John Troutman is the Curator of American Music at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. His first book, Indian Blues: American Indians and the Politics of Music, 1879-1934, won the Western History Association’s biennial 2011 W. Turrentine Jackson Prize for a first book on any aspect of the American West. His latest book (2016) is Kīkā Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music. For this third installment of our ongoing series, John Troutman talks to us about Dylan’s influence on his love of music as well as Dylan’s importance to music history.
What was the first Dylan album you purchased? What’s your favorite? Your least favorite?
I was first exposed to Dylan through Jimi Hendrix’s love for his songs. I was a freshman in high school, and burgeoning guitarist, and obsessed with Jimi, and when I learned that Jimi had been obsessed with Dylan, I began to explore his music. The first album I bought was Highway 61 Revisited, followed by The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
It’s so hard to pick a favorite, or a least favorite! His catalog is so dense and diverse. One album very close to my heart is Time Out of Mind. It is lyrically crushing, with arrangements consistently lush and gorgeous—the instruments drift in and out in such an organic and powerful manner. In terms of a least favorite, I suppose that Dylan & the Dead gains little play.
What’s Dylan song tops your personal playlist and why?
Although I think many of his early topical songs remain the most powerful, “Queen Jane Approximately” cast an early spell on me. Initially entering Dylan’s world with more of an interest in music than lyrics, I loved the rambling, jangly production of this song, and it led me to seeking out more of his work.
How many Dylan concerts have you attended? Describe the performance you found most memorable.
I’m not sure how many concerts I have attended—perhaps 12 or 15? The first was in Austin in 1999, and the last was in the fall of 2017. The week before my first show, my friend who owned a record store in town, took out a full page ad in the weekly. It featured a page of Dylan record covers and a simple message that read, “Thank you, Bob.” Apparently Dylan saw it or caught wind of it, and in the middle of the show, said, “I buy ALL my records at Jupiter Records, and you should too!” It is a rare moment for Dylan to say much of anything at a show, so that was a fun moment, during an otherwise mesmerizing show. The last show I saw, here in D.C., was excellent—I brought my 8 year old son. I love how his pedal steel player, Donnie Herron, is covering the horn section on the mid-century pop tunes and ballads that Dylan has recently recorded. As a steel player, I can’t get enough of it! And Dylan sounded great.
In no more than 100 words, describe why Dylan matters.
Once he moved to New York in 1961, Dylan surrounded himself with artists likewise obsessed with mining the extraordinary canon of American balladry, topical songs, and blues. Yet Dylan was one of the few who could remake those traditions into new music that mattered to large swaths of his generation. His music in that critical juncture, steeped in Civil Rights martyrs, villains, and heroes, and in the refusal of Cold War ideology, bound people together, provided their voice, and transformed their moment. In the six decades since, Dylan’s songs have continued to play unusually vital and enduring roles in our American songbook.
John Troutman will be visiting Tulsa on March 30th and 31st for the Dislocations and Migrations Symposium, hosted by COTA (Cultures of the Americas). He will be a part of the panel, “Bob Dylan’s Travels across America,” and will share some of his insights on items in the Bob Dylan Archive with conference attendees. The theme of the panel connects Bob Dylan’s travels across America with the wider theme of movement and migration.
For more information on the conference, visit the Gilcrease site or the Facebook event page. To register online, visit the registration page.