Released in 1969, the Great White Wonder was the first bootleg album of an established recording audience to gain widespread popularity and sales. In 1985, Bob Dylan told Cameron Crowe for the Biograph liner notes about 1970’s Self Portrait:
“[It] was a bunch of tracks that we’d done all the time I’d gone to Nashville. We did that stuff to get a (studio) sound. To open up we’d do two or three songs, just to get things right and then we’d go on and do what we were going to do. And then there was a lot of other stuff that was just on the shelf. But I was being bootlegged at the time and a lot of stuff that was worse was appearing on bootleg records. So I just figured I’d put all this stuff together and put it out, my own bootleg record, so to speak.”
Dylan also said that Self Portrait was a way for him to push back against the media dubbing him the “voice of a generation” and the inability to have to live under that mantle and meet expectations. Dylan went on to tell Crowe:
“I wasn’t going to be anybody’s puppet and I figured [Self Portrait] would put an end to that…I was just so fed up with all that who people thought I was nonsense.”
Dylan wrote in his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One about this time:
“Stories were printed about me trying to find myself, that I was on some eternal search, that I was suffering some kind of internal torment. It all sounded good to me. I released one album (a double one) where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it.”
Self Portrait is certainly a hodge podge lodge collection: versions of old folk songs (e.g., “Little Sadie”), covers of contemporary artists (e.g., Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Mornin’ Rain”), and live cuts from the Isle of Wight Festival. Dylan’s vocal delivery changes between songs on the album, utilizing the countrypolitan smooth voice of Nashville Skyline and his “regular” voice. Sometimes both voices are in the same song (see the ragged rendition of Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” if you dare).
Confusion and disappointment followed the release of Self Portrait. Greil Marcus famously opened his Self Portrait review in Rolling Stone with the line: “What is this shit?” Since that time, the harshness towards Self Portrait has lessened as it fits the context of Dylan’s output in the early 70s. In 2013, Dylan put out The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969–1971), featuring unreleased recordings and alternate cuts, which recast and provide more context for Dylan’s work at that time. The original Self Portrait and Another Self Portrait underscore that Dylan was experimenting with the music that Bob Dylan traditionally released, trying different sounds, instrumentation, backing bands, arrangements, and voices. He was doing this with his own songs and songs by others, either traditional or contemporary, not unlike The Basement Tapes project in 1967.
“Copper Kettle” off of Self Portrait is a perfect representation of Dylan’s experimentation in this era
There are competing stories about who actually wrote “Copper Kettle,” though Dylan must have heard it in the folk music community of New York City in the early 60s. We do know that Joan Baez recorded the song in 1962, so he may have first heard it from her.
Calling music “experimental” today usually implies an abrasive, discordant sound as if a musical artist is attempting to sound like Sonic Youth. For Dylan in 1970, experimentation is not a step away musically, but rather a step towards. His vocals on “Copper Kettle,” while not the smooth Nashville Skyline voice, are warm and approachable in the way he savors the words he is singing. Dylan exhibits a specific vocal technique as he draws out the word “juniper.” The gentle way he sings “in the pale moonlight” shows a tenderness that previously appeared when he sang love songs. The subject matter of “Copper Kettle” is a long way from “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” but not far off in Dylan’s singing approach.
Dylan utilizes a string section on “Copper Kettle,” the first time he would do so in his career. This was not an uncommon practice for pop-country stars who recorded in Nashville as Dylan was at that time. But the “Copper Kettle” strings owe their sound not to 60s country-pop but to something else. Click the links or use the Spotify playlist below and listen to “Copper Kettle” at the 3:07 mark. Then, listen to the string section at 3:47 of The Rolling Stones’ “Moonlight Mile” from Sticky Fingers. A very similar motif. Now, compare those strings with the strings on Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing” off of Astral Weeks starting at 1:35.
“Copper Kettle” was released in 1970. “Moonlight Mile” was recorded in 1970 and released in 1971. Both songs must have been shaped by the sound of Morrison’s Astral Weeks, which was influencing everyone in the rock world after its 1968 release. The strings on Astral Weeks are supporting and commenting on both the instrumentation and the themes of Morrison’s written words, not unlike their use on “Copper Kettle” and “Moonlight Mile.” Noted above, strings were often used in pop music and pop country of the 60s, but we don’t have the string sound of Astral Weeks and everything else that followed without the strings featured on Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 classic “Ode to Billie Joe.” The string arrangement and performance are an essential component of that song, providing a spooky Greek chorus as a counterpoint to Bobbie Gentry’s straight-faced vocal delivery.
Dylan’s crooning and utilization of strings suggest an alternate path for Dylan, a countrypolitan sound that Dylan could have cemented and settled into a perfectly fine career. Dylan had other plans, though. Despite Dylan poking fun at the idea of an “eternal search” in Chronicles, he left that musical approach behind and sought out different sounds. Dylan only followed this avenue occasionally, until he fully embraced a classic mid-20th century popular music sound for his trilogy of standards starting with Shadows in the Night in 2015. The concept for those albums had its start in 1970 with the sound of “Copper Kettle” on Self Portrait.
Image attribution: Moonshine still recently confiscated by the Internal Revenue Bureau photographed at the Treasury Department. Washington D.C, None. [Between 1921 and 1932] Photograph. More info here.