Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Right Tool For the Job

Here's one I've read about/been aware of for ages without ever actually having heard it. From 1962, and the Harry Belafonte album of the same name, it's Bob Dylan's first appearance on a commercially released LP, playing harmonica on a cover of the venerable "Midnight Special."




To be honest, I could have cheerfully gone the rest of my life without having listened to this had I not chanced on the following amusing anecdote about it from an interview with the venerable singer/actor/activist in the current issue of MOJO. Here's Belafonte recalling the session for the song:
It was supposed to be Sonny Terry, but he got grounded by a thunderstorm in Memphis and couldn't make the date. My guitarist Millard Thomas said, "Well, there's this I kid I see all the time down in the Village, and he does that whole Sonny thing...he sleeps and dreams it." So I said, "We don't have a choice I guess. Go find him."

And this skinny kid appeared, and he had a paper sack with him full of harmonicas in different keys. I played the song for him and he pulled one out of the bag, dipped it in water, and played through a single take, and it was great. I loved it. I asked him if he wanted to try another take and he said, "No." I asked him if he wanted to hear it back, and he said, "No." He just headed for the door, and threw the harmonica into the trash can on his way out.

I remember thinking 'Does he have that much disdain for what I'm doing?' But I found out later that he bought his harps at the Woolworth drugstore. They were cheap ones, and once he'd gotten them wet and really played through them as hard as he did, they were finished...

Heh.

9 comments:

Sal Nunziato said...

That Mojo interview made the same impression on me. Plus, I have always been fascinated with Tom Waits' love of the man. I just bought a vinyl copy of this album.

steve simels said...

I was interested to learn, in said Mojo interview, that Belafonte's 1959 smasheroo "At Carnegie Hall," a copy of which rested on the stereo system of every good Jewish liberal of my parents generation when I was growing up, was in fact the first live album released in stereo.

Gummo said...

Cute story, but not true.

There are bootlegs of the outtakes from the session, and they did the song many, many times. The story as often told by Dylan was that he walked out after they asked him to do the exact same thing for the 20th time.

steve simels said...

I had a feeling some Dylan buff might have the skinny on that. Thanks!

Seriously, what's the Shakespeare line -- "old men of less truth than tongue"?

Harry's 84, is what I'm saying.

Brooklyn Girl said...

a copy of which rested on the stereo system of every good Jewish liberal of my parents generation when I was growing up

Yeah. My parents took me to see Belafonte when I was a kid.

Ken J Xenozar said...

I bought the CD version of Carnegie Hall a while back. I needed a fix of that cheesy earnest stuff. I like Belafonte and Barry Manilow for the same reason - throwbacks to a time when entertainment followed a different equation.

And my verification words is "rimings"?! hunh.

steves said...

I think that whole story is a fantasy. Dylan's harp playing sounds nothing like Sonny Terry's.

LP Steve said...

Does your title refer to the harp or the player thereof?

Anonymous said...

Well, I think it's a great story! Sonny would have played circles around Bob but you would never have gotten a story this good. :-)
PK