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Songs from Old Weird America

Jeremy Kearney

Girl From The North Country, by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan, Nick Hern Books, 112 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1848426559

History records that Bob Dylan’s first effort to combine his music with another artistic medium did not go particularly well. In December 1962 he was invited to London by the BBC to appear in a television play called Mad House on Castle Street. The play was a typical (for the time) “boarding house” drama, with a cast of characters brought together in one location. The original plan had been for Dylan to play Lennie, an angry young guitar-playing anarchist, but unsurprisingly, when the singer turned up for the first rehearsals at the BBC things went awry. Either not willing or not able to remember dialogue and given to substituting improvised words for the script, his role was soon reduced to just one line and his original character split in two, with another actor doing the acting, leaving Dylan mainly to sit around and play the guitar occasionally. His main contribution to the final show was to play segments of some folk songs on the guitar (including an early broadcast performance of “Blowing in the Wind”). The play was screened to mixed reviews, although the Times reviewer rather prophetically called the action “freewheeling”.

However, what did go well was that the London visit gave him the opportunity to visit the many folk clubs in London at the time and in one he met Martin Carthy, now a British folk legend, and they became friends. From Carthy he learned a number of old English folk songs, including one about impossible love, “Scarborough Fair” ‑ a song full of “riddles and unanswerable questions” was how Carthy described it. Dylan quickly borrowed the tune to write his own song about remembrance of lost love, “Girl from the North Country”, keeping two of the lines from the original, “Remember me to one who lives there / She once was a true love of mine.” This became one of the most memorable songs on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

Since that time Dylan has mostly kept away from formal acting roles (except for a few so-so feature films) and his later “actin”’ involvement was mainly cinéma-vérité-style documentaries of his tours (Dont Look Back, Eat the Document) or the four-hour, improvised, avant garde piece Renaldo and Clara, where Dylan played a character called Renaldo and another actor played someone called “Bob Dylan”. But he did not forget about theatre and film and in his just-like-an-autobiography Chronicles: Volume One, he talks about the influence plays by writers like Jean Genet and Bertolt Brecht and films such as La Strada and La Dolce Vita had on him and his songwriting when he saw them in the early days in Greenwich Village. In the book he says he had “always liked the stage and even more so, the theatre. It seemed like the most supreme craft of all craft”. So when opportunities did arise to work with playwrights Dylan was willing to explore them.

In the late 1960s he was asked by the poet Archibald MacLeish to compose some songs to go with a play MacLeish was writing. He worked on the idea but in the end the collaboration did not happen. After hearing some of the script Dylan said that he did not see “how [their] destinies could be intermixed”. Later he brought along the playwright and actor Sam Shepard on his picaresque mid-1970s Rolling Thunder Revue tour, where he travelled through small-town America with an A-list of musicians appearing at short notice in local halls and theatres. The idea was that Shepherd would write some scenes for the film Dylan was making at the time, Renaldo and Clara, but that never happened and Shepard wrote a travelogue of the tour instead.

A more recent collaboration in 2006 between the choreographer Twyla Tharp and Dylan’s music in a show called The Times They Are A-Changing received a fairly damning review from the theatre critic of The New York Times, Ben Brantley, which ended “Even as the dancers seem to fly, Mr. Dylan’s lyrics are hammered, one by one, into the ground.” The show closed after three weeks.

Therefore, when Irish playwright Conor McPherson agreed to a request to write a theatrical work incorporating Dylan’s songs, whether he was fully aware of it or not he was taking quite a big risk. However as Rolling Stone journalist David Browne put it in an early review, McPherson seemed “to have finally cracked the code” with his play Girl from the North Country, which is also a play about remembrance, regret and love lost and found. The show premiered very successfully in London in 2017 and then went on to the West End and Broadway.

So how did McPherson succeed in matching a theatrical form to Dylan’s songs, where many others including Dylan himself, had failed?

In an interview in 2017 McPherson told the story about how the first contact with Bob Dylan came about. He recalled receiving a “strange enquiry” from Dylan’s record company about five years earlier asking would he “consider using Bob Dylan’s music in a theatre show?” (Possibly they approached him because they had read some more of Brantley’s reviews as the NYT critic has been consistent admirer of McPherson’s plays). Initially he rejected the idea, not only because he had never written a musical but also because he didn’t think that Dylan was a “musicals musician”. Then, as he described it, he was out walking in Dún Laoghaire one day (not the first Irish writer to be inspired by a walk in Dún Laoghaire) when he “saw a vision of a guesthouse in Minnesota in the 1930s … and a way that Mr. Dylan’s songs might make sense in a play”.

Setting the play in a guesthouse in Duluth, Dylan’s birthplace, where as he put it “people are trying to live while they sort out where they are going to go and how to survive ...”, but in the decade before he was born and nearly thirty years before he had written any songs, McPherson separates the music from the myth of “Bob Dylan” and therefore allows the songs to exist in a timeless way. He said he was hoping that the songs would then become “an expression of (the characters’) inner portraiture and that maybe would unleash something for us in the songs, and take the weight of expectation off (them)”.

Dealing with the myth of “Bob Dylan” is something that the singer himself has had to engage with in a much more existential way for most of his life and a good deal of his book Chronicles is about this struggle. In it he talks about one particular period in the 1980s when he was preparing to tour with the American band The Grateful Dead. Members of the band were pressurising him to sing some of his old songs as part of the set but he didn’t feel he could do it as he was burned out and had no emotional connection to them. As he strikingly describes it, the weight of his songs was “like carrying a package of heavy rotting meat”.

Then one night leaving a rehearsal he went wandering out into the local town and came upon a bar where a jazz band was playing. The singer was an older guy who was singing jazz standards and Dylan says he was “not very forceful, but he didn’t have to be; he was relaxed but he sang with natural power”. As he tells it, “Suddenly and without warning, it was like the guy had an open window to my soul. It was like he was saying, ‘You should do it this way.” All of a sudden, I understood something faster than I ever did before. I could feel how he worked at getting his power, what he was doing to get at it.”

He realised although his early songs had been written by “Bob Dylan”, that was not him now, and they existed whether he sang them or not: “…  I knew I could perform any of these songs without them having to be restricted to the world of words”.

A few years later, to the surprise of many critics and fans, he recorded two albums of old folk and blues songs that went back to the 1930s and earlier with just his guitar and harmonica for accompaniment. As the music historian Greil Marcus says about these albums: “Unlike other songs he had sung in nearly a quarter century, they removed him from the prison of his own career and returned him ... to the world at large.”

Having realised where and when he might set the play, McPherson sent a brief summary of his idea to Dylan’s management and the singer approved it. Clearly something in his summary struck a chord and a little later a bundle of forty Dylan albums (pretty much all his recorded output) arrived at his house with a note saying, in line with his epiphany in the jazz bar in 1987, he could use the songs whatever way he wanted. For someone of McPherson’s generation (he was born in 1971 so presumably didn’t start listening to music regularly until the mid-’80s) who said he just owned four or five Dylan albums, this must have been both a treasure trove and quite daunting. He says he started with the few albums he knew but then ranged much more widely across the whole output of the music and also began to delve into some of the periods that an older Dylan aficionado might have rejected ‑ the singer’s born-again Christian period and the mostly disregarded albums of the mid-1980s.

The permission from Dylan to use his music in whatever way he wanted was clearly just the message McPherson was looking for as it gave him the freedom to write his play as he wished but also to incorporate the music in a coherent manner.

McPherson seems to have approached the creative task of writing the play in a manner that can best be described as Dylanesque but with an Irish twist. For the last thirty years Dylan has been touring constantly in something that has been dubbed the Never-Ending Tour, playing about a hundred concerts a year all over the world. In these performances he has freely reworked his songs, even his most famous ones, changing the melodies and often changing the lyrics as the mood takes him. McPherson and his musical director, Simon Hale, adopted this model with glee, happily changing the tempo and mood of some of Dylan’s most iconic songs, altering the gender of the singer for particular songs, leaving out verses, occasionally changing the lyrics and, in the style of Irish traditional music, running one song into another without a break. Often the scene on stage is like a rural Irish house session, with the residents of the guesthouse breaking into song and dance, as well as performers singing into 1930s-style microphones facing out into the audience as in an old-time concert.

Like Madhouse on Castle Street, MacPherson sets Girl From The North Country in a guesthouse, but this time Dylan only provides the music and is not part of the cast, at least not physically. However the play is steeped in his music. Not only do the cast sing his songs, but the music is played in the background by the musicians on stage, emerges from the radio and some of the actors pick out tunes on the piano. His sound is everywhere. As McPherson describes it the play is “a conversation between the songs and the story”.

The play has a diverse cast of characters thrown together by circumstances and framed by the depression of 1930s America. Nick Laine, the owner, struggling against mounting debts and foreclosure by the bank, is caring for his wife, Elizabeth, who suffers from pre-senile dementia. She is given to bouts of truth-telling lucidity as well having her mind wander along with her libido but appears to have fallen out of love with her husband. Their son Gene, a failed writer with a drink problem, adds more pressure to the family and they have an adopted black daughter, Marianne, who is pregnant but with no specific father identified. The guests are equally troubled. Mrs Neilsen, recently widowed and waiting for her inheritance to come through, is in a relationship with Nick and has her hopes set on the unlikely possibility of run-ning another guest house with him; the Burke family are trying to escape from a failed business and a shadowy past with their adult son, who has learning disabilities. Local Duluth residents also feature; Mr Perry, a shoemaker, is a lonely 70-year-old to whom Nick is trying to marry his pregnant daughter. Dr Walker, physician to the family but with his own morphine habit, is the play’s narrator. Into this milieu come two travellers, one, Joseph, a boxer recently escaped from prison claiming he was unjustly incarcerated and a dodgy bible-salesman called Reverend Marlowe.

The backstories of all the characters in the play could be the stuff of traditional folk songs; the loss of children, partners and lovers, poverty, racism, betrayal, abandonment and for some, a kind of redemption.

McPherson enjoys throwing some Irish motifs into the mix. While Nick is the character who is trying, not very successfully, to hold the business together, his wife, Elizabeth, is a dynamic force turning up all over the stage and confronting the others with sharp bursts of reality. She is played as a truth-telling, uninhibited sheelagh na gig, often with her feet pulled up on a chair legs akimbo or lasciviously sprawled on a table warding off the evil spirit of Rev Marlowe. Then there is the story of how the Laines came to adopt Marianne, which is that she was found in a bag on a bed after a guest checked out. Nick even tells a version of the Paddy Dignam joke to the resident he is having a relationship with, Mrs Neilsen:

-Is your mother still alive, Nick?
I hope not.
Why?
’Cause we buried her beside my dad end of 1929.

In a number of interviews McPherson has described the process he went through to decide which songs he wanted to include in the play. His initial thinking about the relationship between play and music seems to have been a more conscious decision, with songs chosen because of how they related to the characters and their situations. A number of commentators have noted the fact that one of the characters in the play, Joe, the African-American boxer who has been unjustly convicted of a crime at one point sings “Hurricane”, a Dylan song about the real-life boxer Rubin Carter’s wrongful conviction for murder. McPherson has acknowledged this, saying that it was from an early version of how he saw the show but he kept it in because he “liked the song so much”.

In later rehearsals, he adopted a much freer approach and talks about having all the Dylan albums in his iPod and listening to them (probably on shuffle mode) out walking and seeing which songs grabbed his attention. He would then bring his guitar into the rehearsal room and try out the songs to see if they should be included in the show. He says he used to wake up in the night with a particular song going round in his head and the next day he would put it in the show. It eventually got to the stage where he found that “the more the songs had nothing to do with what was happening in the play, the better they fit. All his songs have to do with something universal.”

In using this approach McPherson is closer to the creative style used by Bob Dylan and the Hawks (the band who backed him during his infamous electric tour of 1965/66) in making the so-called basement tapes in 1967. These musicians used to get together in a house they were renting called Big Pink, near where Dylan was living in Woodstock. He would turn up most days with half-written ideas for songs and work them up on the spot with the others adding the music. Often they would also play old traditional songs, early rock and roll, blues, country or whatever they fancied.

As Robbie Robertson, the guitarist with the Hawks, described Dylan’s creative process in these sessions: “He would pull these songs out of nowhere ... We didn’t know if he wrote them or if he remembered them. When he sang them you couldn’t tell.”

The sessions in the Big Pink basement were taped for the musicians’ own enjoyment and to engage with older musical traditions, and maybe in time a few of the tracks might have become the basis of an album. However the tapes went into illicit circulation and became the very first modern “bootleg” album, Great White Wonder. In fairly typical fashion Dylan released the complete Basement Tapes a few years ago as No 11 in his ironically titled Bootleg series and it confirmed that the musicians in the basement did play every kind of song from the “Auld Triangle” to “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”.

In a neat touch, McPherson plays homage to the basement tapes sessions by having a drum kit but no drummer on stage. At Big Pink, as Levon Helm had left the band, there was no formal drummer for most of the tracks. Instead different members of the group would sit in and play drums when the fancy took them. So in Girl from the North Country different members of the cast take up drumming duties for different songs and the Irish actor Bronagh Gallagher turned out to be a dab hand on the kit during the first performances in London.

Greil Marcus tells how he got hold of an almost complete set of basement tapes bootleg CDs and listened to them continuously on a small portable machine while driving across America. Having immersed himself in the music he then wrote a book called Invisible Republic (later retitled The Old, Weird America) in which he argued that the songs on the basement tapes harked back to a different age; a time he calls “old weird America” proposing, as one reviewer put it, that this folk music reflected “a community as deep, as electric, as perverse and as conflicted as all America”.

The music of this earlier time had originally been recorded in the late 1920 and 30s and was brought together later on Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Music. In this arcane and somewhat odd project Smith collected the music of traditional American cultures recorded within a very short period, as he himself explains, be-tween, “1927, when electronic recording made possible accurate music reproduction, and 1932 when the Depression halted folk music sales”. This period was a revolution in how people listened to, and responded to, music. Before this most people in smaller communities heard their music local and “live”. Recorded music was such a dramatic change that many people bought copies of these original records even though they did not have any means of playing them. As Marcus says, “They bought the discs as talismans of their own existence; they could hold these objects in their hands and feel their own lives dramatised. In such an act the people discovered the modern world: the thrill of mechanical reproduction.”

In an interview in 1968 Harry Smith elaborated on why this was important:

Why was it inexpressibly more exciting to hear a song you could hear next door or at a dance next Saturday night coming out of a box? Precisely because you could have heard it next door or even played it yourself ‑ but not with the distancing of representation, which made a magic mirror and produced the shock of self-recognition. What one saw in the mirror was a bigger, more various, less finished, less fated self than one had ever seen before.

Listening to the tracks on the Anthology now is quite an otherworldly experience as many of performances have, at first, a primitive quality, with unadorned singing and playing, while at the same time sounding vaguely familiar. This is because a large number of the songs were re-recorded by folk artists in the 1950s and ’60s, sometimes with new titles, altered lyrics and different instrumentation. For this listener at least, it was quite a surprise to hear someone called Coley Jones sing a song “Drunkard’s Special”, recorded in 1929, and realise that this is an earlier version of what we all know now as “Seven Drunken Nights” by The Dubliners, or to hear Buell Kazee in 1928 sing that staple of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem’s repertoire in the 1960s “The Butcher Boy”.

In his early days at university in Minneapolis, Dylan listened to all this music on records, and although it might have been expected that many of the original artists would be long dead, he also heard some of the musicians from the Anthology sing live at the beginning of the 1960s at house parties, clubs and the Newport Folk Festival. In Chronicles he describes this kind of music as “not being easygoing”. Instead they were “Songs about debauched bootleggers, mothers that drowned their own children ... darkness and cadavers at the bottom of rivers ...” For him they were his “perceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality ... some liberated republic” – Marcus’s “invisible republic”'.

By setting his play in the early 1930s at the heart of the Great Depression, McPherson is locating it at a time of economic disaster for most of the characters in the play yet it is the music that brings them together, either in celebration or despair. McPherson takes Dylan’s music back there and places it in a timeless space as part of “old, weird America”.

Even though the songs he uses were just beginning to be written in the 1960s McPherson made the choice to only use instruments that existed in the 1930s and have them played live on stage. By doing this he is more or less mirroring the instruments played by Bob Dylan and the Hawks on the basement tapes as well as those that were available to the American traditional musicians whose music fills Smith’s Anthology. But more than that he is going back to one of the wells that the music sprang from. As he said in an interview, because “there are no instruments that are more modern that the 1930s, everything is couched in that style (and) unlocks and shows you the DNA that flowed into (Dylan’s) music from before”.

It is a similar kind of DNA that flows into McPherson’s plays and one of the reasons that he has been successful in utilising Dylan’s songs in a theatrical work is that he is as prepared as Dylan is to embrace the sense of mystery often embedded in the lyrics. His plays feature ghosts and ghost stories, faeries, supernatural events and in one play, a card-playing devil.

Reflecting in 2016 on his play The Weir, nearly twenty years after its highly successful debut, McPherson talked about his longstanding fascination with both the supernatural and the spiritual elements of daily existence. He suggested that it:

taps into something broader still (than the Irish ghost story tradition) … a (pre-Christian) metaphysical worldview that has been passed on through generations that is informed by the supernatural, the unknown and the uncanny. It acknowledges mystery ... we just have our five senses and we do the best we can. Beyond that it’s all a big mystery and I think you’d be stupid really not to acknowledge that we live within a mystery and we die within a mystery.

As in his other plays, this sense of the supernatural permeates Girl From the North Country. One character, Elias, the learning-disabled adult/child of the Burkes who drowns in Lake Superior, is resurrected shortly afterwards as cabaret singer in full Brendan Bowyer Las Vegas showband style with a white suit and white shoes to sing “Duquesne Whistle”; Marianne, the Laines’ adopted daughter, talks about her pregnancy happening after an otherworldly entity, “older than a man, deeper than a man” came into her room and there was a figure who had a “smell, like, ancient water ... like stone”; the play’s narrator in the play, Dr Walker, describes events taking place after his death as he looks on from the afterlife.

Dylan also has never had any trouble accepting life as “plain simple mystery”. In 1966, although at the time he was in the midst of his tumultuous “electric” tour, in an interview with music writer Nat Hentoff he rejected the label of folk-rock that was being put upon his (then) new music:

I have to think of all this as traditional music. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death. There’s nobody that’s going to kill traditional music. All these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels – they’re not going to die ... I mean, you’d think that the traditional-music people could gather from their songs that mystery ‑ just plain simple mystery ‑ is a fact, a traditional fact. But anyway, traditional music is too unreal to die. It doesn’t need to be protected ... I think its meaninglessness is holy.

And this is how McPherson responded to Dylan’s music. He took the forty albums he was given and listened to them but he didn’t try and protect Dylan’s music. When he walked in Dún Laoghaire he realised he couldn’t kill it, as like other forms of traditional music, it is too unreal to die. Speaking about his use of the song “I Want You” in the play in a scene where two lovers reluctantly break up, he says he wasn’t using the song in a clichéd way to reflect their neediness because

what they actually sing in the verses is so impossible to understand it escapes neediness ‑ they really don’t seem to be asking for anything. They’re talking about guilty undertakers and drunken politicians, and it’s like, what are they singing about? It’s the way theatre works for me too ‑ within the tension that’s created between not understanding what’s going on and yet at the same time feeling you do know.

This left McPherson free to write his play as he wished. Having made the decision not to try and make specific songs “fit” particular scenes he discovered while working on the play that “many of Mr Dylan’s songs can be sung at any time, by anyone in any situation, and still make sense and resonate with that particular place person and time”. Once he adopted this approach to the songs then it freed him up to work with the music in a very creative way. He tells the story of seeing a video of Dylan performing a riotous version of “License to Kill” with a punk band on the David Letterman Show and thinking, “I’ve got to get this song in the show.” The next day in rehearsal he linked it in the play with “Slow Train Coming” and that’s where it stayed. McPherson says the process works because Dyla’'s “lyrics are so suggestive, universal, and penetrating all at the same time ... It hits you in a place that’s beyond reason, beyond rationality ... you've just got to make space for Bob to make that happen for you.”

One of the aspects of their crafts that allows McPherson the playwright to be in sympathy with Dylan the songwriter is that both are more interested in emotional responses than rational understanding, and how such responses resonate for both the performers and the audience. As Dylan put it, “The point is not understanding what I write but feeling it.”

In the 1960s Dylan had to face endless questions asking him to explain what his songs were about and eventually he gave a “definitive” answer, telling a persistent interviewer:

Dylan: I do know what my songs are about.
Interviewer: And what’s that?
Dylan: Oh, some are about four minutes; some are about five, and some, believe it or not, are about eleven or twelve.

This is also McPherson’s approach to writing the play. He didn’t have to ask what the songs are about because he already knew and was able to explain Dylan’s music succinctly: “Even though Mr Dylan will say he’s often not sure what his songs mean, he always sings them like he means them. Because he does mean them, whatever they mean.”

The end of the play is suitably dark, when reality intrudes, and as a line from “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” one of the last songs in the play, says “Son, this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing.” The residents of the guesthouse all leave for various reasons as the bank forecloses on Nick’s mortgage and he contemplates committing suicide and taking his wife with him. However she has other ideas and drives out the “devilish” Rev Marlowe with the help of a few gunshots. Instead of Marianne, their son Gene gets a place to stay with Mr Perry and he gives him a job, while Marianne decides to take her chances with Joseph the boxer by heading for Chicago. The Burkes return to their home to bury their dead son and Mrs Neilson leaves for her sister’s place in Oklahoma, but not before announcing she is pregnant by Nick.

In the final scene the women (except for Elizabeth) sing one of Dylan’s most mystical and inscrutable songs, “Jokerman”, with the chorus “Jokerman dance to the nightingale’s tune / Bird fly high by the light of the moon.” Then, as Dr Walker addresses the audience and the residents make their final goodbyes, Elizabeth picks out “Clair de Lune” on the piano, the one piece of music in the play not written by Bob Dylan. However Debussy’s inspiration for the piece was a poem of the same name by Paul Verlaine that begins:

Your soul is a chosen landscape
Where charming masquerades and dancers are promenading
Playing the lute and dancing, and almost
Sad beneath their fantastic disguises
    They seem not to believe in their own happiness
     And their song blends with the moonlight.

With everyone else gone from the room Elizabeth tells her husband, Nick, a story of love found, lost and then remembered and empties out the revolver saying “So what do you say we live a little longer?” She then sings the final song, “Forever Young”, to him and beautifully illustrates McPherson’s point that most times Dylan’s songs “just fit”.

McPherson has probably best described in his own words why his collaboration with Dylan’s music has been so successful: “To be honest with you, writing a play for me is like writing a song. You’ve got your intro, you’ve got your verse where you are setting it all up and then you’ve got, “This play is going to be about this” – that’s your first chorus ... In a way, writing plays is like having that sense of balance you have in a song, and this is no different.”

In Chronicles Dylan recounts how he fell in love with Irish songs by going to hear the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem sing all night in the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village and he particularly loved the fact that the songs they sang, even the ballads, were songs of rebellion and mystery. Listening to the Clancy Brothers Dylan got a sense of “weird old Ireland”. Listening to Bob Dylan, McPherson gets a sense of “old, weird America” and in Girl From the North Country he has strikingly brought these two worlds together.

Jeremy Kearney writes on music, UK politics and social issues and is a contributor to Dublin Review of Books.

                                                                                                                           

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