Not knowing where to start with Bob Dylan is probably the best place to start this week.
Ten years ago, on the AC, we started a year long celebration of Dylan by playing something from every album in reverse order of their release date. By then we were up to Together Through Life and, lest we forget too, Christmas In the Heart. It was fun for me to spend a part of each week over the year 2011/2012 listening back to a Bob album. I knew the eighties were going to be tougher than other decades but I was delighted to find gems along the way in albums I’d never really listened to, and others, to which I had simply, not listened nearly enough. If you have been with our show before and since that time you might well remember the centrepiece of the year being the night we played Blood On The Tracks from beginning to end. We are still proud of that little radio moment.
What we avoided then and what we want to avoid as we approach Bob’s 80th birthday is any sense that we know or value particular periods of Dylans’s back catalogue more than others. Chewing over the merits of one period, album, tour, version, backing band are really for other people at another time. For me and for the AC, Bob Dylan represents much of what we hope to celebrate in roots music. He is a great singer and songwriter who has helped to define, but more significantly, change the popular music of the last one hundred years or so. It may well be that it takes a good bit of this century for people to recognise how significant his impact has really been.
Folk music of the 50s and 60s was the crucible from which the art of Bob Dylan was born. Not content to stay within such a defined compound, he broke out by the simple act of momentum at every turn. Where others were content to revisit, Bob explored new territory. Where contemporaries plateaued Bob kept reaching higher and when we imagined there was nowhere new to ascend he would take extraordinary diversions of faith, style and, in the most unexpected twist of all, a third act coup de theatre, he comes back on stage as the singer and chronicler of the American songbook. He becomes, as he said he would many years before, a Song and Dance Man.
On Another Country we are keen to play music which, not only sounds like the genre, but we also love to celebrate that which could not possibly exist without its spreading back to the folk, hillbilly traditions which inspired it. If there was no Jimmie Rogers there would be no Hank Williams, Kitty Wells, Wanda Jackson or Elvis Presley. Bob knew and valued them all but so much more. We know how much he loves John Lee Hooker, Eric Andersen, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Karen Dalton or The Clancy Brothers. If, like me, you loved the Theme Time Radio Hour you’d know how much Bob still loves music and, annoyingly, was easily the best DJ ever.
So this Tuesday as we prepare to celebrate eighty years of Bob Dylan’s presence here on planet earth on May 24th I will give you two hours of favourite Bob tracks which try to convey a little of that broad sweep of creativity. There will be folk, gospel, country and even some swing. There will be songs of weary cynicism, songs of discovery, joy, longing and love. There will be prophetic warning and late night regret as we work our way through a catalogue of creativity like no other and for which there is no let up in adoration by admirers of all ages in all countries in the world. He is the holder of Grammys, Fellowships, Medals of Congress, Doctorates and The Nobel Prize. In all of that he rarely steps outside Harlan Howard‘s wise maxim of ‘three chords and the truth’ and for all of that we are, truly, grateful.
Join me for a special celebration this Tuesday evening on BBC Radio Scotland from five past eight or any time you choose, anywhere in the world, on BBC Sounds.