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The Heart of Rock and Soul

Dave Marsh, 1989

91 THE HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN, The Animals
Produced by Mickie Most; blues standard, arranged by Alan Price
MGM 13264 - 1964
Billboard: #1 (3 weeks)

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92 LA BAMBA, Ritchie Valens
Produced by Bob Keene; traditional, arranged by Ritchie Valens
Del-Fi 4110 - 1958
Billboard: #22

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93 BLUE SUEDE SHOES, Carl Perkins
Produced by Sam Phillips; written by Carl Perkins
Sun 234 - 1956
Billboard: #2

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94 I WANT YOU, Bob Dylan
Produced by Bob Johnston; written by Bob Dylan
Columbia 43683 - 1966
Billboard: #20

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What is folk-rock? In commercial terms, the answer is simple: It's what happened when Bob Dylan went electric. But that's not adequate or accurate, not when the liner notes to Elvis Presley's first album refer to him in terms of "commercial folk music," and the cover depicts him in a pose reminiscent of no one so much as Josh White.
But all rock is not folk-rock, either, and no one today would argue Elvis singing Little Richard songs really qualifies (although his "Old Shep" may be another matter). Carl Perkins's original "Blue Suede Shoes" is another story. Sun is famed for its echo, but there's no feeling of distance in this record; you can almost see Perkins's face an inch or so away from the mike. hear his guitar as if it was in the room. Perkins is restrained, keeping a lot more energy in reserve than. say, Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard or Buddy Holly, much less Elvis or even Carl himself on tracks like his revamped rendition of the Blind Lemon Jefferson folk-blues, "Matchbox." In the sense that we've come to understand the music, Elvis's version of "Blue Suede Shoes" (which was also a hit) is much more a rock and roll number. But Perkins isn't singing country and he sure isn't making rhythm and blues, and there's no brand of pop music that he fits into, either. Folk-rock explains "Blue Suede Shoes" better than anything.
Folk purists would reject Perkins's claim (if he'd ever made it) because he wrote his song as a commercial project, based on observation of a community in which he wasn't a participant. But what about "La Bamba," a traditional Mexican huapango, a wedding song from Vera Cruz? According to Del-Fi owner/producer Bob Keene, even though Ritchie Valens sang "La Bamba" for his friends all the time, he was reluctant to put this rock and roll arrangement on tape, because "he was afraid that recording it would demean his culture or something." Valens was probably worried because he'd tampered with the song something fierce, both lyrics and music, so much so that those latter-day folkies, Los Lobos, had to "correct" his interpretation when they had a hit with it in 1987. They did this so successfully that they dispersed all the manic energy of the Valens version - which for all we know may have been driven there by Ritchie's fear that Mexican nationalists would stomp him for demeaning their culture. Valens certainly sounds like he's got something dogging him as he utters those final dramatic "Bam-bam-bamba"'s.
If folk-rock really stemmed from Bob Dylan, though, then the first folk-rock hit was almost certainly the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun," a traditional blues whose arrangement bears telltale signs of having been learned from Dylan's all-acoustic first album. (Dylan learned it from Ur-folkie Dave Van Ronk, although, he remarked in that LP's liner notes, "I'd always known 'Risin' Sun' but never really knew I knew it until I heard Dave sing it." Which only shows how much Dylan had already learned from Little Richard.)
Where the Animals exceeded Dylan was in the amount of sheer dramatic power they found latent in the chords themselves. Alan Price's bold organ and Eric Burdon's howling vocal released all of it, as if they'd connected the ancient tune to a live wire. Problem was, Burdon was far too macho-brattish spawn of Newcastle coal miners that he was - to sing the song from a female perspective, as it had always been sung. So he turned the lyric around, portraying the prostitute as a male and, thus, himself as a catamite. Between that and the consequences of a heavy Geordie accent aping an Iron Range Minnesotan aping a. New Yorker aping a Mississippi sharecropper, which rendered the: lyrics : . marvelously incoherent, the Animals set a new standard for all future folk-rock and blues-rock remakes.
Dylan's own "I Want You," on the other hand, isn't folk-rock. at all. It's a pop song, and a love song at that, as well as his second-biggest hit of the sixties. What might throw a casual listener off is an image of folk music that connects that style to quasi-poetic lyrics and therefore labels all of Dylan's pre-Nashville Skyline music "folk." In fact these lyrics aren't especially poetic anyway, though they are so obscu ran tis t that you can play all kinds of games about what Dylan really means when he sings, " Now all your fathers they've gone down / True love, they've been without it / But all their daughters put me down / 'Cause I don't think about it." Having studied the disc in detail since I was sixteen, I can now state that this most likely means two things: 1) Dylan had found a clever rhyme; 2) he thought about it all the time, maybe even too much. However, the joyful music, with its kinky organ, rol-licking piano, and the loopiest singing Dylan's ever done (as if he found the word "bad" intoxicating all by itself) indicate that he'd actually found a way of getting the proportions about right. Which is not a folk-rock virtue, either. But does make "I Want You" a great rock and roll record.
Marsh index 0001.htm


From "The Heart of Rock and Soul, The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made", by Dave Marsh, 1989.
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