Staff Top 10
Top Ten Dylan Harmonica Solos

got to be an important person to be in here honey
Got to have done some evil deeds
Got to have your own harem when you come in the door
Got to play your harp ‘til your lips bleed

We should all be grateful that the early pairing of Dylan’s nasal, serrated voice with a harmonica was mandated by the folksinger idiom. Dylan’s abrasiveness obscures the pragmatic beauty of his best melodies, but the more fortunate tunes he rescues, harmonica swooping down like a superhero’s alter-ego. Prodded into action by the above lyric from “Sweetheart Like You” and the distant memory of a single note solo held in space for a limpid eternity, I leafed through the Dylan catalogue through a long night, spooked on the live Bootleg tracks by ambient audience noise and the sound of the corner of Dylan’s guitar bumping into the mic stand.

On many tracks, Dylan’s harp is little more than an interlude, a respite from the lyrical barrage. But on the songs below, the harmonica sings with a gasping sweetness that sets Dylan’s gruffness in sharp relief. For a brief minute, and usually less, Dylan actually sings to us.

10. “Baby Please Don’t Go” (No Direction Home outtakes)
Huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf, Dylan casts the harmonica as the hellhound on his trail, ending with a long-drawn wail that becomes a leitmotif in Dylan’s solos. Like his singing, Dylan’s playing is more excitable and eager than it is musically deft, but the sheer energy of it all wouldn’t be matched ‘til the rock-star swaggering of Dylan’s 1974 tour with The Band.

09. “On the Road Again” (Bringing It All Back Home)
Each verse compounds sardonic exasperation with snotty, adolescent mystification (“I ask for something to eat, I’m hungry as a hog / So I get brown rice, seaweed, and a dirty hide dog”), until Dylan can say nothing except with his harmonica, which blows a snide, chuckling refrain. Dylan later fathered a long line of pissy diatribes (see “Idiot Wind,” “Like a Rolling Stone”) but none deploy his sneering harmonica to such effect.

08. “I Shall Be Free” (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan)
Before the Newport brouhaha, Dylan didn’t so much take an axe to his carefully constructed folksinger persona as poke it, prod it, and rearrange it until he resembled a Picasso vision of folk, eyes sliding around his head and a smile no one knew what to do with. The harmonica on “I Shall Be Free” mines the same seam: fundamentally it’s a straightforward accompaniment to a simple folksong, only its grown legs and a smile, showing up in odd places, getting odd looks, and putting people off their conversations. And when Dylan goes “Ooohoohooh” in mid-solo, the smile winds up on your face too.

07. “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” (The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3).
Dylan gilds his riff on anti-communism with a juicy nugget of pure, blissful paranoid certainty, an eminently whistleable little theme that mixes equal parts heartland naiveté and all-American patriotism. It’s one of the best examples of harmonica-as-character in a Dylan narrative: Dylan’s fearful but undaunted sleuth merges with the harmonica as Dylan spits out codas between jaunty blasts of the coda (“It was the mailman… he punched me out…”).

06. “Just Like a Woman” (Blonde on Blonde)
Blonde on Blonde was a new kind of album, and Dylan stepped up his harp playing to match, allowing the melody to condense around a single solo, rather than treating the instrument as a means of catching his breath between verses. The introduction is languid and bittersweet, modeling Dylan’s most soulful tune like a skinny French woman on a plank. But it’s in the closing bars that Dylan lets himself really show off, unleashing a solo both plaintive and sublime, recapitulating not just the song’s melody, but its air of breezy, bright heartbreak.

05. “Blowin’ in the Wind” (No Direction Home bootlegs)
The most explicit version of the inherent comparison between Dylan’s reedy, thin voice and the harmonica, this live take sees Dylan lend his harp verses more generously than he ever did Baez or anyone else. He gives us the melody ostinato, defiantly sweet, sweetly defiant, and rendered with greater clarity and sensitivity than his blunt, splintered-wood phrasing will permit.

04. “To Ramona” (“Halloween” 1964 Bootleg Vol. 6)
“Ramona” is a relatively minor song: funereal, even plodding. Which only makes the contrast with the glorious, perfect solo lying in wait two-thirds of the way through all the more unwonted and astonishing. Dylan tips his hand slightly with a strident four bar introduction, but then sets to work on the words with the attention to detail of a man who had just written “Gates of Eden.” Then he picks up the melody, makes torrid, flagrant love to it for a verse, and packs the song away like a workman closing a toolbox.

03. “Tangled Up in Blue” (Blood on the Tracks)
Nary a puff at the harmonica until the last 40 seconds of one of his greatest songs, when Dylan pours all the bitterness and homeless longing of his divorce into a wordless, hauntingly joyful dirge, beautiful enough to draw tears, but over before its barely begun. The solo abandons the melody entirely, reaching outwards further and further, ending too soon to offer anything but a hint of a vision of a future beyond the omnipresent ending.

02. “Mr. Tambourine Man” (“Royal Albert Hall” 1966 Bootleg Vol. 4)
Dylan never cut loose more than this, the prospect of setting his cutthroat band on the resentful English seeping through the joints of his acoustic set. Beating at the limits of the song, wandering dangerously close to a sort of Steve Vai approach to the harp, manufacturing rhythm and throwing everything within reach at the wall, the song features, if not necessarily the best harp solo, two of the most extraordinary, virtuoso Dylan moments on record.

01. “Every Grain of Sand” (Shot of Love)
Dylan’s Christian-era sermonizing is, barring the more apocalyptic fire-and-brimstone material, mostly a drag. “Every Grain of Sand” is no exception. It has a pretty, if trite, lyrical conceit, but its harp solo redeems this all-but damned song—stultified, doctrinal, sleepily lacking any of the fire found elsewhere on the evangelical Dylan. Liquid, iridescent, Dylan upstages himself so badly that it’s a serious drag when he begins singing again. But like a benevolent god, Dylan lets us have a second bite at the cherry before letting the song exhaust its maudlin journey.

By: Andrew Iliff
Published on: 2007-01-19
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