andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Tag Archives: songwriting craft

Free (Blind) Willie (McTell) ! Or, an introduction to Dylanology

So, you’re a fan of the wee man from Minnesota, and  you’re thinking of getting the December issue of Uncut for the free CD of Dylan tracks from his bootleg series. Is it worth it?

Well, for starters, you’d better get your skates on, because Uncut’s peculiar publication schedule means, although we’re only half way through November, the issue featuring the Bobster is already being replaced on the newsagent shelves by the January 2019 one! Of course, my colleague, friend and joint investor in Uncut manicpopthrills (we buy issues turn about and pass them on – canny Scottish tip for you all!) would grumble that another issue with Dylan on the front will be along in a minute, but let’s ignore him for now and focus on the December CD.

Actually, whether it’s worth it or not is really down to how much of a Dylan completist you are. If, like me, you’re something of a lapsed believer, there are some things of interest here: a reminder that, however dreary some of his deity-bothering material was in the 80s, he at least had the sense to hire the best of touring bands (a rocking version of Slow Train); nice too, to hear again the way he ramped up gentle folkie ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ on the Rolling Thunder tour; and an outtake from one of my favourite albums, Oh Mercy, ‘Born in Time,’ which is kind of in the category of ‘good but I can see why he left it off.’

I really wonder though about all these old guys bringing out multiple outtakes, retakes, forgotten reggae versions and so on. Dylan’s a serial offender here: I noted with amazement that his Bootleg series, a rolling record of ‘official,’ cleaned up releases to counter the tsunami of bootleg versions that he’s been subject to over the decades has reached number 14. This included Volume 12, The Cutting Edge, which, in its limited-edition 18-disc Collector’s Edition incarnation, contains ‘…every note recorded during the 1965–1966 sessions, every alternate take and alternate lyric.’ Take a week off work to listen.

Dylan isn’t alone, of course. The Beatles (or at least those with the relevant rights) and the Stones have been raiding their archives for years. Others like Pink Floyd aren’t far behind. It’s a lucrative venture, and you can see what’s in it for the record companies.

But, really, do you need 16 different takes of ‘Like A Rolling Stone,’ when you’ve got the one Dylan and Bob Johnson plumped for? Some artists, of course, are no longer with us, and there’s much to be plundered from Prince’s Vault that would be worth a listen, given how prolific the other little guy from Minnesota was. And then again…

Then again there’s the story of that nearly-lost Dylan classic, ‘Blind Willie McTell…’

1983, and Dylan’s emerging from his aformentioned born-again phase, engaging Jamaican rhythm section Sly and Robbie, ex-Stone Mick Taylor on guitar, and one Mark Knopfler, resting between Dire Straits albums, as producer of what will become Infidels. It’s an okay album, certainly better than the dirge-like gospel that went before, not to mention the dross that follows it up until Lanois drags Dylan off to New Orleans and makes Oh Mercy with him. However, what’s on Infidels isn’t nearly as interesting as what’s not on it.

At some point during the recording sessions, Dylan sits down at the piano, with Knopfler picking up an acoustic guitar. Perhaps with those two humungous talents together alone in the room it’s not surprising that magic happens, but boy, does it happen in bucketloads. His Bobness is later to claim that it was a demo version so the rest of the band could learn it, but Dylan only knows why that didn’t happen. There’s another take out there in the ether with Taylor on slide, but it’s the Dylan/Knopfler version that starts to circulate in bootleg form amongst the faithful.

This seems to put Dylan in such a huff that he refuses to release it, or indeed even play it live, for years, and is quoted as saying in a Rolling Stone interview: “I started playing it live because I heard the Band doing it. Most likely it was a demo, probably showing the musicians how it should go. It was never developed fully, I never got around to completing it. There wouldn’t have been any other reason for leaving it off the record. It’s like taking a painting by Monet or Picasso – goin’ to his house and lookin’ at a half-finished painting and grabbing it and selling it to people who are ‘Picasso fans.'”

So, an unfinished masterpiece, then, Bob? Certainly a lot of people see ‘Blind Willie McTell’ as one of the little fella’s best. In a style that’s now called Americana, the vivid imagery  of chain gangs, slavery ships, and bootlegged (ironically enough) whiskey paints a lyrical picture of a lost South that Dylan builds, verse by verse, his trademark croak betraying a rising passion as the song progresses. His own idiosyncratic piano and Knopfler’s subtle guitar accompaniment somehow work as the perfect sonic backdrop to the words.

A note here for Dylanologists – there’s been a debate amongst aficionados ever since the song emerged as to why the Bobster chose Blind Willie McTell for the refrain of ‘Ain’t nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell…’ when the real life McTell was actually quite a cheery sort of song and dance man who played ragtime as much as blues. Blind Willie Johnson, on the other hand, really, really could sing the blues. The answer, I think, is no more complicated than, as any songwriter knows, there’s a lot more words rhyme with ‘McTell’ than ‘Johnson.’

Why is this song so good? You might not agree, of course, but one reason I think this version’s so revered amongst fans is because it’s not overproduced, or overthought. I was talking to my friend and fellow songwriter Martin McGroarty about this the other night: when a song is newly forged, fresh from the furnace, those first few performances when you’ve just written it hold something special that you never get back. There’s a freshness to it, an emotion in the voice, that can come across no matter how primitive the recording method.

By a coincidence, I was out seeing a Dylan tribute band on Friday night. Yeah, I know: I don’t make a habit of it. ‘Bob’ himself seemed a bit off his game: maybe it was him starting the first song of the show with the wrong harmonica that threw him, the way it can. Could have done without all the chat from the bass player, who seemed to feel it necessary to share with us at one point that he wasn’t much of a Dylan fan himself. The guitarist was great, though: and if ‘Bob’ got the lyrics of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ a bit, well, tangled up, he clearly was an aficionado, and his song choices, including ‘Blind Willie McTell,’ were totally sound. Shame my home town, by the size of the audience, isn’t stuffed with fellow Dylan fans.

On the other hand, maybe that’s no bad thing…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In my Shipyard of Songs

In my Shipyard of Songs at the moment, there are a whole order book of them at different stages of completion: some have only the most basic structures, the keel of melody and a few ribs of lyrics (I can see my lack of nautical knowledge getting me into trouble with this metaphor already); some well on the way to completion, with just one or two final touches needed: a trim to the sails, or a beefed-up outboard motor by way of extra guitar; some needing the barnacles scraped off and a new lick of paint before they’re seaworthy again.

Then there are one or two crafted, sitting around the edges of the Songyard, waiting for an owner. These are the ones that just don’t quite fit any of the collaborative projects for one reason or another, but which are, I think, seaworthy. What to do with them?

‘Somewhere You’re Out There’ is one of these. I still like the melody (so much so I worry I’ve subconsciously poached it from somewhere); and the lyrics – well, the lyrics mean something different to me now than when I first wrote them, let’s just say. You could apply them to different life situations, and I kind of like that.

However, the down side is there’s only me to sing these ones, so you have to put up with my less than perfect delivery. See what you think, and let me know. I’ll probably be doing a bit more of this in the coming months – I might even try to put something up once a month, whether it be original material, or a cover, and replace it the next month with something else.

Also coming up: some reflections on writing, music, and new business models; and I interview myself.

Songwriters on Songwriting: Norman Lamont

For the first of a short series on songwriters in the Edinburgh area, here’s an interview with Norman Lamont. First up, here’s how he introduces himself:

Despite being described by friends on the Edinburgh scene as ‘a legend’ or ‘the king of Edinburgh songwriters’, Norman Lamont is growing comfortable with obscurity. He continues to gig with his band The Heaven Sent, and produce albums, the most recent being last year’s All The Time in Heaven.

And now for the questions:

Music or words first? Or a bit of both?

Almost always a bit of both, that is, a line or two complete with a melody and tempo. That suggests what the rest will be, which is work. The music is easier than the words. I’ve had melodies with a few lines hang round for twelve years waiting for me to knuckle down and write more words. Some are still waiting. (Gravestone ‘He never did finish that —-ing song’)

I do write words on their own, but never as embryo songs; they’re just scraps of stuff I keep for when I’m scrabbling around trying to finish something. When I write them I think they’re rubbish; years later when I find them I think they’re brilliant compared to the rubbish I’m writing now. My room is full of notebooks.

Do you use a particular instrument to compose with, e.g. a favourite guitar; if you use piano/keyboard and guitar for different songs, do they produce different results?

Usually I write in my head, and then work out the guitar chords afterwards from the completed stadium version I hear the E Street Band playing in my head.

Some songwriters talk about the process as if it’s like catching something that was there already, out there in the ether – as if the song was just waiting to be pulled in. Does it ever feel like that to you, or is the process much more mechanical for you?

I’ve had that experience a few times. Driving or walking along the street I just open my mouth and start singing a completely new song I haven’t planned. It certainly clears the pavement. When I examine it, it’s often linked to something I’ve been listening to earlier in the day so it’s not that magical, but it feels that way at the time. But that’s just the start – the rest is work and anticlimax.

Name an influence on your songs that maybe wouldn’t be obvious to most of your fans.

A semi-retired Edinburgh singer called Dave Christopher, not known by many. He let me join his band in Glasgow in the 70s and it was the first time I’d actually met someone whose songs astonished me. He has a McCartney-like gift for melody.

Do you always write with your own (or your lead singer’s) voice in mind, or have you ever written for someone else? How did it turn out?

I’ve never tried to write for someone else, as no-one has ever requested such a service. I often ‘hear’ a new song with someone else’s voice, but when I play it to people they don’t often recognise my mangled interpretation of that person, which avoids charges of plagiarism.

Do you ever revise your songs after you’ve started performing them, or are they pretty much fixed?

Structure stays the same, but every time I sing in front of an audience I find new ways to sing them, often with new melodies. Somehow there has to be an audience for that to happen.

Name three favourite songwriters of yours.

Rennie and Brett Sparks (The Handsome Family)
Paul Simon
Brian Eno
Leonard Cohen (you did say four favourite songwriters, didn’t you?)

Norman is doing one night at the Acoustic Music Centre @ St Brides on August 16th, by which time a new, more light-hearted album may be complete, probably to be called Gurus At The Bar. New songs appear with startling regularity on his site, normanlamont.com.

For those of you who don’t know, Andrew C Ferguson is one half of Tribute to Venus Carmichael, the only known tribute band of the legendary – some dare to say imaginary – singer-songwriter from the L.A Canyons via Arbroath. You can catch more of her story, in words and music, at the White Horse, Canongate, on Friday 24th April. Facebook event is here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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