New Morning – The Great Overlooked Bob Dylan Album

“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

Spotify link

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.”

Spotify link

“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

Spotify link

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.

Spotify link

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.

 

36 thoughts on “New Morning – The Great Overlooked Bob Dylan Album

    1. Agreed, Rich. It’s one of those albums whose songs I thought I had half-remembered and found I could sing along with every one. Just a good, good album.

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    1. Yeah, good point. Although Harding was less upbeat and more apocalyptic (“Watchtower”, “Wicked Messenger”) and has the great “Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.”

      Liked by 1 person

  1. It’s a very good album and quite under appreciated even among Dylan fans. Thank you for the write-up ( even though I strongly disagree with you comment on Christgau)

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    1. Haven’t heard from you in a long time. I’m exaggerating on Christgau but not by much. He dismisses too much stuff that I (and a lot of people) find to be very good. When he said that Dickey Betts and Duane Allman together didn’t equal Jerry Garcia I knew he was full of shit. Let’s just say that for me there are better critics and I wouldn’t populate my record collection based on him. But, to each his own.

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  2. I’d agree with you on this one, Jim – I’ve always thought this was a very comfortable album. Not in the sense that Dylan was complacent, but it just feels very comfortable… you can just settle into the grooves, y’know?

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    1. Yeah. He’s feeling pretty good. And based on everything he said about how he felt about things at the time, he couldn’t shed the “spokesman of a generation” label fast enough. That said, he did come back strong six years later with ‘Hurricane’

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I dont remember that. Cool though. I know he wanted to be a rocker. My take on Bob is he’s a pretty regular guy who the media, press, fans and the times tried to pigeon hole. Just my feel.

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        1. I don’t that he’s a regular guy so much as a very gifted eccentric. Who also wants to be treated as a regular guy. Should have thought of that before he wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’

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        2. Il stick with my take we’re all bent in our own ways. Joe Walsh wants to be an ‘Ordinary Average Guy’
          Listening the AAB album. I recognize the first cut , second cut is keeping the pace. so far so good.

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        3. Brothers and Sisters would be a nice one-two with the Dylan album. I remember when ‘Good Clean Fun’ came on radio when we still had good FM. It was a nice return to form. Dickey said that SRV singlehandedly made it ok to play the blues again.

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        4. Im diggin it big time. On the spin cycle for sure. Like finding some old gold . When all said and done Doc its all about the music. Any more of this later AAB worth checking out Or is that a dumb question?

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        5. Go back for some ‘live’ with Dickey. An Evening with the Allman Brothers Band – 2nd set. They won a Grammy for that version of ‘Jessica.’

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        6. Random thought: Dylan’s whole thing was “let me be what I wanna be” or “let me define myself.” But the public couldn’t or wouldn’t do that. We are big time into hero worship. So we put people on pedestals and define them for our own purposes. When they try to come down we say, “Please get back up there where you belong. We need a hero or a spokesperson and we’ve chosen you. Now, please be a good Dylan and play your assigned role.” Rolling Stone is notorious for treating him like a fucking messiah.

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        7. Exactly. Im not in that club. I would guess that Bob is a pretty funny guy if you could kick back with him. I think I told you a know someone who is “Ham Radio” buddies with Walsh. Sorry, no scoops just regular shit like you and I.
          Gave a spin to tis album. Yeah, it’s good stuff. It took me into some bootlegs with him and Cash. Im eating it up.

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        8. I think the “funny guy” thing is probably true. I think he also somewhat lives in his own private world.

          Tell your Walsh buddy ME says hi to him and Ringo.

          Glad you’re digging the album. You inspired my next post.

          Liked by 1 person

        9. All cool Doc.
          I’m doing a Crimson take next. There’s a cut where e Fripp, Wetton, Cross and Bruford go all ‘Apostrophe’ like Zappa, Bruce and Gordon. man do I love that stuff.

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        10. As Jack Nicholson said to Greg Kinnear in “As Good As It Gets, ” I tell you buddy. If that did it for me I’d be the luckiest guy in the world.”

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  3. An album that definitely deserves more appreciation. Speaking of Sign On the Window as you were, thought you might appreciate Sarah Jarosz’s amazing cover (link above). She’s done a bunch of great live-at-home covers and this one is just killer.

    Best…RichD

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  4. Another great post, sir. When I started diving into Bob’s back pages, New Morning was one of those that stuck out as, to me at least, an unappreciated little gem (much like Infidels) – kind of lost in the mist between those albums of legend like Nashville Skyline and Blood On The Tracks so it warms my cockles to see you highlighting it here.

    As for Self Portrait, it never did much for me on its own but I was listening to Bootleg Series ‘Another Self Portrait’ and there’s some stuff on there like Pretty Saro and Spanish Is The Loving Tongue that would’ve made it such a different / great album…. but then Dylan’s choices as to what ends up on an album and what gets put in the vault has long been an area of baffled frustration

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    1. I probably spent more time with ‘Nashville Skyline’ and ‘John Wesley Harding’ so I wanted to give this one some attention. It’s a gem and frankly, I didn’t realize I knew it as well as I did.

      As to ‘Self Portrait’, I never did buy it and can hardly remember it. Dylan later claimed he sometimes put out lousy records to shake things up, disabuse people of thinking he’s the Messiah. Yeah, well, maybe. I suppose that’s exactly what I’d say if I put out something substandard. Oddly, the only song that pops in my head when I think of this album is “All the Tired Horses” which I kinda like.

      Liked by 1 person

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