Regular readers may remember that at this time last year both Dad and I had taken a rain check on Major League Baseball because it was depressing to watch anything of American origin with the country going down the fascist-racist path.
The George Floyd protests gave my dear father hope that the American people had finally come to their senses and that real change was in the air. Concurrently with those protests, polls also showed Joe Biden with a healthy lead over Voldemort and that the Democrats had a real shot at taking the Senate and booting Voldemort’s partner-in-crime-and-corruption, Mitch McConnell, out of the all-powerful majority leader role. And wild-eyed optimist that he is, Dad saw the visible support of professional athletes on behalf of the BLM protests as another sign that the United States had finally turned things around . . . and a great excuse for tuning in truncated MLB season and the NBA playoffs.
Note that his daughter does not share his optimism. Biden could be leading by 30 points and it wouldn’t matter. The COVID-19 numbers combined with Voldemort’s approval rating tell me that 40 percent of Americans think he’s doing a helluva job, and that’s more than enough cover for either another stolen election or a Reichstag fire coupled with a state-of-emergency suspension of all civil rights. Since I don’t think the fat fuck can physically survive for long, I fully expect Ivanka to be running the country sometime in 2021.
Still pretty sour on my former homeland (though I go through spurts when I can’t help but tune into the horror show called “news”), I initially refused my father’s invitations to come over and watch some baseball after I returned from vacation. But dad has a way of wearing me down and I finally agreed to watch the Giants-Dodgers matchup scheduled for August 26 (which we would watch via DVR on the 27th). Giants-Dodgers games were always the most intense, (even when the Giants sucked, as they do now), so I thought it might be fun to indulge in nostalgia.
“Sorry, Sunshine—game canceled.”
“What? In August? In California? There can’t be any wildfires that close to the Bay! Coronavirus?”
“No—I guess you haven’t heard the latest. The cops shot another black man in the back.”
“Both teams decided not to play in protest of the shooting.”
For a moment I was stunned that the Giants and Dodgers could be on the same side under any circumstances, but after my brain had time to process the news, I said, “That is fucking awesome!”
“It’s happening, sunshine. People aren’t putting up with this shit anymore. Protesting works.”
“Spoken like a true son of the 60s. But whether it works or not, I’m glad they did what they did. Maybe it will sink in somewhere down the line, but . . .”
“Hey. How’s that review of Freewheelin‘ you promised me? Maybe that will rescue you from your cynicism.”
“Haven’t started it yet. And by the way, cynicism is just a manifestation of frustrated idealism. I long for a better world but I don’t think most people give a shit—hence, cynicism.”
“Well, let’s see how you feel after Freewheelin’. May young Bob heal your soul.”
Bob Dylan’s first album sold so poorly that there was talk at Columbia about dropping him. Fortunately for posterity, John Hammond’s voice still carried a lot of weight, and with additional support from Johnny Cash, he managed to convince the nay-sayers that Dylan deserved another shot.
While Dylan’s début featured only two original compositions (both revealing the influence of Woody Guthrie), in the months that followed he found his muse and his voice. The muse in question was a political activist for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) by the name of Suze Rotolo; you can see her “smile that could light up a street full of people” (according to Dylan) on the album cover. There is no question that his relationship with Suze motivated Dylan to shift his songwriting attention to more topical subjects involving culture and politics, but Dylan’s embrace of Woody Guthrie had already predisposed him to follow that path.
What’s important is what he admired about Guthrie: “The songs themselves had the infinite sweep of humanity in them.” Some protest songs are satirical, others paint the ugly truth with a grim brush, but some of the greatest protest songs express deep empathy from those suffering from injustice. Sometimes that empathy is captured in the lyrics (Phil Ochs’ “There But for Fortune”); sometimes it’s captured in the singer’s interpretation (Frank Sinatra’s performance of “Ol’ Man River” at Carnegie Hall). The fact that Dylan identified with Guthrie’s empathy meant he was capable of empathy himself . . . he just needed to let it come to the surface in his own compositions.
Dylan covers all the bases on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan: the satiric, the bleak, the empathetic, the absurd and the self-pitying. This is the folk version of Bob Dylan; most of the songs are just Dylan with his guitar and harmonica. After listening to the layered and heavily processed recordings of the Beach Boys and immersing myself in the complex tunings and noise rock of Sonic Youth (review coming soon), I have to say that the sheer simplicity of the album was refreshing, reminding me that sometimes a simple arrangement of voice and guitar can have more power than a symphony orchestra or the loudest amp stacks.
“Blowin’ in the Wind”: What can be said about a song that is familiar all over the world, a song that people know so well that they’ve forgotten its meaning and sing it in rote like they do “The Star-Spangled Banner?” Quite a lot, actually. One sure-fire test of determining whether or not a creative effort qualifies as art is timelessness, and “Blowin in the Wind” is unfortunately timeless . . . depending on your sense of morality.
Dylan’s version is as simple as simple gets: a three-chord guitar song in I-IV-V mode. It might have been one of the first songs you learned when you were trying to get your head and fingers around the guitar. The popular version by Peter, Paul & Mary is more elaborate, with the choral melody established in the guitar intro and the emphatic shift to the V chord in the verse lines where Dylan returns to the root. PP&M also added a complementary minor chord that provides a pointed note of sadness. Placing them both in the same key for comparison, Dylan’s version is G-C-D and PP&M’s G-C-D7-Em. Easy peasy.
Dylan sings in a voice characterized by weariness and sadness, generally allowing the words to speak for themselves. PP&M made more extensive use of different dynamics (soft-LOUD) and Mary Travers’ heartfelt passion comes through loud and clear above the harmonies. Both versions work, confirming the truth that great songs allow for multiple interpretations. I think the difference between the two is that Mary Travers’ approach comes across as advocacy, a call to action, whereas Bob Dylan’s take is as an expression of empathy, a call to reflect on the suffering of the disadvantaged. The line “How many years can some people exist/Before they’re allowed to be free?” is clearly related to the Civil Rights Movement, and the weariness in Bob’s voice reflects the weariness of African-Americans who at that time had waited a century to achieve true emancipation. What’s truly remarkable is that this is Bob Dylan at twenty-one, fresh from the prairie, having spent most of his life in an area of the country where the population is as white as the winter snow, writing a song that captured “the infinite sweep of humanity.”
I think “Blowin’ in the Wind” is a beautiful and moving song . . . and I find it intensely frustrating. I feel the same way about “We Shall Overcome”— I resist the “someday” in that song as much as I resist “the answer, my friends, is blowin’ in the wind.” I want the answers to the rhetorical questions posed in the song to be expressed with crystal clarity. End war. Eliminate injustice. Give everyone the freedom to live their lives to their fullest potential. Transform the waste of hatred and fear into love and respect. Stop fucking around and do it now.
When “Blowin’ in the Wind” was published in the now-defunct folk journal Sing Out!, Dylan added some commentary about the meaning of the song. One statement stood out for me: “I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong.” The corresponding line in the song is “How many times can a man turn his head/And pretend that he just doesn’t see?”
I thought about that comment a lot and came to the conclusion that it no longer applies to the United States. The people in the Trump administration don’t think separating children from their parents and putting them in cages is wrong: it is what it is. They don’t think using the power of their offices to enrich themselves is wrong: it is what it is. They don’t think . . . well, let’s skip down to the last verse:
How many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
How many deaths will it take ’til he knows
That too many people have died?
Narcissistic sociopaths can’t feel empathy, so the first question is moot. As for the second question, apparently 183,000 dead Americans (as of today) isn’t enough for Trump and the GOP. It is what it is.
The timelessness of “Blowin’ in the Wind” is dependent on listeners having a certain amount of moral fiber. The song fails the timelessness test in a post-morality, post-truth universe.
“Girl from the North Country”: When young Bob visited the UK, he hooked up with legendary folk artist Martin Carthy and learned a few tunes, including the song we know as “Scarborough Fair.” Bob borrowed some bits (plagiarism doesn’t apply to songs in the public domain) to tell a tale of love long past. As is usually the case with the gossip-obsessed music press, there was a lot of speculation about which of three former Dylan lovers was the girl in the song, to which I respond, “WHO GIVES A SHIT?”
The song is bookended by the “she once was a true love of mine” verses we all know, with the more interesting differentiation contained in the three middle stanzas. Bob is obviously describing a scene that took place in his northern Minnesota days (I’ve never heard of New York City referred to as “the north country”) and he paints a vivid picture of a memory that he carried with him to Greenwich Village:
If you go when the snowflakes storm
When the rivers freeze and summer ends
Please see if she has a coat so warm
To keep her from the howlin’ winds
Please see if her hair hangs long,
If it rolls and flows all down her breast.
Please see for me if her hair’s hangin’ long,
That’s the way I remember her best.
Men—always looking at the tits. I’m glad he cut off the verse before launching into a paean about her Minnesota-winter rock-hard nipples.
Seriously, this is a lovely little song and Bob sings it with tender feeling.
“Masters of War”: After that charming little interlude it’s back to the heavy stuff, and Dylan pulls no punches in this all-out attack on the merchants of death who profit from mass misery. Like “Girl from the North Country,” the tune is from an English folk song (“Nottamun Town”). I suppose you could say the two songs share similar themes, as both describe manifestations of insanity (though “Nottamun Town” is far more absurdist and has nothing to do with war). While I completely agree with Dylan’s attack on immoral beings who profit from meaningless death, I think it was a mistake to shape the song as a direct challenge, because a.) they’re never going to listen, b.) they don’t give a shit about saving their souls, only their profits and c.) it sounds more like an angry rant of one individual instead of a clarion call to join with the singer to end the travesty of profitable war. The last verse is really bitter (much like a few Woody Guthrie songs directed at the fascists):
And I hope that you die
And your death will come soon
I’ll follow your casket
On a pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead
Oh, Bobby, try another tack. He’ll just be replaced by another greedy, ghoulish asshole.
“Down the Highway”: This is a little highway-and-suitcase-in-my-hand 12-bar blues featuring some energetic strumming as Dylan longs for Suze Rotolo, who had left New York for a while to study in Italy. The last lines “From the Golden Gate Bridge/All the way to the Statue of Liberty” are pure Guthrie. The song isn’t particularly memorable, but don’t worry—there’s a better song about his shaky relationship with Suze a few tracks down the highway.
“Bob Dylan’s Blues”: This not-much-of-song has some value as background material concerning Dylan’s self-image and fetishes (not the fun, naughty kind but standard neurotic obsessions). He depicts himself in boots, ready for the day a few years down the road when his boot heels will feel like wanderin’. The fetish is one he shares with Woody Guthrie: the outlaw armed with a six-shooter.
Well, lookit here buddy
You want to be like me?
Pull out your six-shooter
And rob every bank you can see
Tell the judge I said it was all right
Guthrie’s catalog is peppered with songs about greedy, cold-hearted banks (villains) and bank robbers (heroes). In “Pretty Boy Floyd,” he defended the murderer as a friend to the poor, crediting Floyd with paying off the mortgages of struggling farmers and buying Christmas dinners for families on relief. Dylan also expressed his admiration for sociopaths like Floyd, Billy the Kid, and of course, John Wesley Hardin (no g)—the mythical rob-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the poor crowd.
I will never understand the American fetish with guns, nor the romance attached to the outlaw.
“A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”: Dylan adopted the question/answer format of “Lord Randall” (Roud 10, Child 12), an old border song dramatizing a conversation between mother and son where sonny boy eventually discloses he is about to croak off because his (lover, stepmother, or other mom-competitor) poisoned his fish soup.
Dylan’s tale is equally dark but far richer than an already-solved murder mystery. He described the sentiments that drove him to compose “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” thusly: “After a while you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course. It’s all one long funeral song.”
Try to tell me Bob Dylan’s work isn’t relevant today.
The song is NOT about the Cuban Missile Crisis (Dylan wrote it a month before that seminal event). Dylan explained it on the album liner notes: “‘Hard Rain’ is a desperate kind of song. Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.”
Hell, he could have thrown the Cuban Missile Crisis in there had he known about it, as the song is about the perpetual low-grade fever the human race has suffered from since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Living on the edge of imminent doom has shaped human consciousness for decades; the world continues to move from crisis to crisis, from one unsolvable problem to another, and we’re always waiting for the next hammer to drop. We’re addicted to bad news, which is why the media focuses on all the awful stuff rather than any of the good stuff. Addicts need their daily fix; encouraging addiction is profitable. The hard rain is not fallout rain, but the sense that “something big is coming”—symbolic of the dread we live with every day.
Bob Dylan understood that, and in an interview with Studs Terkel way back in 1963—long before the advent of news-as-entertainment and the blurring of fact and opinion—he commented, “In the last verse, when I say, ‘the pellets of poison are flooding the waters,’ that means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers.”
Fox News, anyone? Again, try to tell me Bob Dylan’s work isn’t relevant today.
The poem is structured around verses that begin with five different questions:
- Where have you been?
- What did you see?
- What did you hear?
- Who did you meet?
- What’ll you do now?
The “Where Have You Been” question sets the scene by taking us on a tour through a world suffering from environmental damage and non-stop war: “I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests/I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans/I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard.” When mother asks the young man what he saw, the images come to life in all their ugliness—lynching, people working their fingers down to the bone, the lack of a safety net, the inability to communicate, the not-so-harmless toys that program children to believe that violence is not a bad thing:
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
“What did you hear?” elicits a similar list of horrors, this time focused on human callousness:
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
“Who did you meet?” results in more surreal responses. “I met a young woman whose body was burning” might refer to witchcraft and J. Edgar’s communist witch hunts. “I met a young girl and she gave me a rainbow” is easily the most hopeful line in the song. The two lines that grab me synthesize the truth of opposites, existential pain and the general sense of feeling wounded by life itself:
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded in hatred
That last question was posed in similar fashion by Joe Strummer in “Clampdown”—“What are we gonna do now?” Dylan ends the song with a deeply-felt personal commitment to shine a bright light on the ugliness and devote his efforts to truth-telling, the only way out of the mess we created for ourselves:
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest dark forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well-hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where the souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
You know, when I started this blog I really didn’t think all that much of Bob Dylan. I hereby offer the universe my heartfelt apology (at least up to but not including Blonde on Blonde).
“Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right”: The only self-help book I ever read that was worth a damn is Messages: The Communication Skills Book by McKay, Davis and Fanning (not a law firm). In the chapter covering Expression, they talk about a common phenomenon called “contaminated messages.”
Contamination takes place when your messages are mixed or mislabeled . . . Contaminated messages are at best confusing and at worst deeply alienating . . . Contaminated messages differ from partial messages in that the problem is not merely one of omission. You haven’t left the anger, the conclusion or the need out of it. It’s there all right, but in a disguised and covert form . . . The easiest way to contaminate your messages is to make the content simple and straightforward, but say it in a tone of voice that betrays your feelings.
—McKay, Davis and Fanning, Messages: The Communication Skills Book, 1995, Oakland CA
“Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” is one big fat contaminated message. We’re talking criminal-level contamination here.
Despite the high toxicity levels, Dylan had a point when he wrote in the liner notes, “It isn’t a love song. It’s a statement that maybe you can say to make yourself feel better. It’s as if you were talking to yourself.” Dylan captured all the things we’d like to say after an episode of betrayal or abandonment. Sometimes we get over the hurt and approach the conversation in a more civilized manner; sometimes we just let it fucking rip. The closing lines are pure contaminated genius:
I ain’t saying you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right
The song’s melody is borrowed from a song in the public domain, “Who’s Gonna Buy Your Chickens When I’m Gone?” Dylan learned that tune from a guy named Paul Clayton who wrote an updated version called “Whose Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I’m Gone?”). Neither comes close to Dylan’s masterpiece of self-pitying sarcasm nor expresses the weird, fleeting delight when we tell someone to go fuck themselves.
“Bob Dylan’s Dream”: Here Dylan borrows the melody and a couple of lines from yet another old folk ballad of uncertain origin (Ireland, Scotland or Canada, take your pick), “Lady Franklin’s Lament.” Lady Franklin lost her husband to that fruitless search for the Northwest Passage; Dylan uses the song to bemoan the loss of dear friends from his youth, “And each one I’ve never seen again.” Of all the songs written about the lost years of adolescence, this is one of the more touching and least sentimental:
With half-damp eyes I stared to the room
Where my friends and I’d spent many an afternoon
Where we together weathered many a storm
Laughin’ and singin’ till the early hours of the morn
By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung
Our words was told, our songs was sung
Where we longed for nothin’ and were satisfied
Jokin’ and talkin’ about the world outside
With hungry hearts through the heat and cold
We never much thought we could get very old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
But our chances really was a million to one
BTW, my favorite lost youth song comes from another Guthrie disciple: “912 Greens” by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. I really need to do Young Brigham.
“Oxford Town”: I haven’t written about this, but over the last few years I’ve read dozens of books on American history, largely to answer the nagging question, “What the fuck happened to my homeland?” The unfortunate answer turned out to be “Nothing.” The USA has been a white supremacist state since its founding and has made astonishingly little progress over a period of two centuries.
Dylan actually wrote the song in response to an invitation by the leftist-labor folk music mag Broadside encouraging songwriters to submit works related to the Ole Miss riots that accompanied the efforts to enroll James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. Phil Ochs also submitted his take, “The Ballad of Oxford.”
Fortunately for Bob Dylan, the invitation did not involve any kind of contest. Phil’s you-are-there narrative and no-holds-barred language would have crushed “Oxford Town.”
“Talkin’ World War III Blues”: Dylan’s maiden attempt at a Woody Guthrie-style “talkin’ song” was allegedly created spontaneously in the studio at the end of Freewheelin’ sessions. I have no reason to doubt that—the story lacks both punch and punch lines. The best verse involves sex, for not even a nuclear holocaust can still the flow of testosterone:
Well, I spied me a girl and before she could leave
“Let’s go and play Adam and Eve”
I took her by the hand and my heart it was thumpin’
When she said, “Hey man, you crazy or sumthin’
You see what happened last time they started”
“Corrina, Corrina”: This old blues-folk number has appeared in various permutations throughout the years; Dylan brought it into the Folk Revival by borrowing the melody and a line or two from Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway.” A full band appears in this piece, suitably muffled in keeping with the folk norms Dylan would smash at Newport a few years into the future.
I’ll take Dylan’s gentle, loping version over the Ray Peterson-Phil Spector melodrama any time.
“Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance”: Dylan gets partial songwriting credit for his modification of this Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas number that dates back to the late 1920s. Thomas is also responsible for Canned Heat’s “Goin’ Up the Country,” The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Fishin’ Blues” and helping Taj Mahal fill out his sets. Pretty good for a guy who only spent three years in the music business. All I can say about Dylan’s performance in this song is that he sounds unusually exuberant and exuberance really doesn’t work for Bob Dylan.
“I Shall Be Free”: Freewheelin’ ends with yet another adaptation, this one following a path from Leadbelly to Woody Guthrie. It’s essentially another talkin’ song that repeats some of the earthier testosterone-driven themes covered in “Bob Dylan’s Dream.” This time he chases a woman up a hill in the middle of an air-raid and has an interesting conversation with JFK:
Well, my telephone rang it would not stop
It’s President Kennedy callin’ me up
He said, My friend, Bob, what do we need to make the country grow?
I said my friend, John, Brigitte Bardot
I compliment both men on their excellent taste in broads, but alas, JFK only bonked one of the three (Ms. Ekberg). Some critics hated the song for being too lightweight, but I found the song a bit more humorous than “Talkin’ World War III Blues.”
Revisiting my father’s wish, Freewheelin’ didn’t exactly heal my cynical soul, but it’s always uplifting to find someone out there who validates one’s sense of right and wrong. I still think America is hell-bent on self-destruction, and recent developments confirm that belief.
I’ve always thought that American socialists were some of the dumbest people in the world, and now they’re proving it by inciting violence and destroying property, playing right into Voldemort’s evil designs. White supremacist brownshirts are asserting themselves, strengthened by presidential-level support. The GOP has spent decades perfecting the art of using fear to win elections—and if fear doesn’t entirely do the trick, they have the power to suppress voting and no compunction whatsoever when it comes to cheating.
I don’t have sufficient readership to have an impact on the outcome of the election, but if any of you reading this could remind the lame-brained violent lefties you happen to run into that violence is always counter-productive, I’d appreciate it. To help you soothe any feelings you may hurt in the process, give them this bonus gift of a mantra they can use to help them behave like rational human beings:
“And I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it”
The lockdown officially started in France on St. Paddy’s Day and it doesn’t look like it’s going to end anytime soon. Unlike the United States, the government here is taking this thing very seriously. If I want to go anywhere I have to carry a signed form, the Attestation de Déplacement Dérogatoire, describing the purpose of my travel. I can only go out for two reasons: to get needed supplies (thankfully they classified les tabacs as essential businesses) or for exercise within a one-kilometer radius of my home one hour per day. I am not allowed to visit my parents (Dad flew back from the States a couple of weeks ago after he watched a Trump press conference and decided he needed to get the hell out ASAP). The government has drones flying about to make sure people are following the rules (I haven’t seen one yet, probably because I don’t get out much). As I write this, the city issued a pronouncement that all Niçoise are required to wear masks outside; Mayor Estrosi said they’re going to distribute masks to every citizen in Nice.
Several of our clients have suspended consulting work to take care of their own, so we’re only working a few hours a day. This means I’ve got nothing to do but fuck, listen to music and watch classic baseball games (and a stray movie here and there). Under normal circumstances, I’d say, “Life is good.” But it’s not.
More and more people are getting sick and dying. My partner’s brother—the guy who scored the weed for us during the Psychedelic Series—came down with the virus, but it looks like he’s going to be okay. Still, his parents and siblings can’t visit him in the hospital, and many have died without ever seeing their loved ones again. He’s in Spain, where it’s pretty bad, and I’m about twenty kilometers from the Italian border, where it’s catastrophic.
I love The Twilight Zone, but I never wanted to live in a Twilight Zone episode. It’s creepy and depressing.
I grew up in a city and I’ve only lived in cities. Having lots of people around is my normal. I love the energy and spontaneity of street life. I love going out to dinner and hitting the bars and cafés where live music is played. The dead quiet of a city once filled with human movement and the buzz of human voices is intensely distressing for me, as I’m sure it is to all lifelong city-dwellers. But my low-level discomfort is nothing compared to the relentless anxiety of the people working in hospitals, markets and public services, so after a few minutes of wallowing in self-pity, I remind myself this is a battle for survival. If that means being cooped up in the house for a while, suck it up, girl.
I do have my daily routines to give me some sense of normal. The first thing I do every morning when I wake up is head for the sound system and turn on some music. Usually I just shuffle songs and take my chances, but whether I was motivated by a forgotten dream or had received a coded message from the astral plane, on this particular day I felt an overwhelming urge to listen to A Love Supreme. And instead of following my usual M. O. of leaving the room and starting the coffee, I sat down in front of the speakers for the next thirty-three minutes, closed my eyes and let Coltrane’s beautiful music penetrate my soul. After the performance ended, I sat there for a while, feeling calmer and more grounded than I had in weeks. When I opened my eyes, I saw my partner sitting cross-legged on the floor a few feet away, eyes closed, breathing yoga-style, a faint smile on her lips. I scooted over and we held each other for a while, whispering to each other, “It’s going to be okay.”
From that day forward, we have started every morning with A Love Supreme.
A Love Supreme is Coltrane’s spiritual manifesto, presented in a suite consisting of four sections: “Acknowledgment,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm.” As Lewis Porter describes it in John Coltrane: His Life and Music, the organization of the four sections “suggest a kind of pilgrim’s progress, in which the pilgrim acknowledges the divine, resolves to pursue it, searches and, eventually, celebrates what has been attained in song.” Given that model, most listeners can grasp Coltrane’s intent and follow the musical progression, but it’s equally important to understand how Coltrane connected spirituality with music:
My goal is to live the truly religious life and express it in my music. If you live it, when you play there’s no problem because the music is just part of the whole thing . . . My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being . . . When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity to free itself from its hangups. I’d like to point out to people the divine in a musical language that transcends words. I want to speak to their souls.
—Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1999, p. 232
While you may not have thought of music in that way, “to help humanity to free itself from its hangups” is at the core of most “anti-Establishment” music. When you belt out the lyrics to “Cretin Hop,” you’re helping to free yourself from the hangup of judgmental stereotypes; when you sing “It’s late and I want love—love that’s going to break me in two,” you’re ridding yourself of latent puritanism that infects most of the human species. One could argue that great music is “music that helps a person to clean out the noise and inauthenticity of modern life” (or, in a more pithy fashion, “clean out the bullshit”). The role of lyrics is more prominent in rock, blues or folk, but even if you’ve limited yourself to the more lyrical genres, you can relate to the largely instrumental orientation of jazz by recalling the feeling of liberation inspired by a Duane Allman guitar solo, or the playfully ominous licks of Muddy Waters, or the magical fingerpicking of Richard Thompson. The traditionally religious have understood the connection between music and spirituality for centuries; for me, listening to great music is a spiritual experience, whether I’m listening to the New York Dolls or Johann Sebastian Bach.
Porter’s study of Coltrane devotes an entire chapter to A Love Supreme, primarily focusing on the technical aspects of the composition: the dominance of the pentatonic scale and Coltrane’s variations on those scales; his use of overlapping disjunct and conjunct fourths; Coltrane’s techniques for building and releasing tension; the dominant rhythmic figures within the composition; and the wordless recitation of the psalm in the final section. His analysis is brilliant, insightful and impressive—to pull off the feat, he had to listen to the suite carefully and repeatedly, as Coltrane’s written instructions to his collaborators looked like this:
Coltrane provided the structure but not the details. He trusted his fellow musicians to fill in the blanks.
While I appreciate Porter’s effort and found it highly educational, he is a jazz scholar, and his narrative only makes sense to the few people left on the planet who know how to read music; for everyone else, it’s gibberish. Ted Gioia is one of the few musicologists who recognized this challenge; in the opening chapter of How to Listen to Jazz, he shares a parable of a “young scholar who decides to devote his life to the study of African rhythms.” The scholar spent ten years in Africa immersed in his quest, but when he returned to the States and tried to teach some of his students how to play the Dagomba drums, ” . . . they ask him the simplest question of all: ‘How do I know when to enter? When do I start playing?’ In Western music, there is an easy answer. The conductor waves a baton, or a bandleader counts off the beat, or the musical score provides a cue.” The scholar finds himself unable to meet their apparently simple request. “No amount of analysis or rule-making solves his problem. Finally, he realizes that the obstacle can be overcome only by moving away from analysis and entering into the realm of feeling. ‘The only way to begin correctly,’ he eventually discovers, ‘was to listen a moment and then start right in.'” Gioia wraps up the parable with the valuable lesson learned:
Listen a moment and then start right in. There has to be more, no? A decade of apprenticeship, and this is the takeaway? Yet this was the solution, beguiling in its apparent simplicity.
For those who devote the better part of a lifetime to the study of music, stories like this one are humbling. They testify to a magical element in the music, especially in its rhythmic essence, that eludes intellectualization. This aspect of the music must be felt, and if it isn’t felt, academic dissection is futile. The scholar must become more than a scholar to grasp it, and the student determined to follow on the same path must be willing to leave pedagogy behind and embrace something so elusive that, at times, it can hardly be described.
. . . In our parable, hearing trumps analysis. And if this superiority of the ear over the brain humbles the trained musicologist, it also should give a dose of encouragement to the outsider who doesn’t know the terminology and codified procedures of the aural arts. Listening, not jargon, is the path into the heart of music. And if we listen at a deep enough level, we enter into the magic of the song—no degrees or formal credentials required.
Gioia, Ted (2016-05-16T23:58:59). How to Listen to Jazz . Basic Books. Kindle Edition. (underlined emphasis added)
In keeping with that spirit, this review will focus more on the spirit than the details. I’ll refer to the technical stuff when I think it may be helpful.
Coltrane’s acknowledgment of the existence of a higher power is a musical expression of spiritual awakening the mirrors the experience of physical awakening. The gentle gong that opens the suite feels like the moment when we wake from sleep; Elvin Jones’s cymbal washes meld with McCoy Tyner’s piano to create a sound that would make for a glorious accompaniment to a sunrise. Over that background, Coltrane’s tenor sax salvo sounds like the tentative engagement with consciousness we experience as we move from dream state to reality, perhaps accompanied by a nice long stretch after a good night’s sleep. As the notes fly from his sax and a pattern emerges, I’m reminded of those moments when I haven’t played in a while and I just randomly apply fingers to flute or piano without thinking about it or worrying about what might come out. The difference between my approach and Coltrane’s (beyond the vast difference in skill level) is that he views his instrument as a means of connecting with the higher power while I’m just trying to connect fingers to brain. If you heard my opening salvo, you’d say, “Oh, Ari is just warming up,” whereas with Coltrane’s you sense clarity and intent. As Porter points out, the segment serves as a lead-in to the suite, with the music based on E acting as the leading tone to the basic pentatonic F scale of the suite, solid evidence of a compositional objective.
Coltrane fades into background while Tyner and Jones build a mini-crescendo that fades with Jones providing a rapid-fire flourish on the cymbal bell. This cues Jimmy Garrison to enter with the bass ostinato that forms the suite’s dominant motif: a four-note pattern consisting of F, Ab, F, Bb in syncopated 4/4 time. This simple pattern serves as the foundation for a hip-engaging groove that might qualify as sinful in some churches but not in Coltrane’s. Tyner plays a dual role here—the chords he chooses to play anticipate Coltrane’s melody, but he also strengthens the groove to establish what Gioia describes as “rhythmic cohesion,” the defining characteristic of successful jazz. “In the great jazz bands, you can hear the individual members lock together rhythmically in a pleasing way that involves an uncanny degree of give-and-take, but with a kind of quirkiness that resists specific definition,” and as the suite moves forward, you appreciate just how much Coltrane trusted his supporting cast to supply that cohesion.
I hear Coltrane’s solo as his expression of engagement with the higher power, with emotions that range from reassuring calm to nearly inexpressible joy. The moments when he goes altissimo—pushing to the highest ranges of the tenor sax—feel like intense bursts of feeling that combine bottomless gratitude and genuine cherishment of the spiritual connection. As Porter notes, there are times when Coltrane drifts away from the base key as if he has entered a trance-like state, requiring Tyner and Garrison to improvise in kind. Having established his connection to the divine, Coltrane returns to the essential message contained in that four-note motif, transposing it to each of the twelve keys common to Western music, varying the register as he goes. Porter considers this transition “puzzling at first,” but what he means is that it’s puzzling in musical terms; it all becomes clear when we hear John Coltrane chanting the words “a love supreme,” and we realize that “Coltrane’s music is not abstract but is dictated in part by the messages he wishes to convey.” Theme resolved, Coltrane steps back while the music shifts to a soothing rhythm as Tyner then Jones exit the scene, leaving Jimmy Garrison to finish the piece. After repeating the motif a few times, he varies his run and ends his part with an almost classical flourish—a rare honor given to a double bass player and a satisfying conclusion that never fails to elicit a smile. In the process, Garrison changes keys to Eb, which will serve as the key for the second section.
As befits the title, this section is played with greater intensity and resolve; now that the pilgrim has experienced the eternal truth, he solidifies his intent to live his life in devotion to the higher power. “Resolution” is a classic modern jazz composition with Coltrane taking two extended solos and Tyner one. In the first solo, Coltrane defines the dominant motif with its memorable two-note starting point (really the only thing it shares in common with the slower and bluesier “While My Lady Sleeps,” one of Coltrane’s early compositions that some believe is the original source), then proceeds to fly with utter confidence over the full-kit attack of Elvin Jones and comp chords from Tyner. The dynamics soften a bit when Coltrane hands off to Tyner, who knocks it out of the park with an amazing combination of bright chords and astonishingly clear runs that sometimes combine to create what I’ll call an “internal dialogue expressed in call-and-response mode,” where it seems like Tyner’s left hand makes a suggestion while the right hand responds to the challenge. Coltrane wakes Tyner from his trance by easing himself back into the picture and riffing off some of Tyner’s ideas before closing the piece with a return to the dominant theme. Porter notes that the improvisations are more free-form than tied to a particular scale and rely “similarly on much chromaticism and dissonance,” a feature that magnifies the tension evident in the sheer force of the piece.
Takeaway: Resolution is the emotional commitment that precedes the action; as such, the music to “Resolution” is intense, filled with the piss and vinegar that characterizes the vitality of intent.
As we all eventually figure out after the usual bumps and bruises, life isn’t always kind to those with resolve. “What else ya got?” yawns Life in response to our passionate certainty that we have found the answer. Neither Jesus nor Muhammad experienced much in the way of smooth sailing following their enlightenment, for when they actually started to act on their commitment to a higher truth, they wound up pissing off a whole lot of people with more mundane priorities and greater earthly power.
The omnipresent tension in “Resolution” climbs to a peak in “Pursuance,” an even more intense barrage played (mostly) at lightning speed. The piece kicks off with Elvin Jones soloing like a bat out of hell in no particular meter for ninety seconds when suddenly Coltrane steps in with a clarifying riff, which serves as a cue for Tyner and Garrison to join in. The new arrivals spend a few seconds feeling each other out before cohesion arrives in the form of an extended Tyner solo, where Garrison takes a couple of measures to sync with Jones but once he finds the groove, feels comfortable enough to throw in a few departures of his own. While the percussion section proper rides the high-speed wave, Tyner fills in the gaps with an assertive performance that combines velocity with soul-tingling clarity. When Coltrane returns a bit after the four-minute mark, he ignites a different level of passion with a quick burst of tonal clarity, earning a moment of thumping encouragement from Elvin Jones. Coltrane then dominates the scene for about three minutes, returning occasionally to altissimo as if attempting to reconnect with his original awakening. In the context of the pilgrimage described in A Love Supreme, “Pursuance” is the musical moment when the pilgrim’s ideals are challenged by the earthier noise of modern material existence; Coltrane’s exuberant journey here tells me he was up to the challenge.
One of my favorite passages in Porter’s book involves the analysis of the key of this section as defined as opposed to the key as manifested. Whenever I listen to an album I’m about to review, one of the first things I do is identify the key, and in 99% of the rock/pop music I’ve reviewed I can figure it out in about twenty seconds. I love it when I turn out to be wrong and have to dig deeper to figure it out. In this case, Coltrane didn’t give Porter much help, referring to the song as a minor blues in Bb. What Porter realized through deep listening is that while Coltrane used the notes in the Bb minor scale, he launched his solo from the starting point of C, using “the same scale in a different tonal framework.” Coltrane essentially took advantage of Charlie Parker’s discovery that any of the twelve notes that make up the chromatic scale can potentially take you melodically to any key, giving the soloist greater freedom in oscillating between consonance and dissonance. Translating all that into something more useful and connecting it to the substance of Coltrane’s extended solo, what I hear are the musical equivalents of laughter, of puzzlement, of reconnection with one’s mission, of the liberating, healing qualities of music. And though chromaticism can take you anywhere, Coltrane employs good compositional sense by resolving to Bb.
Interestingly enough, Coltrane chose to bookend this section with the percussionists, giving Garrison an extended solo at the end to complement Jones’ extended intro. Garrison’s bass solo is a bit longer than the drum solo and covers more ground, including a hint of the dominant four-note motif, a clearer expression of the blues scale and some marvelous departures from that scale. This feels to me like a segment highlighting both the existential loneliness of the journey (the double bass can be quite a melancholy instrument) and the firm belief that loneliness is merely a condition of material existence that will vanish once the connection to the higher spirit is complete.
Coltrane claims in the liner notes that his awakening occurred in 1957; as noted in my review of Giant Steps, I hear evidence of that awakening on that album, which came out in 1960; A Love Supreme was released in late 1964. By this time he had finally a way to express his experience; “Psalm” is essentially the outcome of his spiritual journey, a celebration of the higher power and the essential unity enabled by that power.
Porter refers to “Psalm” as a “relatively calm postlude” in which Coltrane delivers a “wordless recitation” of the poem that appears in the liner notes of A Love Supreme. Thankfully, Porter inserts the sheet music with the lyrics to the first lines of the poem to demonstrate how this works; the listener can take it from there.
What’s amazing about “Psalm” is how beautifully it flows without “a recurrent chord progression . . . not even a steady beat.” Even without those listening aids, a person hearing “Psalm” for the first time will notice echoes of the blues and gospel music, a feature that Porter was able to connect to the arched shape of each segment (“an ascending phrase, a recitation on one tone, and a descending phrase”). While this may or may not represent a deliberate attempt on Coltrane’s part to mimic the melodically-tinged sermons of African-American preachers, I do agree with Porter’s observation that Coltrane’s focus was to express the meaning of every word in the psalm through music (“serene on the word ‘beautiful,’ shouting out ‘He will always be'”). You hear a range of moods in his “voice,” but the entire recitation reflects a passionate sincerity tempered by humility. You get the feeling that Coltrane wants all of us to have this kind of awakening, to share in his joy, to revel in the essential unity of all things.
His fellow musicians allow Coltrane to have his moment, filling the background with cymbal splashes, timpani, basic and contrasting piano chords and soft bass lines that never distract the listener from the sheer beauty—the sheer humanity—of Coltrane’s recitation. I find “Psalm” a remarkably soothing and reassuring piece, a perfect ending to the story of an authentic spiritual journey.
And I do believe his journey was authentic and real, despite my discomfort with his references to “God” in the poem and his classification of “God” as masculine. I relate far more easily to the language contained in the mission of the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco: “To paint the globe with the message of A Love Supreme, and in doing so promote global unity, peace on earth, and knowledge of the one true living God.” And I really identify with the sentiments expressed in their coronavirus message explaining the suspension of weekly church services: “It has never been more crucial for humanity to attain to the blessed state of Coltrane Consciousness, and indeed the struggle continues!”
I don’t know if the pandemic will teach us to appreciate the wonder of life and draw closer to each other or will be exploited by those in power to further divide us. I could see it going either way—either the virus will expose current power structures as inefficient, wasteful and fraudulent, or the people in power will capitalize on our fears to hasten our self-destruction. All I know for certain is that we will be listening to A Love Supreme every morning long after the restrictions have been lifted to remind us that we are all of the same spirit.