Bob Dylan’s main guitarist and problem-solver on Bringing It All Back Home was Bruce Langhorne, an unheralded musician whose distinctive style was all the more remarkable for the fact that he was missing some fingers — the result of a childhood firecracker mishap. Langhorne had already been a session player for a few years — he and Dylan met in 1961 while playing backup on Carolyn Hester’s third record, and he played in the tentative band sessions for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan — but Bringing It All Back Home made Langhorne the defining player of the folk-rock era. Though Dylan recruited the harder-edged guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Robbie Robertson for the next two installments of his world-beating triumvirate of albums, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, he reunited with Langhorne for the soundtrack to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which benefitted enormously from what Michael Gray calls Langhorne’s “customary, admirable mix of feeling and restraint.”
Despite having played on some of the best-known rock music ever recorded, Langhorne kept a low profile over the next few decades and remains known mainly to dedicated music lovers. His work cropped up in unexpected places. “Brother Bru-Bru” composed the soundtrack for Jonathan Demme’s 1980 film Melvin and Howard, and his work was featured in Peter Fonda’s 1971 anti-Western The Hired Hand, which is the source of the YouTube clip posted above.
In this interview, Langhorne talks about working with Dylan on Bringing It All Back Home:
I had been experimenting with just putting a pickup on my Martin for a while, before that. But not long. Because my playing, it was just amplified and sustained acoustic playing, really. And I played the same sort of lines that I would play with somebody like Odetta, who would provide the same sort of thing that Dylan provided, or Dylan and the band, which was like a really inevitable rhythmic structure. I mean, I always thought that the people that I most enjoyed playing with were the people who had like an unstoppable thread to their music. And it couldn’t be diverted easily. I mean, it was gonna be there, the root, the core was gonna be there. And my job was really, essentially, icing. I put icing on the cake. But in order for me to do my job, that basic thread had to be there. . . since I have fingers missing, some styles of guitar playing were forever unreachable for me. Like, I couldn’t really play good flamenco. Classical was difficult for me, though I did play some classical. But since I couldn’t develop technique to the point where I could just play the entire repertoire of guitar music, I had to develop a technique based on my own aesthetics. Because I had to listen to everything and say, okay, this sounds okay with three voices. Because I had pretty good control of three voices on guitar. I could control four-note voicing, but it was only with extra physical effort. Because it would mean, since I played basically with three fingers, it would mean that I would have to play two notes with one finger on a six-string instrument, or I would have to strum. So I developed a style and a technique that was based partially on classical music, because I separated voice. I used each of my fingers to generate a line, a polyphonic line, or I would play, which is why I say I really needed someone who had a thread going to really do my job. Because then they could generate a couple of lines of polyphony, or a rhythmic structure. And then I could enhance that.
And I got to be a very good accompanist for that reason. Because I was really forced to listen. So I listened. And that’s very essential for an accompanist.
Langhorne’s recent health problems spurred this eloquent appeal on his behalf from Jonathan Demme.