Intimate Music: A History of the Idea of Chamber Music

By Neil Minturn; Micheal J. Budds | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
The American Context

Considering Intimacy and Point of View

POINT OF VIEW IN THE WORK OF DYLAN AND THE BAND

Along with the Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Band infused rock with a more serious approach to lyrics. It would be a naïve historical analysis that understood rock & roll’s maturation as an abrupt shift rather than a complex and gradual evolution or as the result of the influence of a handful of individuals. Nevertheless, one must recognize the influence of the three B’s: The Beatles, Bob, and The Band. No longer are the musicians worrying about the size of the waves on the beach or the existential angst of high school dating. Instead, the three B’s deal with topics more substantial and more appealing to an older audience.1 Dylan and The Band, however, differ in point of view, as becomes clear when comparing John Wesley Harding (1967) to Music from Big Pink (1968) and The Band (1969).

Dylan’s songs are inevitably addressed to an audience. They depend on a distance between performing musician and attentive listener that is assumed a priori. Several tunes from John Wesley Harding illustrate this distance. In “John Wesley Harding” Dylan addresses the listener to tell the story of the title character; “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” proclaims its narrative intent in the title. Helm suggests that “Dear Landlord,” another tune from John Wesley Harding, is addressed to Albert Grossman, Dylan’s agent until around 1968.2 “Dear Landlord” is not so frankly narrative and balladic as are the other two examples cited, in part because the title refrains from intimately addressing a specific individual. The title is not “Dear Albert,” for example. The “Landlord” could be any person in a position of power. It is this indefiniteness that can encourage a listener to appropriate and adapt the song to particular, personal circumstances. Thus, despite its autobiographical resonance, “Dear Landlord” is a public statement: the audience is implicitly invited to intercept the missive.

Band songs such as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” or “Rockin’ Chair” (both from The Band) cast the singer as a character covertly observed rather than a narrator overtly addressing. When Helm

1See Chapter 1, “Dylan Meets the Hawks.”

2Levon Helm, This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band (New York: William Morrow, 1993), 160. “But the irony was that Bob Dylan split from Albert Grossman around this time [1968]. ‘Dear Landlord,’ Bob had sung on his new album (John Wesley Harding], ’Don’t put a price on my soul.’ The litigation from that parting of the ways back in 1968 is still in the courts as we write this [no later than 1993].”

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