When Bob Dylan was given his own series of weekly hour-long programmes on American radio, each containing songs based around a certain theme, even the most blinkered worshipper of His Bobness might not have anticipated quite how engaging a DJ he would be, or the treasures mined as he and his researchers used conveniently generic topics as a mechanism to cherry pick American popular music’s rich heritage (“weather”, “mother” and “drinking” were the initial subjects of the fifty-episode first series).
The show is akin to tuning in to an iPod shuffle of Bob’s musical memories, a fragmented succession of aural snapshots as he might have encountered them over the airwaves, filtered largely on the blues and country music radio stations of his youth and laced with a more than liberal smattering of gospel, soul, reggae, pop, jazz, conjunto and rock music from the ‘20s to the present day.
All of which has been expertly sampled, deftly sequenced and rolled up into a knowledgeably annotated two-CD package by Theme Time producer Eddie Gorodetsky, Dylan's manager Jeff Rosen and Ace records’ Roger Armstrong. Bookending the collection with songs that extol contrasting virtues of the wonderful world of radio (as religious conduit on Grandpa Jones’ ‘40s country hit Turn Your Radio On, as urban automobile jukebox on Jonathan Richman's loose-limbed classic Roadrunner from 1976), the compilers weave together a tapestry of venerated artists (from Billie to Bo Diddley and beyond) and unheralded gems (including a treat for lovers of the recent Krauss/Plant album by Li'l Millet and His Creoles), with the odd foray away from the USA (the militaristic, scattergun roll of The Clash’s searing Tommy Gun, Celtic Cajun Geraint Watkins at his bluesy best, some soulful ska from Jamaica) dovetailing into the broad theme of succinctly delivered, timeless nuggets of everyday American life.
The only obvious difference from the shows themselves (apart from an absence of hip-hop tracks) is the absence of Bob’s dry, laconic delivery. No corny jokes punctuate the tunes here, no surreal, rasping diversions into his meandering thought processes, no homespun wisdom or comic erudition. Just fifty prime cuts from one of the choicest radio shows of recent times.
This review first appeared in fRoots magazine.