Friday, January 22, 2016

A Quick Peek at Bob Dylan: All the Songs -- the Story Behind Every Track

Dylan fans and followers are more than familiar with this book that came out near the end of October last, by French authors Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon, two men who previously assembled a similar tome about all the Beatles' songs. Weighing in at just under three-quarters of a ton, it matches p pretty nicely with The Lyrics, which was released the year before.

The book advertises itself as "the most comprehensive account of Bob Dylan's work yet published with the full story of every recording session, every album, and every single released during his remarkable and illustrious 53-year career." The book is indeed "the most comprehensive" if you are referring to the number of songs written about. It skims across the surface of every recording from the covers on Bob Dylan in 1962 to the Bootlegs and the outtakes. If you've ever wondered, "What was he thinking when he wrote that?" the authors have something to offer up in response.

One way to get a feel for the book is to read the reviews at Amazon.com.
Kirk McElhearn writes


It’s a light-hearted book, designed to be skimmed rather than read. You might be listening to a Dylan album and want to read up on the songs it contains; or you might want to just flip through it and look up information about your favorite songs. There are lots of pictures, and the texts are short. It’s much more interesting than the recent Dylan: Disc by Disc (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), by Jon Bream, who simply transcribes interviews with mostly C-list musicians and unknown journalists about each album. And it’s a lot less dry than Clinton Heylin’s Revolution in the Air (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) and Still on the Road (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), which present similar information in a pretty boring manner.

There’s nothing earth-shattering in this book; the “stories” behind every track don’t explain what the songs are about (as if that were possible), or try to interpret Dylan’s inspiration when he was recording them. But for Dylan fans who are curious about the creative process, it does give some insight into how the songs were recorded and how, in many cases, they changed throughout recording sessions.


The book is only useful as a reference up to a point, however. This review by DuluthGirl casts some doubt on the authority of their scholarship by writing...

I am concerned about the accuracy of this book because I looked up Desolation Row, and the authors got pretty much everything wrong in their recounting of the details for the inspiration for the lines about "painting the passports brown." Like details that anybody could look up on Wikipedia or anywhere else online and find out about them easily. I mean, the only thing they got right was the date of the lynching.

So, if the authors got these simple facts wrong, then I wonder how many other things they have just pulled out of nowhere. Dylan has always been notoriously evasive and cagey (like most poets) about how and when and where their words come from. SO, it seems probable that a lot of these notes about what the songs mean and where they came from are simply author speculation, and maybe not so well researched.

As I was reading various selections I did note that they sometimes make statements in an authoritative voice while other times indicating that "that's how the story goes" and no one really knows. In that regard the book attempts to be honest and not pretend to be more than what it is. And what it is certainly is a lot, drawing from more than 170 books by other Dylan writers as well as additional sources. Kudos. And thanks!

Some of my personal favorites are on this album.
The 700+ page book is chock full of photos, but unless you know Dylan through other books and a lifetime of listening to his music you would wonder why certain people are being shown. Here's one of Gordon Lightfoot. Here's Joe South.

The authors do bring insight a-plenty to the book, though. Here in the section on John Wesley Harding (which they and others cite as the "first Biblical rock album" they note how Dylan must have had tremendous confidence in what he was doing to release this at the same time as the Beatles were releasing Sgt. Pepper and the Stones put Their Satanic Majesty's Request into play.

My personal take is, Bob Dylan: All the Songs is a great addition to any Dylan fan's library, a nice gift for anyone who's been a follower for any length of time.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Get into it.


EdNote: Photos on this page are from the book All the Songs.

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