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JOHN GREENWAY -- OBVIOUS SOURCE OF DYLAN'S TALKING BLUES

© Manfred Helfert, 1996

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Going through my non-Dylan records the other day, 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 going through 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 ("Talking 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"
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"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"
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"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"
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"Women screamin', fists a-flyin', babies cryin', cops a-comin', me a-runnin'"

Dylan, "Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues"

What really gives this album away as a source for Bob is "Talking Subway" (Woody Guthrie): Of the eleven stanzas, according to the notes, "the first four may be found in a small collection of Guthrie's songs, issued in 1947" ("American Folksong," edited by Moses Asch).

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

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The striking similarities between "Talking Subway" and Bob's "Talking 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)

"Talking 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)

"Talking New York:"

"Even joined the union and paid m' dues."
(6th stanza)

But "Talking 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 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..."

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