Thursday, September 2, 2021

The Songs He Didn’t Write: Bob Dylan Under the Influence by Derek Barker

Encyclopedic guide to the troubadour’s repertoire
Bob Dylan has written at least 600 songs, but he has still found the time to perform hundreds of songs written by other artists, whether live in concert on his Never Ending Tour or recorded amongst his numerous albums. Dylan fans know that Bob is not only America’s greatest songwriter but also rock and roll’s premier tour guide through American musical history. Dylan has resurrected scores of classic songs from the folk, blues, country, bluegrass, gospel, and rockabilly genres and reintroduced them to a whole new generation of listeners. Derek Barker, editor of the magazine devoted to Dylan entitled ISIS, makes these often surprising and obscure selections the subject of his book The Songs He Didn’t Write: Bob Dylan Under the Influence.

The bulk of Barker’s book is formatted as an encyclopedia with the song entries listed in alphabetical order. While Dylan has devoted entire albums to cover songs, like Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, the majority of The Songs He Didn’t Write were performed in concert and are only available on bootleg recordings. (Dylan’s official Bootleg Series, however, has made many formerly hard-to-find recordings accessible to the masses.) Each song’s encyclopedia entry discusses who wrote it, when and where Dylan played or recorded it, other artists’ renditions of it, and how Dylan may have learned it.

Folk songs often have interesting back stories, sometimes going back centuries, and Barker delves into the historical details of such classics. In addition, Barker treats the reader to mini-biographies of many important musical figures who influenced or impressed Dylan, such as Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Jimmie Rodgers, Elizabeth Cotten, the Carter Family, David Bromberg, and Warren Zevon, just to name a few. One also gets quite an education on the modern history of folk music, like how musicologists such as Alan Lomax and the poet Carl Sandburg sought out, recorded, and compiled the music and lyrics of traditional songs that became standards in the Greenwich Village coffee houses of Dylan’s formative years. At first glance this book seems like it would only appeal to the most diehard Dylanologists, but it is quite surprising how much interesting information it delivers on the history of American popular music in general.

In addition to the encyclopedic entries, Barker provides three appendices. The first is a list of Dylan recording sessions with details about each session. This is not a complete list but rather one focused on cover songs. The second appendix is a list of bootleg recordings that circulate among collectors. The third appendix provides more information on some relevant topics, such as Lomax’s archive of field recordings or the Theme Time Radio Hour program in which Dylan as disc jockey served up many of the songs that influenced him.

The Songs He Didn’t Write was published in 2008, between Dylan’s studio albums Modern Times and Together Through Life. The cover songs on The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs (2008) are also included. This was several years before Dylan’s three-album Frank Sinatra phase and his Christmas album, all of which have added many more cover songs to his repertoire. In the intervening years, he’s also performed quite a few covers not included here. Luckily, Barker recently published a 160-page “Supplement” to this excellent reference work, which covers Dylan’s career up to 2020. I look forward to reading it.
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