Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Too Much Of Nothing -- Dylan and the Basement Tapes

When Bob Dylan arrived in New York he famously introduced himself as a folk singer. There was a socialist aspect to this kind of music. There was an intelligence to the songs. Folk music was for the common man, about the common man. And Dylan adopted this approach, emulating his idol Woody Guthrie, frequently singing songs about drifters, outlaws, down-and-outers and people on the fringe.

Another feature of the folk scene included song sharing. You borrowed what you loved and shared it. Hence, Dylan's first album was a collection of covers penned by others, though absorbed and re-engineered in his own inimitable style. And the wider public learned about Dylan from the performers who borrowed the songs he himself had begun writing and performing and soon recording.

Two groups that especially helped propel Dylan into the national spotlight were The Byrds and Peter, Paul & Mary. The Byrds covered so much Dylan that a whole album could be assembled from their recordings of his early songs. Though abbreviated, Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" (and the album by that name) put the Byrds on the map as international folk rock stars.

Peter, Paul & Mary likewise adapted a number of Dylan's songs and scored hits with them, pulling "Blowing in the Wind" and "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright "from his Freewheelin' album, as well as a number of others.

When Dylan morphed into a rock star there was a lot of confusion amongst some of his fans who pegged him as a folk singer. Instead, he was returning to his earlier roots, which included a fascination with the rock 'n roll of the Fifties, ripping it up with an electric guitar in a band called The Golden Chords. This time around, though, he was writing the songs, and the band he'd assembled was indeed ripping into it, pulling out all the stops as they circumnavigated the globe.

The crash came next. And the quiet transitional period in Woodstock. His band, the former Hawks, was invited to join him there and like all lovers of music they made music together. Lots of songs were generated, and tapes recorded. (You can read a great insider perspective from Levon Helm's This Wheel's On Fire.) It was a gestation period during which Dylan morphed into yet another iteration of himself, with John Wesley Harding emerging next.

But in between, there were these basement tapes. Others were aware of these new songs, and "Too Much of Nothing" was one of them, made popular by Peter, Paul and Mary. In point of fact, by the time The Basement Tapes came out in the summer of 1975 most people were only aware of the version by the folk trio.

There are key differences between the versions. Dylan's version is a haunting tune that corresponds with the lyrics, whereas Peter, Paul and Mary sing with a lilting cheerful tone that does little to convey the song's bleakness. Dylan sings mournfully and the chord structure is solemn.

But another contrast is the chorus. Peter, Paul & Mary sing, "Say hello to Valerie, say hello to Marion, send them all my salary on the waters of oblivion." Dylan originally wrote and sang, "Say hello to Valerie, say hello to Vivien..." This may seem like a small difference of little relevance, but the names may have had an origin. T.S. Eliot's two wives were named Valerie and Vivien and there may have been more intentionality to the name selection than to simply make a nice rhyme.

Nevertheless, we borrow what we love and I suppose have the freedom to make it our own. Paul Stookey purportedly says Dylan thought less of the group after this incident.* It's a much darker song than Peter, Paul and Mary delivered.

Too Much Of Nothing

Now, too much of nothing

Can make a man feel ill at ease
One man’s temper might rise
While another man’s temper might freeze
In the day of confession
We cannot mock a soul
Oh, when there’s too much of nothing
No one has control

Say hello to Valerie

Say hello to Vivian
Send them all my salary
On the waters of oblivion

Too much of nothing

Can make a man abuse a king
He can walk the streets and boast like most
But he wouldn’t know a thing
Now, it’s all been done before
It’s all been written in the book
But when there’s too much of nothing
Nobody should look

Say hello to Valerie

Say hello to Vivian
Send them all my salary
On the waters of oblivion

Too much of nothing

Can turn a man into a liar
It can cause one man to sleep on nails
And another man to eat fire
Ev’rybody’s doin’ somethin’
I heard it in a dream
But when there’s too much of nothing
It just makes a fella mean

Say hello to Valerie

Say hello to Vivian
Send them all my salary
On the waters of oblivion

* * * *
NOTE: This year's Duluth Dylan Fest concert will feature musicians performing songs from The Basement Tapes. There are a whole host of activities slated to make this year and especially special week. Dylan himself will be 75 and the occasion will be marked in events around the world, I'm sure. You're invited to join us here. Learn more at the Duluth Dylan Fest Facebook Page.



*see the Wikipedia entry on this particular point.

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