Sale! From today the beautifully digipackaged CD Bob Dylan Encyclopedia Greatest Hits  is half price for a limited period: £5 + p&p instead of £10 + p&p.

The running-time is 56 minutes 34 seconds. Tracklist is of the author (ie me) reading this varied selection of entries from The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

1.  1965-66: Bob Dylan, Pop & the UK Charts  [6:19]
2.   Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat  [3:33]
3.   Being Unable to Die, and Howbeit  [3:00]
4.   Blood On The Tracks  [10:49]
5.   Telegraphy and the Religious Imagination  [4:40]
6.   Eat The Document  [4:38]
7.   Frying An Egg On Stage  [0:52]
8.   Duluth, Minnesota  [3:52]
9.   Musicians' Enthusiasm for Latest Dylan Album, Perennial  [0:52]
10. Dylan in Books of Quotation  [3:31]
11.Love and Theft"  [13:35]


Ricky Nelson & James Burton; photographer unknown
On the occasion of James Burton's 75th birthday, here's my entry on him in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Burton, James [1939 - ]
James Burton was born in Minden, Louisiana on August 21, 1939, moved to Shreveport ten years later and became one of the defining stylists of electric rock’n’roll guitar, playing mainly a Fender Telecaster yet owning 200 other guitars. He worked his way through backing Slim Whitman and others on the Louisiana Hayride while still virtually a child, escaping into session work after playing a striking solo while still a young teenager on the 1957 Dale Hawkins hit ‘Suzie Q’. It was on RICKY NELSON’s records that he became widely noticed and admired, playing a series of discreet yet inventive, tantalisingly brief solos on Nelson’s big hits. It’s astonishing how short the instrumental breaks were on pop singles.
            In 1969 he was asked to back ELVIS PRESLEY on his return to live performance, and stayed in service through all the numbing, demeaning tours until Presley’s death, though he was never free to impose either his flair or his restraint on this overblown orchestral unit.
            His credentials were better respected on albums by Hoyt Axton, JUDY COLLINS, RY COODER and others, and on the Gram Parsons albums GP  and Grievous Angel. After Parsons’ death he was a member of EMMYLOU HARRIS’ Hot Band (between Elvis tours), touring and recording with her. He and the steel player Ralph Mooney made the duets album Corn Pickin’ And Slick Slidin’ in 1966 (CD-reissued in 2005), and five years later Burton made his only solo album, which suffered under the title The Guitar Sounds Of James Burton, the sort of name normally associated with albums by middle-of-the-road hacks, and catches Burton trying haplessly to look early-1970s hip, in one of the world’s nastiest shirts. This album was CD-reissued in 2001.
            James Burton’s connection with Dylan  -  aside from the mere rumor that Dylan had wanted Burton in his band when he first ‘went electric’ in 1965  -  is that when the Never-Ending Tour came through Shreveport on October 30, 1996, the veteran guitarist came on stage and played with Dylan and the band on five numbers: ‘Seeing The Real You At Last’, ‘She Belongs To Me’, ‘Maggie’s Farm’, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and the final encore item, ‘Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35’.

[James Burton: The Guitar Sounds Of James Burton, A&M, US, 1971. James Burton & Ralph Mooney, Corn Pickin’ And Slick Slidin’, Capitol T 2872, US, 1966.]


Blind Willie McTell died at 4.25am local time in the Ingram Building of Milledgeville State Hospital, Georgia, 55 years ago today.

 As my book Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes reports:

Whether Willie was taken into Milledgeville [after his second stroke] by ambulance or train we don’t know, but he arrived on Wednesday August 12, without any luggage or money, and after a partial examination he was placed on the ward for acutely ill patients. The doctor who saw him found him “poorly nourished”. He had no strength in his right hand, and after being asked several times how long this had been the case, he said it had happened the previous night. He could not stand up unaided, and in the days that followed, he had to be cared for in every way, and remained “always quiet”.
            The medical notes [I] obtained from Atlanta show that his condition was monitored constantly, and in great detail... On admission, he was given a “partial physical” examination by a doctor, whose report was typed up that day, and his temperature, pulse and respiration were measured. Relevant aspects of his “blood chemistry” were measured at least once daily, and the results logged. A sheet of doctor’s orders included putting him on a salt-free diet, fitting a catheter and prescribing tablets on the day of his admission and making changes in his medication two days later.
            A serological report was typed up and he was given a Wasserman Test the day after he arrived, and by the next day his chest x-ray had been developed, analysed and written up. The day before he died, the “lab girl” was told to check things every four hours (though she seems to have skipped two of these). His breathing, pulse and temperature were measured and logged twice daily throughout the week; his medicine, quite rightly, was specified item by item, daily.
            His severe deterioration on August 18 was noted promptly  -  the medical note “get stat blood sugar” implies that they were worried he was going into a diabetic coma  -  and they put him on a drip twelve hours before he died. Presumably to cover themselves, a letter dated August 18 was sent from the Director and the Clinical Director to [Willie's uncle and friend] Gold Harris, saying “This is to advise you that the above named patient is being treated on the ward for acutely ill patients and…We regard his condition as potentially critical and such that he is likely to make a sudden change for the worse and the end come abruptly.”
            He died at 4.25 next morning, Wednesday August 19. The death certificate gave the cause of death as cerebral hemorrhage. The hospital’s more detailed notes were that Dr. M.E. Smith “offered a diagnosis in this case, of: CBS (Cerebral Brain Syndrome), associated with circulatory disturbance, other, cerebral hemorrhage, left side, with psychotic reaction.”
            Today, the diabetes would be better managed, and we would term it Cerebral Vascular Accident rather than CBS. The hemorrhage was on the left side of his brain, so that it was the right side of his body that was impaired. He might well have had cerebral vascular disease for some time, and the earlier stroke may have been part of that: clearly from the medical evidence here, something had happened around nine months previously  -  that is, at the time of [his uncle] Coot’s and [his wife] Helen’s deaths  -  that propelled him into much greater illness. By the time he arrived at the hospital, the nerve-endings in his leg were impaired by blood not reaching it properly.
            There was one more significant fact in the medical records. The Wasserman Test result showed that Willie had syphilis. His “very small eyeballs” and their “opacity” therefore suggests that there may have been  -  may have been  -  congenital syphilis. This, passed through the placenta from the mother, can reveal itself in many other physical abnormalities, which Willie did not have (commonly an odd bridge to the nose), but congenital syphilis could certainly account for under-developed eyeballs and perhaps their congenital cataracts...
            So it might be that this information from the very end of Willie’s life tells us something about its very beginning.


The British jazz-fusion musician Brian Auger is 75 today (18 July 2014) and is still recording and performing. To mark the occasion of this significant anniversary, here is the interview he gave me 40 years ago, and which was first published in Melody Maker on July 27, 1974. It's a time-capsule now - a reminder of how things stood back then, at a moment of great mutual unease between rock and jazz and when a jazz person like Auger was recognising a break-out into pioneering complexity by the pop figureheads of Tamla-Motown:

BRIAN AUGER has been stomping round the commercial radio stations as part of his duty in promoting his latest album Straight Ahead by the Brian Auger Oblivion Express.
             “We’ve spent the last three months on tour in America, covering just about everywhere. I have very few plans for working in England: two weeks at Ronnie Scott’s Club starting July 22 and that’s about it. But we are busy on another album.
            “We cut a live album while we were in the States and at present we’re mixing that. That’ll take quite a while to sort out because there’s so much to listen to: three nights of it, done at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go in Los Angeles.
            “But I’m very pleased with it; hopefully we can make it a double, and make a presentation thing of it – and try to get it out for October.”
            Did Auger find the contemporary music scene exciting, bearing in mind that he was one of those musicians who started out in jazz, not rock?
            “Yes, in a way. I do see something new happening. You have to look at it in terms of various scenes. There’s an English rock scene, for example, which I don’t really think I fit into.
            “All the people I feel a connection with – that I’ve listened to and been influenced by – have been out of black American music: from blues through to early jazz, Charlie Parker, hard-bop, Miles Davis, Coltrane, and then people like Herbie Hancock; Ray Charles even.
            “And now what’s exciting is that there’s a whole stream got going in the States – Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield: those guys have been in Tamla, or round about that sort of level of musicianship, and they’ve now sprung forward, using sort of jazz harmony.
            “The whole thing has taken a turn into a new music, in fact. And that’s the kind of scene I’ve always felt for.”
            Did Brian think this new black music has been influenced, en route, by any white American jazz-rock fusions? Had anyone like Frank Zappa contributed in any way?
            “Well Zappa’s a strange example, because he’s really out there on his own. A brilliant musician, and he’s written some great things – he really knows his music. Up to a point he’s contributed. But people like Stevie Wonder, restricted for years, suddenly came out and did their own thing and knocked everyone out.
            “There seemed to be a lull all of a sudden, for a year or so, when in Europe anyway we weren’t hearing those things; and then suddenly there’s a whole stream that’s there.
            “The thing is, inevitably the mainstream of rock is feeding on information drawn from either the classical side or the jazz side or both. That’s what’s there: those are the two areas which contain the harmonic knowledge necessary for the rock scene to evolve.”
            Brian went on to talk about what was happening when he first started playing music professionally.
            “Oh, well, first it was the end of the Cyril Davies-Alexis Korner blues era; I was far more into playing jazz. I was playing jazz organ, and about six months after I started doing that I met Long John Baldry, who saw us in Manchester. Now his Hoochie Coochie Men thing had just ground to a halt and he was looking for someone to act as a sort of MD – someone to just take care of everything for him. So we were talking about putting something together; and he had another guy, name of Rod Stewart, who he said was pretty good – I think maybe we could have him in. And we had a young lady who was just answering Yardbirds fan mail in our office at the time, whose name was Julie Driscoll.
            “I’d done a session with Julie on a first single, so I suggested she should come in too, and we’d do a whole package show, which would go right across the whole spectrum from sraight, pure blues – which Baldry did very well – to Tamla and Sam Cooke stuff, which Rod was very much into.
            “And then Julie was into a funny mixture of things – some Tamla things, but also Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. And I was doing more jazz material. So, after a year and a half working with all that lot, I knew exactly what areas of rock really interested me. Having decided, I came out, and Julie and I formed the Trinity to do our thing.”
            But way back before that, what had been the music that had had real impact on Auger? What had he listened to before he ever started playing at all?
            “Oh, right back when I was ten or eleven? I used to listen to early Stan Kenton records, and Shorty Rodgers. West Coast jazz, mainly – they were the more easily available records to buy. Then I heard some of the Blue Note catalogue – Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Miles: and that was it. Once I’d heard that, that was it. The guy who influenced me most was a guy called Horace Silver, a really funky bluesy hard-bop jazz player who had his own band (and still does). And then of course one always listens to guys like Charlie Parker: there’s so much information there.
            “That’s how it all started off, from there; and because it was bluesy stuff, it wasn’t too hard for me, when I started playing organ, to align myself with the blues field.
            “Another great influence I should mention is Eddie Harris – not someone who is too well-known. I’d been listening to Miles Davis – to ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’ on the Miles Smiles album, and I’d assumed he’d written that number; and then when I looked I found it was by this guy Eddie Harris.
            “I thought, you know, who the heck’s that – he sure writes good things. So I looked round and came up with an album by him on Atlantic, which I really liked. He’s very funky, very down-to-earth. So I listened to a lot, and in fact we recorded a couple of his things later.”
            Auger had long been raving too about another jazz keyboards man, McCoy Tyner.
            “McCoy Tyner was the late John Coltrane’s piano-player, and he’s my favourite keyboards player. He’s one of those guys who comes along and suddenly makes that strange harmonic turn, and just puts piano-playing from the earth to the moon, and you say ‘Wow! How the hell did we get from there to here?’ And then a lot of people start to work at it. I should imagine that a lot of people like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, all those modern keyboard-players, have all come out from this guy, although he’s relatively unheard of. An excellent, excellent musician – a fantastic player; deserves so much credit and gets so little. He’s definitely my man. Anyone who can continue Coltrane’s work, and has actually broken that harmonic barrier and let everyone else in – if one could ever achieve that in one’s lifetime, that would be enough.”
            I picked Auger up on the mention of Herbie Hancock, whom he also admires.
            “Yes, I’ve been into Herbie Hancock for a long long time, but more recently he’s been one of the people on which the rock scene has stamped itself – and in a very authoritative way. Some of the very best musicians now cannot avoid its influence. I was in Philadelphia a while back, and I went down to see Herbie Hancock, and I was expecting something very ethereal – horns and close-voicings, pretty and rather nebulous – because the last album of his that I’d got was like that; very difficult music. When I got there it was quite different. He had an unbelievable band. It was rock – or anyway a fusion of rock and jazz. Who knows what to call it?
            “It’s just music now, good music, and that’s how it should be. And the fact that the Headhunter album by Herbie Hancock got to about No. 10 on the American charts, and took about six or seven months to do it, means that we’re really into one of those periods when it’s not not impossible to sell good music. I’d like that to be clear to all the record companies.”
            I wondered whether Brian Auger looked back at the Trinity with fondness. Did he still regard that as good music, or did he, like many artists, find his old work a slight embarrassment?
            “Well apart from one or two tracks, which have faded a bit, most of the stuff I’m happy to say stands up very well. I think it’s because the Trinity was put together for a particular function, and that was to make a bridge the rock scene as it was then – around 1965 – and the jazz scene.
            “And those two scenes in England at the time were totally separate. At the time it wasn’t easy. We laboured on for about two years and the pop people said ‘What the hell are they playing?’, while the jazz guys said ‘Oh! God! I can’t listen to that: it’s commercial!’ So we were in a sort of limbo for a while.
            “But as you see, it had to go in that direction – because to make the rock scene evolve itself it had to turn to jazz (or to classical music). There was going to have to be a fusion of one or other of those things with rock. And now of course it’s happened. I think the Trinity albums stand up quite well, mostly.”
            We turned to the question of what Julie Driscoll is doing now:
            “Well, as you may remember, the band came apart around 1969 or ’70 – we had a hell of a lot of management hang-ups and pressures which nearly drove us right round the bend; so what with trying to put up with that, and trying to put up with the pressures of being on the road almost full-time, the quality of our lives suffered so badly that it just wasn’t worth it. It got to a point where you could have offered us anything and we wouldn’t have done it.
            “Plus we were let down very badly at the end, and were left with nothing – for four years’ work. So Julie took the attitude that if that’s what can happen in the business, I really don’t want to be associated with the people who can do that. I felt more or less the same way, but I went out and started a new band and set up as an independent, whereas Julie just stayed really in the background.
            “She’s done a few gigs here and there, done a little bit of recording but that’s all. We’re still in touch, though – still great friends. She was in a bit of a car accident a while back – which was not only unfortunate for her personally, but also messed things up because at that time we were about to get together to record a new album, and that’s gone by the board now.
            “Maybe we can do it later, in the States or something. I think a lot of people would be interested in that, and I’d like to do it anyway.”



Breaking news: because of a cancellation due to illness, there is now space for either one person or one couple sharing a room, for the Dylan Discussion Weekend of September 12-14 - and there is still similar availability for the Weekend of October 3-5. So if you can come after all, please see HERE for full details!

Our dog is Mavis. She's gentle and unobtrusive, yet she's a key member of the Dylan Discussion Weekend team, working behind the scenes. She even likes cats (but we don't have any). And for those who don't like dogs, well, one visitor of that strange kind said "I like Mavis. She's so quiet it's almost like not having a dog at all."

And while we're on testimonials, here's a couple of quotes from people who came to previous Dylan Discussion Weekends:

"A special thank you for a gem of a weekend. Wonderful food, warm hospitality and an amazing giving of knowledge."
Jill and Louise

"Thank you again for this excellent weekend. Sarah's cooking was brilliant and both Dylan Evenings are engraved in my mind. It was an unforgettable weekend. It's sometimes so easily said or written, but it really, really was. We're wallowing in pleasure. May you stay forever young."
Lukas and Saskia


I'm very sorry to have learnt this morning of the death of Gerry Goffin, whose lyrics paired mostly with Carole King's melodies made up a huge part of a (my) generation's soundtrack between the late 1950s and the arrival of the Beatles. I watched a compelling documentary on Carole King very recently on BBC4-TV, in which someone - I've forgotten who - said that Goffin's lyrics tended to be a shade dark but that King's tunes were cheerier. I think that's right and that it's what made for a perfect pairing. You'd be hard pressed to beat, for affecting simplicity and earworm catchiness - for the genius of pop, in fact - their quintessential Will You Love Me Tomorrow?', made wondrous by the Shirelles and yet very capable, decades later, of holding up when revisited by Amy Winehouse.

Gerry Goffin wrote with others too, including, much later and less significantly, Bob Dylan.

Here's my entry on him from The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (updated only to note his death):

Goffin, Gerry [1939 - 2014]
Gerry Goffin was born in Brooklyn on February 11, 1939. He began writing song lyrics at the age of 8 but had to wait many years before finding a music-writing partner. After high school he enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserve and was duly admitted to the Annapolis Naval Academy in Maryland, from which he resigned after a year, returning to New York and majoring in chemistry at Queens College, where he met Carole King.
            For a few golden years as from 1959, when they married and started to dream up songs together, they enjoyed huge success as the prolific writers of pop hits, working out of the famous Brill Building at 1819 Broadway, New York City, for Nevins-Kirchner-Colgem from 1960 onwards. For details of their joint songs, see under King, Carole. While in this golden age, Goffin also co-wrote with Barry Mann (whose usual partner was Cynthia Weill), as in the case of ‘Who Put The Bomp?’, which Goffin himself recorded, scoring a Top 10 US hit.
            Just as Goffin and King did not write together exclusively while married, so too their professional collaboration did not end with their divorce (they co-wrote Blood Sweat & Tears’ ‘Hi-De-Ho’), though Gerry Goffin seemed to come out of this less well equipped than Ms King, both as a songwriter and a performer. He made a 1973 solo album, It Ain’t Exactly Entertainment, which was not a success (while King enjoyed spectacular solo success with her album Tapestry, albeit including the Goffin-King song ‘Smackwater Jack’) and he wrote only the occasional hit in the 1970s  -  notably Gladys Knight’s ‘I’ve Got to Use My Imagination’ and Rod Stewart’s ‘It’s Not the Spotlight’, both co-written with Barry Goldberg (who recorded the latter himself, with some minor assistance from Bob Dylan, on a 1973 album, while on Dylan’s 1984 European tour, musician Gregg Sutton was given, unfathomably, a solo slot in which he regularly sang the former). In the 1980s Goffin managed to co-write, with Michael Masser, ‘Tonight I Celebrate My Love’, recorded by both Perry Como and Roberta Flack, Crystal Gayle’s ‘A Long and Lasting Love’ and Whitney Houston’s ‘Savin’ All My Love For You’, released on her début album in 1985 (an album that eventually sold 24 million copies) and a no.1 hit single.
            In late 1995 or early 1996 Gerry Goffin was working on a new solo album, his first for aeons, when Bob Dylan dropped into the studios, brought along by their mutual friend Barry Goldberg. Dylan duly played guitar (along with Goldberg on keyboards and Tim Drummond on bass, plus various others) on two tracks that made it onto Goffin’s album. The tracks are ‘Masquerade’ (on which Dylan is listed as co-producer with Goffin, and as co-writer) and ‘Tragedy of the Trade’ (co-written by Goffin, Dylan and Goldberg). A posting on Amazon’s website suggests that Dylan can also be heard on background vocals on the track ‘A Woman Can Be Like A Gangster’. The album, Back Room Blood, was released in July 1996. You might assume the title refers to the fact that Goffin’s main career has been as backroom boy  -  songwriter rather than singer  -  but the long, bitter, foaming, ‘Hurricane’-style lyric of ‘Tragedy of the Trade’ includes the opaque couplet ‘The world’s been run with backroom blood / Long before the time of the flood’. A third co-written song, ‘Coast to Coast Blues’, is covered by Anders Osborne on his 1999 album Living Room  -  on which Freddy Koella can be found playing guitar  -  but isn’t included on Goffin’s.
            Back Room Blood  is not a great album, and Goffin’s voice sometimes sounds like a poor imitation of Dylan, but these co-written songs have certainly been under-attended to by Dylan aficionados, and the album that contains them has, overall, a kind of floundering agitation that’s rather endearing.
            Gerry Goffin died of natural causes at age 75 on June 19, 2014.
[Gerry Goffin: It Ain’t Exactly Entertainment, nia, 1973, CD-reissued Airmail nia, 2001; Back Room Blood, Genes 4132, US, 1996. Anders Osborne: Living Room, Shanachie 5375, Newton NJ, 1999.]


So Morrissey has cancelled the whole of the rest of what would have been a long US tour, because of acute fever", and has blamed his support act, the unsigned American singer-songwriter Kristeen Young (who was first his support act in April 2006) for passing this on to him. She denies this, very reasonably, though she's deleted the Facebook post in which she said so.

His blaming her seems ungracious, especially since they've gushed about each other extravagantly in the past:

Him: Do you remember an ancient notion of how good the very best should be? This is Kristeen Young."

Her: This man, who I think is the greatest lyricist that ever existed and who I've worshipped since I was a teenager, is now my friend. And he's a good friend. He's extremely generous and accommodating."

He's obviously one of those people who quarrels with everyone in the end. It doesn't stop me admiring him as an artist nor stop me awaiting his new album, World Peace Is None Of Your Business, due out next month. Here's a song from it, Kick the Bride Down the Aisle', as performed at one the US concerts he did  manage, at Boston Opera House five days ago:

A curiously old-fashioned rock-group set-up, don't you think?

[News re tour cancellation c/o Matt Everitt on BBC Radio6Music this morning; quotes from Morrissey and Young from http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2007/mar/10/weekend7.weekend8.]


We had the gutters replaced recently - not your ordinary gutters, either: square-sided zinc-lined channels like small canals, running all the way round the house, out of sight behind the tops of the walls - and while the young man was up there on the roof, or, just as perilously, while he was exploring the dark mysteries of the long-neglected, floorboard-rotten upper floor of the barn, he found a French comic book from 1978. In a strikingly postmodern mix of genres, its story has cowboys and alien monsters:


Bob on tour in Japan
© Andrea Orlandi
(via Rainer Vesely)

This substantial tour has gone well: there have been some comparatively good, and certainly interesting, vocal performances - showing something closer to a willingness to sing  than in the past couple of years. You can find some examples at www.notdarkyet.org - and in extremely good audio quality (even though, Neil, they are mp3s).


Wilfrid Mellers at 90; Downing College Cambridge  20 October 2004 (no photographer credit given)
The literary & music critic and composer and University of York music professor Wilfrid Mellers was born 100 years ago today (ie on April 26, 1914). I can’t claim to have known Mellers at York – I was an English & History student there in the mid-60s and he its founding Music Department Prof, and I doubt we ever spoke. I rarely attended music department events and really only knew of his interest in any “popular music” back then because I chatted a lot with one of his students, a whisky-drinking, fur-coat-wearing girl on whom I was more than somewhat keen, Carolyn Evans-Tipping (now dead). But I formed the strong impression that, classical composers aside, Mellers was exclusively interested in the Beatles, and especially excited by Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band when it was new (while I was infinitely more engaged by Blonde On Blonde). Mellers gave no public indication of interest in Dylan’s work.

I knew from reading paperback collections of F.R. Leavis’ critical journal Scrutiny that Mellers had written literary criticism for it in the deep past (and I quoted him on Hemingway, I think, in my first book, Song & Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan, 1972, a book he later reviewed rather pallidly in the New Statesman), but when Leavis himself was a Visiting Professor on campus I never once saw the two men walking or talking together.

Then in the early 1970s Mellers was a talking head on the BBC Radio 4 arts programme Kaleidoscope (as I was, less frequently) and I remember we were once on the same programme, though I was being interviewed down the phone. He spoke about pop/rock as if melody were the important element (so I’d guess McCartney was his favourite Beatle) whereas I was arguing that in rock music melody was peripheral: that ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ hadn’t been important for melody but for sound, impact, sexiness, mystery, difference and feeling - elements far more central to the virtues of rock’n’roll and the blues.

That said, his 1980s book on Dylan and Dylan’s roots - A Darker Shade of Pale: a Backdrop to Bob Dylan - is a wonderful work, ahead of its time for its level of interest in hillbilly music and the like: an interest not so centred around or reliant upon the white part of the Harry Smith collection as that of American critics (then and now). It was a book that deserved to do far better than it did. It was published when Dylan enthusiasts generally paid scant heed to all these old geezers from Kentucky on whom Mellers was rightly so focussed. Most Dylan enthusiasm at the time was still posited on notions of his unique genius rather than on a receptivity to his work’s unfailing dialogue with older forms, musicians and songs.

Here is the entry I wrote on Mellers for 2006's Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (updated here to include his death), which includes a pulling together of more scattered mentions of him written earlier for Song & Dance Man III (1999):

Mellers, Wilfrid [1914 - 2008]
Wilfrid Howard Mellers was born in Leamington (pronounced Lemming-ton) Spa, in the English Midlands, on April 26, 1914. Educated at Cambridge, he fell under the rigorous influence of the pre-eminent and now deeply unfashionable literary critic F.R. Leavis, becoming a literary critic himself and writing for Leavis’ defiant journal Scrutiny before turning towards music, publishing his book Music and Society: England and the European Tradition in 1946 and becoming, by the mid-1960s, the new University of York’s first Professor of Music and a composer of distinction. He continued to straddle the rôles of critic and creative artist, and the genres of popular and classical music. His book Music in a New Found Land, written in the early 1960s and published in 1964, has held up creditably, and is remarkable for, among other things, its early (as it were) critical appraisal of Robert Johnson.

If it seemed an oblique comment when in 1967, in a news magazine survey titled ‘Sixties’, Mellers wrote that Blonde On Blonde was ‘concerned more with incantation than communication’, this may have been because at that point, like so many other musically sophisticated people, his interest in ‘pop’ was almost entirely taken up with an entrancement by the Beatles. He was among those who found the blandishments of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band more beguiling than Dylan’s work, and his book Twilight of the Gods was an early professorial rush into print with a Beatles study.

However, he never stopped paying attention to Dylan’s output, and he was extremely well informed as to many of its antecedents  -  and while in 1980 he could produce the detailed, part-Freudian, part-musicological study Bach and the Dance of God, and three years later Beethoven and the Voice of God, a year after that he could offer A Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to Bob Dylan. Awkardly titled, and more backdrop than Dylan, it has proved more and more interesting and relevant since its publication in 1984. When it was new, it was received without enthusiasm by many of us who still, as the 1980s dawned, preferred to insist upon the blazingly unerring individuality of Dylan’s art rather than concede that he stood in a tradition occupied by wrinkly old people with fiddles and banjos and obdurately conservative faces. In retrospect we can be grateful for, and a little impressed by, the sharp but serious attention Mellers’ book pays to the Carter Family, Nimrod Stoneman, Aunty Mollie Jackson, Roscoe Holcomb, Jimmie Rodgers and others from among the souls who have haunted Dylan’s imagination and suffused his own art.

In 2004 the York Late Music Festival opened with a weekend’s tribute to Mellers, and that October (not April) a tribute concert was held at Downing College, Cambridge to mark Mellers’90th birthday. He died on 17 May 2008.

[Wilfrid Mellers, Music and Society: England and the European Tradition, London:  Dennis Dobson, 1946; Music in a New Found Land: Themes and Developments in the History of American Music, London: Stonehill, 1964 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965); ‘Sixties’, New Statesman, London, 24 Feb 1967; Bach and the Dance of God, London: Faber & Faber, 1980; Beethoven and the Voice of God, London, Faber & Faber, 1983; A Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to Bob Dylan, London: Faber & Faber, 1984.]


I'm pleased to say that the first of the two Bob Dylan Discussion Weekends on offer this autumn is now fully booked - just a few days after being announced - so now places are available for the October 3-5 weekend only. Details here.


SATURDAY APRIL 5: I'm pleased to announce two new Bob Dylan Discussion Weekends here in South-West France this coming autumn/fall - the first in 18 months.

Great food, great music, great location.

As previously, places are limited to a maximum of six people per weekend and will be offered on a first-come-first-served basis. The dates are:

September: Friday 12 to Sunday 14

October: Friday 3 to Sunday 5



I was lucky enough to meet and interview Georgia blues musician Frank Edwards not long before he died. I was researching the life of Blind Willie McTell, and they had been friends - or certainly acquaintances - in the 1930s. Aptly enough, I suppose, by the time I caught up with him in 2001, he was a regular in the Atlanta city bar called Blind Willie's. I wrote up our brief encounter in Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell  but today (20 March 2014) being the 105th anniversary of Frank Edwards' birth, I reproduce the notebook pages written at the time - a small tribute to a likeable artist and man:

And here's that recording of Three Women Blues:

Carey Bell was actually 64 at the time of his appearance that night. Frank Edwards died in March 2002, Carey Bell in May 2007.


I'm greatly saddened by news of Tony Benn's death: a great man and that very rare thing, a principled politician. I never met him, but in correspondence with his son Josh a few years ago, I learnt that we had a family connection - and that Tony, as a boy, knew my great-grandfather - a man notorious in their part of Essex. This is the story:

My great-grandfather was Robert Alexander Gray, a man who rose from cabin boy to Master Mariner, owned two significant houses and a London flat, bought a motor yacht as early as 1918, and seems to have had a nasty temperament. Here he is with my much put-upon great-grandmother on a camel somewhere around Karachi (which was still part of India at the time):
He is supposed to have been the first person in Cleadon (near Sunderland) to have owned a motor-car. I believe this was a Sunbeam, and that as a boy my grandfather had to polish it perfectly or else. This story was, for me, the foundation for Captain Gray's reputation as a bully.
          That last fragment was more or less all I knew of him until I started researching my family tree. Then I found that in 1918, at an auction in Newcastle, he'd bought a substantial early Victorian house in Alnwick, Northumberland, called ‘Freelands’, which, puzzlingly, he sold in 1922, after less than four years of living in it. I never knew why, or where he went after that - and since Cleadon was once described to me as "the debtors' retreat", I assumed that he must have overshot himself and sold the Alnwick property to restore his solvency.
          However, one of the photos floating about has always been of my grandparents and my father standing at the front porch of another house, labelled 'Stansgate' on the back of the snapshot. My father is a toddler here, so this must have been around 1921. I never knew where this mysterious place was until - out of the blue on the evening of March 5, 2006 - I had an e-mail from Josh Benn, son of Tony, asking if I were related to Captain Robert Alexander Gray. His e-mail explained his interest but also provided a huge leap forward in my knowledge about this apparently atrocious great grandfather of mine.
          He explained that his reason for asking if I were related to this Captain Gray was because the Benn family bought a house in Essex on the Blackwater Estuary (Stansgate Abbey House) from Capt. Gray’s widow in 1933. Josh's great grandfather had had the house built in the first place, in 1899, but it had passed out of the family until 1933 when Tony Benn's father, William Wedgwood Benn (the postwar Labour cabinet minister who was given the Viscouncy by Churchill in 1941 that Tony was to struggle to renounce), having spent four happy summers there at the turn of the century, bought the property back. (A property they still have to this day.)
          This surprising e-mail explained the ‘Stansgate’ photo. And once I’d confirmed that I was both related and interested, Josh Benn e-mailed again to say that he was astonished "that we should re-discover this link after so many years. For my family – the Benn family – Capt. Gray was something of a legend and I grew up on the many stories of his time at Stansgate told to me by my grandmother."
          Josh and I subsequently had a long phone call in which he told me that Tony had been delighted to hear he’d made contact with me, since Capt. Gray had indeed been a larger than life figure in his childhood and he had always remembered seeing that when the Grays’ furniture had been taken from the house when he was seven or eight - he was born in April 1925 - a number of pieces were of the sort that screwed to the floor (i.e. they were maritime furniture); but Josh also told me that the house had been built from a kit in 1899 by his great grandfather (rather a grand kit, given that the house was a three storey, double-fronted mock-tudor villa with thatched roof) and that his grandfather had spent a small number of happy summers there in his childhood.
          He said too that Captain Gray figured in their family lore because he was such an unreasonable and intimidating person: that on his arrival in the area he had placed an advert in the local paper to say that he would not be held responsible for the debts of his wife and children. He also told me that the farmhouse was adjacent to an abbey that had originally been a 12th Century priory, and that my great grandfather had become so annoyed by visitors calling to ask to look at it that he had had it demolished!
          The Benns would only ever visit when the Captain was away on business in London. Margaret, Tony's mother, writes about first encountering the Captain Gray household at Stansgate in 1926, in My Exit Visa: An Autobiography [Margaret Stansgate, London: Hutchinson, 1992]:
          ‘When parliament broke up for the summer recess [1926], William temporarily put his political anxieties behind him and we went to see Stansgate, the Benn family’s old seaside house. The visit had been planned while we were travelling through Syria. The wide open spaces of the desert had made William nostalgic for the flat terrain of the Essex coast, and so we had decided to visit the place where he had enjoyed many happy holidays as a boy.
          ‘We had been warned that the owner of Stansgate, Captain Gray, was an unsociable man, but that did not put us off. When Mrs Gray opened the door, William said: “I hope you don’t mind my calling. My father built this house in 1899 and I want to show it to my wife.” Mrs Gray was charmed and William went on to say: “I very much want to bring my mother down next weekend. We’ll stay in a hotel and call next Sunday.” There was a farmhouse in the grounds, and Lady Benn, not the type of woman to be intimidated by Captain Gray, even if his wife and children seemed to be in awe of him, said: “Now Captain Gray, I am going to ask you to let me have that house to rent for the summer for the use of the family.” We used the farmhouse as our holiday home until Captain Gray died, whereupon his widow, wanting smaller accommodation and no longer able to bear the expense of keeping the sea wall in good repair, moved into the farmhouse and sold Stansgate to us. It became our weekend home and played a great part in our lives. William loved going there and enjoyed teaching the boys to sail. We went down as soon as Parliament rose at the end of the week, sometimes on a Thursday evening. When William was a minister he would take his papers with him in the ministerial “red boxes” and work on them over the weekend.’
          From 1927 until 1933 the Benns, therefore, were spending summers in the farmhouse on the land while Capt. Gray and family were in the main house. (In 1940 the house was requisitioned for use in the war effort. Towards the end of her life, Margaret had a self-contained flat within the house, where, Tony Benn wrote, ‘a veritable queue of descendants…came to see her.’ [‘An Appreciation’, p.235])
          According to Josh, his grandmother and my great-grandmother got on very well; when my great-aunt Vera married, it was William Benn who gave her away; and Margaret continued to correspond with Vera for some time.
          When I last heard from him, Josh was looking into his grandmother’s letters and intended to report further. He also had an account - I still haven't seen this - of another local woman’s remembrances of Captain Gray, from a 1977 interview.
          My great-grandfather died at Stansgate, on January 19, 1930. He was only 58 years old - nearly ten years younger than I am now - and there's a touch of poetic justice, I suppose, in the cause of death stated on the certificate: he died of cerebral haemorrhage... and apoplexy.


In honour of the indefatigable Ronnie Spector's current Beyond the Beehive  tour, here's some great footage from over 50 years ago, when even I was young, of the Ronettes performing a favourite of hers (and of so many people):