Montag, 6. Dezember 2010

John Greenway - Obvious Source of Dylan's Talking Blues (expanded article, originally published in 1996)

Back in 1996, while going through my non-Dylan records, I came across an album, I hadn't listened to for quite a while (maybe because on first listening I had deemed it too "scholarly" and too far removed from the poignancy of Woody's and/or Dylan's talking blues).

Upon consulting the booklet furnished with the album (John Greenway, "Talking Blues," Folkways, released in 1958), I was struck by the many links (too many to be coincidental, IMHO) to talking blues on tapes of early Dylan performances (especially Minnesota Party Tape 1960 and Indian Neck Festival, May 6, 1961) and his own compositions in that genre ("Talkin' New York,"Talking Bear Mountain," " etc.).

I honestly believe that (besides Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music", also on Folkways) this is one of the major single sources of Dylan's early repertoire and that some of the Guthrie talking blues were learned "second-hand" from this album.

The album contains a total of 15 talking blues, of which 6 are by Guthrie or at least Guthrie-related ("Talking Union" is the old Almanac Singers song and Pete Seeger might have contributed to this one along with others in the group besides Woody):

- "Talking Dust Bowl,"                                               
- "Talking Columbia Blues," 
- "Talking Miner," 
- "Talking Union," 
- "Talking Sailor," 
and (most interesting of all in the Dylan context) "Talking Subway." 

Dylan's Minnesota Party Tape, Fall 1960, features two of these Guthrie songs,
- "Talking Columbia" and "Talking Sailor" (aka "Talking Merchant Marine"),
as well as one non-Guthrie song from the Greenway album,
- "Talking Inflation Blues" (aka "Talking Lobbyist," written by Tom Glazer).

Even the sequence of the songs on Dylan's tape is exactly the same as on the Greenway album.

Between "Talking Sailor" and "Talking Inflation Blues", we find Dylan's earliest self-penned attempt in this genre, "Talking Hugh Brown." 

Other songs from Greenway's album contain lines paraphrased in early Dylan talking blues: 

"eatin' hog eye. Love chittlins." 
(Greenway, "Original Talking Blues")  
"He's eatin' pizza. He's eatin' chitlins'..."
(Dylan, "I Shall Be Free")                          
"There ain't no use of me workin' so much, I got a gal that brings me the mush..."
"There ain't no use of me workin' so hard, I got a gal in the white folks' yard..."
(Greenway, "New Talking Blues")
"Oh, there ain't no use in me workin' so heavy, I got a woman who works on the levee...."   
(Dylan, "I Shall Be Free")

"Women screamin'. Babies yellin'. Me a-hidin'."
(Greenway, "Talking Butcher")

"Women screamin', fists a-flyin', babies cryin', cops a-comin', me a-runnin'" 
(Dylan, "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues")

What really gives this album away as an almost certain source for some of Bob Dylan's early repertoire is "Talking Subway" (Woody Guthrie):

Of the eleven stanzas, according to the liner notes,
"the first four may be found in a small collection of Guthrie's songs, issued in 1947"
("American Folksong," edited by Moses Asch).

"The last seven stanzas were obtained by Dr. Greenway from Guthrie at a later date 
and have never been published or recorded before."

The striking similarities between "Talking Subway" and Bob's "Talkin' New York" are too numerous to list here.

Therefore, I just want to concentrate on images found in the last seven (never before published) stanzas, which crop up in similar form in Dylan's song:

"Talking Subway:"
"Well, I got me a job in this man's town..."(5th stanza)     
"Talkin' New York:"
"Well, I got a harmonica job..."(5th stanza)
"...I finally got a job in New York Town."(6th stanza)

"Talking Subway:"
"Well, I joined the union to win my rights..."(7th stanza)
"You got to join the union, got to pay your dues..."(11th stanza)  
"Talkin' New York:"
"Even joined the union and paid m' dues."(6th stanza)

In addition to these rather blatant "borrowings" from "Talking Subway",
"Talkin' New York" even contains imagery derived from other songs on Greenway's album.

"But they got a lot of forks 'n' knives, and they gotta cut somethin',"
echoes lines from "Talking Butcher":
"'Cause he wants to cut me with that butcher knife. He got fire in his eyes. Boy! He wants to cut."

Greenway's album even seems to have influenced Dylan as late as 1965:
Just compare these lines from "New Talking Blues" (originally recorded by Chris Bouchillon in 1928) to the well-known chorus of Dylan's "Tombstone Blues:"

"Mama's in the pantry fixin' up the yeast,
Sister's in the kitchen preparin' for the feast..." 

Frankly, I consider it rather "sloppy" research by Todd Harvey, who cites my 1996 article (on p. 103 of his The Formative Dylan), but fails to correctly identify Tom Glazer's "Talking Inflation Blues", referring to it by its rather common (albeit wrong) title in Dylan collectors' circles as "Talking Lobbyist" and "origin unknown" -- all it would have taken him to come up with the CORRECT TITLE would have been consulting the liner notes to the Greenway album (which were quoted by me).

In the light of "scholarship of such magnitude", I am certainly not offended, when Todd Harvey (farther down on the same page) dismisses my 1996 findings, seemingly altogether, by claiming:

"In order for Greenway to be the basis of 'Talkin' New York', however, we must agree that Dylan was influenced by one or more of the seven 'lost' verses...." (ibid.).

I truly think that I have proven JUST THAT (with several examples) - additionally, the paraphrasing of imagery from "Talking Butcher" for another line of "Talkin' New York", the exact sequence of three songs from Greenway's album in one of Dylan's earliest recorded performances, and the obviously persisting influence of songs from this album up to 1965, makes Todd Harvey's dismissal of my findings rather absurd and illogical -- he obviously did not even consult the source (liner notes) I quoted, but feels compelled to come up with a rather vague "theory" of his own (in order to not having to commit himself one way or another) :

"Many contemporary folk revivalists such as Pete Seeger regularly performed talking blues..." (p. 104)

And furthermore, I cannot understand how his highly pretentious (but frequently sloppily researched) book became "2002 ARSC Finalist, Best Research in Recorded Folk"....

Some recordings by "The Talking Comedian of the South" Chris Bouchillon
(arranged chronologically by date of release, NOT by date of recording): 

Atlanta, GA, November 04, 1926     
01 Talking Blues 
02 Hannah                                          

Atlanta, GA, April 05, 1927
03 Born in Hard Luck
04 Medicine Show 
05 My Fat Girl
06 Let It Alone

Atlanta, GA, March 26, 1927
07 Waltz Me Round Again Willie
08 You Look Awful Good To Me

Atlanta, GA, April 16, 1928
09 New Talking Blues
10 Old Blind Heck
11 I've Been Married Three Times
12 My Wife's Wedding
13 Oyster Stew

Atlanta, GA, October 29, 1928
14 Adam & Eve, Part 1
15 Adam & Eve, Part 2

Atlanta, GA, October 30, 1928
16 Ambitious Father
17 Oh Miss Lizzie
18 Girls Of Today

(Discographical info from

JOHN GREENWAY - "TALKING BLUES" (1958) - excerpts only (to illustrate this post)
Please support Smithsonian Folkways by purchasing the album or considerably higher quality downloads.

ROBERT A. ZIMMERMAN - four "talking blues" (Minnesota Party Tape, 1960)
These recordings were done with the artist's permission and prior to his recording contract. 

Any (possibly still) copyrighted items are posted here for "nonprofit educational purposes" (one of the criteria of "fair use", Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. § 107).
Original content (c) Manfred Helfert 1996 & 2010.


  1. Fantastic research - thanks so much for taking the time to share this

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