Well, what is it — the musical style that Dylan talks about in Chronicles?
I’ll be writing some more on this on the main site, but here are some less processed ideas about it, in preparation for the longer study. I welcome comments.
He’s been talking about this before. The first time was already in 1966, in the interview with Klas Burling in Sweden:
Well you know my songs are all mathematical songs. You know what that means so I’m not gonna have to go into that specifically here. [yeah, sure] It happens to be a protest song … and it borders on the mathematical, you know, idea of things, and this one specifically happens to deal with a minority of, you know, cripples and orientals, and, uh, you know, and the world in which they live, you realize, you know, you understand, you know. It’s sort of a North Mexican kind of a thing, uh, very protesty. Very very protesty. And, uh, one of the protestiest of all things I ever protested against in my protest years. But uh…
Not necessarily very clear, but he certainly had the idea about mathematical music already back then. It might perfectly well be true, that he learned about this from Lonnie Johnson in 1965.
But what was it that he learned? If one wanted, one could go as deeply into this as one wished. There is a long tradition, going back to the Pythagoreans in pre-ancient times, of a connection between music and numbers. It is my contention, however, that
1. what Dylan talks about in Chronicles has nothing whatsoever to do with the Pythagorean tradition,
2. Dylan’s method is less clear-cut and conistent than what he presents it as,
3. it probably has nothing to do with whatever Johnson may have told him in the 60s,
4. but that doesn’t matter, as long as it has worked for him.
All this stuff about even and odd numbers — well, I don’t think it makes sense. What does seem clear, judging from what he actually says and comparing it with what he does on stage, is that he’s talking about the peculiar guitar style that he has developed during the Never Ending Tour years: the little two-three-note figure solos that he has kept churning out and that at times has driven most of us crazy, but which also — in a strange way and to a surprisingly high degree — work, musically. Outgrowths of this is probably also the sing-song/”up-singing” style of the recent years: it all fits his description fairly well, of a system of infinite permutations of very simple formulas, nothing to do with improvisation or inspiration, but a schematical approach to the basic chords and melodic shapes, which can be applied to just about any song — which is what he does.
That said, I don’t think it is a system that someone else can learn to use — it is hardly insignificant that there are twenty years of touring and music making between the time he first learned it and when he understood how to put it to use. It has taken him those years to gain the musicianship (and perhaps also the need for routine which persistent touring must bring with it) which he then could cross-fertilize with what Lonnie Johnson had told him, to produce his new method. In other words: I think Dylan should receive more of the credit for it than Lonnie.