Salute Them When Their Birthdays Come

Tonight is Burns Night in Scotland and it’s a commemoration of one of that country’s literary greats, the poet Robert Burns (above). Burns was born on this day in 1759 and his influence is still evident in parts of Scotland today. His poetry and lyrics were an influence on Bob Dylan, who chose A Red, Red Rose as the biggest inspiration on his own work for a music campaign a few years ago. Today’s date is also significant in relation to a number of other figures in Dylan’s life. 25 years ago, Albert Grossman died from a heart attack on a flight to London. Grossman was, of course, Dylan’s manager throughout the sixties. On the sleevenotes to his 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan writes at one point: “i’m standing there watching the parade /feeling combination of sleepy john estes. jayne mansfield. humphrey bogart”. Sleepy John Estes was a blues musician who was also born on this day in 1904 and his nickname came from his narcolepsy and not his fondness for shut-eye. The influence of Estes’ musical and vocal rhythms can be heard on a lot of the blues-influenced songs that Dylan released in 1965, including such numbers as Outlaw Blues and From a Buick 6

Four years after Estes was born outside Tennessee, an influential English folk singer named James Miller was born outside Manchester on, you guessed it, January 25th. Two of Miller’s most famous songs are Dirty Old Town and The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, though by this time he had changed his name to Ewan MacColl. MacColl wouldn’t seem to have been a musical influence on Dylan, but their paths did cross in the sixties. MacColl was part of the folk vanguard that was opposed to Dylan’s decision to abandon the acoustic world of folk music for electricity and rock music. Regarding Dylan, he claimed that he was “unable to see in him anything other than a youth of mediocre talent” and he felt that Dylan’s lyrics were nothing more than “embarrassing fourth-grade schoolboy attempts”. I’m sure that Dylan wasn’t too affected by these comments. In 1985, Ewan’s daughter Kirsty was making a name for herself in the music industry when she sent an interesting letter to her father. “I was at a party with Bob Dylan,” she wrote. “He’s still one of your great fans in spite of the fact that you don’t think much of him”

A singer for whom there was mutual admiration on both sides was Etta James. She turns 73 today, though it was recently reported that she is quite ill. Dylan has played a number of her songs on his Theme Time Radio Hour and she has recorded versions of Blowin’ in the Wind and Gotta Serve Somebody. At the other end of the age spectrum is another American singer who is following in Etta’s footsteps. Alicia Keys is 31 today and was as surprised as everyone in 2006 when she heard the second verse of Thunder on the Mountain on Dylan’s Modern Times album:

I was thinkin’ ’bout Alicia Keys, couldn’t keep from crying
When she was born in Hell’s Kitchen, I was living down the line
I’m wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be
I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee

Okay, it’s not one of Bob’s best, though it works a lot better when you hear the whole thing. John Cooper Clarke is today’s final birthday boy and he’s going to be blowing out 62 candles on his birthday cake later today. Clarke is also from Manchester and his arrival on the music scene in the late 70s coincided with punk rock. Clarke was a poet, however, and not a singer, but his vocal delivery was reminiscent of Dylan’s on Subterranean Homesick Blues. Clarke also adopted Dylan’s mid-sixties look and he continues to look like that today. Here are half a dozen songs for all the people mentioned in this post and it kicks of with a version of Dylan’s favourite lyric, sung by Eddi Reader who, like me, was born in August

My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose (Robert Burns) – Eddi Reader

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (Ewan MacColl) – Peggy Seeger

I Ain’t Gonna Be Worried No More – Sleepy John Estes

At Last – Etta James

Empire State Of Mind (Part II) – Alicia Keys

Twat – John Cooper Clarke