In early 1965, a 15-year old folk music fan put Bob Dylan’s new album on the turntable, put the needle down in the groove and, like everybody else, sat back in disbelief at what he heard. “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, the first track of the album “Bringing It All Back Home” was a whirlwind of seemingly insane lyrics backed by romping electric instruments. The old Dylan, the folk hero, the saviour of a generation who wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changing”, was gone.
The odd title of the song is said to come from Jack Kerouac’s novel, “The Subterraneans” and “Taking It Easy” a song ironically written by Woodie Guthrie (Dylan’s greatest inspiration) and Pete Seeger (Dylan’s greatest denigrator). Dylan himself said it was based on the vocal delivery of Chuck Berry in his anti-establishment classic of 1956, “Too Much Monkey Business.”
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” is a perfect snapshot of the 60s, with references to drug distillation, drug busts, wire taps, civil rights riots (often broken up by high-pressure fire hoses) and a palpable atmosphere of paranoia and dread surrounding the proverbial “kid.” If there’s any of Dylan’s warnings that I took from this song it was “don’t follow leaders” – one of the doctrines of my life.
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” was used in one of the first “modern” promotional film clips, the forerunner of what was later known as the music video. The original clip was the opening segment of D. A. Pennebaker’s film Dont Look Back, a documentary on Dylan’s 1965 tour of England. The video, one of the best cultural artifacts of the 60s, can be seen by clicking this link:
Click on the X top right to remove the advertisement for Pennebakers’ documentary. The bearded bald man in the video is the poet Allen Ginsbeg (1926-1997).
Contrary to the original recording, my arrangement of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is indeed in a traditional blues format and comes from Howlin’ Wolf (real name Chester Burnett, 1910-1976), one of the greatest artists of all time, and his very influential blues piece “Smokestack Lighting.” In particular, Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin (1931-2011) came up with a timeless blues guitar riff for the song’s original 1956 recording. When I was a young man, I spent hours playing Hubert Sumlin’s riff and working out some fingerpicking variations which, more than forty years later, form the basis of this arrangement.
Richard Séguin – voice, electric guitars. electric bass
Roch Tassé – drums