Thursday, July 30, 2009

Little Walter, Bob Dylan, and the Two Sonny Boys

Bob Dylan, in his autobiographical Chronicles, tells this story of Sonny Boy Williamson:
The only comment that I ever got [on my harmonica playing] was a few years later in John Lee Hooker's hotel room in Lower Broadway in New York City. Sonny Boy Williamson was there and he heard me playing, said, "Boy, you play too fast." [p. 257]
An interesting parallel is found in Blues with a Feeling: the Little Walter Story, by Tony Glover, Scott Dirks and Ward Gaines:
[Billy Boy Arnold] asked [Little Walter] if he knew Sonny Boy. Walter replied, "Yeah, I knew him. He was really good man, he was the best. He used to tell me 'you play too fast, you play too fast.' " [p. 89]
There are several possibilities here. One is that "Sonny Boy Williamson" really said that Little Walter and Bob Dylan played too fast and told them so. It is certainly true that the early Dylan occasionally played harmonica at a frantic, helter-skelter tempo.

On the other hand, since it is now clear that Chronicles contains generous helpings of fiction as well as fact, maybe Dylan appropriated this story to himself. It is a telling fact that the section in which Dylan's story occurs deals partly with Minnesota harpist Tony Glover, who is co-author of Blues with a Feeling. Also pointing to the fictional character of the story is the fact that the Little Walter anecdote refers to the first Sonny Boy Williamson, who died in 1948. Dylan's anecdote has to refer to Sonny Boy Williamson II, who died in 1965.

Therefore if both stories are true, then Sonny Boy I told Little Walter that he played too fast, and Sonny Boy II told Dylan that he played too fast. This is certainly possible. But I have to favor the idea that, given other evidence of Dylan's borrowing of sources, he also borrowed this one, without noticing that he assigned the saying to the wrong Sonny Boy.


Anonymous said...
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Søren Holst said...

Or perhaps he DID notice? The guy who once quipped, "God, I'm glad I'm not me" upon reading a piece about himself in the paper, and told an audience that he had his Bob Dylan mask on for Halloween, might enjoy dressing one Sonny Boy W up as another. (Not meaning to explain away his relaxed attitude to creative borrowing at all).

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ASG said...

This story reminds me of a phenomenon found in Biblical studies. In the biz we call them "doublets." The most famous example is probably found in Genesis 12:10-20, Genesis 20:1-18, and Genesis 26:7-11, three stories in which a patriarch tells a foreign king that his wife is his sister. First it's Abraham talking to the Pharaoh, then it's Abraham talking to Abimelech, then it's Isaac talking to Abimelech. In all three stories God warns/punishes the king for lusting after another man's wife. Ever since the nineteenth century, scholars have noted how odd it would be for exactly the same ruse to be used three times by two men on two kings, even though the ruse is unsuccessful all three times. Julius Wellhausen, the father of modern Biblical studies, came to the conclusion that several local versions of the same story were spliced together by the Bible's editors. (No doubt Dylan's autobiography is considered scripture by some!)

Unknown said...

When Bob Dylan was playing harp that well, Sonny Boy was at his peak and in Europe.
I am a big fan of Bob Dylan's harmonica playing (listen to "Single Grain of Sand') and am Sonny Boy Williamson II's biographer.
Sonny Boy II's genius was the feeling he put into his harp playing and the fact that he could play one note and make his point. Compared to Sonny Boy at his best, everyone played too fast.
On the other hand, Billy Boy Arnold only talks about John Lee Williamson when he talks about Sonny Boy Williamson. So you are right; these are two converstations with two different Sonny Boys.

Bill Donoghue, Host