View From the East: Noise for Whole Ears



Greg Sandow

In “Girl from the North Country,” the second track on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (his second album), there’s an arresting moment. The song’s about to end, and Dylan, playing guitar and putting his harmonica to his mouth, squeezes out a high B flat and holds it over two chords it doesn’t go with at all. I’d been on a Dylan kick—the result of reading Positively 4th Street, David Hajdu‘s evocative account of Dylan, Joan Baez, and Richard and Mimi Fariña—and though I’d heard this song before, I’d never noticed this crazy sound.

Maybe David’s view of Dylan—or David’s account of everybody’s early view of Dylan—made me hear how strange he used to seem. Or maybe I listened with a new music head. But this B flat, which starts after a plain B flat chord, but wails over a G ninth, and then an F seventh…that just seized my brain and made time stop. I think it’s one of the most striking single notes I’ve ever heard, which could lead to some fun. What are other single notes we remember? I’d have to vote for Alvin Lucier‘s Music on a Long Thin Wire, a 1980 piece (available from Lovely Music), in which a 50-foot wire in a resonant space is set vibrating four times to different frequencies. Of course, new notes join the drone, which is one of the points—and wonders—of the piece, so maybe it’s cheating to call the four sections single notes. Still, it’s what comes to mind, along with something Carlo Bergonzi does in the fourth act of Verdi‘s Aida, in his duet with Amneris, on the old Decca recording with Renata Tebaldi. “Ma puro il mio pensiero,” he sings — “ma puro il mio pensiero e l’onor mio restò,” or in English, “But pure my thoughts and my honor remain.” And as he rises through a high A on “puro,” his voice, on just that first “pu,” is lit from within by the purity of both the word and the sentiment.

Of course there are other great single notes, including many I know well, but that somehow don’t come to my mind. Any ideas?

But back to Dylan. I started listening to him all over again and quickly I found all kinds of dissonances. One I’d noticed before, in one of his most famous songs (and one of my favorites), “Like A Rolling Stone.” “How does it feel?” he keeps shouting in the chorus, over a basic V7 – I progression in C. But often he’ll sing notes that shouldn’t go with the chords, like repeated Cs over the G7. Sometimes he’ll sing an E on “feel” that’s so high it sounds like an F, grating over the C chord below.

As I relistened, I began to see that those Cs over the G7 are one of Dylan’s tropes, a tonic root held over a dominant. He holds a tonic that way in a short harmonica solo in “Like A Rolling Stone,” about 4:25 into the song. For that matter, Al Kooper, a guitarist who wandered over to the Hammond organ for this song, does it himself, in the final chorus, playing a tonic chord, maybe by accident, when the dominant is happening everywhere else. Dylan does it wonderfully in the chorus of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” the sixth track of Freewheelin’: “And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard ra-a-a-a-ain”—and here he strains out a high E, holding onto it while his guitar moves to a B chord—”gonna fall.”

But this is nothing. Right at the start of the album, singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” (one of those songs that once, at least, was blazed in fire into our cultural consciousness), he plays completely wrong chords in his harmonica refrains, not just tonic over dominant, but tonic over subdominant, and things that sound even stranger than that, though in terms just of notes they might not really be. In his first harmonica solo in “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” the harmonica chords gnash wildly with his guitar. One harmonica note at the end of “Corinna, Corinna” gnashes, too.

And then two albums later, in Another Side of Bob Dylan—a grand mess, slapped onto tape in a single night—there’s more, especially in “I Shall Be Free No. 10,” where Dylan has the high-class idea of creating a composer-like rhythmic figure with short harmonica notes and guitar chords, and then blasts “high-class” into ruins by playing noises I don’t trust myself to identify, harmonica stuff that doesn’t go with the notes in the guitar chords in any way at all.

But here’s where things get interesting. Who really cares what these notes really are? I could get all high-class myself, and suggest that there’s a composerly voicing problem involved with the harmonica. When you play the harmonica, you get the tonic chord (in whatever key the harmonica is tuned to) when you exhale, and all the other notes of the diatonic scale when you inhale. The most instinctive sound, then, is tonic and a fine raucous dominant ninth. If you want something fancier, a subdominant, let’s say, you have to think about it; you have to inhale, and if you’re in C, block off D and B to get F and A, or at least block off D (the D against an F major chord in your guitar might not hurt you).

This leads to voicing situations. The harmonica solos are in one way the most musically complex part of Dylan’s songs—his voice and guitar do more or less the same thing in every verse (unless he gets lost, changes his singing for emphasis, or stretches something out), but his harmonica solos are improvised, which of course makes them different each time they show up. So he has to plot out, each time, which notes are going to work with each chord, and we could just say he doesn’t know how to do it. It’s too much to think, okay, A minor, I’ll blow outward, and block the G, so I’m playing C and E. Instead of that, he just inhales and exhales by instinct, spilling wrong notes everywhere. Go back home, Bobby, and study some jazz.

But that’s ridiculous. In fact, it’s dorky to think these “wrong” chords are even dissonances. When I think of them that way, I start writing them out in my head, and don’t they look bad. They show up in my mental picture as big whole notes on clean, white staff paper, immediately implying clean white musical sounds. I can even fire up Sibelius, my indispensable notation program, and—I really did this—play back some of Dylan’s oddball harmonies, like the one in “Girl From the North Country,” in the pristine tones of a synthesized string quartet. Then they really do sound terrible.

But they don’t sound terrible in Dylan’s songs. They sound completely natural, and it’s pretty obvious why—there aren’t any pure sounds happening. Dylan’s voice isn’t pure, his guitar playing isn’t pure, his harmonica sure as hell isn’t pure, and the combination of all of them opens up all kinds of musical space that doesn’t exist with classical instruments. Or, for that matter, in nice white sonorous old-fashioned pop. To represent Dylan’s harmony in any kind of formal musical analysis, I’d have to write out the chords and then crumple the paper, spill coffee on it, carry it around in my pocket for a couple of weeks, wipe my mouth on it, and sleep with it.

Which means that there’s a reason I never noticed all this dissonance before. It doesn’t register as dissonance, if you’re not forcing yourself to listen for harmony; it registers as timbre. The timbre, from the start not exactly pure, gets grittier; that’s what the funny chords do. So they’re not funny chords; no matter how Dylan thought of them, or stumbled onto them, or played them by mistake and decided to keep the mistake, they come off as one of the many musical resources used by a genius.

Though, of course, Dylan can be willfully perverse (and, in his early albums, sometimes pretentious, fake, and bratty). In his endless ’80s tours, he’d sometimes play harmonica, or so I’m told, completely in the wrong key, and of course he’d redo all the melodies of his most famous songs so nobody could recognize them. Some of that could be going on even in his early days.

Then think of his piano playing in “Black Crow Blues,” the second track of Another Side; there are places where he barely gets the notes out. And while that (along with the fabulous out of tune upright piano sound) is exactly what makes the track go (just as Al Kooper’s wandering organ and the overall sense that the band doesn’t have it all together is part of what makes “Like A Rolling Stone” go), it’s still pretty clear that if every Dylan song sounded like this one, he’d come off as not much more than a wonderful crank, destined for niche status as a weird-ass cult. I think you also need to touch base with things that everyone can understand, to be as great as he is.

But then the weird things he does are also part of his greatness—and a part that many people had to learn to accept. David Hajdu describes Dylan at an early Greenwich Village show: “His guitar playing was erratic…frets buzzed, dead strings thumped. When a simple minor chord, perfectly executed, rang for a moment, it would seem a kind of miracle. He used the harmonica to produce battlefield sound effects—explosions, rebel yells, and death moans tangentially related to the notes of the musical scale…His voice was rawer still…melodies came out as nasal moans or growls.” His first album stiffed. One accomplished folk guitarist said, “I thought he was a terrible singer and a complete fake, and I thought he didn’t play harmonica that well.”

And while Dylan got better, in boring old conventional terms, we all also got used to him, meeting him in some middle territory that, if you ask me, is closer to where he started than to the comparative musical purity most people were used to, even in the folk music scene. Think of Pete Seeger; think of Joan Baez, who when Dylan came along was the biggest thing going in folk. Of course, we can trace Dylan’s roots back to Woody Guthrie and old blues singers, who don’t exactly sound like what a Joan Baez fan might call radiantly musical. To come to Bob Dylan, you had to move away from any mainstream view of music into new/old territory (new: the ’60s; old: Woody Guthrie and the blues) that you most likely weren’t used to. Granted, rock & roll had started making that move in the mainstream back in the ’50s, and one of the biggest things in ’60s rock was the return—which went way beyond Dylan—to rock’s roots. But Dylan sounds a lot stranger than Little Richard (in the ’50s) or Janis Joplin (returning to blues in the ’60s). He was part of the bigger trends, but also apart from them; he took music into his own strange and raw new lands.

And there’s the new music connection here. In the formal concert world, they talk about dissonance as if it were simply an extension of familiar harmony. But there’s also a tradition, dating back at least to America in the 1920s, in which dissonance is glorious noise. And in our new music world today, noise is a big, familiar element—we like impure sounds, weird mixtures of styles, lots of fun and grit. And if that’s part of what new music is, then Dylan is partly new music. There’s certainly a side of him that we can hear with new music ears.

But then he’s just plain great. He brings me back alive, not least for his mainstream/weirdo meld, which changed the mainstream, and can show us how we, too, might change it, if we find the right wave of history to ride. If, that is, a wave of history should come along.

But who cares about these boundaries, anyway? I hear Dylan with the same ears and heart I bring to everything else, and to write about him here helps me feel whole.