Let’s listen to Bob Dylan in Iceland: 1959

The bible for this occasional series. I bought my copy from the University of Iceland bookstore on campus.

SEPTEMBER 26th 2018 — Welcome to the first installment of “Let’s listen to Bob Dylan in Iceland”.


Join me on this journey through all of Dylan’s recorded and officially released tracks in chronological order — the order in which they were recorded, as listed in the massive, useful reference tome BOB DYLAN: ALL THE SONGS: THE STORY BEHIND EVERY TRACK (2015) by Philippe Margotin & Jean-Michel Guesdon.

I’ll be sharing Spotify playlists of all these songs, to go with each entry. I have no particular agenda with this series other than to enjoy, educate myself, and see what thoughts occur. I also welcome comments and thoughts from my readers.

For those looking to go deeper, I recommend the book mentioned, and likewise a free PDF that can be found online, THE BOB DYLAN SONGBOOK by Eyolf Østrem. It includes background information, lyrics, tabs, and fingerpicking patterns.

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From THE BOB DYLAN SONGBOOK by Eyolf Østrem.

Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 in recognition of the enormous contribution to culture he has made with his songwriting. I was actually in Iceland the day this was announced, visiting the Icelandic family that were my gracious hosts, and chatted about it with them, between bouts of the middle sibling of the family strumming his guitar (a musically gifted family).

But now we rewind back to 1959 and a soft start for this series, since only one song from this year is part of our syllabus:

“WHEN I GOT TROUBLES” (E major) — May 1959

Bob Dylan — born Robert Allen Zimmerman — has just turned 18 and remains undiscovered and without a recording contract.

At the home of a friend in Hibbing, he sings into his friend’s microphone and tape recorder a blues song of his own, “WHEN I GOT TROUBLES”, accompanying himself on the guitar.

The recording is of poor quality and cuts short, but for anyone interested in tracking his progress, this is of course gold. As pointed out by the authors of ALL THE SONGS:

“His voice remains in a lower register, almost confidential in style, and the guitar playing is quite poor. Yet an impression of depth emerges from his interpretation.” (p. 13)

Young mister Dylan is on the path.

Spotify playlist for this entry, “Let’s listen to Bob Dylan in Iceland: 1959”:


Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 2 — June 1923

Amelita Galli-Curci, one of the most popular sopranos of her day. “Gramophone Celebrities — I. Galli-Curci”, THE GRAMOPHONE No. 2, Jun. 1923.

SEPTEMBER 12th 2018 — It would be a challenge to find something in today’s issues of THE GRAMOPHONE to make one choke upon one’s breakfast cereal, but these classic issues suffer from no such handicap. Among the morsels from the second issue:

“[…] it is no use asking canaries to sing music written for elephants.” (“Z.” discussing Wagner operas)

Musically, the following recordings mentioned and available on Spotify stand out:

  • Bach: AIR FOR G STRING played by cellist Pablo Casals. Specifically a recording made by the pre-electric acoustic process between 1916 and 1920. Casals later re-recorded this electrically.
  • Sebastián Iradier: “LA PALOMA” (“THE DOVE”) (1850s), sung by Spanish-American baritone Emilio de Gogorza. This rendition of this popular song will be mentioned numerous times in issues to come, but with this as well as most other pieces, I will note only the first mention I come across.
  • Albert Ketèlbey: “BLOW, BLOW, THOU WINTER WIND” (based on Shakespeare) sung by Norman Allin. This is not among my favorite works from this composer, but I wanted to mention it because Ketèlbey is a composer who intrigues me. His music is cinematic, like soundtrack music of several decades later. I will note his other, more alluring works in installments to come.
  • Two spirituals sung by Roland Hayes: “STEAL AWAY” (arranged by Lawrence Brown) and “GO DOWN, MOSES” (arr. Harry Burleigh). I find that some of these early recordings of spirituals still communicate powerfully and directly across all these years. Compared to that directness of emotion and composition, most “white” music from this era seems feeble and insincere. One doesn’t need to be devotedly religious to appreciate these qualities. This music inspired and its power flowed into the works of Bob Dylan and many other later composers and musicians.

A Swiss musician called Edmond Roethlisberger is quoted on Bach’s harpsichord music:

“Would you know Bach at his most intimate, his most original, it is in his harpsichord compositions that he is to be found… He wrote for it from his earliest youth until his death and confided to it many of those almost supernatural inspirations which hypnotize us as if messages from a Beyond to which he alone could penetrate.” (pp. 36–37)

Portrait of the author from the article “The Harpsichord and Gramophone”.

The author of the article in which this quote appears, harpsichordist Violet Gordon-Woodhouse makes an interesting observation:

“It must […] be remembered that in Bach’s and Mozart’s time the harpsichord always figured in the orchestra. Conductors used it much more than the baton. Its quality of tone enabled it to accompany without smothering the principal instruments and blend with the strings as no piano can.”

In another article another writer muses on the proper times and situations for a Brit to listen to the gramophone:

“Again, to show how ridiculous our inhibitions are, let me ask what you would say if, on visiting a lady or gentleman, you found her or him solitary, listening to the music of his own gramophone. You would think it odd, would you not? You would endeavor to dissemble your surprise; you would look twice to see whether some other person were not hidden in some corner of the room, and if you found no such one, would painfully blush, as if you had discovered your friend sniffing cocaine, emptying a bottle of whisky, or plaiting straws in his hair.” (Orlo Williams, “Times and Seasons”, p. 38)

An anonymous writer starts an article on “New Dance Records” thus:

“It was, I believe, a late Shah of Persia, who, when taken to the opera in order that he might be impressed by Western music, expressed preference for the ‘tuning up’ of the orchestra, and desired that it might be repeated.” (p. 40)

The article also tells us that the popular music of the day (1923) was already occasionally quoting classical music.

Spotify playlist for this entry, “Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 2 — June 1923”:

This issue is available as part of the magazine’s digital archive, which every subscriber (a month or a year, digital or print+digital) gets access to.

Earlier entry in this series:

Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 1 — April 1923