De Shields (Photo: Beowulf Sheehan)
Dylan's Philosophy of Modern Song
July 17th at The 92nd Street Y, New York, musical gold was spun as
André DeShields, Odessa Young, and Meshell Ndegeocello performed selections from
Bob Dylan's Philosophy of Modern Song.
Directed by Michael Amereyda, the listen-along
was proof positive that the best songs of yesteryear need to be dusted off,
affectionately parsed, and presented in live stage performance.
trio culled 10 chapters from Dylan's book, coupling excerpts from each chapter
with a live rendering of the song itself, and then an interpretation of the
musical piece. To kick off the program
and calibrate the evening's mood, André De Shields, dressed in a richly ornate robe,
read an excerpt from the text of "My Generation":
reality, you're an eighty-year-old man, being wheeled around in a home for the
elderly, and the nurses are getting on our nerves. You say why don't you all just fade
away. You're in your second childhood,
can't get a word out without stumbling and dribbling. You haven't any aspirations to live in a
fool's paradise, you're not looking forward to that, and you've got your
fingers crossed that you don't. Knock on
wood. You'll give up the ghost first.
You're talking about your generation, sermonizing, giving a
discourse. Straight talk, eyeball to
De Shields' expressive voice fades out, the band, led by Meshell Ndegeocello
who plays bass and sings most of the vocals, tore into the Who's song "My Generation."
Upstage a screen displayed a slide show
that enhanced the song's lyrics and crystallized the cultural moment when the
song was first released. After the song
faded out, Odessa Young added a few comments that dovetailed with Dylan's text:
"Each generation seems to have the arrogance of ignorance, opting to throw out
what has gone before instead of building on the past."
pattern of De Shields leading in with an excerpt from the text, then Ndegeocello
and the band performing the song, and Young acting as commentator worked well
in the program. Although De Shields and
Ndegeocello both brought their artistic stature and years of experience to the
stage, Young ideally balanced the program as an up-and-coming actress who
already has distinguished herself in film (Looking for Grace, The
Daughter) and television.
Young (Photo: Beowulf Sheehan)
a clever bit of stage business 20 minutes in, Young lifted a vintage record
player from a hidden compartment at her station to play The Platters' 1956 hit
song, "My Prayer," in sync with its time.
But before she set the needle down on the record's groove to play, De
Shields read from Dylan's text on how this soulful song was likely composed: "A
lot of songs written at this time had introductions built into them. If you have two songs and don't know what to
do with either one, you slap them together and the results can either be
catastrophic or illuminating." No question that the Platters' song has been an illuminating
one for folks over the years, recorded in "fourteen different languages and a
hit in five different decades." As the
audience listened to the poignant lyrics and music waft over the footlights, a
slide of Peter Paul Rubens' colossal painting, "Daniel in the Lion's Den," was
projected on the large screen onstage.
impossible to choose which of the 11 featured songs was "the best" in the
show. However, there's no question that
the audience seemed to lean in close for Eddy Arnold and Cindy Walker's 1956 single,
"If You Don't Know Me by Now," which De Shields remarked has "a lot of realism"
and serves as a "direct link between the Old World and the New World." Dylan imbedded a mini-bio of Arnold in his chapter
that notes: "Eddy Arnold grew up on a farm, but he also worked in the mortuary
field. He was managed by Colonel Tom
Parker, who eventually dubbed him "the Mortician Plowboy."
Young, as commentator, didn't quote verbatim from Dylan's text, she pointed out
that this song has a grass-roots vibe.
is where the story gets murky," André De Shields mischievously teased,
referring to "Strangers in the Night," the Frank Sinatra staple that was
composed by Bert Kaempfert, with lyrics by Charles
Singleton and Eddie Snyder. Although it
might be hard to sift the facts from the fiction on this iconic song, it did
top the charts in 1966, beating out the Beatles' "Paperback Writer." Little wonder that when the band performed
this classic, the audience came under its spell in a nanosecond, mesmerized by
its sweeping romantic notes.
Ndegeocello (Photo: Beowulf Sheehan)
program touched on the following chapters from Dylan's tome: My Generation,
Detroit City, Gypsies Tramps and Thieves, If You Don't Know Me By Now, My
Prayer, Dirty Life and Times, Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, Strangers in the
Night, Where or When, I'll Keep It With Mine, Good Day Bad.
show was a joyous and loving reminder that Bob Dylan is still alive and
kicking, and that we have much to learn from this master of modern song.
Dylan's Philosophy of Modern Song
on June 17.
The 92nd Street Y New York, 1395 Lexington Avenue, Manhattan.
more information on programs, visit www.92ny.org