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Backtracking: Dylan does 'Old MacDonald' and other mysteries

February 25, 2009 |  3:50 pm

Dylan_book__ Insights abound in a book on Dylan and boxed sets for Buddy Holly and Bob Wills.

Can you imagine attending a Bob Dylan concert and hearing "Old MacDonald Had a Farm"? Or "The Marines' Hymn"? Those are among some 550 songs that rock's greatest songwriter has turned to over the years, according to a fascinating new book.

In "The Songs He Didn't Write: Bob Dylan Under the Influence," Derek Barker doesn't just list the songs, he also gives us their history and Dylan's ties to them.

When stepping beyond his own compositions, Dylan turned mostly to folk, country and blues numbers.

The book is one of three new works that offer valuable insight into the musical psyche of three major American artists of the 20th century. The others, both CD boxed sets, are devoted to rock pioneer Buddy Holly and Western swing king Bob Wills.

Derek Barker
"The Songs He Didn't Write: Bob Dylan Under the Influence"
Chrome Dreams

Even Barker, who edits the Dylan fanzine Isis in England, can't explain the thinking behind "Old MacDonald." He just tells us "this rather odd choice of a song" was performed as an instrumental at five of Dylan's concerts in 1990. Dylan performed "The Marines' Hymn" at 17 concerts the same year.

Indeed, part of the fun of the book, which was released late last year in England and is just now surfacing in this country, is in looking for surprises. Among Dylan's unlikely choices: Marty Robbins' "El Paso" (he sang it one night in 1989 in Las Cruces, N.M.), the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" (several shows in fall 2002) and Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" (one night in New Haven, Conn., in 1990).

What is perhaps most instructive about Dylan's choice of outside material is how he has virtually ignored the so-called Great American Songbook and other pop standards that dominated the music scene before rock 'n' roll.

The recording company side of Chrome Dreams allows us to sample more of Dylan's tastes through Volumes 1 and 2 of "The Best of Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour." They are two-disc sets devoted to recordings featured on Dylan's satellite radio show.

Buddy Holly
"Down the Line: Rarities"
Geffen Decca UMe

One of rock's early greats was just 22 when he died in a Feb. 3, 1959, plane crash. Universal Music marks the 50th anniversary with two CD packages: "Buddy Holly Memorial Collection" is a three-disc "best of" survey that features rarities as well as the hits. But the second release, "Down the Line: Rarities," a two-disc set, is the better bet for anyone curious about the evolution of Holly's musical style.

The West Texas teenager was on his way to a country music career until he saw a concert in 1955 starring a young Elvis Presley. He soon recorded a version of Arthur Gunter's "Baby Let's Play House" that sounded just like the rendition Presley released in early 1955. By the following year, Holly was recording other hits from the time, including Fats Domino's "Blue Monday" and Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes."

Disc 2 features some early studio versions of the songs that made Holly a star, including "Not Fade Away."

Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
"The Tiffany Transcriptions"
Collectors' Choice Music

A huge influence on Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Wills and his band put together a dance-minded mixture of country, blues, jazz and big-band music in the 1930s and 1940s that still sounds inspired. Wills' band was at its best in ballrooms, where the music seemed looser. The tracks in this 10-disc set carry much of that restless spirit.

This music was recorded in the late 1940s for a radio show distributed by Tiffany Music Inc. In the shows, the band played its own tunes and songs from other artists. The material ranged from Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train" to "Ida Red," a traditional tune that Chuck Berry later reworked as "Maybelline."

These transcriptions have been available before but are brought together here for the first time in this glorious set.

--Robert Hilburn

Photo credit: Chrome Dreams

Backtracking is a monthly column devoted to CDs and other pop music items of historical interest.

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