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Today, guest columnist Zach Grudberg begins “The Song Remains The Same,” a column focusing on great, yet underappreciated songs by canonical musicians. Any musician/band is fair game (as long as the song fits the above-mentioned criteria; I’m not planning on regurgitating why “She Loves You” is the perfect pop song for the hundredth time in the history of print), so feel free to suggest some you feel would be a fruitful topic for discussion. At the end of each article I’ll post some info and links related to the music discussed in the that week’s column.

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Whatever the costume Dylan wishes to don – folk troubadour, confessional songwriter, country crooner, tough bluesman, Beatnik rock and roller – his music always carries with it a vital understanding of roots music. The best folk songs sound modern but they also sound like they could’ve been written a hundred years ago. And that is the crux of Dylan’s music; that essence which places it not in a time period or genre but into the larger continuum of the American music tradition.

If any song by Bob Dylan fully exemplifies the above, it’s “Blind Willie McTell.” It was recorded for but curiously left off of 1983’s Infidels, an album warmly received for its return to secular themes after Dylan’s much-reviled gospel period. Religious overtones still find their way into the subject matter however. The version I’ll be discussing in this article is actually a demo; a take that Dylan recorded with a full band has yet to be officially released. Since I don’t own a would-be illegal copy of it, the full-band version will remain untouched in this article. Dylan aficionados being the notorious bootleggers that they are, (I’m not kidding; they were actually the first fan base to circulate bootlegs on a widespread level starting in the 60’s) the song found its way onto unofficial tapes and quickly became of Dylan’s most popular compositions among his fans and colleagues. The man himself never performed it live until he heard a cover by the Band, but since then it has become a concert staple for the “Never Ending Tour.”

So what makes “Blind Willie McTell” such a powerful song that deserves to be heard outside the circle of Dylanologists arguing over who exactly is “Einstein disguised as Robin Hood?” It’s the very subject matter of the song itself; a damning of America’s troubled past and the redeeming music that emerges from those who have suffered the most. Dylan imbues the song with a sense of timelessness in two important ways. First, he adopts the melody from “St. James Infirmary Blues,” an American folk song about a man who finds his lover lying dead in a hospital as a result of their morally questionable actions. This already connects the song to the rest of Americana by doing what people have been doing for hundreds of years; taking old songs and changing them. (“St. James Infirmary Blues” is itself adapted from an an English folk song known as “the Unfortunate Rake.”) As I’ll discuss later, it also ties into the larger theme of the song itself. The second thing Dylan does to make the song mythic in scope is weaving the narrator’s perspective in and out of different periods American history. This conveys to the listener that the cycle of pain and seeking relief from that pain through music is not unique to any time; it is something universal to the American experience.

Although not an outright gospel tune, religious imagery plays a key part in the lyrics. It becomes a framing device that Dylan uses to chastise America’s various ills  in a manner similar to the way the narrator of “St. James” laments the sins that’ve brought their lover to death. After a piano intro by Dylan (again adopted from “St. James”) accompanied by Mark Knopfler on 12-string, the song begins:

“Seen the arrow on the doorpost

Saying, ‘This land is condemned

All the way from New Orleans

To Jerusalem.”

I traveled through East Texas

Where many martyrs fell

And I know no one can sing the blues

Like Blind Willie McTell”

The last couplet ends each and every verse, tying together scenes of Civil War (There’s a chain gang on the highway/ I can hear them rebels yell), debauchery (There’s a woman by the river/ With some fine young handsome man/He’s dressed up like a squire/Bootlegged whiskey in his hand”), slavery (See them big plantations burning/ Hear the cracking of the whips) and death (“Hear the undertaker’s bell”). Dylan’s vocals grow louder and louder by the end of each refrain. At the collapse of the last verse he’s practically howling the words, giving one of his best vocal performances.  It is here where the song gets its name, but why is Blind Willie McTell mentioned at all? Again, Dylan is tying the song and the subject matter to Americana at large. The blues was developed in the Mississippi Delta, an expression of pain molded by the experiences of living in Jim Crow America. Blind Willie McTell is revered as one of the best  of the original Delta blues singers (Dylan obviously thinks so) and thus the metaphor now becomes clear. Amidst the evils of America, it is in the music created by those affected that Dylan finds redemption. Even though he is blind, Willie McTell expresses the pain of living in America  in a more beautiful and better way than most of those with sight. Another telling aspect are the last days of the blues singer’s life; after becoming a preacher, he never sang the blues again. But America is not yet at peace. Religion enters the lyrics again during the last verse:

“Well, God is in heaven

And we all want what’s his

But power and greed and corruptible seed

Seem to be all that there is

I’m gazing out the window

Of the St. James Hotel

And I know no one can sing the blues

Like Blind Willie McTell”

 It is here that we find another link to “St. James Infirmary Blues.” St. James was a real place that opened as a hotel in New Orleans in 1859 and was later converted into a military hospital by Union troops during the Civil War. The lyric serves not only as a nod to “St. James” but also as a tie-in to the Civil War and the larger themes of death and the decay of America. Dylan’s last rendition of the refrain ends on a hopeful note, despite the apocalyptic overtones of the rest of the song. Even as the narrator is in bed dying at the St. James Hotel, he still manages to find meaning in Blind Willie McTell’s music. Whether the rest of us can find similar redemption in anything is the real question the song poses. It’s one that people have asked themselves throughout our nation’s history and is a vital part of what makes the song so haunting. Astounding for a piece of music that might’ve been thrown away forever, “Blind Willie McTell” is surely deserving of the accolades usually reserved for Bob Dylan’s more popular tunes.

 “I have to think of all this as traditional music. Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death. There’s nobody that’s going to kill traditional music. All these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels – they’re not going to die. It’s all those paranoid people who think that someone’s going to come and take away their toilet paper – they’re going to die….traditional music is too unreal to die. It doesn’t need to be protected. Nobody’s going to hurt it.” – Bob Dylan

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You can find “Blind Willie McTell” on the Bootleg Series Volume 1 – 3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991, an officially released compilation of  various Dylan bootlegs collected over the years. “St. James Infirmary Blues” has been covered by countless artists over the years, but the version that made the song famous was Louis Armstrong’s 1928 recording. The White Stripes (also big fans of Blind Willie McTell, to which their first record is dedicated) have also released their own take on this classic folk song.  Blind Willie McTell himself recorded around 70 songs over his lifetime and they are all available on various compilations. If you want to to dive right into the deep end, you get all three volumes of his Complete Recorded Works from Document Records.

“Blind Willie McTell”  – Bob Dylan http://www.wat.tv/video/bob-dylan-blind-willie-mctell-1q85w_2gh7d_.html

“St. James Infirmary Blues” – Louis Armstrong http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXMx8OW32Bs

“St. James Infirmary Blues” – The White Stripes http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXMx8OW32Bs

“Statesboro Blues” – Blind Willie McTell http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fnWxZtI3ONY

You may already be a consumer stooge!

Today, we’ve got the first of an ongoing series which will discuss the role of money in music, and the relevancy of garage/punk as a community, with an eye towards consumption and production of physical and digital media. We hope to update this series fairly regularly – record reviews will continue to be posted as they typically are. 

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I spend stacks on records – it’s almost a compulsion; scarcely can I pass a record shop without stopping in to flick through at least one bin of 80’s cut out derivative new wave crap or countless 70’s bands otherwise consigned to oblivion. Of course you listen to them, but why bother? Mp3s are identical, suffer no wear and tear from regular use, and are infinitely easier to store and collect, not to mention free potentially free, if you’re a lawbreaker. Even though I keep a decent collection myself, I’m certainly not a top-level collector. I don’t think I’ve ever paid more than 50 dollars or so for a single record, and even that one was a triple LP imported from Holland. But, there’s still records which fetch absurd sums of money; probably more than the band made on the original first pressing. I just have to wonder – picking up these records sets a person back so far, can you even play them in good conscience? And even then, is a slab of plastic ever worth more than maybe 20 bucks? Are we all sick in the head? They say there’s no accounting for taste, but still – what the fuck, guys?

I guess we could even argue over the nature of a record itself – of course we know what it is in an immediate, physical sense – it’s a big plastic thing that spins and makes noise. This is probably beyond debate, but should we actually consider it a work of art? It’s a collection of songs, it’s a complete artistic statement, it’s got a pretty picture on the front, but is it actually a work of art, more so than the live performance? Where’s the art – in the playing or the manufactured reproduction? Walter Benjamin, demigod of the Artsy Marxists, discusses the concept of authenticity, a word which is the dark cloud of a shitstorm brewing on the horizon of any discussion of music – and punk in general, in terms of a quality called ‘aura,’ which is similar to ‘authenticity’ or immediacy. A live performance is auratic or authentic because it can be tailored to a specific audience (jam sessions, audience banter), whereas a record isn’t auratic at all (it’s a series of takes edited and layered together to create the illusion of a whole performance). Lack of authenticity, Benjamin says, is characteristic of mechanically reproducible works of art – eg. records. The lack of authenticity isn’t a bad thing, though – it means that records can be disseminated further than ‘authentic’ works of art, and ought to make art far more democratic, since now everyone can have them and experience them, rather than the way it used to be, where you had to travel to a museum to see a painting, or find a living musician to hear a performance.

What the lack of aura means is that there’s nothing special about an individual record – he tackles this most directly with an example from photography: “from a photographic plate, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense.” Since all photographs are identical, as an inherent feature of the technology, it’s silly to want the original print and not the 500th copy…yet, this is exactly what we do as record collectors. Original copies of Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” fetch sums as high as $4200 for 5 fucking minutes of music – this is lunacy. The beauty of records is that we can make an infinite number of copies with no detriment to the original – recent SST pressings sound every bit as good as the original one. What makes mechanical reproduction so fantastic is that everyone can own a copy of Nervous Breakdown, rather than having to go to some museum to see “THE” original. Since records are mechanical reproductions of works of art, there’s no real distinction between records. They’re all used in the same way, they all look more or less the same…all copies of “Nervous Breakdown” ought to be completely interchangable, since they all contain the same recorded performance – but clearly they are not.

There’s nothing special about this record versus that record – it makes no sense for us to pay more for one record over another, but the way we determine prices is even stupider. Inevitably for online auctions, “MINT” is always appended to the “ULTRA RAER MOLDOVA PUNK KBD TERMBO TY OH SEES LIPS SEGALL HOLY FUCK.” It seems natural that we would value a record in good shape better than one in bad shape. However, it seems like we consider an original pressing of a record more valuable because of it’s ‘authenticity,’ or ‘aura’ as Benjamin characterizes it. He argues that an ‘authentic’ item justifies its value by “bearing the mark of history.” 

Is record authenticity self-contradictory bunk?

The authenticity of an object is a slippery idea, but if he’s right, it seems like an object ought to demonstrate that authenticity by its condition. If we’re given an old, beat-up Model T made in the 20’s and a modern, shiny reproduction, we’d probably point to the older-looking one as the ‘authentic one’. If an object is authentic, it’s a product of a singular moment in history – all copies after are imitations of that original moment, and are different from it. Therefore, we would determine an object’s ‘authenticity’ by looking for signs of that history – bumps, fade, bruises, scratches. Given that the most valuable records are mint condition original pressings. If records derive their value first from their ‘authenticity’ (being the original document of a seminal band, say) and secondly from their condition (lacking the marks of time and wear), then the most valuable records are the ones most indistinguishable from a new one. 

Why pay more for records? Why care about pressing? It’s all black wax, man. If ‘authenticity’ is bullshit when we’re talking about infinitely reproducible objects, and we base our notion of value off of lack of historical marks, then it seems like we’re simply paying out the nose for nothing. We, the anti-corporate, anti-‘system’, DIY punkers, are totally happy to shell out big bucks to buy a record which is special because it’s the closest to a brand new one, without actually being a new one? What is achieved by this practice, save for fostering a spirit of tribalism, elitism and exclusion, to the detriment of the spirit of music as a communal experience?

What was once marked by a defiantly anti-commercial spirit is now plagued by the same pointless consumer hysteria that grips fat, privileged harpies in Best Buys on Black Friday. I welcome examples to the contrary, but it seems like attention to label, pressing, color, ‘special edition’, ‘rarity’ is all just a big empty wind carrying a lot of money away with it. A genre so stuffed to the gills with screeds ‘against the system’ or ‘the machine’ or ‘the man’ is now content to pay outrageous sums for a Turdburglers 7″ from 1972 or whatever vinyl gimmick Jack White is shilling this week. Records are marketed as being ‘for true lovers of music’ or ‘the way it was meant to be heard,’ and punk has presented itself as being ‘another way’ or ‘for the love of it’ or somehow divorced from ‘The Music Industry,’ which is seen as perverted or wrong. But are we subject to the same perverse consumerist virus that infects the system we strive to break away from? Are we just deluding ourselves and killing our wallets? It’s difficult to say what to do here; I’m not out to discourage the nascent vinyl revival, because I am in favor of it. I don’t want to tell anyone to do anything, but this tendency in the community is too weird to ignore or pass over. After noticing this, I can’t stop thinking about it when I pass a record sale, but at the same time, I’m not about to stop buying records, and will still probably buy old pressings over new ones – maybe I’m just a fucking idiot. It’s been said by people wiser than me before – “never mind what’s been selling…it’s what you’re buying.”

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