Saturday, February 27, 2016
Live at Carnegie Chapter Hall New York City, November 4, 1961 - Bob Dylan
Mr. Suit Records SUITABLE1305
This is a good time to be a Dylan fan. Columbia Records has been emptying its vaults providing a steady stream of archival recordings covering most of his recording career. Curiously they have so far not released this recording of one of the seminal events in his early career, his legendary concert at Carnegie Chapter Hall. The recording is a little rough in spots but generally sounds good, certainly acceptable quality for an archival release. I assume it is the great man himself who has chosen not to sanction a legitimate release of it, perhaps he is embarrassed by it. I think it is wonderful and I'm delighted to have a copy of it on vinyl. This is an adequate pressing by bootleg standards, my only real complaint about it is that it omits one of the songs from the show, "This Land is Your Land." That track appeared on Columbia's "The Bootleg Series: Vol 7" so I'm guessing its legitimate release prevented its inclusion due to whatever passes for copyright standards in Europe. The album begins with the traditional song "Pretty Peggy-O" which appeared on Dylan's debut album with slightly different lyrics. The song is an Americanized version of the old Scottish song "The Bonnie Lass O'Fyvie." The song fades in and out in an annoying manner. It might be a technical problem but it might also be a nervous Dylan drifting too far from his microphone. This sporadically happens throughout the record. He follows the song with a story about getting lost on his way to the concert when he got off at the wrong subway stop as well as describing how he constructed his set list by borrowing songs from other performers. He then facetiously introduces the traditional song "In the Pines" as being about an 11 year old girl learning about life by going out a lot. Dylan's version lacks the intensity of the classic Leadbelly versions. He quickly launches into another song from his debut, "Gospel Plow." There is a false start with his vocal practically inaudible. He tries it again and performs with a lot of energy, whooping and hollering his way through the song. While tuning his guitar he talks about spending time with Woody Guthrie when he first came to New York and then he performs Guthrie's classic protest song "1913 Massacre." It is an earnest and respectful performance. Side B opens with a passionate cover of Bessie Smith's "Blackwater Blues" that shows Dylan's charisma to good effect. He follows this with "A Long Time A-Growing" which is more commonly known as "The Trees They Grow So High." In his introduction Dylan says he recently learned the song from Liam Clancy and with winning candor describes his version as "straight imitation." He identifies the song as an Irish song, but it is more likely of British origin. I'm a big fan of Pentangle's version of it. Dylan's performance sounds tentative and mild (perhaps because he just recently learned it) although I like its intimacy. Dylan perks up again with a vigorous cover of Bukka White's "Fixin' To Die" which he also recorded for his debut album. Side C opens with Dylan's original composition "Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues" which is a talking blues obviously influenced by Woody Guthrie. Noel Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary has said that he showed a newspaper clipping of the event described in the song to Dylan in a cafe and that Dylan returned with the newly written song the next day. Dylan recorded a studio version of the song during the sessions for "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" that eventually appeared on the first "Bootleg Series" compilation. Dylan's live performance of the song is confident and shows his comic side. Dylan deprecatingly introduces "Man on the Street" as his own song suggesting it might be a good time to go out for a cigarette. The song, which was untitled at the time, was lifted from "The Strange Death of John Doe" by Millard Lampell which was recorded by the Almanac Singers in 1941. Dylan improved the song by adding the striking imagery of the cop poking the dead homeless guy with his billy club. Dylan recorded the song for his debut but it did not get released until the first "Bootleg Series" album. "Talking Merchant Marine" is another Guthrie cover. Dylan's performance is bland, he sounds like he wasn't comfortable with the song. Given that the song is so specific to World War II, it is a curious choice for the show. "Black Cross" was taken from a poem by Joseph S. Newman (the uncle of Paul Newman) which was recorded by Lord Buckley. Dylan introduces the song saying he learned it from Buckley when he saw him perform it at the Casino in Portland, Oregon. I suspect he actually learned it from Buckley's album "Way Out Humor." Dylan recites the poem rather than singing it, while accompanying himself on guitar. It is a poem about religious hypocrisy and racism, it is easy to see why it appealed to Dylan who gives a convincing performance. All three of the songs on Side D appeared on Dylan's debut album. John Lair's "Freight Train Blues" dates back to the 1930s and was covered by a bunch of artists including Red Foley, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams and the Weavers. Dylan gives an engaging and lively performance complete with yodeling. It is one of my favorite tracks on the record. "Song to Woody" was Dylan's homage to his hero, Woody Guthrie, and its music is taken from "1913 Massacre" which Dylan performed earlier in the show. It is a heartfelt performance that gets a strong reaction from the audience although the fading in and out issue that runs through the record is particularly irritating on this track. The album ends with "Talkin' New York" which is about Dylan's experiences after he first came to New York. I've always liked the line the coffee shop owner tells him, "you sound like a hillbilly anyway, we want folk singers here" which sums up the folk boom quite nicely. I love this show, I wish Dylan would authorize a legitimate release of it with cleaned up sound and equalized sound levels. Given how taciturn Dylan has become as a performer, it is a real treat to hear him chatty and effusive, performing with enthusiasm and an eagerness to please. The performance is a bit raw, Dylan was obviously still learning and developing, but the material is terrific and I find the record fascinating. Recommended to Dylan fans who wish he never went electric.