Bob Dylan’s day job

For the past two years, Bob Dylan has been holding court on XM Satellite Radio on his “Theme Time Radio” show. If you enjoy American popular music, the show is both entertaining and educational. Listening to the show, I have thought that Dylan must have help with both the writing and the play list, but Terry Teachout seems to think that Dylan is responsible for both. Teachout describes the premise of the show:

Each week Mr. Dylan plucks a topic out of the air — colors, trains, death and taxes, spring cleaning — and plays recordings of a dozen songs whose lyrics relate to it in some way. In between songs he chats about the music and its makers, interspersing his gnomic mini-lectures with a cornucopia of old radio-station promos, celebrity vignettes and phony phone calls and email readings.

Illustrating Dylan’s contribution to the festivities, Teachout quotes one of Dylan’s “crispt, pungent commentaries” on a recent show devoted to the theme of “doctors.” Teachout notes:

Toward the end of the show, [Dylan] introduced a gospel number by the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi by gently chiding listeners who turn up their noses at songs on religious themes: “Any time people sing about what they believe, it elevates it. You don’t have to be a junkie to enjoy the Velvet Underground song ‘Heroin.’ You don’t have to have horns and a pitchfork to enjoy ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ but it does help. The thing is, it’s all music, and when the people believe what they’re singing, it’s just better.”

Toward the end of his column, Teachout proposes other shows modeled on “Theme Time Radio.” XM actually carries a few other similar shows. XM’s “Buried Treasure,” for example, follows the model of the Dylan show. Tom Petty is the host. Petty brings in his favorite recordings and comments on them through the show. Petty does not display anything like the encylopedic knowledge of popular music that Dylan does, but he has a great ear, a good sense of humor and produces an entertaining weekly hour.

XM unfortunately killed another similar show. “Cafe Buddy” used to be carried on the channel devoted to American standards that was called “Frank’s Place” (in honor of Frank Sinatra). The channel is now called “High Standards” and Buddy Ladd has been relegated to duties behind the scenes. Ladd brought a fan’s passion and a scholar’s knowledge to the subject of Sinatra and the great American songbook. Channel producer Jonathan Schwartz is the son of songwriter Arthur Schwartz and himself a legendary New York FM radio personality whom I’d only heard of (his New York FM show is now carried on “High Standards”); Ladd is a producer and consultant to Schwartz’s New York program.

I used to listen to “Cafe Buddy” while taking my teen-age daughter to school in the morning and felt like I was making an important contribution to her education with the program. In 2005 Ladd devoted a series of six “Cafe Buddy” episodes to Sinatra’s recordings of Cole Porter’s songs. My daughter still remembers Buddy’s memorable discussion of Sinatra’s original recording of “I Get a Kick Out of You” with the lyrical reference to cocaine intact, though it was expunged from Sinatra’s later recording of the song.

Ladd’s commentary was smart and incisive. In part 5 of the Sinatra sings Porter series, Ladd mentioned that his favorite recording (I believe his favorite recording, period) was Sinatra’s 1956 rendition of “From This Moment On” from the 1957 album “A Swingin’ Affair!” (arrangements by Nelson Riddle). It’s a perfect recording of a perfect song that I had never appreciated before hearing Ladd’s tribute to it.

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