Archive for July, 2019

Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather”

In early 1961, Bob Dylan left Hibbing, Minnesota for New York City to find the singers he’d heard on records – Dave Van Ronk, the duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Josh White, the Reverend Gary Davis but most of all to find Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), his musical idol whom he referred to as “the true voice of the American spirit.” Dylan settled into the New York suburb of Greenwich Village and began making a name for himself as a singer of traditional folk songs, featured on his self-titled debut album in 1962. Of folk music, Dylan said “I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.”

The Freewheelin` Bob Dylan 1963

By 1963, he was a songwriter whose compositions became anthems of his generation, songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, both featured on his second album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” This album is also memorable for its cover, a photo of Dylan smiling and walking down a Greenwich Village street with a beautiful young woman on his arm.

Her name was Suze (Susan) Rotolo (1943-2011), an American artist and political activist of Italian descent whose parents were Communist Party USA members during the McCarthy era. By all accounts, they were a devoted couple and a fixture around Greenwich Village. Dylan described her as “a Rodin sculpture come to life.” In the end, the romance could not survive the enormous adulation and scrutiny Dylan was to receive, the disapproval of the Rotolo family and Suze’s own artistic aspirations.

The Times They Are a-Changin` 1964

She left for Italy to study art in June 1962, returning after six months but the relationship did not survive. The cover photo for Dylan’s next album, “The Times They Are a-Changin’” (1964) shows him a changed man, pensive and aloof.

Dylan’s separation from Rotolo has been credited as the inspiration behind several of his finest love songs, including “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, “Tomorrow Is a Long Time”. “One Too Many Mornings” and “Boots of Spanish Leather.”

“Boots of Spanish Leather” is written as a dialogue, with the first six verses alternating between the two lovers and the last three verses all sung by the lover who has been left behind. Although the lyrics deal with Suze Rotolo’s departure for Italy, Dylan chose to hide this by using Spain as the destination country. The song is an adaptation of “Scarborough Fair”, a ballad that dates back to the Middle English period (1150-1500).

Dylan, Suze Rotolo, Dave Van Ronk

Folk music has now been absent from contemporary music for more than 50 years. People today would have a tough time listening to anyone singing deep lyrics for 6 minutes accompanied only by a single acoustic guitar. But that is exactly what I’m asking of you.

 

 

Richard Séguin – voice and acoustic guitar

Boots of Spanish Leather

 

To learn more about “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, another song written for Suze Rotolo, click here.

To learn more about the Greenwich Village scene in the early sixties, click here.

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Steve Earle’s “Tennessee Blues”

Steve Earle

Steve Earle was born in Virginia but spent his childhood in San Antonio, Texas. A rebel by nature, Earle ran away from home at the age of 14 and went looking for his idol, American songwriter Townes Van Zandt. He dropped out of school at 16 and eventually moved to Nashville, the musical dominion of the American South-West.

Nashville’s brand of sugary, trite music geared towards profit incited many artists to rebel and put out their own acetic songs, songs about failed relationships wrapped in lyrics of barbed wire. They came to be known as “outlaw” songwriters, all of them greatly influenced by the high, lonesome sound and grim lyrics of Hank Williams. Their music was folk and bluegrass, blues and rock, country and R&B and the music industry, always comfortable with labels, simply called it American music. Steve Earle became of the best of these new songwriters, following a long line of luminaries like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck, Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clarke, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt and many others.

As a performer, Earle burst on the scene in 1986 with his first album, “Guitar Town.” Two of the songs from this collection (“Guitar Town” and “Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left”) reached the Top Ten. Since then Earle has released 15 studio albums and received three Grammy Awards. His songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Bob Seger and Emmylou Harris, among others. He has appeared in film and television, and has written a novel, a play, and a book of short stories.

Kris Kristofferson describes the life of a Nashville songwriter as the opposite of a 9 to 5 job, where you’re constantly at someone’s place and on the way to someone else’s place, a life full of abuse and without sleep. In 1993 Earle was arrested for possession of heroin and again in 1994, for cocaine and weapons possession. Earle was sentenced to a year in jail but only served 60 days of his sentence. He then completed an outpatient drug treatment program, reformed his band The Dukes and went on a North-American tour, stopping in Ottawa at Barrymore’s where I saw them play. It was a triumphant show, highlighted by the popular “Guitar Town”, his harsh composition “The Devil’s Right Hand” and a devastating performance of The Rolling Stones’ composition, “Dead Flowers.”

Although Earle never openly stated it, “Guitar Town” refers to Nashville, the capital of Tennessee and the so-called “country music capital of the world.” “Tennessee Blues” is a farewell to Nashville, again referred to in the song as “Guitar Town.”

 

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, mandolin

 

Tennessee Blues

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