Dylan on the Radio

Perhaps the most interesting thing on satellite radio has been Bob Dylan’s Theme Time radio show on XM, where he uses big themes like “baseball” or “eyes,” and builds shows around music that somehow connects to the theme. The idea for this show, which is worth listening to if only for Dylan’s raspy–voiced patter, may have come from a previous Forties–era radio program hosted by one of Dylan’s heroes, Woody Guthrie.

Besides the music which is extraordinary, the show is filled with great details. Ellen Barkin as the opening announcer is um...well, forgive me, but the woman has always moved me (for proof check out the film Siesta Mamacita!). The theme from seminal 60’s cartoon series, Top Cat that plays behind the closing credits is a fun touch. And all the doodads that Dylan adds—reading emails, old radio station promos, taped bits from other musicians—are a blast. Best of all, is that surprisingly, Dylan is a cool, personable deejay. And this from a guy who when he plays colleges these days, has his student volunteers instructed not to look him in the eye. His easy growl reminds me of 70’s freeform rock deejays who puffed on joints, gossiped about musicians personal lives, took calls from riled up crazies and generally followed their well–versed whims and played album tracks from all over the map. Bobby clearly has a second career option if he ever decides to give up his all–consuming obsession with being on the road forever.

For those who don’t have satellite radio or want a more permanent record, there are now a pair of U.K. 2–CD collections of selections from Dylan’s radio shows that are so worth picking up. Both volumes of The Best of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour (Chrome Dreams) have no official connection to Dylan or the show, but they effectively portray the variety of music that he plays on his shows.

Musically, the shows are, to use an overworked clich, “an embarrassment of riches.” Roots music in all its forms is the milieu here, and by and large, the selections are fascinating, a mix of the obscure like Buddy Johnson’s R&B number, “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball,” and more well–known tracks like “Shotgun Boogie” by Tennessee Ernie Ford.

Even better, these collections are sort of another concept in and of themselves. They mix selections from the various themed shows in an unexpectedly coherent fashion. These collections expertly create juxtapositions that while they may look abrupt and incongruous on paper, vividly illustrate the commonalities between seemingly disparate the musical forms like blues, country and R&B. It’s nearly unexplainable in words, but when you listen to a pairing like Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” followed by Guitar Slim’s “Bad Luck Blues” there’s something that just seems right; both songs seem to have common roots. It’s that old Woody Guthrie song about “this land is our land,” come to life. Other than some of the Yazoo compilations of 78’s, which tend to focus on only one genre or subgenre of music (i.e. proto–bluegrass “mountain music”), these are the most consistent American roots music compilations I’ve ever heard. They are beyond essential. And we owe it all to Bob. Is there anything beyond interacting with society that that man can’t do?

Jeff Glotzer's picture

Man, I reallllly wish I could hear that on disc.. Bob is still beyond fascinating, and aside from hearing about him dj, this provides hope!And then there's maybe one reason for owning XM Radio.

Dbag's picture

"his student volunteers instructed not to look him in the eye"can you say douche-bag?