PRINT November 2006


Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour

BOB DYLAN KNOWS a lot of songs. His own extensive—and wordy—catalogue aside, the covers he performed live between 1988 and 2000 alone take up nine CDs. This is nothing new—Dylan has been absorbing everyone else’s repertoire since before his 1962 debut album, Bob Dylan, which combined songs and arrangements he had learned from Eric von Schmidt, Dave Van Ronk, and others. In the oral history of the folk revival Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, von Schmidt describes a typical visit from Dylan back in the day: “He wasn’t much interested in playing; he wanted to listen. So I played. . . . It was something, the way he was soaking up material in those days—like a sponge and a half. Later somebody said, ‘Hey, Bob’s put one of your songs on his album.’”

Since May, Dylan has been using his preternatural memory in a new way, as DJ for a show on XM Satellite Radio, Theme Time Radio Hour with Your Host Bob Dylan. Once a week, he draws on his wide and deep knowledge of American pop music for a show based around a theme such as weather, mothers, drinking, baseball, coffee. He introduces and comments on every track he plays, and he frequently quotes a line or two from the lyrics, which makes the fragment suddenly sound like a Dylan song. Is it because of his wry rasp that these words sound like his own? Or maybe we are witnessing the sponge and a half in action: He might well be soaking up new material before our ears, collecting words and phrases and rhymes that will later reappear in his own music.

But on display in the XM show is not just Dylan the magpie who has stolen everyone’s riffs—there’s also Dylan the archivist and even theorist of Americana. This is Dylan as successor to Harry Smith, whose landmark three-volume Anthology of American Folk Music, issued in 1952, helped shape the folk revival, including Dylan’s own early songwriting. In Greil Marcus’s vivid phrase, the anthology projected an “old, weird America” into the Eisenhower years—an America that had all but ceased to exist, in Smith’s own reckoning, by 1932, the cutoff date for the recordings he included.

Theme Time Radio Hour neatly picks up where Smith left off—the songs Dylan plays generally range from the New Deal to the mid-1960s, though there are a few unexpected contemporary ringers, such as Jonathan Richman and Beck. Interspersed are bits of old radio ads and lines from classic movies, which combine with Dylan’s weakness for corny one-liners (such as “She’s been married so many times she’s got rice marks on her face”; “What do you do if you miss your mother-in-law? Reload. Try again.”) to create an overall effect of time travel to another era of entertainment—not unlike the pencil mustache Dylan has been sporting of late.

Probably the best description of the music on the show
comes from Dylan’s memoir,
 Chronicles, Volume One (2004).
 Miserable during the New 
Orleans recording sessions for 
his 1989 album, Oh Mercy, 
Dylan consoled himself with
the radio, which, he recalls,
 “filled me with inner peace 
and serenity and would upend 
all my frustration.” The music was
 exactly what Dylan plays on Theme Time
 Radio Hour: “Mostly early rhythm and
blues and rural South gospel music . . .
Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown, Ivory Joe Hunter, Little Walter, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Chuck Willis, all the greats. . . . There was a country radio station, too, that came on early, before daylight, that played all the ’50s songs, a lot of Western Swing stuff.” The New Orleans station WWOZ was, Dylan writes, “the kind of station I used to listen to late at night growing up, and it brought me back to the trials of my youth and touched the spirit of it.”

The nostalgia of Theme Time Radio Hour, however, is less a longing for the actual past than a recasting of history on the Harry Smith model: nostalgia for an America that never existed until Dylan articulated it through a collection of songs. Dylan re-creates an era vastly different from the segregated cold-war years he escaped via Smith, Woody Guthrie, Club 47, and Greenwich Village. He gives us instead a ’40s and ’50s populated by “all the greats”: an eccentric show-business world both black and white, which stretches from Memphis Minnie to Tiny Tim, from big bands to jump blues to Texas swing to pop crooners and back again.

Smith and folk music in general had showed Dylan another side of American song, and therefore of American society—one home to gamblers, drunkards, wayward girls, and desperate boys—and it seems Dylan has found the continuation of this spirit not so much in the content of the songs of the ’40s and ’50s as in the characters of their writers and performers. The colorful and checkered careers of the musicians played on Theme Time Radio Hour furnish Dylan and his producer, the comedy writer Eddie Gorodetsky, with anecdotes that make even someone as normal as Frank Sinatra into a bit of the “old, weird America.” Performers lead out-of-the-ordinary lives, after all. That’s the circus Dylan ran away to join.

Then there’s the sweet nostalgia for escape itself. As Dylan counsels one Jamie Christenson, who wrote in asking for advice because the radio keeps her boyfriend up at night: “Well, Jamie, you should do what I used to do. When I was supposed to be asleep, I’d take the bedside radio and slip it under my pillow. Press your ear close to the pillow—which is what you’re supposed to do with pillows anyway—and listen to the second game of the doubleheader without bothering anybody else in the house. Millions upon millions used to do the same thing, back when radio was king. And I hope you still do that with Theme Time Radio Hour, your private pillow pal. Thanks for your letter. Press your ear up close to the pillow, Jamie!”

A musician and writer, Damon Krukowski is co-publisher of Exact Change.