Review: “Bob Dylan In London (Troubadour Tales)” by Jackie Lees and K G Miles | Kenny Wilson

I am aware that every book I have read about Bob Dylan seems to raise more questions than answers. That includes this charming and well presented publication that takes us on a tour of Dylan’s time spent in London over the years. It’s full of amusing and interesting anecdotes and a remarkable level of detail for what amounted to a relatively short time in the city. In fact, it proves the point that London, and the people he met there, had a profound and important influence on Dylan as a songwriter. It’s set me on the quest to find out more about many of the things mentioned. Fortunately, it includes a map and a comprehensive locations list, so that’s a good start!

The book begins in New York 1962 when a young Dylan was spotted by Philip Saville, a producer from the BBC, and offered a part in a TV play Madhouse on Castle Street. Dylan was to play “an anarchic young student who wrote songs”. It should have been a breeze as it was a role he had been playing, more or less, since he first arrived in New York City in 1961 (along with “travelling hobo and itinerant singer”), but Dylan found the acting and reciting his lines really difficult. He ended up being given one line and singing four songs, including Blowin’ in the Wind which hadn’t been released on record yet. Not a bad gig since he received £500 (about £12000 in todays’ prices) plus expenses for it (and got a free trip to England!).

More importantly, Dylan became familiar with the London folk scene especially folk singer/guitarist Martin Carthy who drew his attention to some remarkable English folk songs including Lord Franklin and Scarborough Fair which he used in his own songs Bob Dylan’s Dream and Girl from the North Country. During his short time there he also met legendary author Robert Graves who he had a walk around “Paddington Square” with and tried to talk about The White Goddess, but couldn’t remember much about it!

He also did a few performances around London folk clubs and venues and even met up with some American friends and did some recordings at Dobell’s Record Shop in Charing Cross Road. He wasn’t particularly well known then and wasn’t very well received by some English folk club audiences especially the friends and associates of brilliant, but narrow-minded, Ewan McColl and the Singers Club. He did better at the coffee bar venues like Bungies, Les Cousins and The Troubadour where he tried out some of his new songs that would appear on his ground breaking second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in June 1963. This album actually refers to Martin Carthy on the sleeve notes. He also jokes about his time in London in the 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan. In the song I Shall Be Free No.10 he says about the guitar riff he is using “it’s nothing. It’s something I learned over in England”.

Ethan Signer, Martin Carthy, Richard Farina, Bob Dylan and Eric von Schmidt at the Troubadour in Earls Court

The following year Dylan was back in London with his own concert at the Royal Festival Hall. This time he was much better known, with two acclaimed albums behind him. Freewheelin’ had gone to No.1 in the album charts. Dylan was astonishingly prolific and influential. Many people were covering his songs and the concert was a triumph. It contains one of his best performances of all time and shows how he had matured as a writer. Astonishing that the entire concert wasn’t available on CD until 2015 and then only in a limited edition!

The legendary concert at the Royal Festival Hall in 1964

When he returned to England again in 1965 he was a big star. This time the London concert was at the Royal Albert Hall. The tour was filmed by D.A. Pennebaker in cinema verité style and has become one of the most acclaimed music documentaries of all time Don’t Look Back. It also contains what some consider to be the first “pop” video Subterranean Homesick Blues, filmed on the steps near the Savoy Hotel. This video features beat poet Allen Ginsberg who a week before had been part of an important and revolutionary poetry reading at the Albert Hall. After this concert the managers banned poetry readings at the hall for the next ten years! Interestingly, this concert was filmed by Peter Whitehead (Wholly Communion) who it is also claimed made the first pop video. Some commentators assert that these two events were so influential that they actually kickstarted the English Counterculture (Underground) that became so influential in the late 60s. American writer and critic Greil Marcus goes even further and suggests that the release of the single Like a Rolling Stone actually created the global youth counterculture! Certainly, by 1966, when Dylan toured again, he was considered by many to be the “voice of his generation”, a label he came to resent (as he also did the label “protest singer”).

A superbly laconic Bob Dylan in his video of Subterranean Homesick Blues. Looks like a great way to get some really nasty paper cuts! I think I would have worn gloves!

Dylan didn’t return to London until 1978 twelve years later when he did the hugely successful Street Legal tour and performed several concerts at the Earls Court Exhibition Centre.

I really enjoyed Jackie Lees and K G Miles book. There is a wealth of information in there and it is a great starting point for discovering Dylan and the times he lived in. I will certainly be visiting some of the places, especially Flukes Cradle, a café on Camden High Street. This was where the cover of World Gone Wrong was taken with Dylan wearing an elegant top hat. The painting behind him has got a wonderful story of it’s own! Get the book!

Cover of “World Gone Wrong

“A Folly Called Old John” by Kenny Wilson

Old John” is a famous “folly” at Bradgate Park, Leicester well known to people in the East Midlands. A great place to visit. It is built to look like a beer tankard!

Here’s a new recording of a song I have written and recorded about a building on a hill at Bradgate Park in Leicestershire, England. It is a strange building (known as a folly) that is built to look like a beer tankard. My friend Al Owens wrote the lyrics and I did the music. It was built as a memorial to a miller who’s name was “Old John”

A FOLLY CALLED OLD JOHN
Lyrics: Al Owens  Music : Kenny Wilson

Old John worked at the windmill 
On a hill in Bradgate Park.
John was there when the mill collapsed
In a storm; the night was dark.
Too long it took to lift the beam
That threatened certain death
And no-one in that howling gale
Heard John breathe his last breath.

Later on in that same year
The owner of the lands
Built a tower from the scattered stones -
He and his farmyard hands.
They stuck an archway on the side
Of that folly on the hill.
From the left and right Old John looks quite
Like a tankard you could fill.

Bradgate house has become a ruin -
Crumbling, ghostly, stark.
No Lords or Ladies dwell there now
And the public own the park.
Footprints of those darker days
Have faded out and gone.
Yet upon that hill upright and still
Stands a folly called Old John.

“A Poison Tree” (William Blake)

Here is my second recording in the Romantic Poets series. It is “A Poison Tree” by William Blake. I intend to do a few more from the “Songs of Innocence and Experience”. They are obviously intended as songs and are just the right length. Blake is a particular inspiration to me. In 2019 I went to an exhibition at the Tate Gallery, London of Blake’s art and poetry. It displayed the work in it’s original context, in book form. Some of the books are tiny, which is something I wasn’t expecting. Seeing the words and pictures together, in print form, really enhanced their meaning for me. It was probably the first time in my life that I really understood these poems. It has encouraged me to undertake far more original work of my own, a real inspiration!

I was angry with my friend; 
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe: 
I told it not, my wrath did grow. 

And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears: 
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles. 

And it grew both day and night. 
Till it bore an apple bright. 
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine. 

And into my garden stole, 
When the night had veild the pole; 
In the morning glad I see; 
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

Here is a remix of the song. I have taken out the drums and harpsichord and added accordion. Which do you prefer? Let me know!

Why Am I Living (I Ask Myself) by Kenny Wilson

Here is a song I have just recorded in my home studio. An old song of mine given a new treatment. All existential angst and swirling accordion, mandolin and guitars. I wrote it when I was 23 and it was a breakthrough for me. Previously my songs had been quite restrained and rather bland. With this I made my voice higher and tried to be more expressive. I developed a kind of method of unconscious writing. I was pleased with the result. It is still capable of shocking some people with it’s raw pessimism. It was inspired by the song “Father of Day, Father of Night” from the New Morning album by Bob Dylan although the meaning of my song is almost the opposite.

Dylan’s lyrics are:

“Father of night, Father of day
Father, who taketh the darkness away
Father, who teacheth the birds to fly
Builder of rainbows up in the sky”.

I kind of reversed it. My favourite verse in my song is:

“Father of Nightmares, Father of Dreams,
Show me an answer, say what it means.
I have been searching, I could not find,
I have been living deep in my mind”

This verse still speaks to me from my subconscious mind.

Great Central Railway, Loughborough June 2016

This is a video I have made of the time I went on the footplate of a steam locomotive at the Great Central Railway, Loughborough, U.K. An amazing experience. The music is my recording of the Jug Band classic “Mobile Line”. I learnt it from a record by Jim Kweskin and his Jug Band.

My trip on the Great Central. It was a WW2 reenactment day hence the number of British and German troops!