Essential Music: Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks

dylan-blood.jpgIf you follow my writings, you’ll have noticed that Bob Dylan is one of my favorite musicians. I’ve got all of his albums, and listen to his music a lot. In this recent article, The Music I Listen To Most, you’ll see that Dylan comes up in fourth position, behind The Grateful Dead, Franz Schubert and Johann Sebastian Bach; that’s by play counts in my iTunes library.

There are lots of great Dylan albums, from Highway 61 Revisited to Blond on Blond, but the one that stands out most for me is Blood on the Tracks. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) It’s not just that it has many great, memorable songs, but there’s a unity in this album that doesn’t exist in most of Dylan’s other records. Many of my most-loved Dylan songs are on other albums – Desolation Row, Visions of Johanna, Forever Young, Cold Irons Bound, etc. – but Blood on the Tracks is an album that you listen to in extenso, because it tells a story.

When I wrote iPod & iTunes Garage, back in 2004, I asked a number of writers and musicians what their “essential music” was. My friend Peter Robinson, author of the Inspector Banks series of mysteries, wrote the following:

“Much as I love all kinds of instrumental and orchestral music, at the end of the day I’m a word guy, and if you’re a word guy, Dylan’s your man. We were spoiled by an embarrassment of riches until the infamous motorcycle accident in July, 1966, and after the stark surprise of 1968’s John Wesley Harding we seemed to be stranded in a wasteland of ersatz Americana. There were great songs, of course, Lay, Lady, Lay and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, for example, and Planet Waves has many fine moments, but nothing could quite match the shock and pleasure of that moment in early 1975 when I set the needle gently on Blood on the Tracks for the first time and heard Tangled Up In Blue. Even better, it wasn’t a fluke. Next came Simple Twist of Fate, You’re a Big Girl Now and Idiot Wind, his most vicious song since 1965’s Positively 4th Street. The only disappointment is an overlong Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, which never quite seemed to fit, to my mind, but that’s a minor quibble, especially as it’s followed by the incomparable melancholy of If You See Her, Say Hello and the eerily redemptive Shelter from the Storm. There may be other contenders, but Blood on the Tracks surely remains the classic adult break-up album of all time.”

Peter nails it; it is the classic break-up album, but it’s so much more. If only for Tangled Up in Blue and Simple Twist of Fate, this would be a memorable album, but add the other tracks, and it’s a pure masterpiece. I’ve long felt that Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts was the weak song on the disc, but I’m starting to change my opinion, especially after hearing the original New York recording of it. (I’ll get to that in a minute…)

9780306812316_p0_v1_s260x420.jpgBlood on the Tracks has an interesting history, which is well documented by Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard in the book A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Dylan first recorded the album in New York, with a group of session musicians, in September, 1974. He recorded all the songs in just four sessions over ten days, but after playing it for his brother, decided he wanted to re-record five of the songs.

He went to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where his brother booked studio time, and found a handful of excellent musicians, and did two sessions in December. The New York sessions yielded the following songs:

Simple Twist of Fate
You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go
Meet Me in the Morning
Shelter From the Storm
Buckets of Rain

And the other five tracks come from the Minnesota sessions:

Tangled Up in Blue
You’re a Big Girl Now
Idiot Wind
Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts
If You See Her, Say Hello

It’s interesting to listen to the original versions of some of these songs; many of them have been released on various official Bootleg Series volumes, and Biograph also contains two songs that didn’t make it on the album, but that are also brilliant compositions: Call Letter Blues and Up to Me. (See the list below for details of all official releases.)

The original New York session test pressing is fairly easy to find as a bootleg. Listening to that original version – the one that Dylan first planned to release – makes me wonder if he should have just gone with the first recordings. In particular, Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts works much better in its acoustic form than in the later Minneapolis recording. And there’s more unity in the mostly-acoustic recordings from the New York sessions.

Here are the tracks that are available on official releases, but not the final album versions. They include alternate versions from the New York sessions, as well as two tracks that weren’t on the album from the same sessions. (Links are to the iTunes Store.) If you haven’t heard these tracks, and like Blood on the Tracks, you should definitely get them.

I hope that Dylan will release another Bootleg Series with all the New York recordings, and other outtakes from this period, similar to the recent set from the period of Self Portrait.

6 thoughts on “Essential Music: Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks

  1. Many thanks for this — and a overall shoutout of praise for the whole range of posts you offer.

    I agree with you about almost everything except the (fairly common) surmise that the New York sessions version might have made a better Blood on the Tracks. Wrong! The rethinking and editing and revisionary ratios that applied to the Minnesota session are a huge part of why the album is a unified and overwhelming masterpiece — in large part because the New York takes that Dylan jettisoned tend to sound like not-quite-finished demos. They just don’t have the forward-leaning edge and the ferocity of the Minneapolis versions. “Tangled Up in Blue” made a quantum leap, in particular (the account about how this happened is my favorite part of the Simple Twist of Fate book) . A whole album of the NYC recordings would have been amazing but also kind of cumulatively limp and afflicted by a samey-sameness, IMO. But it’s great we can hear both approaches, as you wisely note.

  2. Many thanks for this — and a overall shoutout of praise for the whole range of posts you offer.

    I agree with you about almost everything except the (fairly common) surmise that the New York sessions version might have made a better Blood on the Tracks. Wrong! The rethinking and editing and revisionary ratios that applied to the Minnesota session are a huge part of why the album is a unified and overwhelming masterpiece — in large part because the New York takes that Dylan jettisoned tend to sound like not-quite-finished demos. They just don’t have the forward-leaning edge and the ferocity of the Minneapolis versions. “Tangled Up in Blue” made a quantum leap, in particular (the account about how this happened is my favorite part of the Simple Twist of Fate book) . A whole album of the NYC recordings would have been amazing but also kind of cumulatively limp and afflicted by a samey-sameness, IMO. But it’s great we can hear both approaches, as you wisely note.

  3. I’ve read that the next bootleg that will be coming out will be the gem Blood On The Tracks! This piece of work is Dylan’s finest .I never get sick of hearing this gem and welcome any new take on it.Thank you for growing our collections of his great music. Now that I live in La Crosse ,Wi. right off of highway 61 I’ll think of what it was like for Mr. Dylan in 1961 making the trip to greatness.

    Thanks.
    Bruce Swanwick

  4. I’ve read that the next bootleg that will be coming out will be the gem Blood On The Tracks! This piece of work is Dylan’s finest .I never get sick of hearing this gem and welcome any new take on it.Thank you for growing our collections of his great music. Now that I live in La Crosse ,Wi. right off of highway 61 I’ll think of what it was like for Mr. Dylan in 1961 making the trip to greatness.

    Thanks.
    Bruce Swanwick

  5. There are several Bob Dylan albums that tell a story, gaining cohesion from the nature of the songs – the way they comment on one another – and the sequencing on the album. “John Wesley Harding”, for example, tells a story of sin, debasement and folly leading to rescue through true love for a spouse; “Street Legal” tells a story of spiritual hopelessness that ends with the magnificent “Journey” the closer; “Tempest” works it way toward a Blake inspired ending. And so forth,

  6. There are several Bob Dylan albums that tell a story, gaining cohesion from the nature of the songs – the way they comment on one another – and the sequencing on the album. “John Wesley Harding”, for example, tells a story of sin, debasement and folly leading to rescue through true love for a spouse; “Street Legal” tells a story of spiritual hopelessness that ends with the magnificent “Journey” the closer; “Tempest” works it way toward a Blake inspired ending. And so forth,

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