“The Ordering of Moses” and Robert Nathaniel Dett’s compositional output

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) was a popular African American composer who used spirituals and gospel songs as his inspiration for larger works. His works like the Juba Dance were performed by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, and Dett conducted and performed as a pianist in Carnegie Hall.

 

His 1937 oratorio, “The Ordering of Moses,” was seen in its time as controversial, but largely lauded. It was called “the most impressive Negro contribution to music” in the Chicago Defender‘s May 1937 issue. It combines “spirituals such as “Go Down Moses,” reworked into a fugue; the lush romanticism of Dvorak; a seguidilla-like dance complete with castanets; and jazzy inflections throughout.”1

When it was originally performed at the May Festival of 1937, the live recording on radio suddenly stopped midway through, supposedly due to scheduling difficulties, but in later years it is largely believed that too many people called in complaints about the composer’s race for the broadcast to continue. Dett faced much discrimination for this work, and he felt it on both sides. He was told his symphony was too black, and that he was too black, but other people told him it wasn’t black enough. Critic Olin Downes of the New York Times had this to say:

Image Courtesy of The Chicago Defender May 1937 Issue2 

The oratorio can be heard in this playlist below.

 

In addition to creating large-scale works that provoked conversation, Dett made plenty of statements about the difficulties of black composers in a largely white-dominated field. At that time, spirituals when composed and sung by white performers was more acceptable than black people doing the same thing, and Dett made it known the many problems that accompanied that mindset.  In the July 1943 edition of the Chicago Defender, he is quoted saying that black composers and performers should not try to confine to the popular, white and westernized version of songs that were originally from the black community in the first place. He also notes that the black community should “aspire to the top because of spirituals, not in spite of them.”3

Additionally, Dett mentions the difficulties of being a black person in the institutional music system. He says that many African Americans who graduate from insitutions with degrees in music aren’t able to fully cultivate their talent, because if they rise to fame they outshine even the president of the institution (on account of the novelty of being a famous black performer).

Dett’s work “The Ordering of Moses” contradicts his own statements in two ways. First, it conforms more to western European musical standard practices than to traditional practices in the black community. This is something he directly condemned above. Second, it helped him rise to great fame, rather than let him meekly compose semi-successful pieces. However, he did not seem to outshine the reputation of Oberlin University, where he obtained his degree.

There is more to the story, however. If his work had conformed even more toward traditional spiritual practices, white audiences never would have heralded it as such an inspiring and important piece. Then, he might not have gained as much fame and thus wouldn’t even have had an opportunity to share his opinions on the state of black composers and performers in the Chicago Defender. He played the game where he had to in order to balance both black and white audiences. If he hadn’t, he’d have been lost to history, and we wouldn’t remember his works or his name. So before we are too quick to judge the contradictions between his composition output and his musical philosophies, we should remind ourselves of the complex situation of being a POC in America. This should especially be taken into account regarding black musicians operating in a largely western European controlled system.

 

 

 

1 Amanda Angel, “Heavy-Handed Presentation undermines Cincinnati Symphony Revival of Dett’s ‘Moses'” New York Classical Review, May 10, 2014. http://newyorkclassicalreview.com/2014/05/heavy-handed-presentation-undermines-cincinnati-symphony-revival-of-detts-moses/

2 (1937, May 22). DETT’S ‘ORDERNG OF MOSES’ LAUDED AS RACE’S BEST CONTRIBUTION IN MUSIC. The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/492486822?accountid=351/

2 Alfred E Smith (1937, July). “Dett Sees Music as Potent Weapon Against Race Hate.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/492486822?accountid=351/

Artist Files: Tommy Dorsey , 1950-1975 © The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975.

Mahalia Jackson, Developing Hybridity, and the Inescapable Political Machine

Mahalia Jackson (from the Jimmy Haynes collection at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)

If I’ve learned anything from the past few years of music history courses, it’s that music of all kinds has a complicated and intertwining history. Music doesn’t exist in a bubble, and often, the development of assumed distinct musical genres depended on contemporaneous cultural and musical influences. Rock and Roll is no exception to this statement. In fact, this 1969 article from the Chicago Defender argues that Rock and Roll owes many of its musical traits from the Gospel genre. Despite the apparent disparity between Gospel and Rock and Roll, Earl Calloway, the article’s author, argues that the chord progressions and “uninhibited style of singing” found in rock music are derived directly from gospel music sung in church. Mahalia Jackson, who Calloway mentions later in the article as one of the first Gospel singers to break into pop culture, is a perfect example of this hybridity. In fact, Jackson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. Rock stars like Little Richard count her among their major influences and the syncopation that can be heard in songs like ““Move On Up a Little Higher,” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” served not only to popularize Gospel music (“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” reached the top 100 on the Pop charts), but as a foundation for later rock idioms. Take a listen to “Move on Up a Little Higher” and see if you can hear some Rock and Roll:

Article from Chicago Defender

In listening to Jackson’s recording, however, it is also evident that the Gospel style she used didn’t develop in a vacuum. Thomas Dorsey, who some (like Richard Crawford in his book American Musical Life) identify as one of the founding forces in Gospel Music worked and toured with Mahalia Jackson to develop the Gospel Sound. What is impossible to ignore in these recordings is the similarity it has to earlier Blues traditions. Mahalia Jackson drew inspiration for her vocal technique from the likes of  Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. However, instead of traditional Blues topics for her songs, she sang sacred music. Mahalia Jackson demonstrates the increasing readiness of popular music in the 20th century to change and rely on the music that came before it while influencing the music that would come later. While Gospel certainly was and is a distinct tradition from Blues or Rock and Roll, the interaction between these genres cannot be denied.

While the article from the Chicago Defender and the photograph of Jackson now housed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame demonstrate the complicated history of musical development and transmission, they fail to acknowledge another fundamental part of music: politics. Musicologists and musicians alike, myself included, sometimes like to think of music as apolitical. I find it all too easy to hide behind theoretical analysis and stark historical facts when considering the development of musical genres. To do so, however, is to help erase and negate narratives of privilege and oppression that infected all aspects of history, including our beloved music.  Mahalia Jackson’s recordings and life as a whole serve as an example of how music works as part of an inescapable political system. Her music was an influential part of the Civil Rights movement. She worked with Martin Luther King Jr. throughout the Civil Rights campaign and even sang at the 1963 March on Washington. By the very value of her identity (being a black woman in the 1960s), she and her music had no choice but to be deeply embedded in the social struggles of the 1960s. Click the play icon below to listen to this interview where Jackson speaks about her struggle to maintain Dr. King’s policy of nonviolence when confronted with egregious acts of racism throughout her career and in her personal life.

As interesting as Mahalia Jackson’s involvement with the developing hybridity of popular music in the 1960s is, equally important are her efforts to mobilize music as a political tool.

Sources

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.

Henry Pleasants, et al. “Jackson, Mahalia.” Grove Music OnlineOxford Music OnlineOxford University Press, accessed October 17, 2017http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/A2249902.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Mahalia Jackson.” Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Accessed October 17, 2017. https://www.rockhall.com/inductees/mahalia-jackson.

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Pop Culture in Britain and America: 1950-1975

 

 

Bird and Bebop Live On

When Charlie Parker died on March 12, 1955, he left a massive void in the world of jazz. While tragic, it was inevitable: a long battle with heroin addiction had threatened his life in the past. Though he didn’t invent the genre, he was widely considered to be one of the “fathers of bebop” who had galvanized the transformation of Duke Ellington’s “specialized jungle rhythm” into the virtuosic, intellectual, and cutthroat style of post-war jazz.[1]

Charlie 'Yardbird' Parker (1920-1955)

Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker (1920-1955)

Less than a month after his death, the national edition of the Chicago Defender suggested that Parker’s passing also signaled the end of bebop. The article claimed that without ‘Yardbird’ Parker “time and wear may render [bebop] worthless commercially.”[1]

While this concern may seem legitimate in the face of tremendous loss, modern hindsight rejects the notion that death can halt the development of musical style, particularly when that development stems from a genius. Parker, aside from being responsible for the partial transformation of musical sound, was also responsible for the transformation of musical thought. He revolutionized the way jazz musicians though about harmonic approaches to improvisation. He also drastically increased the use of contrafact composition (composing over existing harmonic material), expanding the framework in which jazz musicians could operate and providing a model for how they could develop their musical chops.

For all of the praise that the Chicago Defender heaps on ‘Yardbird’ for his contributions to jazz, they neglect to mention why this was his nickname. The answer is provided in another national edition five years later:

[2]

The anonymous author describes a person that, trapped within the gritty and difficult world of the inner-city, finds consolation in thinking about Bird and memorializing him through graffiti. For him, Bird (Parker himself as well as the nickname) symbolizes the ability to know “the freedom inside his head that allowed him to dream- and fly up, out and away” from the challenging circumstances of his life.[2] The author invokes the name of Dadelus, the Greek man who dreamt to fly away from his prison cell via his own ingenuity. Dadelus serves as a parallel to Bird, who used his innovative music to fly away the past and change the landscape of jazz, becoming a mythological figure in his own right.

With these two articles together, it almost seems as though the latter serves as a direct answer to the former. Bird’s music will not die because people’s dreams will not die. And as long as people continue to dream, the creativity and passion of Bird will be memorialized in both stone and flesh. The connection of flight and dreams as they relate to Parker remained relevant into the 1960s, as jazz musicians reacted to the development of the civil rights movement. As Bird did before them, they used their own perspectives to mold jazz into an expression of freedom. Bird and his music lived on, and will continue to as long as musicians continue to dream.


[1] Special. 1955. “Death of ‘Yardbird’ Parker may Affect Bebop’s Fight to ‘Live’.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Mar 26, 6. http://search.proquest.com/docview/492930917?accountid=351.

[2] F.L.B. 1960. “Bird Lives.” Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1956-1960), Apr 04, 1. http://search.proquest.com/docview/493786203?accountid=351.

Development of Folk: Pre-Civil War to Civil Rights’ Movement

Folk music is one that draws many questions from American music historians. Questions like, “who owns folk music?”, “where did these tunes originate?”, and “what is a folk song?”.  One perspective that is particularly interesting and comes to a strong conclusion is that the origin of American folk music is based upon African Tradition. An article in The Chicago Defender claims that from African Americans and slave music, the genre of folk emerged. The argument is that the melodies of African American music prior to the Civil war were considered true American folk songs. Some original, but also based on African traditional music. The English, French, and Spanish all brought their own style of song to the United States, so their music isn’t naturally American. Oscar Saffold wrote in his article, “There is, however, a real indisputable folk song in America, an American production, born in the hearts of slaves — expressing a part of the life of our country.” This can be argued against, saying that the music of the slaves is originally from Africa, but Saffold’s argument is moreover strong, in that the African American traditional music had a large influence on proceeding music styles such as the blues and then jazz.

During the time of the Civil Rights’ Movement, there were many protests in southern United States, to express the desires and rights of equality among people; To blur the racial lines. These protests were filled with demonstrations that used art to promote equality, and the folk song emerged as an effective protest song. This incorporated the melodies of the old slave songs, but with new words. For example:

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 1.16.50 PM

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 1.17.10 PM

This type of folk song is called a freedom song. It was used as a way to unite a community of people during the Civil Rights’ Movement, and was thought to communicate and express sentiments when words weren’t enough. This is tied into the work songs of slaves during the Antebellum South.

A poignant quote from the article says, “while there is no American folk song in the sense of expressing American life as a whole, still there is a folk song in America, and that is the music of the Negro” (Saffold). The roots of American folk music go deep into the history of the African American slaves of Southern American, and since, folk music has taken on many other attributes with the Folk Revival of the late 20th Century.

 

Bibliography

Saffold, Oscar E. “How american folk songs started.” The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967), 25 Feb. 1933. http://search.proquest.com/docview/492356076?accountid=351

“Songs seen Vital in Albany Demonstrations.” Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973), 22 Aug. 1962. http://search.proquest.com/docview/493909703?accountid=351.

 

Is jazz dying? “I don’t know”

John Coltrane is known as one of the world’s most skilled saxophonists.  As a jazz composer as well, his pieces fell into the bebop and hard bop jazz genres before incorporating modes and spearheading the free jazz movement.  He was never one to do the same thing twice.  He is also known for taking a theme or melody, stretching it out over a long period of time (sometimes as long as 45 minutes), repeating it over and over, playing it differently with each repetition.

In August of 1964, columnist for the Chicago Defender Louise Davis Stone managed to exchange a few words with Coltrane during the intermission of one of his shows.  She asked him a question that was on the minds of many: whether or not the jazz genre was fading and losing the interest of many of its listeners.

Coltrane did not give a concrete answer, saying, “I don’t know whether jazz is dying or not.  My records are selling well and I’m happy about that.  I have no fear about my music being too way out.  You are not going to find something new by doing the same thing over and over again.  You add something to the old.  You have to give up something to get something.”¹  Not having a firm answer can seem a bit disconcerting to some, especially to those to thoroughly enjoy the jazz genre.  However, Coltrane’s comments about adding something to the old has merit.  How else will an artist forge their own paths if they only cover exactly what has already been written and performed?

My_Favorite_Things

When Coltrane arranged “My Favorite Things,” for example (https://play.spotify.com/track/6oVY50pmdXqLNVeK8bzomn), he was not interested in performing it the same fashion as Mary Martin and Patricia Neway from the original Broadway performance (Sound of Music).  He turned the vocal line into a solo for saxophone.  The general “groove” of the song was changed as well from the original.  Coltrane added new things to the old, made it his own, and gave the track a new life and spirit.

To the modern ear of the time, these alterations sounded more new age than what they were used to.  That is exactly what Coltrane is not afraid of: new ideas and concepts that make the listeners’ ears perk up.

 

¹LOUISE, DAVIS STONE. “The Jazz Bit.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Aug 01, 1964. http://search.proquest.com/docview/493094849?accountid=351.

Mahalia Jackson’s Glori-Fried Chicken

Bach and Handel had the same eye doctor (who botched both their surgeries). Brahms went to a tavern called The Red Hedgehog every day. Debussy loved cats.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that the musicians we worship did not just compose, play, or sing. They were just like us. They had lives, they had other interests, and, in Mahalia Jackson’s case, they had fried chicken.

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Chicago Defender, October 31, 1970.

In 1968, Jackson, still at the height of her singing fame, started a fried chicken chain in Chicago, meant to be the black counterpart to country comedian Minnie Pearl’s own chain as well as a competitor to Colonel Sanders’s rapidly expanding Kentucky Fried Chicken. Though we now claim Jackson as part of our shared American musical heritage, the intended audience for this chain implies a more limited role for Gospel music in the 1960s. As an article in the African-American newspaper The Chicago Defender noted, the chain was “black-owned, managed and staffed and is hiring in the communities in which it operates.”

In this way, the chain was most definitely a product of the 1960s. In the midst of the Civil Rights Era, less than 15 years after the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education declaring segregation in public schools to be illegal, integration was still in progress. Black and white restaurants and neighborhoods, though not legally segregated, existed (and, in fact, still exist today).

In the end, even with her name, fame, and star power, the restaurant chain was a bust. Both Minnie Pearl’s and Mahalia Jackson’s stores went out of business within a few years. A final restaurant bearing her name (Mayo’s Fried Pies and Mahalia Jackson’s Chicken in Nashville) closed in 2008.

I don’t blame Richard Crawford for not including this story in our textbook, “American Musical Life.” There’s only so much you can include, and, however much I might like to say otherwise, knowledge of Mahalia Jackson’s Glori-Fried Chicken is not essential to understand Gospel music. But stories like this one put history in context and show the humanity and depth of musicians. They are people, just like us.

Go grab some fried chicken and enjoy a performance by the Queen of Gospel.


“2d Mahalia Jackson Chicken Shack Opens.” Chicago Daily Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1966-1973), Oct 31, 1970. http://search.proquest.com/docview/493558307?accountid=351.

Miller, Adrian. Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press. 2013.

Odetta Who?

When many people think of American folk music, some of the first musicians that comes to mind are Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie. Few people know of Odetta Holmes, known simply by her stage name Odetta. Her name isn’t even mentioned in the Wikipedia “American Folk Music” page! Most people know her as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” due to her influential role she played as an activist and blues/gospel musician.

Odetta in the Chicago Defender

Odetta in the Chicago Defender, 1964

[1]

However, Odetta started off not as a folk singer, but instead earned a music degree at Los Angeles City College. She went on to tour with a musical theater group performing “Finian’s Rainbow,” which was, fittingly, about prejudice. As she toured, she discovered that enjoyed singing in the coffeeshops late at night, infusing her music with the frustration she experienced growing up. In a 2005 National Public Radio interview, she said: ”School taught me how to count and taught me how to put a sentence together. But as far as the human spirit goes, I learned through folk music” [2].

Cover of Ballads and Blues

Cover of Ballads and Blues

[3]

Odetta released her first solo album, “Odetta Sings Ballad and Blues,” in 1956. This album would turn out to be influential for a certain Bob Dylan. He stated in a 1978 Playboy interview that “the first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta,” after listening to this album in a record store. He learned all the songs and found something “vital and personal” in her singing [4]. Not only did her music draw Bob Dylan to folk music, but she also met Joan Baez, another popular folk musician, and Baez cites Odetta as one of her primary influences as well [5]. Two of the biggest names in American folk music were influenced by a woman and social activist that would later go on to perform at the 1963 march on Washington, march with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, sing for presidents Kennedy and Clinton, as well as perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

I think that’s pretty neat

Ad for Odetta next to an ad for Bob Dylan in the Berkeley Tribe, 1969

Ad for Odetta next to an ad for Bob Dylan in the Berkeley Tribe, 1969

[6]

Odetta singing Muleskinner Blues, 1956

Bob Dylan Singing Muleskinner Blues, 1962


1.”Photo Standalone 23 — no Title.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967),  Jan 25, 1964. 10, http://search.proquest.com/docview/493137885?accountid=351.
2. Weiner, Tim. “Odetta, Voice of Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 77.” NYTimes.com. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/03/arts/music/03odetta.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (Accessed March 9, 2015)
3. “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, Expanded CD Cover.” 1956. wikipedia.org.
4.”Playboy Interview: Bob Dylan.” http://www.interferenza.com/bcs/interw/play78.htm (Accessed March 9, 2015)
5. Baez, Joan. And a Voice to Sing With: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009, p. 43.
6.”No Title.” Berkeley Tribe (1969-1972), 1969. 22-23, http://www.rockandroll.amdigital.co.uk/Search/DocumentDetailsSearch.aspx?documentid=1065486&prevPos=1065486&vpath=searchresults&pi=1

A Muddy link from Blues to Rock

As blues gained popularity through publication and performances it became blended with other types of popular music. Blues and rock music were obvious candidates for combination, both drawing on folk instrumentation and sharing similar subjects. In Chicago, which was a hotbed of blues music when many black musicians migrated to Chicago to leave the South. Possibly the most influential musician of the blending is McKinley Morganfield AKA Muddy Waters. Waters got his start at home in Mississippi when Alan Lomax traveled there on behalf of the Library of Congress in 1941 and again in 1942. Waters was later released on the album “Down on Stovall’s Plantation” from these recordings.

DownonStovallsThis recording shows us that Muddy Waters is a legit player of the blues from the south and would be taken seriously by white audiences in the North.

In 1943, shortly after Lomax’s visit, Waters moved to Chicago in hopes of making it big as a blues musician. As Muddy Waters made his way as a blues performer he made with friends with Big Bill Broonzy who helped Waters become popular. This article from Cultural Equity highlights some of the connection between Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy. Muddy Waters was put on singles in the late 40s and through the 50s in Chicago. RecordAdWaters gained popularity from recording Robert John tunes who had been on the blues mind since 1938 from the “Spirituals to Swing” concert in New York (Here’s a short RadioLab episode about this concert and Robert Johnson, it’s great!).

Muddy Waters became very popular in Chicago and was seen as a performer who was keeping the folk in the blues and rock that he was performing. Because he had such a close connection to the south and his history there. The Defender wrote an article to this effect in 1972. Muddy Waters keeps alive an Afro-American culture

Langston Hughes on African American folk

It isn’t very often in history that we read African American views on African American music. Langston Hughes, who wrote a column for an African American newspaper called The Chicago Defender, published several articles reclaiming African American folk music after jazz, the blues, and really much of American folk music was influenced by that tradition and style. In his poetic storytelling, and sometimes angry tone, Hughes gets at an issue of American music-that it has consistently turned African American folk music tradition into popular music, entertainment, etc. and reaped the monetary benefits while casting authenticity aside.

His article titled “Slavery and Leadbelly are Gone, But the Old Songs Go Singing on,” complains that African Americans have forgotten their slave heritage. “In 1963 we will be one hundred years free. Have you forgotten that you were once a slave? Is it a memory you do not want to remember?” On one hand, singers like Leadbelly could be popular because there was a certain time distance from slavery so that musicians weren’t judged “Uncle Toms.”[1] On the other hand, there is some tension as to how the folk music out of the slave tradition should be remembered, because clearly Leadbelly’s songs that embody oppression and images of slavery remember it much differently than revivals of the blues and spirituals during the 50s and 60s.

slavery and leadbelly are gone

Chicago Defender, 1954 click image for linked article [3]

In another issue, “The Influence of Negro Music On American Entertainment,” Hughes celebrates the pervasiveness of African American folk music in American music. “The Negro has influenced all of American popular song and dance, and that influence has been on the whole, joyous and sound…America’s music is soaked in our rhythms.” It is no coincidence that Langston Hughes was writing during the civil rights movement, when African Americans often re-claimed and re-defined their identity in an effort to create unity and political momentum.[2] Many of the folk musicians singing about civil rights, however, were white musicians making money off a style that used the folk idiom to appeal to the popular masses. Langston Hughes is quick to criticize this, calling into question the definition of folk music, how it is used, how it is remembered, and who has the right and responsibility to perform it.

langston hughes

Chicago Defender, 1953 click image for linked article [4]

[1] Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life: A History, New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2001, 746.

[2] Reebee Garofalo, “Popular Music and the Civil Rights Movement,” Rockin the Boat: mass music and mass movements, ed. Reebee Garofalo, Boston: South End Press, 1992.

[3] Langston Hughes, “Slavery and Leadbelly are Gone, but the Old Songs Go Singing On,” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Sep 04, 1954, http://search.proquest.com/docview/492889401?accountid=351.

[4] Langston Hughes, “The Influence of Negro Music on American Entertainment,” Chicago Defender (National Edition),(1921-1967), Apr 25, 1953, http://search.proquest.com/docview/492962325?accountid=351.

Bob Dylan the Movie Star

Who knew that Bob Dylan was in a movie? I sure didn’t, until reading this clipping from Chicago Defender‘s issue released May 23, 1973.  Announcing the premier of Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, the author gives a short summary of the film and introduces the cast, which includes Bob Dylan.  About the actors, he writes, “The cast is…truly noteworthy and Peckinpah acknowledges that the process of finding the right actor for the right role was painstaking work.” 1 Peckinpah was the director of the film and had experienced success in the past, and he comments on the cast of stars with newcomer Bob Dylan to the scene.  He says “It pays off…with a great cast like this it’s almost gratuitous to say you’ve got a lot going for you.” 1

bob dylan movie clipping

It appears that Peckinpah was perhaps counting on the fame of Dylan to bring the same success to this movie as others, as his acting is far from winning any academy wards in this film… and you can see for yourself.

The movie turned out to be a bust, and failed pretty miserably at the box office.  According to the IMDb website, it netted only $4.5 million in contrast with Peckinpah’s 1969 film The Wild Bunch which 4 years earlier netted $10.5 million. I find it interesting that the author of the Chicago Defender article, as well as Peckinbah, make no mention of Dylan’s musical contributions to the production.  After all, he provided much of the film score and music backing for the scenes, and perhaps the movie would have seen more success had it been advertised as having the music of Bob Dylan.

There was one success in the film, however, and that was the writing of Dylan’s original “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”  Coming towards the end of the film, this song covers the scene in which a wife watches her husband die of a gunshot wound, and the lyrics and emotion are poignant.

This song saw a lot of success outside of the film, being performed on stage by Dylan himself, and covered by many other bands.  Some people forget that Dylan originally wrote the song, most often hearing covers by bands from Guns N’ Roses to even Avril Lavigne.

The final question remains: Why would Dylan even agree to be in a movie in the first place?  I could see him doing the score for a film when hired, but acting was something he had never done before.  I think people could use this as an example of Bob Dylan’s willingness to sell out for money.  It’s been said that he started writing and performing folk music in the first place because he saw there was an audience for it in New York.  After “going electric,” he revealed that he didn’t really like folk music all that much and preferred his plugged-in style.  If he was willing to sell out his musical style, why not be a terrible actor for money as well?

 

 

1 “‘Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid’ premieres.” Chicago Defender. May 23, 1973. Real Times, Inc. Accessed March 8, 2015. http://search.proquest.com/hnpchicagodefender/docview/493996634/fulltextPDF/71673A8288A44921PQ/1?accountid=351