“What I learned from Lonnie Johnson”

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

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.


6 thoughts on ““What I learned from Lonnie Johnson”

  1. I passed the section in the book after he talks about it, and I was racking my mind for the longest time trying to find out what he was talking about. I showed the passage to friends, and my dad, who is an expert of sorts when it comes to music theory. He found several other websites, blogs, and forums on the internet that have formed as think tanks to try to figure out this technique he describes. I even got some Lonnie Johnson CDs to see if it would bring anything new to light.

    I haven’t figured it out…

  2. I’ve pondered on this awhile, and for some reason I thought of Leonard Cohen. On a lot of Cohen’s songs, like “Last Year’s Man”, you’re easily forgiven if you swing back and forth between a 4/4 time and 3/4 time, like waltzing into a swing, and then swinging back to a waltz. Maybe Dylan is referring to something similar, in terms of phrasing and tempo. I doubt this is the answer, and your idea fits better, but it’s something to think on.

  3. this is really interesting stuff,

    i read the book too and it really leaves a lot to be desired about the information he alludes to.

    you do a perfect job with all the chords on one page like that and it helps me, say when someone’s going to put a dylan cd on and then someone else tells me to play it on the guitar instead. your page helped with that.

    so thanks.

    when unable to understand, i take it as an intuitive in the bones thing, about the number three.

  4. Isn’t the riffing on guitar very similar to the NET harmonica style? The two/three note repeat?

  5. Yes, it certainly is. I was coming to that in some later post, the way this new style has become his guiding light (or crutch) in all areas: singing, guitar playing, and harping.

  6. I always took the “mathematical” references, at least as far as the guitar, to simply mean barre chords. I know that sounds simplistic, but given Dylan’s age/experience at the time, plus his reference of mainly folk & old time musice (open chords), this could’ve been very enlightening for him. Also, the sharp / flat / major roughly equates to the “odd and even” numbers (fret) reference. I seem to recall an interview (I think it was ACOUSTIC GUITAR magazine) where Dylan states he doesn’t worry about keys, he plays all his chords the same way, just up & down the neck. Fascinating subject…but I suspect its just more “Dylanspeak” than music theory.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


*