22:00 24th May 2011
Nightwaves BBC Radio 3
(MUSIC: DYLAN: BEYOND HERE LIES NOTHIN’)
ANNE MCELVOY:Bob Dylan at three score years and ten. The singer who defined the social changes of the 1960s celebrates his birthday this week, with a spate of new biographies, all trying to unravel the abiding appeal of Dylan’s 50 year career, and his secretive personal life.
As a young man, Dylan bestrode the American music scene, with his mixture of folk and blues-rooted music and poetic lyrics, delivered in that inimitable reedy voice. Like his famous lyric, Dylan has remained a rolling stone, frequently changing his style with, as he defiantly sang, no direction home. That certainly proved true in the last two decades. His Never Ending Tour commenced in June 1988, and Dylan has played roughly 100 dates a year since. Now he’s been rediscovered by the singer Barb Jungr, who’s versions of his classics have won critical plaudits. She joined me earlier from her own slightly shorter tour in Lincoln, and so did Daniel Karlin, Professor of English Literature at Bristol University, who’s an expert on Dylan’s lyrics. I started by asking Daniel what appeal a popular music lyricist held for an English literature expert.
DANIEL KARLIN: Well he’s a great artist in a new and unusual medium, and that medium is poetry as song. So that it isn’t poetry on the page, it’s not .. song is a kind of fusion of the two, and I think that’s what so fascinating to critics, scholars like me, but who are also lovers, admirers, fans.
ANNE MCELVOY: Do you see him in a tradition of something like the minnegesang or the French minstrels? You say new, of course it’s not new to sing poetry. It’s probably as old as poetry itself.
DANIEL KARLIN: No, that’s quite right. New things are always old, and that’s quite right. In the tradition of, might imply that he himself is .. places himself in that tradition. I don’t think that’s right. I think the tradition that he feels himself to be in is that of American music, in which he’s an extraordinary specialist, a connoisseur. Listen to his radio Theme Time Hour, which is like going into an extraordinary living museum of American song. That’s the tradition that he sees himself coming out of.
ANNE MCELVOY: Now Barb, you’ve reinterpreted Dylan’s songs. What’s the resonance for you?
BARB JUNGR: I thought it was a very interesting comment, poetry as song. I find it much harder to separate the poetry from the actual music. To me, they’re tied together, they’re like bone and flesh. And so for me, the joy is to take that sung word and try, by reharmonising and rearranging, to, if you like, set the coat hanger of the music, and the words being coat, set them in a slightly different way, so that you see or hear them in a different way. So the attraction for me is that it’s the most brilliant material. I love it. It’s just fantastic to sing. And sometimes when you sing it, it’s almost like incantation. It’s as though he’s hit something, with the fusion of the words and the music, that makes them something else entirely. People weep at concerts, because they hear the songs, and they go, this is just beautiful. And they weep. It’s extraordinary.
ANNE MCELVOY: How do you choose the songs, given that there’s such an extraordinary oeuvre to choose from, in his move from one form of music to another, often being followed by great controversy among his followers? Do you take a view that you have to cover everything, or do you just select what speaks to you?
BARB JUNGR: It’s almost the other way round. They select me. Because sometimes there are songs that I love, and I can’t sing them, no matter how hard I try. And sometimes songs come. People say, oh you must do this. And I listen to them and I think, really? And I try them, and they sing. And you go, how did that happen? So there’s a kind of a magic happening. And that changes through time, because sometimes there’ll be a song that I think, I can’t do that. And then, two years later, I feel I can. I feel ready, if you like, for it.
ANNE MCELVOY: The Spirit of St Bob descends.
BARB JUNGR: Yes. Yes actually, or rather the spirit of St Bob’s brilliant songs descend.
(MUSIC: JUNGR: THE TIMES THEY ARE A=CHANGIN.)
ANNE MCELVOY: So Daniel, what is it about the recent work that makes him important? As many other performers from the sixties have given up doing new things, are actually quite happy to have been a big figure of that period, Dylan’s always moved on.
DANIEL KARLIN: Well again, the moving on is also partly a return, I think the late phase, if you like, starts with the two albums that he did, Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, in which he went back to the folk and blues material that he started with. And from that point, it seemed to free something up in his own songwriting. And so the albums that have folowed that have just been an extraordinary renaissance of that music, in his own interpretation of it.
ANNE MCELVOY: As he turns 70, why do you think he’s such an important cultural figure? You can have a lot of fans, but still not have that world significance that Bob Dylan has, Barb?
BARB JUNGR: Well I think again this return to balladry sits alongside something that’s happening in the world. So I think people are thinking about roots, in terms of music, in terms of contemporary music. And he’s making that very very clear connection for people. And the ballads that have inspired and influenced him, and I think Daniel would agree, come also from a European tradition. And whilst I completely agree that he’s an American musician, obviously, and that he draws on Americana is perhaps a better way of putting that, and he is a bluesman, he’s also been very very much somebody who’s drawn on source material that came from Scotland and Ireland, and England indeed.
ANNE MCELVOY: What are you thinking of there?
BARB JUNGR: I’m thinking of the great ballads that continue to come out of him, but are on very much on the most recent albums. But even with something like Hurricane, it’s a balladic form that he’s exploring. And he keeps going back to that in the new albums. And Daniel, you’ll notice this as well, there are an awful lot of those balladic explorations of Dylan’s own past, and also of things like moving through America, which of course is what he spends his time doing, moving through places, and looking out of windows, and remembering lovers. And all of that really suits the balladic form.
ANNE MCELVOY: Daniel.
DANIEL KARLIN: I couldn’t agree more, only to say that being an American is also of course to be drawing on those European traditions. Because after all that’s where the country was founded from. I se it as longevity, as part of a refusal to be labelled, to be boxed in. And there’s a hunger in modern culture for integrity and authenticity. And for all that he’s also a great borrower, a great stealer. One of his finest recent albums is very aptly called Love and Theft, and he’s been doing that since he began. But he’s maintained that ability not to repeat himself. To go back, yes. To return, to do things again. But not to do them the same way. Not to become trapped in a cycle of pastiching and performing himself.
BARB JUNGR: Yes. And there are a lot of themes that he uses, just to comment on that. The themes may be similar, but he seems to constantly renew his interest in them. And in renewing his interest, see them from a different perspective.
ANNE MCELVOY: I notice Barb, in your case, you’re from the North West of England. And this was picked up I think by one commentator in the States, a keen Dylanite. She sounded very surprised that an English recording artist should get their hands on Dylan. Is there that sense of a protected sphere round him?
BARB JUNGR: Yes there is a sphere of protection around him. But I think that once people see that what you’re doing .. and it very much happened when I first went to America. And I remember very clearly the audience is sitting there with folded arms, and a look on their faces that said, OK, sing your Bobby Dylan, little English girl. Let’s hear it.
ANNE MCELVOY: How very dare you.
BARB JUNGR: I know. How very dare you. And three songs in they were there, and they got it. Because they could see that I wasn’t coming on with a guitar. I wasn’t using the same phrasing. But I was saying, these are fantastic songs. I hear them as fantastic songs. Everything I’m doing for me is about saying, this work is wonderful. And it’s robust enough to be reinterpreted more than one way, as indeed Dylan does himself.
ANNE MCELVOY: Daniel, what about the later work. This hasn’t only had positive reception, it must be said. One critic said it was “unregeneratively abject”, one of the later albums. Is there a time, even for Bob, to stop.
DANIEL KARLIN: Well there may be. But I’m not going to tell him. He’s going to tell himself, and tell us. I’d go back to something that Alan Ginsberg said, long ago in the mid-80s, when Dylan’s reputation, if you like, was at its lowest ebb among his own fans. And Ginsberg said, really kind of honourably and truly, that every album, he said, has something amazing on it. And I think that’e been true of all the recent ones, some more than others perhaps. But as long as he continues to produce, regularly, reccurring, these extraordinary masterpieces, even if they’re mixed in with things that are less good, we should be grateful, and let him go on as long as he feels he can.
ANNE MCELVOY: The Never Ending Tour, and the idea of carrying on touring, but also not only big venues, he seeks out places where many great singers don’t go. what’s the philosophy behind it Daniel?
DANIEL KARLIN: I just read an interveew he did in which he said something which is both moving but also rather sad. And he said, the only alternative to doing it is not doing it. I think that’s where he’s got to. That he does it partly because he does it. And that’s become his life, his way of being. I don’t think it requires for him any other rationale than that.
BARB JUNGR: Daniel, I was thinking of Tangled Up in Blue, and “I’m still on the road, looking for another joint. We always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view.” He keeps going because i think he sees himself as a bluesman. And that’s what the bluesmen did. They just keep going, and keep on playing. Blind Willie McTell in the car park, as Michael Gray tells the story. You keep on playing until you don’t play any more. That is your reason for being.
ANNE MCELVOY: Daniel Karlin and Barb Jungr there.