Tag Archives: Michael Gray

Gray studies

Regular readers of this blog know that I consider Michael Gray the best writer on Bob Dylan walking the planet. I also greatly enjoyed his recent biography of blues master Blind Willie McTell, so needless to say it was a real treat to have Gray drop in at my bookstore for a Sunday afternoon reading and Q&A. A small crowd of fellow Dylan obsessives showed up, some driving in from rather far away (Hunterdon County is a bit of a trek) to hear the man speak.  It was probably all timed to raise the profile of his spiffy new Web site, though I couldn’t say for sure.

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Zantzinger zingers

Via the estimable Michael Gray we learn that the BBC is about to broadcast a half-hour documentary about the wealthy scumheel William Zantzinger, whose 1963 attack on a black barmaid led Bob Dylan to write “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and thus immortalize Zantzinger’s infamy. The doc was produced by Howard Sounes, author of the Bob Dylan biography Down the Highway, a book worth reading chiefly for Zantinger’s amusing explosion over the effect Dylan’s song had on his life. Sounes claims he even located the cane Zantzinger used against his victim.  This is gonna be good.

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Gray study

Michael Gray, who as the author of Song and Dance Man and The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia is somebody who can get me to change my mind (or at least revisit my opinions) about anything Bob Dylan-related, has listened to Christmas in the Heart and found it good. In fact, he loves it and admires it, which is a reaction just about completely the opposite of mine.

Reading the post, I instantly imagined a Dylanesque take on A Christmas Carol in which Gray, as the Spirit of Dylan Albums Present,  snatches away my earbuds and warns me of the consequences if I fail to join the Perry Como chorus. I then notice two Prada-clad figures huddled at his feet.

“Are these yours?”

“They are man’s. They are Hipness and Snark. Beware the last one particularly — especially in the Internet era, when no blog post can be lived down!”

“Is there no forgetting?”

“Are there no remainder bins? No Amazon Marketplace? No Half.com?”

I am then visited my the Spirit of Dylan Albums Past, who reminds me of the Dylan discs I now love, or at least enjoy, years after I scoffed at them. (“Street Legal, hey? Remember that?”) And then the Spirit of Dylan Albums Yet to Come reduces me to gibbering in terror by pointing to a Sony Legacy catalogue with multi-disc “Bootleg Series” sets of outtakes from Self Portrait and Knocked Out Loaded. No! Noooooooo!

Anyway, I don’t know if I’ll make like Nick and do an Alastair Sim about Christmas in the Heart. So I’ll just congratulate Michael on the 10th anniversary of Song and Dance Man, a book that will continue to dominate the field of Dylan criticism decades from now.

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Another turn in the South

Hand Me My

At the start of his book Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell, Michael Gray name-checks V.S. Naipaul’s cultural travelogue A Turn in the South, and the association is more than apt. Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes is not a conventional biography of Georgia’s preeminent bluesman; indeed, one of the book’s themes is the near-impossibility of writing such a book, given the nearly medieval standards of record-keeping that prevailed for American blacks in McTell’s time. The book is loaded with hard-won information and useful spadework, but Gray’s narrative is as much about the search as it is about the object. Time and again I was reminded of Naipaul’s accounts of his journeys through India and the Islamic world, and if Gray’s eye is more forgiving than Sir Vidia’s, it is no less piercing for that fact.

If McTell has a reputation outside hardcore blues circles, most of the credit goes to the Allman Brothers Band, which used McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” as a showcase for muscular musicianship, and Bob Dylan, whose song “Blind Willie McTell” — recorded in 1983 but inexplicably shelved for eight years — reminded everyone that there was more to the music than the dark, heavy blues of the Mississippi Delta.

“Blind Willie McTell” was the focus of one of the most passionate and probing chapters in Gray’s magisterial book Song and Dance Man, so it seemed only appropriate when word got around that Gray was writing a book about McTell. In a way, Gray’s method echoes what Dylan did in his song. Read the lyrics:

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, “This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem.”
I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, I heard the hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents
The stars above the barren trees
Were his only audience
Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
(And) see the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
(I can) hear the undertaker’s bell
(Yeah), nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

There’s a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He’s dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand
There’s a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, God is in heaven
And we all want what’s his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Note the absence of quotations, or song titles, or even references to McTell himself beyond the simple declaration “I know no one can sing the blues/ Like Blind Willie McTell.” The song uses evocative imagery to create an outline of McTell and leaves you, the newly interested listener, the happy task of filling in the center. Which is what Gray sets out to do in Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes, and it’s hard to imagine anyone adding any more details to the picture.

Dylan’s song is so dramatic that listeners going from there to McTell’s recording work might feel some initial letdown. There are no hellhounds on McTell’s trail, no claptrap about meeting the devil at the crossroads or dying young and vanishing into a cloud of brimstone. As Gray notes, McTell

. . . explodes every archetype about blues musicians. He is no roaring primitive, no Robert Johnsonesque devil-dealing womanizer. He didn’t lose his sight in a jook-joint brawl, or hopping a freight train. He didn’t escape into music from behind a mule plow in the Delta. He didn’t die violently or young. Instead, blind from birth but never behaving as if blindness handicapped him, this resourceful, articulate man became an adept professional musician who traveled widely and talked his way into an array of recording sessions.

He never achieved a hit record, but he became one of the most widely known and well-loved figures in Georgia. Working clubs and parking lots, playing to blacks and whites, tobacco workers and college kids, Blind Willie McTell, human jukebox and local hero, enjoyed a modest career and an independent life.

It was McTell’s added misfortune to die just as folk and blues revivalists were gearing up to track down and “rediscover” their favorite bluesmen, at least one of whom hadn’t held a guitar in decades and needed to be retaught his own style before he could perform in front of audiences eager to hear “authentic” music. No such rehab work would have been needed for McTell, and one can only dream of the effect his supple wit and agile guitar technique would have had on the festival circuit.

Gray takes great pains to establish clear lines for McTell’s parentage, and weave them through the fraught history of the South. This makes the opening chapters of Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes somewhat dry, but the context pays off later as we see the culture that produced the man and the music he enriched with his talent.

For anyone involved in a long, difficult research project, the two most important rules are (1) spend a lot of time, and (2), spend a lot of money. In Gray’s case we add (3) burn up a lot of shoe leather. Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes is a fit title for both subject and author. This book is an odyssey in which the worst monster is not one-eyed Polyphemus but the dull-eyed bureaucrat or bottom-tier functionary whose darkest fear is that he’ll be asked to put out a little extra effort. For example, the  “pudgy and rather dense young black guy” who repulses Gray’s attempts to learn about McTell’s days with the Metropolitan Association for the Blind in Atlanta:

He told me that they “probably” don’t have any archives “on site” because they’ve moved buildings several times and that, anyway, people in the old days knew no better than to throw stuff away — but that, even if they did have any old documents, they certainly wouldn’t tell me. They wouldn’t tell me whether McTell had ever been helped by them, let alone anything else, because of patient confidentiality. “This man would have had to have signed a form to indicate that you were blessed with his permission.” He was unmoved by the snag that Mr. McTell had died some forty-three years beforehand.

Obtuseness is the last refuge of the incompetent. In this passage, Gray gives us a perfect example of what I call the Policy Punt — “It’s against our policy to tell you that” — to which add the Vacation Evasion (“There’s only one person who can tell anything about that, and he/she is on vacation”) and that reliable evergreen, the Fictional Flood (“We used to have those records, but there was a flood in the basement”). As someone who has heard multiple variations of these songs, I appreciate Gray’s criticism of the tunes.

At times, Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes threatens to veer into dyspeptic Paul Theroux territory, with passages in which Gray finds himself marooned at strip-mall eateries, decrying “this vast acreage of plastic banquettes and paper cups and fried food and smiling servers paid virtually nothing but their tips . . . and no one seems to care that the food is so gross or that you can’t be a grown-up and have a drink.” Late in the book, however, is a description of a blood-freezing encounter with Georgia state prison guards that leaves you happy for Gray’s escape, and thinking about how it must have been for a black man in McTell’s time, when an encounter with whites could have sudden, life-changing consequences.

At such moments, one forgets the grumping about fast food and the unavailability of good wine, and Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes recovers its appeal as an engrossing, unique book — one that, like the music of its subject, pulls unlikely influences into a unified, distinctive whole.

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Unmasked and anonymous

So a police officer in Long Branch, N.J., gets a call about an old guy acting strangely last month and orders him into her cruiser, never once realizing that the old guy was Bob Dylan.

I guess you can’t knock her too badly. It’s a generational thing, to a certain extent. I wouldn’t recognize Justin Timberlake if he bought a book at my yard sale today.

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Separately through life

Music scholar and Dylan expert Michael Gray has finally commented on Together Through Life, and it turns out he likes it even less than I did. In fact, I’ve come to think my own comment on the disc may have been a little too forgiving. Since Gray has just wrapped up his speaking tour “Bob Dylan & The Poetry of the Blues,” which kept him marinated in Dylan’s best work for an extended period, it’s a wonder he didn’t get the bends while making repeated trips between the pressurized creativity of Dylan’s peaks and the lightweight doodling of these recent discs.

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Web welcome

Clinton Heylin has a Web site! I assume this is a new development, since he was one of the authors I wanted to blogroll as soon as I started doing my thing on the Intertubes, but could find no Web presence until now. Heylin goes into the Good Writes blogroll section immediately. 

Heylin’s biography of Bob Dylan, Behind the Shades, is the best and most comprehensive work on His Bobness to date, and his history of bootleg recordings is a valuable work of pop culture scholarship. Heylin’s other books include a biography of folk goddess Sandy Denny, a history of punk rock, and valuable books about the Velvet Underground, the Sex Pistols, the Beatles and Orson Welles’ battles with Hollywood. 

Heylin’s latest  book, Revolution in the Air, addresses Dylan’s growth as an artist by analyzing each of his songs in the order of composition — a typically ambitious and opinionated undertaking. Unlike so many writers captivated by Dylan’s work, Heylin eschews hagiography and fannish gushing. This makes him anathema to many Bobcats, but in my book it makes him and Michael Gray the two most reliable and informative writers on Dylan now in print. (Neither man may be pleased by this pairing: Gray’s Bob Dylan Encylopedia occasionally tweaks Heylin for his elbows-out style, buyt c’mon guys, we’re all friends here, right? Right?)    

It will surprise no one except A.S. Byatt and David Hare that the man who has delved so usefully into the lyrics of Bob Dylan also has a book out about Shakespeare’s sonnets. Now that I’ll want to read, too.

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Michael Gray and company


Michael Gray’s “Bob Dylan & The Poetry of the Blues” starts out as a one-man show, but as the evening unfolds and the accumulation of stories, observations and music samples reaches critical mass, you realize that you’re actually watching an epic — a journey across an expansive musical and cultural landscape with a cast of dozens, if not hundreds. I watched Gray’s performance Friday in Nyack, N.Y., and the intimate theater space quickly filled with the voices, if not the actual spirits, of Big Joe Williams, Victoria Spivey, the Mississippi Sheiks, Sonny Boy Williamson, Memphis Minnie and, of course, Dylan himself. You could hardly ask for better company on a night out.

If you’ve read Gray’s magisterial Song and Dance Man, particularly the chapter “Even Post-Structuralists Oughta Have the Pre-War Blues” (a chapter big enough and detailed enough to serve as a book in its own right), then you’ll be familiar with Gray’s argument that blues, particularly pre-World War II blues, remained the foundation for even the most extreme experiments Dylan undertook after “going electric” in the mid-Sixties. What you won’t know about is until you see Gray in person is the blend of passion, enthusiasm and showmanship he brings to bear making it. This was not a display of fanboy gushing or cultish obsessions, but the articulate, witty and tremendously engaging insights of a man who rightly considers Bob Dylan a landmark artist, has spent years thinking about the man’s art and, on the evidence of the Nyack performance, made every minute of those years count for something.     

As is only to be expected with the author of a book titled The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Gray has an apparently bottomless well of facts and anecdotes, but he comes bearing recordings and film clips as well. The audio included Big Joe Williams singing “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World,” generously giving space for the voice and harmonica of a very young pup formerly known as Robert Zimmerman; for video, there was Dylan’s famous appearance with a cranked-up punk band on The David Letterman Show, and the promo clip for “Blood In My Eyes,” which I’d never really given any serious thought until Gray set it up properly for me.         

That night’s show was given even more fizz by the presence of a very chatty Rob Stoner, bassist and bandleader during Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tours, who lives and teaches music in West Nyack. Stoner let it drop that another documentary in the style of No Direction Home is in the works, this time focused on the Rolling Thunder days. That’s great news: as significant as Dylan’s mid-Sixties moult from folk hero to rocker undoubtedly is, I’m eager to see a good documentary about some of the less pawed-over but still artistically commanding phases of his career.  

 Stoner didn’t share the stage with Gray, but during the intermission he was more than happy to share his thoughts with members of the audience. This was a particular thrill for my writer pal Nick DiGiovanni, who had the privilege of seeing the Rolling Thunder Revue roll through Niagara Falls, N.Y. He writes about the Nyack event here and the Rolling Thunder show here.

Nick and I had the pleasure of knocking back some wine with Gray after the performance, and one of these days I’ll have to tell you the delightful story of how warm and attentive Dylan was in greeting Gray’s son after a 1978 show, or the aggro that comes from dealing with editors who think Robert Johnson is the be-all and end-all of blues study, but soft, we are observed. If you are sufficiently interested in Dylan’s work to be reading this post, then you owe it to yourself to see Gray’s performance. 

Gray’s superb study of the life and times of Blind Willie McTell, Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes, is going to get its long-overdue U.S. edition later this year, and we can only hope its publication brings Gray back to our shores sometime soon.

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Friday finds


The saga of Nina Paley and Sita Sings the Blues has gone mainstream after percolating on the Intertubes. The problem is that Sita, a very impressive animated feature Paley created with Adobe Flash that weaves the Ramayana with jazz music and asides about the breakup of Paley’s marriage, is thematically dependent on a set of Twenties-vintage songs performed by Annette “The Personality Girl” Hanshaw. These have kept Paley mired in expensive negotiations with the holders of the performance rights, and until she can spring the film from what she calls “copyright jail” she’s decided to go for decentralized distribution. You can a taste at The Art of the Title Sequence, and even more formats will become available after the 88-minute feature is broadcast on PBS tomorrow night. (It’s already streaming at Channel 13 dot org.) There are limits to my sympathy for Paley — frankly, I think she was a fool to have sunk so much into this project without first nailing down all rights to the crucial songs — but there’s no denying the beauty and wit of the finished film, and all this attention has to be doing her some good.

Whatever happened to Danie Ian? I didn’t know either, but this great post about a superstar of African pop music gave me plenty of ways to fill in my knowledge gaps.

Six Word Stories offers brief epics in whatever mode you like: science fiction, sex, crime, horror and inspiration, among others.

Via Michael Gray comes the news that a previously unreleased concert recording by the seminal bluesman Son House is about to be issued. Son hand-me-my-shoes1House is the man who taught Muddy Waters some of his moves, and he spent a long time in obscurity until he was rediscovered in the early 1960s. Apparently this recording was made during his summer 1964 concert tour, when he literally played for white people for the first time in his life. The shows were recorded with top-notch equipmentand capture some of the engorssing stories Son House told between numbers. And while we’re on the subject of blues, I’m delighted to see that Michael Gray’s excellent biography of Blind Willie McTell, Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes, is finally going to get a proper U.S. release this fall. I’ve already held forth on Gray’s books about Bob Dylan, and I ordered the U.K. edition of Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes the minute it came out. I’ll post something longer when the book’s U.S. publication date comes closer, but I can tell you right now the book is deeply rewarding for anyone interested in the blues, McTell, or American racial and cultural history.

Here’s a hilarious roundup of the eight best Bob Dylan imitations, as done by celebrities. Does it have Adrian Belew’s monologue on “Flakes”? It does indeed, along with some unexpectedly funny impersonations from none other than  Joan Baez.

Caustic Cover Critic alerts us to a new illustrated edition of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, created by the design firm Pentagram as a showcase for its artists. The cover alone wwill stop you in your tracks, and the interior illustrations are pretty striking as well.

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Blue Monday (The Day After)

Shame on me for missing the 20th anniversary of the death of Son House, collaborator with Charley Patton and role model for Muddy Waters. The clip above is Son House performing “Death Letter,” and the clip below is “John the Revelator.” Let Michael Gray fill you in on the rest.

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