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Thompson, Richard

Subject: Richard Thompson and Dylan - new RT biography
Date: Sun, 04 Aug 1996 10:38:37 GMT

There is a new biography of British folk-rock singer-songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson, which contains some very interesting references to Bob Dylan.

Details of book:

'Richard Thompson: Strange Affair - the Biography' 
by Patrick Humphries, London: Virgin, 1996, 
386 pp., soft covers, ISBN 0 86369 993 6, 12.99 pounds

This is a very fine and full biography of the man who many initiates regard as Britain's best living songwriter, if not as the _only_ one in the British Isles who can hold a candle to Bob Dylan. Thompson's songwriting career began in 1968 with the group Fairport Convention, and has continued, through the six albums made with his then wife Linda Thompson and subsequent solo work, right up to the present day and his latest album 'you? me? us?'.

Richard Thompson (RT) has always acknowledged Dylan as a major influence, and the book is liberally sprinkled with liberal references to the older artist (the index lists 21 pages mentioning Dylan, and I counted up another 20). Fairport Convention covered numerous Dylan songs, mostly on the obscure side (e.g. 'Percy's Song', 'I'll Keep It With Mine'); RT has never officially recorded a Dylan song as a solo artist, but has remained a long-term admirer (his all-time favourite is 'Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts' - p. 278; a revealing choice, in the light of RT's own penchant for story-songs). The two of them finally met in 1991, at the 'Guitar Greats' celebration in Seville, Spain, and jammed on 'All Along the Watchtower' (pp. 279-80).

Those who admire the work of both writers will be most interested in the aspect of lyrical influence. RT has, curiously, never been hailed as a 'new Dylan', and there is no question of imitation or plagiarism. Like Dylan, RT has drunk direct at the source of Anglo-American folk song, as well as absorbing a vast range of other musical influences.

There are certain RT songs, mostly early, which do show visible similarities with particular Dylan songs - yet they are still recognizable Thompson compositions, with a distinctively 'English', or sometimes 'Celtic' feel, and turns of phrase that Dylan wouldn't have come up with.

Patrick Humphries says that Thompson started out, when still at school, by 'writing songs in the style of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs' (p. 29). However, he refrains from pointing out lyrical parallels in RT's recorded songs, except for comparing 'Little Blue Number' (a song about fashion, 1984) with 'Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat' (p. 235).

At this point I have a few of my own comments to add. The Dylan influence on RT's songwriting is quite clear over the early work and up to about 1974, and then, in my view, virtually disappears (although 'Folk Roots' reviewer Colin Irwin did call a track on the latest RT album, 'Put It There Pal', an 'Absolutely (sic) Fourth Street for the '90s' - or did he mean 'Positively Sweet Marie'??) (April 1996, p. 52).

One of RT's earliest songs, 'Genesis Hall' (Fairport Convention, 'Unhalfbricking', 1969) is pervaded by Dylan influences. It is about the confrontation of those in power with the excluded, and the terms of the conflict: 'The gipsy who begs for your presents/He will laugh in your face when you're old' recall Dylan's 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue' ('The vagabond who's knocking at your door/Is standing in the clothes you once wore'). The narrator foresees a time of crisis when 'I'll be there at your side in the flood' - a moment of apocalypse and owning-up which mirrors those in 'Down in the Flood' or 'This Wheel's on Fire'; and the refrain - 'Oh, oh, helpless and slow/and you don't have anywhere to go' - suggests 'Like A Rolling Stone' ('How does it feel/To be without a home'?). Despite all this, the song was, as Humphries tells us (p. 68), inspired by a concrete event in England - the break-up of a squat by the police - and, close to Dylan though it is, it does not quite come over as an imitation, thanks above all to the 'English' feel of the music and Sandy Denny's vocal.

Dylan echoes are also found on RT's first solo album, 'Henry the Human Fly' (1972) and his first album with Linda, 'I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight' (1974), although there is nothing that shadows Dylan as closely as 'Genesis Hall'. By now, RT had already found his own songwriting voice, and the audible Dylan echoes are transformed by their context. One of the finest songs on 'Henry' is 'The Old Changing Way', the tale of two travelling tinkers who quarrel on the road. It is not dissimilar to Dylan's 'I Am A Lonesome Hobo'. RT's narrator declares: 'Now brothers are kindred, but hard times betray/So we stumbled apart on the old changing way'; Dylan's hobo confesses: 'I did not trust my brother, I carried him to blame/Which led me to my fate of doom, To wander off in shame'. Both songs also press a similar moral: where Dylan has: 'Stay free from petty jealousies/ ... Lest you wind up on this road', RT offers us: 'You must share with your nearest till the end of your days/Or else it's forever you'll roam the old changing way'. Even so, the Dylan song is imbued with a dark American Calvinism (as in the implicit Cain reference) which is absent from RT's distinctively British creation. Names like 'Derby' and 'Tam' and phrases like 'divide our tin' or 'dear missus' point to a different world from the Mid-West of 'John Wesley Harding', to the nineteenth-century England of the working-class ballads and Thomas Hardy, whose poem 'A Trampwoman's Tragedy' also evokes the lives of wandering vagrants. In other words, this song already shows RT carving his own songwriting identity out of multiple influences, of which Bob Dylan is, however important, only one.

On 'Bright Lights', which is still often regarded as RT's masterpiece, Dylan influences are still present. 'Calvary Cross', a mysterious song which seems to be RT's invocation to his poetic muse, has the lines 'Now you can make believe on your tin whistle .../Scrub me till I shine in the dark', which may recall the 'penny whistle' of 'Desolation Row' and the line from 'It's Alright Ma', 'flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark'. 'The Great Valerio', a tribute to a famous acrobat, draws on Dylan's circus imagery, as in 'Like a Rolling Stone' or, again, 'Desolation Row': 'Come all you upstart jugglers/Are you really ready yet?/Who will help the tightrope walker/When he tumbles to the net?'. 'End of the Rainbow', a reflection on the disillusion of hope, contains a reference to 'tycoons and barrow-boys' which might recall the 'businessmen' and 'ploughmen' of 'All Along the Watchtower', as well as an embittered judgment on hypocrisy ('Every loving handshake is just another man to beat/How your heart aches just to cut him to the core') which seems straight out of 'Positively 4th Street'. However, these indisputable Dylan echoes are, on this record, simply that: conceptually, musically and vocally the 'Bright Lights' songs are the product of a British tradition of folk creativity that stands up on its own independently of any secondary US influence. Phrases like 'Silver moon sail up and silver moon shine' ('Withered and Died') or 'A man is like a three-string fiddle/Hanging upon the wall' ('We Sing Hallelujah') come from an Anglo-Celtic tradition which, though it also fed Dylan, is present on this album viscerally and directly, not through any transatlantic mediation.

After 'Bright Lights', I can find very little Dylan influence on RT's songwriting, except here and there - as in the title of 'Jet Plane in a Rocking Chair' (on 'Pour Down Like Silver', 1975), which sounds like an expansion of the refrain to 'You Ain't Goin' Nowhere' ('fly/Down in the easy chair'). All in all, my conclusion is that, except in such an early work like 'Genesis Hall', RT has, across his long songwriting career, absorbed Dylan's influence as the inevitable model for any songwriter in our time, but also kept the necessary distance from the master and affirmed and fine-tuned his own, distinctively British and original voice.

I hope this article is of some interest to those who admire both Dylan and RT, and also to those who still don't know RT. My full review of Patrick Humphries' book can be found on and

Any remarks, please email me!

Chris Rollason

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