Monday, November 12, 2018


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Some years ago, Hohner Harmonica issued a Bob Dylan signature model instrument, a good but not spectacular diatonic harmonica conspicuously embossed with the songwriter's name. It would make sense for them to do so, of course, since Dylan has used Hohner harmonicas exclusively for the many decades of his career. It's probable that he's inspired more young men (and women) to buy harmonicas, Hohners more than likely, and learn the instrument. More than that, it's likely he pretty much created at least of a couple of generations of loyal Hohner customers. Issuing a harmonica with Dylan's name prominently featured makes sense both as tribute and marketing device. The poet laureate of the anti-materialist counterculture is all about getting paid in is later years, as we can see in his licensing his protest song "The Times They Are A'Changing" for an online university service. Other examples of Dylan exploiting his reputation in exchange for a check abound, but as the song says,  things change, things fall apart. Back to harmonica aspect, though, a friend asked me how angry I might have been when I heard that such a technically famished harmonica player had been awarded an instrument with his name on it. Not at all, I replied and even surprised myself coming to Dylan's defense, somewhat, as a player.   As to Dylan's harmonica work, it works on a primordial level, in that it's visceral, untrained and assertive in ways that contradict logic. Dylan's music contradicts all arguments regarding what constitutes "good" musicianship. It is a force of its own, an anomaly. Dylan is someone I would never hire as harp player if I were to put together a blues band because he plainly hasn't the chops or finesse for the kind of blues I'd want to play. What I like about his harmonica work is how it rather easily and effectively ignores technical limitations and establishes itself as an essential element of Dylan's music, especially his music up to Blood on the Tracks. One thing for sure is that Dylan is not randomly making noise; he knows where his harmonica needs to be in the songs and the solos and has mastered his rudimentary approach to phrasing, tone, chords and such that his harmonica has a power that must be acknowledged. His breaks on songs like "I Want You" and "Memphis Blues Again" are wonderfully rustic, flailing, pure bucolic energy made Times Square bluster. Especially brilliant, if accidentally so, are his harmonica breaks on "Desolation Row" m are nothing less than electrifying to me; their energy, their brackish chords and throttled bends and long, meditative exhalations on blow notes have an atonal intensity that makes me think of the Coltrane/Sanders free jazz improvisational improvisations in free jazz. But let’s not belabor that unusual comparison, since what I'm talking here is the effect a performance has on the listener, not the specific technique. Dylan performs a nascent brand of skronk harmonica, technically wanting for the blues fan who desires more Little Walteroid stylizations, but perfect for the genius singularity peak-era Dylan was.

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