“What I learned from Lonnie” pt. III: The Link Wray “Rumble” connection

[This post belongs to a series about Dylan’s idea of “mathematical music” in Chronicles]
In the discussion of the Lonnie Johnson technique in Chronicles, Dylan refers to Link Wray’s “Rumble” as one of the pieces that uses this method.
He says:

Once I understood what I was doing, I realized that I wasn’t the first one to do it, that Link Wray had done the same thing in his classic song “Rumble” many years earlier. Link’s song had no lyrics, but he had played with the same numerical system. It would never have occurred to me where the song’s power had come from because I had been hypnotized by the tone of the piece.

He then compares this to a performance by Martha Reeves where she “beat a tambourine in triplet form […] and she phrased the song as if the tambourine were her entire band”.
This is all very interesting, but it hardly sheds any light on the “Lonnie” system as he presents it. Well, let’s see.
“Rumble” is an instrumental, played by a combo of two guitars, bass and drums. It is easy to see how the raw intensity may have caught Dylan’s interest. The introduction goes something like this:

   D     D       E                                     D     D 
   .     .       :     .     .     .       :     .     .     .     
               |                         |                         |
               | :     .     .     .     | :     .     .     .     |
Bass           |-------------------------|-------------------------|
               |                         |                         |   
               |                         |                         |   
               | :     .     .     .     | :     .     .     .     |
Cymbal         |-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-|-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-|
               |                         |                         |   
Bass drum      |-x-----x-----x-----x-x-x-|-x-----x-----x-----x-x-x-|

This is really all there is to the song, with the exception of a “solo” verse, which consists of violent tremolo strumming, and a turnaround figure after each verse, which adds two beats to the general four beats per measure, giving it all a limp that is certain to wake one up, should one against all likelihood have fallen asleep.

   D     D       B7
   :     .       :     .     .     .      

                                        E           D     D       E
  :     .     .     .     .     .       :     .     .     .       :     

It makes perfect sense that Dylan has liked this. There is the unpolished character of the whole thing, which reminds one of the best moments of Highway 61. There is the soundscape of sharply differentiated parts, each with its own distinctive rhythmic pattern:

  • a raw electric guitar, slightly out of tune, pounding three-chord patterns and a simple run at the end;
  • a muffled bass playing simple, chromatic ascending figures over and over again;
  • two widely different percussion sounds — the cymbals with their insistent triplets and the bass drums with their dump “tam, tam, tam, ta-ta-ta”;
  • and the rhythm guitar, which only plays the strong beats and nothing else.

Both guitars, in different ways, take the part of the drummer, as Dylan has described his own solo guitar playing on several occasions, whereas the drums do just as much “motivic” or “thematic” work as any of the others.
But what does it have to do with Lonnie Johnson and mathematical music?
At first sight: nothing.
At second sight: well, the number three is all over the place: the main line of the guitar is three chords — silence — three chords — etc, ended by a measure which is extended from 2×2 to 3×2 beats. The cymbals play different kinds of triplets all the time, and the bass drum plays three long and three short.
Hey, perhaps we’re on to something here? Triplets, what is it about triplets? He says earlier:

I don’t know why the number 3 is more metaphysically powerful than the number 2, but it is.

There is a long line of thinking behind this, which of course goes back to the pythagoreans, again. I will write more about this in a forthcoming post, but as a teaser, the numerical system in Plato’s account is based on each number having its own metaphysical character, one being unity (and not really a number at all), two representing “the other” and three “the intermediary”. The difference between two and three has been central to all numerological systems throughout the history of ideas.
I’m not saying Dylan is a Platonist (and he says himself that he’s not a numerologist, so we better believe him, right?)(Right!), but it is not either unlikely that he has picked up some sort of idea along these lines, and why not from Lonnie Johnson? And if he believes the beauty of the system is that it works, regardless of artifice: the audience will go wild, no matter — if it works, then why not use it?
Be that as it may, the beauty of this explanation is that it works whether Dylan is right or not, whether there is a firm basis for the system or not. What Link Wray does, through his use of various permutations of threes, is to create a polyphonic structure with different layers of rhythmic activity in different instrument parts, all going on at the same time, and creating a remarkable complexity with very limited means. Whether it works because of the number three or because of the raw sound, the hypnotic repetitivity, and the underground Rumble of ominous ta-ta-ta in the drums and weird chromatics in the bass, barely audible as such, but mostly very disturbing — who am I to tell why it works?
And these elements: pared down resources, insistent repetition, sometimes weird “chromatics” (which one might — O horrible thought! — have mistaken for mistakes, but now we know better…), guitars playing drums and vice versa — these are precisely what characterizes Dylan’s band and his playing from 1988 and in the following years.
Now it remains to take a closer look at some of his own music making during those years, to see where the triplets went.

13 thoughts on ““What I learned from Lonnie” pt. III: The Link Wray “Rumble” connection

  1. “I don’t know why the number 3 is more metaphysically powerful than the number 2, but it is.”

    With emphasis on the “metaphysical”, the answer to this seems fairly easy, considering a few centuries of Christian mythology, theology and tradition.

    You have the holy trinity, first of all, plus all sorts of threes cropping up here and there, referring to the holy trinity.
    A famous example shows the importance of the idea:
    Dante modeled his Divina Commedia, perhaps the most powerful of texts with a serious theological purpose, to the core after the very concept: there are three Books with 33 Cantos each (plus one introductory canto to form the divine number of 100 all in all), consisting of so-called Terze rime (three lines to a stanza).

    Departing from the metaphysical and venturing into the matter-of-fact, the three is still an important part of classical rhetoric, for instance. The “rhetorical triad” being the most obvious example. This has to do with logical principles (see Plato, Aristotle), down to Hegel.
    All in all, however, the ‘obsession’ seems to a large extent self-engendered, that is, since all of it has been around for thousands of years, people are used to it and picked it up again and again. That there is nevertheless a strong psychological preference of the “trias” as such is of course another matter, which Freud would surely explain by there being a mother and a father to every being (making it three), although he would have found a way to slip something dirty in, which I won’t bother to do.

  2. The distinction that you make between the “metaphysical” and the “matter-of-fact” is important, although I believe the interpretational “problem” is that the metaphysical side considers itself matter-of-fact: three is a holy number because God is holy and three-in-one. When Dylan claims that the number 3 is more powerful than the number 2, it is so in the same sense.
    I agree with the self-engendering aspect, and the Freud part … um. [I suddenly realize that I haven’t slipped anything dirty into this whole series. Repression, surely.]

  3. I agree that there is something problematic about my distinction, since especially logic, is entirely meta-physical (taking the term literally).
    However, metaphysical in this case, is meant to signify “religious, spiritual” something along those lines.
    That various churches wouldn’t agree between the distinction is certainly true, but then, it’s about the same (to pick up the Viennese again) if you try to argue against Freudianism and the only reply is a cool “yeah, but that’s just that complex of yours, denying the obvious”
    I still think there is something interesting to the number three that makes it so frequent, and in want of a better term, “feel right”. One definite matter-of-fact thing about Christianity is that it couldn’t have happend without Christ, and since he figures prominently in our calendar, it’s obviously younger than, say, logic.

    One thing that came to my mind, concerning this, is that maybe the three is a sort of progression from an early dualism (good-bad, dead-alive, whatever) in the misty-dusky days of mankind, to a more sophisticated third position: the EGO (not in the freudian sense), as a realization of a viewpoint concerning dualism. Such as when a child, as psychologists claim, first realizes it is a separate human being, an I.

    This is of course pure speculation, although not altogether unlikely, I think.

    That (to return to the basic topic) the mere switching of a musical structure from “2”s to “3”s, whatever it exactly means, makes even ‘bad ideas’ irresistible, to me is a little too much of mystifying, even apart from a possible metaphysicality of numbers.
    On a personal note, even if there is a sound concept (in the double sense), I prefer Dylan to record albums instead of spending his time elaborating theories.

  4. One possible explanation of switching the musical structure from 2’s to 3’s is that the equal tempered scale is based on the 12th root of 2, perhaps he [dylan] means switching to the 19th root of 3 these numbers are very close indeed.and basically you end up with a stretched octave.Hope this is helpful, loved your article.
    [12th root of 2 is 1.059463094 , 19th root of 3 is 1.05952606474.]

  5. I’m not sure if someone’s brought this up or not and I admit I haven’t read your entire blog yet (but it’s fasinating and well written, as all your works are). In the Harry Smith “American Folk Music” anthology (well studied by Dylan, a must have for music fans), the following appears in a section of “quotations…that have been useful to the editor in preparing the notes for this handbook.”: ” In elementary music the relation of Earth to the sphere of water is 4 to 3, as there are in the Earth four quarters of frigidity to three of water. Robert Fludd”.
    Such a cryptic line, sounds like something Dylan would write, but interesting in this discussion.

    Also, if I can digress, I am currently re-reading Michael Murphy’s “Golf in the Kingdom”. which brings up Pythagoras and how he knew “the world from the inside” and heard “the music o’ the spheres – and started all our science”. Maybe I need to buy a math book to improve my golf and guitar playing!

  6. Thanks for the reference to Harry Smith! Yes, I agree that that kind of connection would be “gefundenes Fressen” for Dylan. That’s the kind of mysticism that he loves…. Why is it that numbers are so alluring for so many people? One can say: “I feel the power of the earth is somehow related to that of water?”, and people will say, “Yeah, sure…!”, but say “4 to 3” or “1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, …”, and they will bow and say, “Yes, master, you’re right! I always felt that too, but now I know!”
    Good luck with your golfing!

  7. I dont think you are listening to “Rumble”. The tab on the page is a different song.
    Link Rays rumble can be found on i think the forrest gump sound track. or download it from itunes. Get back to me on this. thanks.

  8. Also let me mention that when i read the rollingstone interview and he talked about the mathematical guitar playing it drove me nuts! This is so interesting thanks!!!
    (now go find rumble!)

  9. 2abeslice:
    This is the Rumble that I have, and which is featured, not on Forrest Gump, but on the very similar (hm, perhaps not…) Pulp Fiction. Link Wray also has a song called “Ramble” — perhaps that’s what you’re thinking of? (And perhaps also Dylan — I’ll check it out)

  10. I’m an idiot! I was thinking of Rebel Rouser. Sorry about that!! I need to do more research before posting. My bad! Great site!

  11. Not that I know Jack Shit about it, but Buddy Holly stuff is a bit like that, like a schoolboy reciting the multiplication tables or someone trying to assemble an abacus from dinner plates and used chopsticks.

  12. It seems like the number three has an advanvtage over number two in that it cannot be cleanly cut in half. In structural terms it means creating a trianglge with cross bracing to prevent a rectangle from buckling, in musical terms a bar of three creates assumed accents (more so in 6/8) that are different, and seemingly different in a way that carries more feeling. These bars of three verse bars of two or four can sometimes be played out by the rapid strum patterns against the slower bass lines in such a way that the guitar plays a quick 3 over the slower bass’ 2. I don’t know if Lonnie Johnson, Bob Dylan or Link Wray thinks of it that way, but in a lot of cases with making music one does not always think before feeling. Another person who studied ryhthm and looked for numerological patterns or language was Leonard Bernstien when trying to score certain types of jazz phrasing.

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