When Clinton Heylin writes about Bob Dylan, people listen. His biography Dylan: Behind the Shades, not only dug deeper than any other biographer or Dylan enthusiast, the painstaking detail of his scholarship was obvious.
So having the chance to get my hands on the first of a projected two-volume opus detailing each of the 600 songs Dylan has written thus far, I couldn’t let it go. I haven’t been disappointed. Heylin chronicles the songs in the order they were written, not the order in which they were recorded or performed (many of them have yet to be recorded, or were recorded and not released, and some of them have no known performance date), and this choice serves him well, allowing him to use his detailed knowledge of Dylan’s biography to give the songs a context that the lyrics alone might not provide.
The first volume details the first 300 songs, from “Juvenilia” in Hibbing (1957) to 1972 and the songs associated with Pat Garret and Billy the Kid. Amazingly, 207 of these 300 songs were written in the five year period of 1962-1967, what Heylin calls “a burst of creativity that dwarfs any comparable twentieth-century figure.”
The scholarship and attention to detail are, as was the case with Behind the Shades, commendable. My only complaints are that:
- Heylin tends to grouse about the scholarship of others that got there before him. For instance he says of Michel Krogsgaard’s sessionography, published in nine installments in two Dylan fanzines, that it “has become, in the fullness of time, a valuable resource. But it could have been of greater value still if he had collated his own work with that of the the only other person to use Sony’s resources [Heylin], and annotated his session listing with a clear indication of which material he had actually heard (almost none of it, I’d surmise).”
- There are few - very few - glaring omissions: places where Heylin seems to just simply have missed what most other folk music students know. For instance, Heylin lists Dylan’s #16 song as “Just As Long As I’m In This World,” a song written by Rev. Gary Davis, and first recorded by him as “I Am The Light Of This World” during his initial recording session for the American Recording Company in 1935. Heylin mentions Dylan’s studies of traditional blues music, and even the fact that Dylan would often borrow tunes and lyric phrases and call them his own. But he describes “Just As Long As I’m in This World” as “another early attempt at a would-be spiritual” that “tries hard to evoke a Pentecostal fervor, the singer suggesting he has ‘fiery fingers / I got fiery hands / And when I get to heaven / I’ll join the fiery band.’” All without ever mentioning Rev. Gary Davis, or the earlier recording, which have just exactly these lyrics as one verse.
But these are admittedly petty complaints, given the immensity of the task Heylin set for himself. No one else even made the attempt of a chronicle so daunting, so minor grouses and omissions do not constitute failure. Heylin has succeeded beyond my expectations.
The book contains a song index and a general index, and each song is keyed to books where the lyrics have appeared, and to published recordings where the song first appeared.
The second volume, entitled Still on the Road - The Songs of Bob Dylan 1974-2006, is due out later this year.
The official Bob Dylan web site.
Dylan's MySpace page, where you can listen to tracks from his forthcoming recording Together Through Life, which you can buy at Amazon.com & benefit the Public Library Friends.
Clinton Heylin's site, detailing published and forthcoming works.