Take One: Bob Dylan – ‘Hero Blues’ 1963-1974 ‘Find Somebody To Fight’

by | Oct 25, 2018 | 0 comments

Bob Dylan’s ‘Hero Blues’ is a composition which surprisingly
never found a home on an official release. Even though the song was
never destined for Dylan’s mainstream audience, it retains a mystical history
and important slot in Dylan’s colossal discography. Originally recorded on
December 6, 1962 for the LP The Freewheelin’
Bob Dylan,
the tune has taken on a number of permutations over its varied existence.
Dylan recorded studio versions on both piano and guitar with
both featuring his trademark harmonica. The song, while immortalized in the
studio also made a few limited live appearances with the early definitive
version hailing from the famed Town Hall concert on April 12, 1963 recorded
shortly after one of its studio attempts. 
Today in the ‘rock room’ I am listening to the version featured on the Bootleg
Series Volume 9
 , The Witmark demos (the guitar/harp rendition recorded in 1963)
which has in turn led me through the song’s life, including its
return to the live stage for a limited time on the Bob Dylan and the Band 1974
tour after a ten year absence.
As previously mentioned, ‘Hero Blues’ and its compositional
metamorphosis was never available on an official release for a number of years.
It did leak out on some bootlegs for the hardcore. But with the release of
the Bootleg Series Volume 9, The Witmark
Demos
in 2010 and with the rare and hard to find European Copyright Collection in 2012, a studio
glimpse has given fans insight into the song and its recording process. With
both of the above releases taken into account three takes (1, 2 and 4) from the
December 1962 sessions, and the publishing demo from 1963 are available for
enjoyment.  The piano version has not yet
seen an official release but was run-through during the sessions for The Times They Are A Changin’.
Content wise, the song is based around a theme which Dylan
had played within other compositions; the need for a man to be a fighter in
both war and domesticity so his woman has something to be proud of. The lyrics contain an attitude that Dylan asserts
through his narrator that the most important thing to his girl/love interest is
that her man be a hero, hence the song’s title.  

The narrator believes that his ‘gal’ may have too much going
on in her head and feels the need to live up to some invisible social standard
which he too must strive for. ‘She reads too many books, she’s got nails inside
her head, she won’t be satisfied until I end up dead’.  Association with celebrity, or in this case
more importantly with someone who is putting their life on the line, portrays honor is how the ‘girl’ in ‘Hero Blues’ relates to others. Looking
through the lens of how others see us is the crux of the song, but with the
Dylan twist of how others see us can be based on our accomplishments or more
importantly our representations.
The three takes recorded in preparation for the Freewheelin’ album are all similar in
scope with the exception of take 4 lacking the ‘books’ verses. Each respective
verse is separated by a simple descending plucked guitar lick. Dylan varies his
just slightly with each take with the final take having more ‘aggressive’
vocals.  It has been speculated that
‘Hero Blues’ was tabbed for the Freewheelin’
record but was bumped in favor of ‘One to Many Mornings’. Fingerprints of
other Dylan compositions from the same era can be discerned in ‘Hero Blues’ cuts
like ‘It Ain Me Babe’ dip from the same well of influence.
The version on piano and harp from 1963 has its own unique charm and is an all time favorite of the ‘rock
room’.  Highlighted by Dylan’s rickety
boogie-woogie piano, the song cooks and blows steam with Dylan’s well timed
harp blasts. The tune begins with the aforementioned wining harp and Dylan
setting the rolling groove with his eclectic piano playing. The lyrics have
been updated with the second and third verses differing slightly. I love the
character of the piano reading as the tempo wobbles, the harp squeals and Dylan
bites.  

The publishing version from May 1963 stays close to the
original studio arrangement and also features guitar and harmonica. This
publishing performance closely follows the song’s live premier in April of 1963
at the famed Town Hall concert in NYC. That the song was worked out in a number
of different ways illustrates that Dylan did have plans for the track whether
on one of his LP’s, or for a contemporary artist to issue a cover version.
When Dylan premiered
the song live on April 12, 1963 at the aforementioned Town Hall concert, he
prefaced the tune with, ‘This is for
all the, uh, boys that know girls that want ’em, uh, to go out and get
themselves killed.
’ What follows is stunning, as Dylan plays a definitive
version, with hearty breathy vocals and a youthful investment. The song unfolds
patiently with Dylan’s harp blasts answering each verse. Stunning. A must hear, as is the
entire Town Hall performance.  When Dylan
concluded ‘Hero Blues’ that evening the composition was then inexplicably shelved;
obscured for more than a decade under the weight of what was arguably Dylan’s
most prolific composing era.
Much later, in typical Dylan fashion, he unearthed the song
for his 1974 tour set list. The series of dates was Dylan’s return to the road
for the first time since 1966. While ‘Hero Blues’ appearance only lasted for
two shows, it was used to open both of the inaugural concerts in Chicago on January 3 and 4 1974 as a not so subtle commentary on how Dylan viewed his
return to the performing stage and how it was perceived.
Art imitates life, and the duality of the lyrics of ‘Hero
Blues’ when performed in 1963 and 1974 both relate to hero worship as both a
soldier becoming a hero by giving his life in war and to a lesser extent being
an artist/celebrity and being looked to as some sort of savior. In short, the
song became relevant to Bob once again but in a more personal way. This man was viewed as some kind of musical savior and was pegged with being the ‘voice’ of a generation he hardly knew.  The song had been birthed as protest and grew
into a commentary on its author.
Whereas in the early 60’s ‘Hero Blues’ fit right in with
Dylan’s early topical numbers, in the 1970’s it became an explanation on
‘Dylan’ himself through the eyes of Zimmerman. The circulating recordings of
‘Hero Blues’ from the opening Chicago shows are fiery and eager. The symbolism
attached to the song being the show opener is relevant. The Band is white heat, with
Robertson taking a number of clenched guitar breaks lending to the drama of the
performance. Danko and Helm walk in a honky tonk lock step with Danko’s plump
fretless bass thumps urging along the groove. This Tour 74’ arrangement is
reminiscent to the group’s ‘Hollis Brown’ musical approaches, a slamming
‘country honk’, with accusatory vocals and fiery attitude.
Similarly to other ‘deep cuts’ in the Dylan catalog (ie:
Blind Willie McTell, Abandoned Love) ‘Hero Blues’ made its appearance and then
disappeared into the graveyard of Dylan compositions not destined to be
featured on an official release. Since its final performance in 1974
the song was never to be heard from again in front of a paying audience. The
cut featured Dylan’s typically acerbic wit
in addition to his unique portrayal of relationships, hero worship and idolization.
For reasons never explained, Dylan often left the songs his listeners felt
to be major compositions to languish in the vaults. Fortunately for us,
there is documentation of these legendary tracks in addition to a critical
reassessment of these hidden jewels via the ongoing Bootleg Series.

‘Hero Blues’ Live 1974

Studio Versions

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