Triplicate: Dylan “uncovers” more of the Great American Songbook

Posted on 25 August 2017
By Martin Grossman
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In 1963, in the introduction to “Bob Dylan’s Blues” on Freewheelin’, his second release on Columbia Records, the 22-year old singer originally from Hibbing, Minnesota, said, “Unlike most of the songs nowadays that are being written uptown in Tin Pan Alley … this was written somewhere down in the United States.”

America was seeing rock and roll and commercial folk music challenge the popular song style of their parents’ generation. Dylan’s music came from a different place than those that were on radio and television.

The new songs on his second LP weren’t jazzy, or hip, they were relics of the old weird America immortalized on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. But as Dylan grew older, the immense catalog of his songs came to embrace everything—folk, rock, gospel, blues, Tin Pan Alley, and the Brill Building.

In a recent interview with journalist Bill Flanagan, he explained his fascination with the songs his parents listened to and the reason he had recorded three albums that document them. Including those on Triplicate, his latest release:

“These songs are some of the most heartbreaking stuff ever put on record and I wanted to do them justice. Now that I have lived them and lived through them I understand them better.

They take you out of that mainstream grind where you’re trapped between differences which might seem different but are essentially the same. Modern music and songs are so institutionalized that you don’t realize it. These songs are cold and clear-sighted, there is a direct realism in them, faith in ordinary life just like in early rock and roll.”

“Tin Pan Alley is gone,” he said back in 1985. “I put an end to it. People can record their own songs now.” Dylan may have helped overthrow the dominant style of American music in the 20th century but that didn’t mean he was ignorant of its place in history or that he didn’t respect the songwriting craft of those who came before him.

The Brill Building at 1619 Broadway in Manhattan was another step in overthrowing the dominance of Tin Pan Alley. It too had song pluggers, publishers, and song salesmen but it also housed talented young songwriters like Doc (Jerome Felder).

Carole King and Gerry Coffin, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Ellie Greenwich and Jack Barry, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka and so many others cranking out hits like “Yakety Yak,” Spanish Harlem,” “Up on the Roof” and “Leader of the Pack.” It was a hit factory providing songs primarily for teenagers who now had money to spend at the record shop.

Some artists expanded their range to include more adult themes. Doc Pomus (Jerome Felder) was the missing link between Tin Pan Alley and 60s rock. The writer of such great songs as “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “Lonely Avenue,” along with many others, Doc was a very successful songwriter and also had a great ear for the poetry of common speech.

As Publishers Weekly noted, “…from 1940s nightclubs where Pomus was the only white man around; hotel lobbies where Pomus spent afternoons listening for “the random brilliance of overheard speech.” And then there was the time in Pomus’s hotel room when Bob Dylan came calling, forging another link in the chain between the old and the new.

A few years later, even if you liked Frank Sinatra records, you were not likely to tell anyone about it. Rather than spend an evening at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion penthouse in Chicago, you’d much rather hang out in a Greenwich Village loft at a party with 20 people listening to white boy play the blues.

The days of Tin Pan Alley were surely numbered, if not quite over. The new commercial sound may have been rockabilly in 1956, but it was as commercial and made-to-order as anything written “up in Tin Pan Alley” in the immediate post-war period.

Folk singers hit the big time in the early 80s when it made the charts in the form of songs by commercial folk groups like Peter, Paul & Mary or the Brothers Four. They had little in common with the music of Appalachia. The Kingston Trio’s mega hit “Tom Dooley” sounded like bluegrass sung by The Beach Boys but they opened the way for songs that appealed to college students and their older siblings. Folk rock was the next logical step.

Enter the Bard of Hibbing. Bob Dylan was a persona, a self-invention who brought a cultural revolution. Even the Beatles and Rolling Stones were listening. Now nearing the end of his career, he is continuing to do the unexpected. He has earned the right to do it his way.

Triplicate in an earlier time would have elicited the same critical response that Self Portrait did in 1970. It was another “What is this shit moment” as critic Greil Marcus acidly “welcomed” Dylan’s Self-Portrait, which Dylan once dismissed as a way to escape the prison of adulation and expectation.

His “official bootleg” series not long ago released a version of Self Portrait that would have been less disappointing to fans. It included unreleased material and versions of songs that were less cheesy than many on the original album—little in the way of bloated string sections or musical clutter.

Unlike many rock musicians who have embraced the Great American Songbook, Dylan reimagines the songs without the usual strings and vocal drama. He inhabits the songs and delivers them with careful attention to what the words say. He makes them nearly new again.