Category: Bob Dylan

Joe Smith's candid artist talks heading to Library of Congress

Former record exec Joe Smith
Classic-film fans know all about Frank Capra’s 1941 political treatise “Meet John Doe.” Soon, music lovers will have the chance to “Meet Joe Smith,” and in the process get a little closer to dozens of the most important players in 20th century pop music through a trove of one-on-one interviews the veteran record executive conducted a generation ago and is now donating to the Library of Congress.

Smith, who headed three of the most important record labels in the 1960s, '70s and '80s -- Warner Bros., Elektra/Asylum and Capitol Records -- sat down in the mid-’80s with a who’s who of pop music for his 1988 book “Off the Record.”

Over the course of about two years, he interviewed more than 200 musicians, record executives, producers, songwriters and managers, from rock superstars Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Elton John to key pre-rock figures such as Artie Shaw, Ella Fitzgerald and Woody Herman. He also interviewed some of his business peers and competitors including Clive Davis, David Geffen and Irving Azoff.

LISTEN: Joe Smith's talks with Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, more

Their stories span half a century of pop music, from the swing era to the birth of rock 'n’ roll through dance music, punk and hair metal. Yet even though his book ran 429 pages, it still contained only a fraction of what Smith and each subject talked about, typically for 30 minutes to an hour.

So, Smith is handing over his collection of unabridged audio interviews -- 238 hours’ worth -- to the nation’s official keeper of recorded cultural history, where they’ll be available to the public, to music historians, journalists and academics interested in hearing musicians’ own words about their lives and careers.

“The Joe Smith Collection is an invaluable addition to the library’s comprehensive collection of recorded sound,” librarian of Congress James H. Billington said in a statement issued Monday (June 18). “These frank and poignant oral histories of many of the nation’s musical icons give us unique insights into them as artists, entertainers and human beings. The world knows these great musicians through their songs, but Joe Smith has provided us an intimate window into their lives through their own words.”

Smith’s original tapes, which will be housed at the library’s Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpepper, Va., have been digitized and are expected to be accessible to the public at the library later this year and eventually online.

Smith said his marching orders for the “Off the Record” came in the mid-'80s from John Hammond Sr., the great talent scout who was responsible for launching the careers of Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Pete Seeger, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and many others during his five-decade relationship with Columbia Records.

“He was very sick, and I wanted to go see him in the hospital,” Smith, 84, said over lunch at one of his favorite haunts in Beverly Hills, the Grill, where he was greeted by name by most of the staff and many patrons when he walked through the door one afternoon last week.

“So we’re talking -- it was around the time that Count Basie and somebody else died. I said, ‘What a shame. I don’t know if anybody ever got them on tape. I know they’ve done interviews, but did anybody actually get them [talking] on tape?’ And he sat up in bed, and he said, ‘You must do that!’ Get it all -- you know the ones from the past, you know the ones from today.’ And he says, ‘You MUST do this!’ ”

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Levon Helm 'one of the last true great spirits,' writes Bob Dylan

Click here for more photos of Levon Helm
Bob Dylan, who asked multi-instrumentalist Levon Helm and his band, the Hawks, to join him when he decided to “go electric” in the mid-'60s, has posted a short note on his website about Helm, who died after a long struggle with throat cancer on Thursday.

Together with guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson, the band once known as Levon and the Hawks became Dylan’s backing band and recorded with him very intensively during a formative period when the formerly acoustic-only folk singer was making a transition in his sound. Those recording sessions were widely bootlegged and some of them were later released in 1975 as “The Basement Tapes.”

A note on Dylan’s website states simply:

"In response to Levon's passing

"He was my bosom buddy friend to the end, one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation. This is just so sad to talk about. I still can remember the first day I met him and the last day I saw him. We go back pretty far and had been through some trials together. I'm going to miss him, as I'm sure a whole lot of others will too."

In the late 1960s, the backing band became its own recording entity, called the Band, and recorded its own albums, including the debut “Music From Big Pink,” which included the Levon Helm-sung hit “The Weight.”

The Band also played with Dylan on albums including 1974's "Planet Waves," and finally disbanded with a final 1976 performance — which included Dylan — called “The Last Waltz,” which was recorded in a documentary film made by Martin Scorsese.

Earlier on Pop & Hiss, singer-songwriter and producer Joe Henry spoke of his love for Helm, and drew comparisons to Dylan. 

Wrote Henry, "In the same way that his great friend and sometimes-boss Bob Dylan connected the dots between Jimmy Reed, Arthur Rimbaud and Muhammad Ali, so Levon drew the second line that had Howlin’ Wolf, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Marvin Gaye and Hank Williams all dancing out in front of the same New Orleans funeral parade. (They all walked liked Bo Diddley and didn’t need no crutch.) He brought soul and an open heart to the darkest corners of rock music -- in a troubled era he helped shape and define -- and a rural humility to the grandest stages."


PHOTOS: Levon Helm

Levon Helm of the Band dies at 71

Dick Clark remembered: He made kids, their music 'stars of the show'

— Dean Kuipers

Image: Levon Helm with the band in 1970. Credit: Los Angeles Times

Earl Scruggs: Remembering a bluegrass and American music legend

Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt

For better or worse, Earl Scruggs will be remembered by most Americans for his banjo picking alongside partner Lester Flatt in a dated 1960s cultural artifact: “The Beverly Hillbillies." 

For better, because the style that the bluegrass legend, who died Wednesday at 88, showcases will forever live in the memories of generations. For worse, because the song threatens to define Flatt and Scruggs, as well as the whole of the uniquely American form of bluegrass music, alongside the zany, know-nothing Clampetts of Beverly Hills. That placement has helped define bluegrass to the culture at large as music for hicks who dance at hoedowns and wouldn’t know a lick about “real” music. (Credit goes to "Deliverance" and "Dueling Banjos" for furthering the cause.)

That’s a shame, because a deep listen to Flatt & Scruggs reveals something so much bigger than a few unfortunate stereotypes. The sound that Scruggs forged, a three-fingered picking style in the 1940s as a central player in Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, came to define bluegrass. When he and Flatt struck out on their own in 1948 to form the Foggy Mountain Boys, the style had woven its way into the fabric of American music. 

It’s a sound that still thrives today in the work of Alison Krauss and Union Station, Ricky Skaggs, Bela Fleck, and Abigail Washburn, among many others. Virtually every time a banjo solo comes on the radio, it’s played in a Scruggs-inspired picking style, and every time a TV character steps onto a farm, you can hear the spirit of Earl Scruggs. You can even get a taste of it on Madonna’s new album, where her song "Love Spent" opens with a Scruggs-suggestive lick. 

But that influence has spread because Scruggs never defined himself as simply a bluegrass player. As his success on the country circuit rose in the 1960s and a generation of hippies discovered the glory of the old-time country music of Bill Monroe, the Foggy Mountain Boys, the Stanley Brothers and Dock Boggs, Scruggs expanded his reach.

In 1969, his and Flatt's television show featured his banjo playing alongside the Byrds, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and in the decades following, Scruggs played alongside younger musicians -- and no doubt taught them a thing or two about the banjo. In 2001, he confirmed that influence by releasing "Earl Scruggs and Friends," which featured collaborations with Sting, Elton John and Dwight Yoakam.  

The musical ideas on that recording, along with all the others, bore witness to a visionary who picked up an instrument once used mostly by former slaves and harnessed it to create amazing energy. Scruggs and the banjo ultimately went on to tell an incredibly important American musical story.


Walk of Fame: Earl Scruggs star

Earl Scruggs lets his banjo do the talking

Earl Scruggs, bluegrass legend, dies at age 88

-- Randall Roberts

Photo: Earl Scruggs, left, and Lester Flatt performing on a TV show in 1950. Credit: GAB Archive/Redferns

Pete Seeger sings 'Forever Young' for 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan's debut

Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival
Monday is the 50th anniversary of the release of Bob Dylan’s debut album, and in commemoration the organizers of the recent four-CD Dylan tribute album “Chimes of Freedom” benefiting Amnesty International are releasing a new video of Dylan mentor Pete Seeger singing the Minnesotan's 1974 song “Forever Young.”

At age 92, Seeger is joined on the track, and in the video, by the Rivertown Kids children’s choir, a New York group consisting of 20 children age 9 to 13. The video can be seen here:

Along with the new video, a grassroots campaign has begun to spur download sales of the track in hopes of getting Seeger back into the Billboard Hot 100 chart, which would make him the oldest person ever to appear on the Billboard chart. The effort, dubbed “Forever Pete,” has generated a website,, a Twitter feed, and a Facebook page. Proceeds from sales of the track will go to Amnesty International.

As a performer, songwriter, activist, member of the Almanac Singers and the Weavers folk groups and an associate of Woody Guthrie, Seeger played an important role in Dylan’s early career. He mentored the young musician during his watershed performances at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island in 1963, 1964 and 1965.

From 1950 to 1955, the Weavers charted 11 singles, most of them traditional folk songs the band helped to revive, and as a solo act Seeger appeared on the chart in 1964 with the song “Little Boxes.” His impact was even greater as a songwriter and arranger, contributing “If I Had a Hammer,” which was a charting song for Peter, Paul & Mary and Trini Lopez; the Byrds' hit “Turn! Turn! Turn!”; and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” which charted for several performers.

Arlo Guthrie, at a tour stop in Oklahoma City, Okla., last week on his way to a centennial concert salute to his father, said he had recently invited Seeger, with whom he toured on and off for three decades, to join him for a show, but Seeger declined.

“Pete said, ‘Arlo, I can’t play as well as I used to play, and I can’t sing as well as I used to sing,’ ” Guthrie told the audience. “I said, ‘Pete, have you taken a look at your audience lately? They can’t hear as well as they used to hear!’”

To date, the oldest artists to make the charts with new material (as opposed to reissues) are Tony Bennett in the U.S. at 85, and in the U.K., Doris Day recently scored at hit at 87.


Bob Dylan tribute album honors Amnesty International too

Bob Dylan 'Freedom' tribute album debuts at No. 11--and No. 39

Woody Guthrie is celebrated with a concert in Tulsa, Okla.

-- Randy Lewis

Photo: Pete Seeger, left, and Bob Dylan at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. Credit: (c) Jim Marshall Photography LLC.

Secret Policeman's Ball 2012 set for March 4 in New York City

The 2012 Secret Policemans Ball event March 4 in New York City traces its lineage back to George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh in 1971The Secret Policeman’s Ball will cross the Atlantic for the first U.S. edition of the ongoing series of fundraisers for Amnesty International with a big-name comedy and music lineup set for Sunday, March 4, in New York City. The event will be carried live on the EPIX cable channel and also streamed live at

On the comedy front, the show marking Amnesty’s 50th anniversary this year will include Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Eddie Izzard, Russell Brand, Sarah Silverman, Fred Armisen and many more, while Coldplay and Mumford & Sons will help out on the music side, connecting the two bands to a long, storied thread through pop music history.

This will be the 11th edition of the event that was born in 1976 in England, inspired in large part by George Harrison’s archetypal all-star rock music benefit, the Concert for Bangladesh, five years earlier at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan.

In conscious acknowledgment of that connection to the ex-Beatle, Amnesty this week is releasing a video of Evan Rachel Wood’s performance of the George Harrison-Bob Dylan song “I’d Have You Anytime” from the new “Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan” four-CD set benefiting Amnesty.

Monty Python founding member John Cleese, along with journalist and publicist Martin Lewis, instigated the series that would come to be known as the Secret Policeman’s Ball, starting out exclusively with comedic talent to sell tickets from which proceeds would go to the human rights organization.

In 1979, Lewis came up with the SPB name and invited the Who’s Pete Townshend aboard to add a musical component. Townshend gave his first major solo appearance at that show, performing “Pinball Wizard” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, a performance credited by many as helping usher in the “unplugged” idea that became a hallmark of other benefit concerts and a popular series of MTV specials.

Because of Townshend’s appearance, Lewis was able to persuade other musicians to take part in subsequent shows, including Sting, Donovan, Bob Geldof, Midge Ure, Phil Collins and, in their first performance together, English rock guitar gods Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton.

Geldof and Ure became the driving forces behind the charity Band-Aid project and the “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” single generating money for African famine relief in 1984, which expanded into the Live Aid transatlantic benefit concerts the following year in London and Philadelphia. Many of those participants had met at previous Secret Policeman’s Ball shows.

Additionally, U2 singer Bono has credited the 1979 Secret Policeman’s Ball with fully igniting his desire to tap music to help others in a concrete way.

Live Aid segued into the Amnesty's 1986 Conspiracy of Hope tour that included six concerts over 10 days around the U.S. with the Police, U2, Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, Joan Baez and the Neville Brothers.

Likewise, after taking part in 1987 in the Secret Policeman’s Third Ball in London, Gabriel (who was joined there by Geldof, Jackson Browne, Reed, David Gilmour, Kate Bush, Mark Knopfler, Chet Atkins, Duran Duran and World Party) went on to join Amnesty's Human Rights Now! tour in 1988.

That six-week tour also featured Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Sting, Tracy Chapman and Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour on a five-continent string of 20 concerts. A quarter century later, Live 8 shows on several continents both celebrated and expanded upon the original Live Aid idea.

Springsteen, Gabriel, Robert Plant & Jimmy Page, Radiohead, Chapman, Alanis Morissette and Shania Twain showed up in 1998 for Amnesty’s "The Struggle Continues…" show in Paris marking the 50th anniversary of the signing in that city of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Efforts shifted last decade to benefit recordings, first with a double-CD tribute to the music of John Lennon by dozens of acts for “Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur,” which has since generated more than $4 million for Amnesty, and most recently with “Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan,” on which dozens more performers filled four CDs with renditions of Dylan’s music.


Imagine, Lennon's music aids relief effort

Bob Dylan tribute album honors Amnesty International too

Bob Dylan 'Freedom' tribute album debuts at No. 11 -- and No. 39

-- Randy Lewis

Photo: George Harrison, left, and Bob Dylan perform at the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. Credit: UPI.

Bob Dylan 'Freedom' tribute album debuts at No. 11 -- and No. 39

Bob Dylan Chimes of Freedom album charts twice this week in Billboard

Wuz Bob robbed? 

My first thought while looking at this week’s Nielsen SoundScan report of the week’s top-selling albums and finding the No. 11 slot occupied by “Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan," the new multi-artist tribute album benefiting Amnesty International, was: “Pretty impressive for a four-CD set.”

Then came a sense of déjà vu looking further down the chart to No. 39 and spotting ... "Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan,” the new multi-artist tribute album benefiting Amnesty International.

The explanation for the apparent paradox is fairly simple: The album that sold nearly 22,500 copies and is ranked No. 11 is the full 4-CD set containing 76 tracks by 80 artists, selling for about $20 at and other online and physical retailers.

The entry lodged at No. 39 is the 2-CD, 31-track version assembled by and sold for $14.95 at Starbucks locations nationwide, accounting for another 10,000 copies. Nielsen SoundScan, in collaboration with Billboard, reports and charts sales separately because they are physically different products.

"The deluxe four-CD version of 'Chimes' extends beyond one additional CD (or digital equivalent) of bonus content (as compared to the standard two-CD version), thus it charts separately," Billboard's associate director of charts, Keith Caulfield, explained.

Proceeds from both editions help Amnesty International, but the segregation of their sales figures on the charts is a sore point for veteran record executive Jeff Ayeroff, co-producer of the project, a policy he chides as “simply arbitrary and lame.”

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A Bob Dylan tribute album with 76 tracks and a 2012 mind-set

STORY: Bob Dylan tribute album honors Amnesty International too

The new  Bob Dylan tribute album, “Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International,” which is being released today, salutes both the songwriter and the human rights organization for half a century of their respective work.

But the album itself has been assembled and is being marketed with a very 2012 mind-set.

Veteran record industry executive Jeff Ayeroff, who is leading the charge for the benefit project, with proceeds going to Amnesty International, fully expects that few potential customers will be equally passionate about all 76 tracks by more than 80 artists appearing on the four-CD set.

Artists that participated constitute a diverse aasemblage spanning the pop music spectrum, and a bit beyond it, from young pop hit makers Adele, Miley Cyrus and Kesha to indie rockers the Silversun Pickups and the Belle Brigade to veteran folkies Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, alt-country musicians Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Brett Dennen and the Avett Brothers, mainstream rockers Dave Matthews, Joe Perry and Maroon 5, hard-edged  rock band Queens of the Stone Age, world music acts Ziggy Marley, Mariachi El Bronx and Somalian rapper K’naan and punk bands Bad Religion and Rise Against.
"Whatever I’ve learned in the evolution of the album, I know people who pay $20 for this are not going to like every song,” Ayeroff said. “But there are several records inside this album: There’s a country record, there’s an all female record of women interpreting Bob Dylan songs, which is probably the most significant part of the album for me. It shows that Bob speaks with many voices for many people.

“There’s an adult pop record, there’s a peer record, there’s an alternative rock album, and the rock record,” continued Ayeroff, adding that in the iTunes age he anticipates some people who buy the download version will pick and choose which parts of it they pull down.

In addition to the official four-CD version that’s going to all the usual online and physical music retailers, Starbucks has created a two-CD version.

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Lucinda Williams on discovering Bob Dylan: 'This is what I want to do'

Lucinda Williams pays tribute to Bob Dylan as one of 80 artists on 'Chimes of Freedom,' an Amnesty International benefit project.
Lucinda Williams had no trouble pinpointing when and where Bob Dylan’s music came into her life when I called her to talk about her participation in the gargantuan new tribute album “Chimes of Freedom: Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International.”

She’s one of 80 artists who have recorded new versions of Dylan songs as a benefit for the human rights organization for the album that will be released Tuesday, Jan. 24. It's the subject of a feature in Sunday's Arts & Books section.

“1965,” she said without an instant's hesitation. “I was 12 1/2 years old, it was the year I started playing guitar. We were living in Baton Rouge, and my dad [poet Miller Williams] was teaching at LSU.

“One of his creative writing students came over to the house one day—I’ll never forget it--to meet with my dad. And he brought in a copy of this new record he was excited about. That was a time when somebody’s new album came out it would be like a big deal.  Everybody would be talking about it, and they’d bring it over to somebody’s house and everyone would listen to it.

“One of his students brought a copy of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and told my dad, ‘Oh my god, you’ve got to listen to this.’ But my dad wasn’t that impressed with Bob Dylan; even though he was a poet, he listened to [jazz saxophonist John] Coltrane and Hank Williams and Lightinin' Hopkins. The contemporary  folk-rock scene was more [intersting to] my generation and his students’ generation.

“The advantage was that I was turned on to quite a bit of music from these people who were in their 20s, turning me on to Dylan and the Doors. This guy set the album down and I put it on and listened to it.

"Even though I was only 12 1/2 and I didn’t understand all the lyrics, it didn’t matter. What struck me was the blend of traditional folk music and these lyrics that seemed to come from both of those worlds: my dad’s world of creative writing and the folk music world I had been steeped in through people like Peter, Paul & Mary, Gordon Lightfoot, the traditional folk songs [recorded by] John and Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Joan Baez.

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Amnesty International 'Chimes of Freedom' salutes Bob Dylan's music

Bob Dylan Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan gets a broad-spectrum musical salute with the  new four-CD, 75-song multi-artist tribute album “Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan: Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International,” being released as part of anniversary efforts for the human rights organization.

Participating arists include Adele, Elvis Costello, Pete Townshend, Patti Smith, Miley Cyrus, Ke$ha, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, My Chemical Romance, Queens of the Stone Age, Sting, Sugarland, Airborne Toxic Event and the Dave Matthews Band.

Dylan was selected as the focus of Amnesty International’s latest project because 2012 also will be the 50th anniversary of the release of his debut album, “Bob Dylan.” The “Chimes of Freedom” album seeks to raise funds for and awareness of the organization that lobbies on behalf of political prisoners and victims of human rights abuses throughout the world.

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Album review: 'The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams'

If you have a long road trip to take to see an old lover who ripped out your heart, who probably doesn’t want to see you or doesn’t know you’re on the way and might not even live in that scrapheap of a town anymore, then “The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams” is the album to play on repeat.

The forefather of sad-sack country doesn’t appear on the record in physical voice, but his spirit looms in his lyrics that were used as the basis for these 12 tracks sung by a variety of kindred weepers and moaners, including Bob Dylan, Alan Jackson, Merle Haggard, Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams and Jack White.

Dylan helped spearhead these songs to completion, and his raggedy contribution, “The Love That Faded,” is one of the best. Set to a barroom waltz, his ravaged voice lends authority to a line like, “My love was wasted, I’m paying the cost.” His son, Jakob, finds the sweet spot between finger-picked lullaby and sorrowful pleading on “Oh, Mama, Come Home.”

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