“Further Thoughts on Bob Dylan’s ‘Last Thoughts ’”
Essay written by Tom Wilmeth
23 January 2011
I have not written much about Bob Dylan in a long time. It got to the point where I figured, What’s the use? There was such a flood – nay, glut – of writings about Dylan being produced. It was the birth of the Internet that started to make me question whether I was really a Dylan fan any longer or not – a question which always makes my two grown children howl with laughter. True, I have all of Dylan’s officially released materials. Over the past decades I have faithfully purchased the spate of soundtrack and various artists CDs to get his individual tracks, going so far as to buy a 3 CD Joan Baez box to acquire the elusive “Troubled and I Don’t Know Why” duet. I still go see him when he comes to town, as I have since the 1974 tour, and I chose XM Radio over Sirius because XM carried Bob’s Theme Time Radio program
On the Internet, however, the Dylan world became an ever expanding universe, and what had been a lot of fun quickly seemed to turn into an often mean-spirited competition of territorialism. Or so it appeared to me. And so I walked away for a while – not from the music, but from the community of Dylan commentators. I write the following because a question floats to my frontal lobes with surprising regularity, and (although I could have easily have missed it) I have not seen this specific topic discussed.
There was a high quality Dylan bootleg LP that many of us prized in the mid-1970s, when these underground albums really came into their own. Known by the title Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?, the album included excerpts from a New York City concert at Town Hall from April 1963 – the days when Bob was the brightest beacon of the folk community. For the concert’s encore, Dylan recites his just completed poem entitled “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.” Already a veteran of high profile area gigs, he nevertheless seems quite nervous as he introduces what he knows will be a lengthy spoken piece. Sans guitar, it will be outside of Dylan’s regular style -- almost an a cappella performance. In his introduction, Dylan speaks of Guthrie’s personal importance to him. He then begins a unique recitation of adulation.
This spoken work was performed only once. The 1963 recording would be legitimately released on the first of The Bootleg Series sets, issued by Columbia Records in 1991. However, what I found interesting then and now is that Dylan’s brief prefatory remarks to the piece have been edited, which becomes immediately clear when comparing the bootleg recording to the sanctioned Columbia release. The deletions jolted and irritated me the first time I played the official disk because I always felt that included in this introduction was a quick glimpse into Bob Dylan as fan – an unguarded moment acknowledging devotion.
The careful editing of these introductory remarks was not made for the purpose of time, I’m convinced, but primarily for content. True, Dylan’s halting delivery is cleaned-up, making the speaker’s words appear to flow -- when actually they were at times quite choppy and uncertain. But it is the halting nature of this spoken introduction that helps the audience to recognize the heartfelt and unrehearsed elements at play. The unedited tape certainly does not make the speaker sound inarticulate, if that was a concern.
Much more important than speech fluidity, however, is the content edited from this already short introduction. Excised from Columbia’s release is Dylan’s sincere attempt to explain to the audience that night the inexpressible depth of Woody Guthrie’s pull on him. In a removed section of the tape, Dylan says that Guthrie’s appeal “cannot really be told in how many records of his I buy, or this kind of thing. It’s, uh . . . a lot more than that, actually.” I assume it was Dylan himself who ordered the lines removed before the recording’s official release, but this decision could also have fallen to producer Jeff Rosen. Either way, I’m thinking that the cuts must have had Dylan’s approval.
But why was this content removed for the 1991 release? In his introductory comments about the intangible attachment of fan to artist, Dylan twice stresses how Guthrie is “more than a folk singer.” These lines are also cut. When Dylan then explains that his feelings about Guthrie could not be measured by “how many records of his I buy,” did Bob in 1991 think that this stated rejection of equating album purchases to one’s devotion toward an artist might hurt his own future record sales? I think not. I believe that this line was edited-out because it and the following sentence cut too close to the bone. That is, I think these lines must have touched-on something that the artist did not want revealed. Was it his youthful attempt to express an unchecked devotion toward Guthrie that Dylan later decided to bury? Did he want to downplay this element in himself, having been the recipient of such unsettling fan worship for most of his own career? Whatever the reason, this seems to be a window that Dylan wanted closed in 1991. Dylan’s younger self concludes his grasp at articulating his inexpressible feelings toward Guthrie with, “It’s a lot more than that, actually.” His thoughtful, almost distracted tone here is telling -- almost as if that 1963 audience has melted away, and he is speaking to himself.
There is only one other time in the pre-electric canon where I believe Dylan gets this close to unconsciously confiding to an audience his private thoughts about music. Near the end of the 1964 Halloween concert (also in New York City) Dylan is about to close the main part of the evening’s set with one of his strongest songs before bringing out Joan Baez. As he begins the chords to “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” Dylan uses the same joke for the second time that night: “This is a true story – right out of the newspapers again.” Perhaps this line is a comment about the press of the day often calling him a topical songwriter.
Dylan then again tells the audience: “Just the words have been changed around,” a line which Bob finds funny but which generates only a small amount of polite laughter from the audience. There is then a very brief pause, as if the performer really is considering the subject before he states, “It’s like conversation, really.” Although clearly exuberant here and throughout this 1964 concert, Dylan speaks the line thoughtfully, as if this connection had just occurred to him. Then he is off into the familiar waltz cadence that becomes “Hattie Carroll.” Fortunately, this shred of insight into Dylan’s creative process was not spliced from the official release. I believe it to be very telling about the songwriter’s use of language when composing his lyrics.
Telling too is how Dylan categorizes his own work by saying what it is not. Earlier in this piece I refer to “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” as a poem. Most would likely agree with this assessment. Not Bob, at least not in 1963. At the very beginning of the unedited bootleg recording Dylan says to the audience with urgent sincerity, “I have a po--. I have -- it’s not a poem here, but uh . . . it’s something, uh . . .”. He then quickly shifts topics, telling how this is his first solo concert in New York. Interesting here is that fact that he almost calls the work a poem and then stops himself abruptly – quickly indicating that it is “not a poem.” Perhaps the idea of even briefly taking-on the poet’s mantle also resulted in his hesitant introduction to this spoken work. He purposefully continued to shun the tag of poetry, it seems, as demonstrated by the back cover of Another Side of Bob Dylan (August 1964), where he calls his written works “Some other kinds of songs . . .” and not poems. But even though Dylan rejected the term poem, and couldn’t really name the genre of the spoken non-musical work on that April night in 1963, he was certainly right when he said, “It’s something.” There is nothing else like “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” in Dylan’s canon.
I said earlier that I had purposefully stayed away from writing about Bob Dylan for quite some time. After all, it seems that short of reviewing new releases, it’s all been covered. And maybe this very topic has already been addressed by others. Even so, this is my take on Dylan’s spoken introduction to “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.” In the 20 years since Columbia Records officially released the track, my feelings about the edited introduction have gone from great irritation to great interest. This essay, then, is speculation born of anger toward the record company and fed by my unending fascination with the artist. And truncated comments or not – I’m just glad Columbia had tape rolling that evening.
Tom Wilmeth 1,511 words
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Transcripts of Bob Dylan’s full, edited, and collated introduction follow.
April 12, 1963 – NYC’s Town Hall
FULL TRANSCRIPT (from Are You Now or Have You Ever Been LP bootleg):
“I have a po--. I have -- it’s not a poem here, but uh, . . . it’s something, uh, . . . This is the first concert I ever played alone, really, in New York, and uh, . . . uh, uh. There’s a fella out in Brooklyn State Hospital; his name is Woody Guthrie and uh, . . . [applause] . . . uh, . . . but, uh, . . . Woody is really sort of more than a folk singer. Uh, he’s . . . he’s really something else more than a folk singer, and uh, . . . There’s this book coming out that’s doing a . . . dedicating it to him, and they asked me to write, uh, something about Woody. . . uh. Sort of like, ‘What does Woody Guthrie mean to you?’ – in 25 words. And uh, . . . and I couldn’t do it. I wrote our five pages, and uh, . . I have it here. It’s a . . . have it here by accident, actually. [Dylan -- very slight laugh] But, but I, I, I’d like to say this out loud. So, uh, . . . th’, my feelings towards Woody Guthrie. Uh, . . . can not really be, uh, . . . told in, uh, . . . how many records of his I buy, or . . . or this kind of thing. It’s . . . uh, . . . a lot more than that, actually. . . . So, uh, . . . if you can sort of roll along with this thing here; this is called ‘Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie’ . . . um. ‘When your head gets twisted and your mind grows numb . . .’”
EDITED TRANSCRIPT (officially released by Columbia Records on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1)
“There’s this book coming out and . . . they asked me to write, uh, something about Woody. . . uh. Sort of like, ‘What does Woody Guthrie mean to you?’ – in 25 words. And uh, . . . and I couldn’t do it. I wrote our five pages, and uh, . . . I have it here. It’s a . . . have it here by accident, actually. [Dylan -- very slight laugh] But, but I, I, I’d like to say this out loud.
So, uh, . . . if you can sort of roll along with this thing here; this is called ‘Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie’ . . . um. ‘When your head gets twisted and your mind grows numb . . .’”
COLLATED TRANSCRIPT (bold/underlined/italicized/ CAPITALIZED material used by Columbia) – I figure at least one of these FOUR identifying elements will transfer through the filters:
“I have a po--. I have -- it’s not a poem here, but uh, . . . it’s something, uh, . . . This is the first concert I ever played alone, really, in New York, and uh, . . . uh, uh. There’s a fella out in Brooklyn State Hospital; his name is Woody Guthrie and uh, . . . [applause] . . . uh, . . . but, uh, . . . Woody is really sort of more than a folk singer. Uh, he’s . . . he’s really something else more than a folk singer, and uh, . . . THERE’S THIS BOOK COMING OUT that’s doing a . . . dedicating it to him, AND THEY ASKED ME TO WRITE, UH, SOMETHING ABOUT WOODY . . . UH. SORT OF LIKE, ‘WHAT DOES WOODY GUTHRIE MEAN TO YOU?’ IN 25 WORDS. AND UH, . . . AND I COULDN’T DO IT. I WROTE OUT FIVE PAGES, AND UH, . . . I HAVE IT HERE. IT’S A . . . HAVE IT HERE BY ACCIDENT, ACTUALLY. [DYLAN -- VERY SLIGHT LAUGH] BUT, BUT I, I, I’D LIKE TO SAY THIS OUT LOUD. So, uh, . . . th’, my feelings towards Woody Guthrie. Uh, . . . can not really be, uh . . . told in, uh, . . . how many records of his I buy, or . . . or this kind of thing. It’s . . . uh, . . . a lot more than that, actually. . . . SO, UH, . . .IF YOU CAN SORT OF ROLL ALONG WITH THIS THING HERE; THIS IS CALLED ‘LAST THOUGHTS ON WOODY GUTHRIE’ . . . UM. ‘When your head gets twisted and your mind grows numb . . .’”