–Editor’s note from American Songwriter’s July/August 2015 edition
Bob Dylan’s song “Fourth Time Around,” which is featured on his 1966 album Blonde on Blonde, is generally read as the American songwriter’s response to The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”. Dylan’s words are silly and playful, and come off as a parody of the lyrics that John Lennon wrote for his tune. The title seemingly refers to the boomeranging of influences The Beatles and Dylan exerted on each other in the early years of their stardom. (Dylan also turned The Beatles on to pot, another watershed moment for the Fab Four.)
“Norwegian Wood” was recorded in 1965 and represented Lennon’s first real Dylan impression. When Lennon first heard The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1964, he played it over and over. His songwriting would never be the same from then on. Even tunes like “Working Class Hero” from his solo catalog years later bear strong Dylan fingerprints.
“Fourth Time Around” is somewhat illustrative of the relationship between British and American folk and popular music. Throughout the centuries, the music of each country has played off each other in one long ricochet, almost to the point that they they’ve become two sides of the same coin.
American folk music really begins with the ballads of the British Isles, some of which go back as far as the 13th century. In this issue, we take a close look at the Child ballads, a 10- volume collection of more than 300 songs that was originally published in the late 1800s. Many of these songs made it across the Atlantic via oral transmission and took deep root in Appalachia, becoming standards in old-time music. These tunes populate the songbook of the “old, weird America,” as music writer Greil Marcus so famously dubbed it. “Barbara Allen,” the most famous of the Child ballads, tells the story of “Sweet William” who lay on his deathbed for the love of a girl who didn’t return it. The folklorist Alan Lomax said the song “traveled west with every wagon” during the settling of the frontier, and Dylan said it was the inspiration for “Girl of the North Country.” The tune is part of the DNA of American songwriting.
We also look at the influence of traditional Irish music on American folk and bluegrass. Nashville-based musician Tim O’Brien noticed the connection early on in his education. “My great-grandfather was from Ireland, and when I started playing bluegrass and fiddle tunes, I started thinking, ‘Oh, these are really Irish tunes. I quickly realized that Bill Monroe – who was actually of Scotch heritage – I realized that his bluegrass music, and Irish music and Scottish music, were very closely intertwined.”
Elsewhere in the issue, we break down The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, an album that was recently reissued in Deluxe form just in time for their current stadium tour. The Stones wore their American influences on their sleeve, especially where the blues were concerned. It is one of the ironies of American music that it took a bunch of art-school kids from Britain to really shine a light on the treasure trove of blues music that had been grown on its own soil. Sticky Fingers is the album that really showcased the influence of Gram Parsons and American country music. And three of its standout tracks were recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, in Sheffield, Alabama. A very American album, indeed.
For our cover story, we catch up with Noel Gallagher, formerly of Britpop titans Oasis. Many of the songs Noel wrote for Oasis (“Wonderwall,” “Don’t Look Back In Anger,” “Champagne Supernova”) have aged well and stand as high-water marks of that musical era. His new solo album is called Chasing Yesterday, a title that addresses the burden of making new art in the wake of having created something iconic. Gallagher, always a funny and frank interview, also offers some keen insights on the difference between American and British rock. “If Oasis were American, we would have been awful, because we all would have learned to play our instruments, and I would have been doing two-hour guitar solos.” And on the flip side, it’s okay for American band to go for the Brit sound … just don’t sing with a fake British accent.