Sunday, December 29, 2013

Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues, Bob Dylan (1961)

For quite awhile, I've been of the belief that just about every moment in time can be linked to a song in my mind. Usually, it's a song that I already know about; that would only make sense. But on Christmas earlier this week, I discovered my theory also applies to songs that I don't know about. Until I happen to unearth them.

It all began at my friend Jean's house, where a holiday feast was getting underway. Jean's 96-year-old mother, Virginia, and a friend from her assisted living facility, Marge, were regaling us with stories about the secretarial jobs they had when they were young women.

Ginnie was having a tough time remembering names of her employers, and it was bothering her, so I was taking the clues she was throwing out and Googling to figure out exactly where she might have worked and any other relevant details. In both instances we were able to figure it out, or most of it, anyway.

The one that is germane here pertains to her job as a bookkeeper for a beer distributor in Newburgh, New York, which is where Jean was born. One of the company's customers was the Bear Mountain Inn, a hotel and restaurant that had been in the area since 1915 (and still is there). The inn owed the distributor money, so Ginnie, armed with her ledger and her boss, took a road trip to collect. 

Somewhere in the course of looking up the inn, I saw a reference to a Bob Dylan song about Bear Mountain, entitled rather alluringly, Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues. What are the odds? If it was the same Bear Mountain, I had to know more.

Turns out in the early days of his New York residency, when no one knew him and he was swanning around Greenwich Village imitating the talking blues style of Woody Guthrie, his new friend Noel Stookey (later to become "Paul" of Peter, Paul and Mary) showed him a newspaper article about a chartered boat cruise up the Hudson River to Bear Mountain that had ended in mayhem because of counterfeit tickets and the inevitable overcrowding.   

The next day, as the story goes, Dylan came back with the song, which Stookey found to be quite amazing, since at that point Dylan had not yet fully emerged as a songwriter. Well, we know how that turned out for him. Dylan turned the folk music tradition of singing only songs that were handed down into something all his own - using his and others' present-day experiences as a crucible for his mad and often inspired creations.

The song, punctuated with his frenzied harmonica stylings and caustic wit, is hilarious, and in it you can see the genesis of Bob's distinctive phrasing, which has always been one of the aspects of his stuff that I most enjoy.

I hope the holidays have been bright with music for one and all!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is my new favorite Dylan song...hilarious send up of an actual event. I think of Dylan's songs as serious commentary on social to hear his sense of humor in song.