“What I learned from Lonnie Johnson” part II

[This post belongs to a series about Dylan’s idea of “mathematical music” in Chronicles]

I agree with the comment in the first post on this subject, that rhythm and a deliberately ambiguity between 3/4 and 4/4 time may be part of what Dylan is talking about. Some of the problem is that he seems to glide — at least in the way he talks about it — between pitch and rhythm as the topic. Some of it, which is the part that I emphasised in my previous post, makes sense as a descripion of a formulaic system of composition, where a set of generic rules can be applied in a variety of situations and produce the goods.
This has been described in the field of literature by Albert Lord and Milman Perry, who studied the formulaic composition of epic poetry in the Balkans, and compared it, as a (then, at least) living tradition, with the Homeric epics, and found the same fundamental traits. The conclusion that the Iliad and the Odyssey are written-out versions of improvised poetry, while upsetting some notions about the Genius who laid the foundation for Western Literature, is hardly surprising, since Homeros was supposed to have lived before the development of writing.
But apart from that, the Lord/Perry studies have been important for the development of a framework for studies of formulaicism in general. This has been taken up by the musicologist Leo Treitler who has applied some of it (but with major qualifications) to the medieval repertory of plainchant.
Anyway, I’m rambling; stop me. [Stop!][Ok, thanks].
The other side would be the rhythmic aspect, which is also clearly part of what he’s talking about. It makes sense, judging from his singing style in the late 80s and early 90s, that he has had considerations about various ways to circle around the various rhythmical strata in a song.
It reminds me of Levon Helm’s comment in the video about the making of “The Brown Album”, about people thinking that it must be difficult to sing lead and play drums at the same time. But for him, he says, it’s the other way around, because he can sing ‘around’ what he plays (or vice versa).
But in either case, there is no easy connection between what Dylan says he does, and what one can hear him doing. Especially when he gets concrete. When he says:

It’s a highly controlled system of playing and relates to the notes of a scale, how they combine numerically, how they form melodies out of triplets and are axiomatic to the rhythm and the chord changes.

–there are a number of possible interpretations, but also a quagmire of possible mistakes, on Dylan’s part and on the reader’s. One is fairly easily taken care of:

  • “triplets” is a rhythmical term, denoting the subdivision of a beat in three instead of two units. What he probably has in mind, is triads, the units of three tones separated by major and minor thirds, which have been the foundation of Western harmony since the fifteenth century, and which is usually called “chords”.

But other points are less clear-cut:

  • “How [the notes of a scale] combine numerically” — is this a reference to the esoteric tradition of harmony-of-the-spheres which goes back to the Pythagoreans, or simply a way of saying that there are certain patterns in the scale?
  • “How [the notes of the scale] form melodies out of triplets” (i.e. triads). Is this a reference to the triadic nature of melody in the western tradition, where certain melodic tones get a particular emphasis because of their structural importance in the triads? In functional harmony, a certain sounding chord is described according to which function it fulfills, which means that the same chord can mean different things depending on the context (see the “D” in different versions of Girl of the North Country), or a chord can be called a G chord without even containing the tone G. (I know I have an example of that in one of the tabs, but I can’t remember where). As I’ve argued in some of my articles in the “Self-Ordained Professors” section, the skillful handling of these features can be observed in Dylan’s music, but I still doubt that that is what Lonnie told him.
  • “axiomatic to rhythm and chord changes”. Yes, again: the relationship between rhythm and harmony is close, even though they are different phenomena. The pivot is “structural importance”, which is decided in the interrelations between triad and rhythm: a structural tone is one which is placed on a strong beat, but in some situations, a weak beat may become strong because it is inhabited by a structural tone.
    This is fairly straightforward, but Dylan actually makes a much wider claim when he says that the notes of the scale are “axomatic to rhythm and chord changes”. “Axiomatic” would imply that the notes of the scale are the fundamental building blocks upon which the system is defined, without themselves needing any definition within the system. This would mean that rhythm is inconceivable without a structured pitch hierarchy, which — as a general statement — is pure bullshit. He may be thinking only of his own system, but for an artist working in a tradition based so heavily on rhythm, this becomes a strange statement, to say the least.
    Is this what Dylan means, then, or does he actually mean “triplets” when he says “triplets”, and hints at some direct, mystical connection between harmony and triple rhythm? If that’s what Lonnie told him, he lied…

5 thoughts on ““What I learned from Lonnie Johnson” part II

  1. Great article, E….You write so well, I imagine what you can do in your native language.

    I think Bob’s (or Lonnie’s) thecnique (or however you spell that) came to him in the most intuitive level, after all so many touring years (as you mentioned). His explanation of it seens to be rather metaphysical because of that – it’s sort of hard to explain in logical therms a knowledge produced by instinct, and not pratical music knowledge.

    “How the notes of a scale combine numerically — is this a reference to the esoteric tradition of harmony-of-the-spheres which goes back to the Pythagoreans…”

    Maybe you could write a lil essay on this. I was most curious about it but never read anything on therms I could understand. Just a suggestion. Maybe it could even bring some light into the hole Dylan method, since Bob’s approach to music always seens somehow mystical.

    keep up the good work!

  2. I think when Bob used the term “triplets” he actually meant it in the correct musical definition of dividing two beats into three. I say this based on what he said about observing a singer (possibly martha reeves) hitting a tambourine in “triplets” to her ear.
    It doesn’t really shed a light on the method, but ‘m tempted to say that it points in the direction of developing syncopation, a skill many musicians struggle with. Being able to stray from the set beat. For example, playing a bassline on the lower guitar strings whilst playing a different accompaniment on the other strings, Robert Johnsons old trick.
    It’s just a stab in the dark though….

  3. Yes, I agree with you — I think it’s clear that that’s what he has in mind. The Link Wray example was quite revelatory in this respect, since it is such a clean piece: nothing fancy is going on, just the steady rhythms that through very simple means create a web of rhythmical relationships which sounds much more complex, or at least “full” than they appear on the paper.
    I mentioned the other possibility for the interpretation of “triplets” here, because (1) he actually talks about forming melodies out of them, and (2) the emphasis in other contexts on melodic features.
    The Robert Johnson comparison is interesting, but I don’t think that kind of rhythmic complexity — which comes close to a manual dexterity — would have been what he had in mind talking in the eighties. There is nothing wrong with his skills in this respect — which is amply evidenced on Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong— but this was hardly emphasised in the early Never-Ending Tour years. Rather, it was a way more pronounced feature in the sixties. So, yes, I agree that it has to do with the ability to stray from the set beat, but more connected to effective and efficient ways to create that kind of complexity with simple means in a small band.

  4. great info! I have been trying to figure this out in a common sense chord progression format…can you help me?


  5. This comment is on the ‘Angelina’ article in the ‘Professors’ section.

    One thing I would add to criticize all the critics is to make sure these ‘interpretations’ are not intended to find out what Dylan ‘really meant’, but rather what the words mean to the critic himself. Dylan may have just been drunk.

    The ‘Angelina’ article is generally interesting to read. One thing I would add is that toward the end two things:

    1. The song may also be about his divorce (‘combat zone’, ‘supeona’, ‘whatever you want you can have it of course’). and
    2. The angel with 4 faces etc… the last mystic stuff is about transending all the pettyness of life (including divorce and emotional entanglements). Because, when you die or when jesus returns (angel with 4 faces), all of the things you thought were important really weren’t, and there you ‘weap in unholy places’, and meet your real fate.

    So that is my 2 cents.

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