelming treasure chest of this period, of the diversity both in styles, genres and voices, both when it comes to Dylan’s own songs and him integrating other artists songs in his work. “Travelin’ Thru” completes the jig-saw puzzle picture of Dylan’s Sixties in a beautiful way, and shows us even more what an important stepping stone this period was for the artist, and for the world of music as we know it, this special period even including the one song he since has played live most of them all, “All Along The Watchtower”. One more time he freed himself from the boundaries of expectations in the previous period. One more time he did it all his own way. And – on top of it all – it officially demonstrates that Bob Dylan also can yodel! Hihaa!

Johnny Borgan

p.s. The choice of not releasing all alternative versions is supposedly the right one this time, just shedding light on the ones that differ most from the released version. With greater variations the answer might be different, as it was for “More Blood, More Tracks”. d.s.

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