Math and Memory in New Lost City
Harry Smith, Bob Dylan, and
"The Ramblers Step" (Part 2)

Harry Smith, Bob Dylan, and
"The Ramblers Step" (Part 1)

John Cohen's Dylan

(See also Part 2)

Greil Marcus did a fine and important thing with "Invisible Republic," a book which has overturned the way a lot of Bob Dylan's fans think of Dylan's career and music.

Rarely do Dylan fans still think of him as starting out as a folkie and then "going electric," leaving folk music behind in the transition. Marcus showed (very convincingly and much to our surprise) that the true influence of folk music on Dylan's imagination deepened, intensified, and reached a kind of maturity during and after Dylan's turn to rock and roll — instead of before.

However, at the center of his argument, Marcus places the 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music edited by Harry Smith.

After about seven years trying to retrace and "fill in" this picture, I've decide that Marcus is right about folk music and Dylan's imagination, but he's only half right about Harry Smith and Dylan. Dylan did not learn Harry Smith's lessons directly from the Smith Anthology. He got them mostly second-hand — that is, he learned them, but mostly in translation. I'm now convinced that the single most important vehicle delivering Harry Smith's peculiar message to Dylan in those early days — the widest pipeline between Harry and Bob — was The New Lost City Ramblers. I'm also convinced that it matters, this missing what I think of as "The Ramblers Step."

Bob Dylan and Harry Smith

Like Harry Smith himself, the Anthology of American Folk Music was peculiar — perhaps even a bit insane. It was not a neutral, representative overview of folk music in America, but rather an idiosyncratic work of kaleidoscopic art that had little to do with folk music as it had previously been understood. Released in 1952, the Anthology was a collection of scarcely 20-year-old commercial recordings that few folklorists saw as folk music at all — one cut is even from a Hollywood singing-cowboy movie. But the music sounded (and still sounds) strange, wild and wooly, intensely immediate, and was presented with a modernist, mystic sense of collage that, today, is hard not to see as "Dylanesque."

Marcus' Invisible Republic established the Smith-Dylan connection, and the consequences are vast —but the details are fuzzy and shifting. Momentous but uncertain ... you can understand what made me want to confirm and describe the connection, sort of as a historian might. After years of trying, I'm come to feel that Marcus seems more persuasive the "bigger" he thinks — that is, he is a master of teasing out what matters, what has significance, what is at stake. Writing in this mode, he still has me entirely conviced of why the Anthology matters to Dylan, and why both should matter to you. But like a painting by Georges Seurat, the closer you get to the details, the more the picture breaks apart.

Really specific historical evidence that Dylan knew the Anthology well in the 1960's — that is, that it "was Bob Dylan's first true map" — is measly. Dylan did rewrite "Down on Penny's Farm" twice, and he recycled a line from "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground" for "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again." But both these Anthology songs were "covered" often by Greenwich Village street and coffeehouse singers. Admittedly, "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" does sound suspiciously like "Moonshiner's Dance" (except played as a march), but this would never stand up in court.

I'm sincerely sorry to admit it, but I think we have an intellectual obligation to take Dylan seriously when he told Rolling Stone (November 22, 2001):

[Marcus] makes way too much of that ... those recordings were around — that Harry Smith anthology — but that's not what everybody was listening to. Sure, there were all those songs. You could hear them at people's houses. In know in my case, I think Dave Van Ronk had that record ... but mostly you heard other performers. All those people he's talking about, you could hear the actual people singing those ballads. You could hear Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, Dock Boggs, the Memphis Jug Band, Furry Lewis. You could see those people live and in person. They were around.

But Dylan was deeply and directly affected by the New Lost City Ramblers, and the NLCR, in turn, were powerfully infuenced by Harry Smith's Anthology. Just as importantly, in the years between the release of the Anthology and Dylan's arrival in Greenwich Village, the Ramblers were a major force in spreading, far and wide, the same kind of lessons taught by the Anthology, so that by the time Dylan showed up on the scene, the Folk Revival that shaped Dylan had itself been thoroughly "Anthologized." Happily, the historical evidence for these claims is hard, over-lapping, deep, and dense.

Bob Dylan and the New Lost City Ramblers

Clearly, the New Lost City Ramblers were crucial to the early development of Dylan's self-image as a performer. Among the earliest photos ever taken of Dylan as a young musician is a fine photo set by a member of the NLCR, John Cohen. In them, you see the young Dylan adopting various poses and personas, experimenting with his image, trying to please the eye of the Rambler's camera. Cohen was a student of the fine arts and a sophisticated image-maker — it had been John Cohen who had come up with the name "New Lost City Ramblers," and he was thus the first person among many to admire the ambiguous, ambivalent, self-referential irony in the band's name. A few years later, Dylan addressed Cohen directly in the liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited (referring to, among other things, Cohen's apartment which had just been demolished to make room for the World Trade Center):

you are right john cohen — quazimodo was right — mozart was right … I cannot say the word eye any more … when I speak this word eye, it is as if I am speaking of somebody's eye that I faintly remember … there is no eye — there is only a series of mouths — long live the mouths — your rooftop — if you don't already know — has been demolished … eye is plasma & you are right about that too — you are lucky — you don't have to think about such things as eye & rooftops & quazimodo. [punctuation and capitalization are Dylan's]

As I mentioned in a previous post, Dylan dedicates a lenghty passage of his recent autobiography to the importance of Rambler Mike Seeger to Dylan's sense of himself as an artist:

He was extraordinary, gave me an eerie feeling. Mike was unprecedented. He was like a duke, the knight errant. As for being a folk musician, he was the supreme archetype. He could push a stake through Dracula's black heart ... It's not as if he just played everyting well, he played these songs as good as it was possible to play them ... it dawned on me that I might have to change my inner thought patterns ... the thought occurred to me that maybe I'd have to write my own songs, ones that Mike didn't know. That was a startling thought.

Perhaps to partly repay this debt, Dylan later recorded a banjo-guitar duet with Seeger for one of Seeger's albums.

Invisible Republic points to "Henry Lee" as opening both the Anthology and World Gone Wrong, one of two great albums of old folksongs Dylan recorded in the early 1990's. But in the liner notes to World Gone Wrong, Dylan again points to a Rambler, Tom Paley, as the song's source instead of the Anthology. Indeed, World Gone Wrong's version bares very little resemblance to that on the Anthology, either lyrically, melodically, or emotionally. The two songs share the same subject matter, but they are different songs entirely — Dylan's version is Paley's.  (Actually, the song appeared on a 1965 album by Tom Paley and Peggy Seeger, Mike's sister.)  In confusing the Anthology's version with Paley's, Marcus has erased the Ramblers from the trail of evidence. Nevertheless, it's clear to me that Dylan, at least based on his word, wants to be associated with the Ramblers and is at best indifferent to his association with the Anthology.

See also Part 2


Jim Mello

Nice detective work. I think your thesis reinforces the thesis of the book Dylan: The Performance Years, i.e., that Dylan's recorded works need to be seen as an adjunct to his performances not the other way around; and therefore, it makes sense that other musicians' performances would influence him more than recordings. Right on!

r carter

pretty interesting ... i think world gone wrong and good as i been too you are really gems and tell us more about bob than people realize ... excellent read. thanks alot ... rc

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