“People think that fame and riches translate into power, that it brings glory and honor and happiness. Maybe it does, but sometimes it doesn’t. I found myself stuck in Woodstock with a family to protect. It seems like the world has always needed a scapegoat – someone to lead the charge against the Roman Empire. But America wasn’t the Roman Empire and someone else would have to step up and volunteer.
I really was never any more than what I was – a folk musician who gazed into the gray mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze. Now it had blown up in my face and was hanging over me. I wasn’t a preacher performing miracles. It would have driven anybody mad.” – Bob Dylan in the book Chronicles. He dedicates an entire chapter to this album.
In June of 1970, Bob Dylan released an album called Self Portrait. It was not, as they say, well-received. Certainly, it did not rise to the level of his previous country-oriented album Nashville Skyline much less Highway 61 Revisited. Take a look at this:
So, there’s that. (Personally, I thought there was some pretty good stuff. He even covered Paul Simon’s “The Boxer.”)
I mention all this because four months later, Dylan released the album New Morning. It was then generally felt that he was so stung by the criticism of Self Portrait that he rushed this album out to distract from that turkey. Dylan has a few things to say about all this:
“Dylan has stated in interviews that Self Portrait was something of a joke, far below the standards he set in the 1960s and was made to get people off his back and end the “spokesman of a generation” tags.”
In fact, much of New Morning was already complete when Self Portrait was officially released. “I didn’t say, ‘Oh my God, they don’t like this, let me do another one,'” Dylan said in 1975. “It wasn’t like that. It just happened coincidentally that one came out and then the other one did as soon as it did. The Self Portrait LP laid around for I think a year. We were working on New Morning when the Self Portrait album got put together.”*
So how is New Morning? Well, let’s just say that even Robert Christgau, the self-defined “Dean of Rock Critics” who wouldn’t know a good song if it bit him in the ass, liked it.
What made me think of this album is that I am so often quoting from it, even if it’s just a lyric that pops into my head. Is that because it is filled with protest songs and dire apocalyptic warnings? Quite the opposite.
At this point in his life, the 29-year old Dylan was married and had five (!) kids, one adopted. He was a content family man, married to the former Sara Lownds. (This marriage would last till 1977. You can hear its dissolution on Blood on The Tracks which son Jakob calls “my parents talking.”)
So no, this is the (mostly) happy, upbeat Dylan. And the lyrics I sometimes quote aren’t necessarily particularly meaningful but are ones that have just stuck in what remains of my brain all these years. So let’s go listen to some of this, shall we?
First up, the title track. Dylan sounds positively happy here. (You are going to have live with Spotify only. Looks like old Bob is a blocker):
Can’t you feel that sun a-shinin’?
Groundhog runnin’ by the country stream
This must be the day that all of my dreams come true
So happy just to be alive
Underneath the sky of blue
On this new morning, new morning
On this new morning with you
Based on his reluctance to go accept his Nobel prize we know that Dylan is not a big fan of awards. “Day of the Locusts” recounts the fun he had when he went to pick up an honorary doctorate at Princeton. David Crosby whose “head was exploding” and Sara practically begged him to go.
When he got there he refused to wear a cap and gown. “No cap and gown,” he was told, “no honorary award.” After more cajoling by Crosby and Sara, he relented. He wasn’t particularly thrilled when – instead of praising his music – he was referred to as the “disturbed conscience of Young America.” To quote Steely Dan, “When he tried to hang that sign on me I said ‘take it down.'”
The lyrics refer to the 17-year cicada infestation covering Princeton at the time. In a 2008 interview with the Aspen Institute, Crosby revealed the line “The man next to me, his head was exploding” was in reference to his presence during the events. Crosby’s reaction to the whole thing: “Bunch of dickheads on auto-stroke.”
“Sign on the Window” is another paean to domestic bliss. But it’s just one of his nicest songs with some soulful gospel singing. (No one from the Band plays on this album but I feel their influence on Dylan throughout.) That’s Dylan on piano.
Build me a cabin in Utah
Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout
Have a bunch of kids who call me “pa”
That must be what it’s all about,
That must be what it’s all about
Lastly, I leave you with one of Zimmerman’s oddest but coolest songs, “If Dogs Run Free.” It’s a jazzy number where Al Kooper lays down some bluesy, bluesy runs. The woman scatting in the background is named Maeretha Stewart about whom I know little other than that she also did some work as a character on the Muppets.
If dogs run free, then what must be
Must be and that is all
True love can make a blade of grass
Stand up straight and tall
In harmony with the cosmic sea
True love needs no company
It can cure the soul, it can make it whole
If dogs run free.
This album is not entirely forgotten or unknown. It contains the song “If Not For You,” which George Harrison covered on All Things Must Pass. Olivia Newton-John covered it as well and even named her debut album after it.
There is also a song called “Father of Night” which Manfred Mann covered on their excellent Solar Fire album. I reviewed it here.
*David Bromberg plays electric guitar and Dobro on this album. Charlie Daniels, for whatever reason, plays bass. Russ Kunkel – who has played with everybody is on drums. And old standby Al Kooper is on organ, piano, electric guitar, and French horn.