Chapter 5
‘What I learned from Lonnie’

AN EXPLORATION OF SOME REMARKS IN Chronicles

WELL, WHAT IS IT – the musical style that Dylan talks about in Chronicles? The mysterious style which he had been taught by Lonnie Johnson in 1965 and then dusted off again when he needed it twenty years later, when his hand was severely injured and his heart was disconnected from his own songs? It seems to be important – to Dylan at the time, and therefore also to listeners who imagine they can wrest a little tangible sense out of the enigmatic bard.

But ‘enigmatic’ is the word also for the way Dylan presents his method: replete with references to numbers, metaphysics, and technical musical terms, but little or nothing to go by in terms of direct clues. When Dylan talks freely, he can be very eloquent, and one feels there is a profound insight behind the words. But once he starts giving examples, it all sounds quite mundane and very banal, and one is left thinking ‘Was that it?!’

And of course it wasn’t – it’s just that some people are better as poets than as teachers.

Secrets in the back room

Dylan introduces this system in Chapter 4 of Chronicles, which is really about the reawakening in the late eighties. He felt washed out artistically, and physically he was unable to play because his hand had been ‘ungodly injured in a freak accident, [. . . ] ripped and mangled to the bone’ (p. 145). Then, inspired by an anonymous jazz singer he happened to hear in a bar, he realizes that he already has the solution to all his problems: a specific style of playing and/or singing that he had known for a long time, involving some mathematics, some music theory, and some metaphysics, and which would always work.

I didn’t invent this style. It had been shown to me in the early ’60s by Lonnie Johnson. [. . . ] Lonnie took me aside one night and showed me a style of playing based on an odd- instead of even-numbered system. [. . . ] He said, ‘This might help you,’ and I had the idea that he was showing me something secretive, though it didn’t make sense to me at the time. . .

He had been talking about this before. The first time was already in 1965/6. During the San Francisco press conference in December 1965, he refers to what he does as ‘Mathematical music’, and in the interview with Klas Burling in Sweden the following year, he says:

Well you know my songs are all mathematical songs. You know what that means so I’m not gonna have to go into that specifically here. [yeah, sure] It happens to be a protest song . . . and it borders on the mathematical, you know, idea of things, and this one specifically happens to deal with a minority of, you know, cripples and orientals, and, uh, you know, and the world in which they live, you realize, you know, you understand, you know. It’s sort of a North Mexican kind of a thing, uh, very protesty. Very very protesty. And, uh, one of the protestiest of all things I ever protested against in my protest years. But uh. . .

Very very protesty, no doubt, but not very clear. What it does demonstrate clearly is that Dylan has had an idea about mathematical music already back then. Even though the context here is tongue-in-cheek, it might perfectly well be true that he learned something about this from Lonnie Johnson in 1965.

But what was it that he learned? If one wanted, one could go as deeply into this as one wished – the formulations are loose enough to allow for most any interpretation. There is a long tradition, going back to the Pythagoreans in pre-ancient times, of a connection between music and numbers. It is my contention, however, that

Before we step down in the material too deeply to get out again easily, a disclaimer is in place: a consideration of the potentially embarrassing possibility that this is just a ruse, a put-on – like it was (or at least appeared to have been) in the San Francisco press conference – a cleverly devised smoke-screen or just a joke on the fans who scour his every word in search of a hidden meaning here, a key there, an explanation anywhere; in short: that there is no such system. When he says, ‘This was just something he knew about, not necessarily something he used because he did so many different kinds of songs’ (p. 157) – isn’t that just a way of covering his tracks, in the eventuality that someone should try to find out what this invented system was by going to the source and listening to Lonnie Johnson? When the Lonnie patrol comes back again with a ‘Mission not accomplished’, he has the answer ready: ‘I told you, you won’t find anything there, ’cause Lonnie didn’t use the system himself. Huh. Huh.’

It is possible, but I don’t believe it, for two reasons.

One: Dylan is not a liar. Sure, he is a joker, a jester, and he loves carnevals, but he’s always sincere. Not that everything he has ever said or written should necessarily be taken at face value, but it is my impression that he never says anything just in jest, there is always a strong sincerity behind what he says, even – or: especially – when he is joking.

Two: it makes sense, and I don’t really care all that much if it is the ‘wrong’ sense – the investigation has been meaningful in any case. If it’s wrong, the joke is on me, and I gladly take it upon me.

It makes sense because, judging from what he actually says and comparing it with what he does on stage, what he is talking about is the peculiar soloing style that he has developed during the Never Ending Tour years: the little two–three-note figure solos that he has kept churning out and that at times has driven most of us crazy, but which also – in a strange way and to a surprisingly high degree – work, musically. Another outgrowth of the system is probably also the horrible mannerism in recent years, the ‘sing-song’ style where every phrase is reduced to one single tone which skips up an octave at the end of the phrase: it all fits his description fairly well, of a system of infinite permutations of very simple formulas, seemingly nothing to do with improvisation or inspiration, but a schematical approach to the basic chords and melodic shapes, which can be applied to just about any song – which is what he does.

Melodies out of triplets – Axioms and numbers

With that option out of the way, we can finally get to work. The system that Dylan describes can be condensed to four different elements: (1) a certain approach to rhythm and (2) melodic cells, (3) based on more or less esoteric considerations of the power of numbers, (4) which, taken togehter, makes up a formulaic system.

Where Dylan gets most eloquent is where the talk is of numbers. The problem is that he seems to glide between talking about pitch and rhythm. This calls for some untangling of concepts, and some caution in the re-tangling of them.

In either case, there is no easy connection between what Dylan says he does, and what one can hear him doing. Especially when he gets concrete. When he says:

It’s a highly controlled system of playing and relates to the notes of a scale, how they combine numerically, how they form melodies out of triplets and are axiomatic to the rhythm and the chord changes

– there are a number of possible interpretations, but also a quagmire of possible mistakes, on Dylan’s part and on the reader’s. One is fairly easily taken care of: ‘triplets’ is a rhythmical term, denoting the subdivision of a beat in three instead of two units. What he probably has in mind, is triads, the units of three tones separated by major and minor thirds, which have been the foundation of Western harmony since the fifteenth century, and which is usually called ‘chords’.

But other points are less clear-cut:

‘How [the notes of a scale] combine numerically’ – is this a reference to the esoteric tradition of harmony-of-the-spheres which goes back to the Pythagoreans, or simply a way of saying that there are certain patterns in the scale?

‘How [the notes of the scale] form melodies out of triplets’ (i.e. triads). Is this a reference to the triadic nature of melody in the western tradition, where certain melodic tones get a particular emphasis because of their structural importance in the triads? In functional harmony, a certain sounding chord is described according to which function it fulfills, which means that the same chord can mean different things depending on the context (see the ‘D’ in different versions of ‘Girl of the North Country’), or a chord can be called a G chord without even containing the tone G (see ex. ‘Blood in my Eyes’). As I’ve argued in some of the other chapters, the skillful handling of these features can be observed in Dylan’s music, but I still doubt that that is what Lonnie told him.

‘Axiomatic to rhythm and chord changes’. Yes, again: the relationship between rhythm and harmony is close, even though they are different phenomena. The pivot is ‘structural importance’, which is decided in the interrelations between triad and rhythm: a structural tone is one which is placed on a strong beat, but in some situations, a weak beat may become strong because it is inhabited by a structural tone.

This is fairly straightforward, but Dylan actually makes a much wider claim when he says that the notes of the scale are ‘axomatic to rhythm and chord changes’. ‘Axiomatic’ would imply that the notes of the scale are the fundamental building blocks upon which the system is defined, without themselves needing any definition within the system. This would mean that rhythm is inconceivable without a structured pitch hierarchy, which – as a general statement – is pure bullshit. He may be thinking only of his own system, but for an artist working in a tradition based so heavily on rhythm, this becomes a strange statement, to say the least.

Is this what Dylan means, then, or does he actually mean ‘triplets’ when he says ‘triplets’, and hints at some direct, mystical connection between harmony and triple rhythm? If that’s what Lonnie told him, he lied . . .

Rhythm: The Link Wray ‘Rumble’ connection

It makes sense, judging from Dylan’s singing style in the late 80s and early 90s, that he has had considerations about various ways to circle around the different rhythmical strata in a song. When he says, ‘With any type of imagination you can hit notes at intervals and between backbeats, creating counterpoint lines and then you sing off of it’ (p. 158), this is almost verbatim what Levon Helm says in the VH1/BBC TV special about the making of ‘The Brown Album’, about how people think it must be difficult to sing lead and play drums at the same time. For him, he says, it’s the other way around, because he can sing ‘around’ what he plays (or vice versa).1

Rhythm seems to be at least part of the system: ‘The method works on higher or lower degrees depending on different patterns and the syncopation of a piece’ (p. 157). Syncopations – that can only be a rhythmical term. It usually refers to a local displacement of the accent from a strong to a weak beat. But what does it mean here – ‘higher or lower degrees’, ‘different patterns’, and ‘the syncopation of a piece’?

Later on, in one of the few specific statements about this elusive system, Dylan refers to Link Wray’s ‘Rumble’ as one of the pieces that uses this method. He says:

Once I understood what I was doing, I realized that I wasn’t the first one to do it, that Link Wray had done the same thing in his classic song ‘Rumble’ many years earlier. Link’s song had no lyrics, but he had played with the same numerical system. It would never have occurred to me where the song’s power had come from because I had been hypnotized by the tone of the piece.

He then compares this to a performance by Martha Reeves where she ‘beat a tambourine in triplet form [. . . ] and she phrased the song as if the tambourine were her entire band’.

‘Rumble’ is an instrumental, played by a combo of two guitars, bass and drums. It is easy to see how the raw intensity may have caught Dylan’s interest. The introduction goes something like this:

 
 
   D     D       E                                     D  
   .     .       :     .     .     .       :     .     .     .  
---0-----0-----|-0-----------------------|-------------0-----0-----|  
---3-----3-----|-0-----------------------|-------------3-----3-----|  
---2-----2-----|-1-----------------------|-------------2-----2-----|  
---0-----0-----|-2-----------------------|-------------0-----0-----|  
---0-----0-----|-2-----------------------|-------------------------|  
---------------|-0-----------------------|-------------------------|  
               |                         |                         |  
               | :     .     .     .     | :     .     .     .     |  
               |-------------------------|-------------------------|  
               |-------------------------|-------------------------|  
               |-------------------------|-------------------------|  
   Bass        |-------------------------|-------------------------|  
               |-------------------------|-------------------------|  
               |-0-----1-----2-----3-----|-0-----1-----2-----3-----|  
               |                         |                         |  
               |                         |                         |  
               | :     .     .     .     | :     .     .     .     |  
   Cymbal      |-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-|-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-|  
               |                                                   |  
   Bass drum   |-x-----x-----x-----x-x-x-|-x-----x-----x-----x-x-x-|  
 

This is really all there is to the song – the riff above is repeated a couple of times on each of the scale steps through which the tune goes. The only deviations from this are a ‘solo’ verse, which consists of violent tremolo strumming, and a turnaround figure after each verse, which adds two beats to the general four beats per measure, giving it all a limp that is certain to wake one up, should one against all likelihood have fallen asleep:

 
 
   D     D       B7  
   :     .       :     .     .  
---0-----0-----|-------2-----------------|  
---3-----3-----|------0------------------|  
---2-----2-----|-----2-------------------|  
---0-----0-----|----1--------------------|  
---------------|-2-----------------------|  
---------------|-------------------------|  
 
 
                                        E           D     D       E  
  :     .     .     .     .     .       :     .     .     .       :  
|-------------3-0---------------------|-------------2-----2-----|-0-----  
|-----------------3-0-----------------|-------------3-----3-----|-0-----  
|---------------------2-0-------------|-------------2-----2-----|-1-----  
|-------------------------2-0---------|-------------0-----0-----|-2-----  
|-----------------------------2-0-----|-------------------------|-2-----  
|---------------------------------3---|-0-----------------------|-0-----  
 

It makes perfect sense that Dylan has liked this. There is the unpolished character of the whole thing, which reminds one of the best moments of Highway 61. There is the soundscape of sharply differentiated parts, each with its own distinctive rhythmic pattern, in fact ‘creating counterpoint lines’:

Both guitars, in different ways, take the part of the drummer, as Dylan has described his own solo guitar playing on several occasions, whereas the drums do just as much ‘motivic’ or ‘thematic’ work as any of the others.

But what does it have to do with Lonnie Johnson and mathematical music?

At first sight: nothing.

At second sight: well, the number three is all over the place: the main line of the guitar is three chords – silence – three chords – etc, ended by a measure which is extended from 2×2 to 3×2 beats. The cymbals play differeqnt kinds of triplets all the time, and the bass drum plays three long and three short.

Hey, perhaps we’re on to something here? Triplets – what is it about triplets? He says earlier:

I’m not a numerologist. I don’t know why the number 3 is more metaphysically powerful than the number 2, but it is.

There is a long line of thinking behind this; the difference between two and three has been central to all numerological systems throughout the history of ideas, going back to the Pythagoreans and the Platonists.

I’m not saying Dylan is a Platonist (and he says himself that he’s not a numerologist, so we better believe him, right?)(Right!), but it is not either unlikely that he has picked up some sort of idea along these lines, and why not from Lonnie Johnson? And if he believes the beauty of the system is that it works, regardless of artifice: the audience will go wild, no matter – if it works, then why not use it?

Be that as it may, the beauty of this explanation is that it works whether Dylan is right or not and whether there is a firm basis for the system or not. What Link Wray does, through his use of various permutations of threes, is to create a polyphonic structure with different layers of rhythmic activity in different instrument parts, all going on at the same time, and creating a remarkable complexity with very limited means. Whether it works because of the number three or because of the raw sound, the hypnotic repetitivity, and the underground Rumble of ominous ta-ta-ta in the drums and weird chromatics in the bass, barely audible as such, but mostly very disturbing – . . . who am I to tell why it works?

And these elements: pared down resources, insistent repetition, sometimes weird ‘chromatics’ (which one might – O horrible thought! – have mistaken for mistakes, but now we know better . . .), guitars playing drums and vice versa – these are precisely what characterizes Dylan’s band and his playing from 1988 and in the following years.

Now it remains to take a closer look at some of his own music making during those years, to see where the triplets went.

Numbers: Dylan the Pythagorean

‘I’m not a numerologist’, Dylan says (p. 159). But before and after this statement, he builds up such a metaphysical web around the force of numbers, that the only definition of a numerologist that he does not fit into, is the kind who calculate a lucky number from the letters of their name. Alright, this is after all not a book about Rod Stewart.

In the Rolling Stone interview from November 2001, where he first mentioned the Lonnie Jonhson method explicitly, he says:

Lonnie Johnson, the blues-jazz player, showed me a technique on the guitar in maybe 1964. I hadn’t really understood it when he first showed it to me. It had to do with the mathematical order of the scale on a guitar, and how to make things happen, where it gets under somebody’s skin and there’s really nothing they can do about it, because it’s mathematical.

In Chronicles, he continues:

I had the idea that he was showing me something secretive, though it didn’t make sense to me at the time. . .

So, we have an esoteric system communicated to him in the secrecy of the back room, which works, regardless of what the player or listener know, understands, or thinks of it, solely on the force of the mathematical structure of the system – ‘because it’s mathematical.’ Methinks it’s time to step back in time.

The Pythagorean Tradition of numbers

The belief that something can work simply ‘because it’s mathematical’, depends in some way or another on the idea that numbers have certain metaphysical qualities with a real influence on things in reality.

This is the foundation of the Pythagorean theory of numbers, which I’ve alluded to above. Most people know the Pythagorean Theorem, about the relations between the sides in a right-angled triangle: a2 + b2 = c2 (Dylan knows it too, even though he got the formula wrong in the Rome interview, where he presented it as ‘a square equals b square equals c square’, which may reveal a truth on a more profound level, but which would do you no good in your calculus 101 class).

But the classic didactical myth, handed down in numerous treatises throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages, tells of how Pythagoras walked by a blacksmith who was pounding away on his anvils, and Pythagoras discovered that some of the anvils produced harmonious sounds together, while others did not. He investigated this closer, and found that the mass of the harmonious anvils were in simple proportions to each other – 1:2, 2:3, or 3:4 – while those in more complex relations produced unpleasing sounds. An anvil twice as big as an other would sound an octave lower, whereas one 1.3658 times the size, would sound like . . . dunno, the Shaggs or something.

The physical facts of this legend have been proven wrong, but what matters is the belief (1) that harmoniousness depends on proportions that can be expressed in simple ratios, (2) that these proportions, which can be described in a purely mathematical form, not only govern harmony in music, but also in the universe as a whole, between the soul and the body, and in the balance between the body fluids, and (3) that there is some kind of connection between the different kinds and areas of harmony. Thus, playing a tune in a mode which emphasises certain intervals, will influence the balance between the body fluids, and can thus alter the mood of the listeners.

This discovery and the theoretical/religious system that was built around it, became essential to all ideas of harmony and beauty from Antiquity up until the eighteenth century. Plato considered this kind of mathematical harmony to be the fundamental property of the world. In his creation myth Timaios, the creator-god shapes the world beginning with unity (which in this system of thought is not considered a number at all), then extending it with ‘the other’ – two – and ‘the intermediary’ – three, and around the corresponding number series 1, 2, 4, 8 and 1, 3, 9, 27, the whole world is created. In Plato’s thought, each number has its distinctive metaphysical character.

In the Middle Ages, this idea was adapted to the Christian frame of thought. In the apocryphical Wisdom of Solomon in the Bible, it says, ‘You have ordered all things in number, measure, and weight’ (Wisdom of Solomon 11. 21), and this verse was quoted time and again in medieval treatises on music.

Thus, what at first sight may look like a dry and slightly tedious exercise in simple arithmetics, is of vast importance because behind the dry fašade lies the notion that numbers and numerical relations are reflections of the divine principles governing the universe; that we find the same relations in the universe as a whole, in human beings, in musical sounds, and in visible beauty, and that by knowing the numbers, we can affect humans and glimpse God.

This is why the slight irregularities in the purely mathematical definition of the scale became such a heated topic. The theorists spent gallons of ink on discussing the problem with the division of a tone in two equal halves, which according to the Pythagorean system is impossible, because it is founded on ratios between natural numbers (the equal division of a tone requires the square root of 2, which was unknown to ancient and medieval thinkers).

The Christian heritage from antiquity was largely Platonic. One of the consequences of the humanistic re-appraisal of the classical traditions during the Renaissance, was that other voices from antiquity were added to the stew. Aristotle, with his less mystical and more rationalistic approach, was revived from the twelfth century, and in the field of music theory, Aristoxenos, whose theories were based on geometrical rather than arithmetical considerations, was more palatable to the practically oriented writers of the Renaissance, who were more concerned with actual sound and preferred the pure harmonies of just intonation to the theoretically ‘correct’ but ugly-sounding harmonies.

Approaching Dylan again.  

If you object that this doesn’t seem to have much to do with Dylan and Lonnie, you’re absolutely right. It serves to demonstrate how important the concept of mathematical music has been, way back in history, and how widely the implications it carries reach.

In order to gradually work our way back to Dylan again, one might point to yet another element that entered the picture in the Florentine academies in the fifteenth century: an extension of the notion of the special mystical character of certain numbers. The mainstream medieval tradition had mainly been concerned with twos and threes, but – partly owing to influence from the cabbalistic tradition – a more extended array of meaningful numbers was established and systematized. The Fibonacci sequences and other similar number sequences, and all the sacred numbers of the Bible – just about every number seemed to have a secret meaning, a value beyond the numerical one.

Furthermore, the mystical ‘range’ of the numbers widened. While the numerical foundation of the world had earlier been thought of more as a precondition on a structural level, more effort was now spent on pinpointing how and where the force of the various numbers could be applied, and on specifying the meanings of various numbers. Number symbolism flourished.2

This is the background for Dylan’s perception of the system he learned back in ’64. In the following quotation from Chronicles (p. 158), I have emphasised some words which highlight the strong dichotomy that Dylan sees between the world of 2 and the world of 3:

The system works in a cyclical way. Because you’re thinking in odd numbers instead of even numbers, you’re playing with a different value system. Popular music is usually based on the number 2 and then filled with fabrics, colors, effects and technical wizardry to make a point. But the total effect is usually depressing and oppressive and a dead end which at the most can only last in a nostalgic way. If you’re using an odd numerical system, things that strengthen a performance automatically begin to happen and make it memorable for the ages. You don’t have to plan or think ahead.

What is most striking, I think (apart from the description of popular music as based on the number 2, which quite bluntly disregards the blues/jazz tradition, where a triple feel is predominant), is the statement that these are different worlds, different value systems, which have an automatic effect on the performance: it is not something the performer does, but something that is done through the performer.

Regarding the opposition that Dylan claims to exist between 2 and 3, I’d rather not go into that;3 what is worth noticing is that these are not symbolic numbers – in the sense of numbers to which have been ascribed a meaning, hidden or overt; what Dylan talks about is inherent properties of the numbers themselves (or of the things that are governed by these numbers). This is why the long detour through the ancient Pythagoreans is relevant: because that’s where such ideas developed and where this kind of thinking, as expressed by Dylan, stems from.

Does Dylan believe all this? Yes, I would think so. He is after all a poet, a sponge, a mystic, a sage; he takes what he can gather from coincidence, mixes it all together, and out comes . . . well, sometimes Knocked out Loaded, but we can forgive him that, since he also produces Blood on the Tracks and Chronicles, which is a fascinating read, even though what he writes is less clear than what an academic might have wanted.

Time to look at ‘melody’.

Melody: Three times 2, and 7 and 4

In a diatonic scale there are eight notes, in a pentatonic there are five. If you’re using the first scale, and you hit 2, 5 and 7 to the phrase and then repeat it, a melody forms. Or you can use 2 three times. Or you can use 4 once and 7 twice. It’s indefinite what you can do, and each time would create a different melody.

Now, what is he talking about?!

In a way, it’s very simple. In a scale there are certain tones, and if you pick some of them and put them together in a sequence, ‘a melody forms’.

I doubt it, however, that his point is as trivial as that. He’s not describing just any melody, but rather a way of creating counter-melodies that – for some mysterious reason, which in Dylan’s version of it is connected with the symbolic force of numbers (or with the force of numbers tout court) – will always yield good results:

There’s no mystery to it and it’s not a technical trick. The scheme is for real. For me, this style would be most advantageous, like a delicate design that would arrange the structure of whatever piece I was performing. [. . . ] And because this works on its own mathematical formula, it can’t miss (p. 158f).

Two five seven four two two . . . whaat?!

And this melody – just what is it? First of all, I severely doubt that the exact tones he mentions has anything to do with it; most likely, they are whatever numbers popped into his mind at the time of writing it (the passage in the book resembles the kind of vague ramblings that he occasionally gets himself into during interviews). But for the sake of completeness, let’s take his example at face value and see what the result becomes. In the key of G, we get the following:

Chord    Scale                       alternatively:  
||--3--||-----------------0--2--3--||  --1--3---||  
||--0--||--------0--1--3-----------||  ---------||  
||--0--||--0--2--------------------||  ---------||  
||--0--||--------------------------||  ---------||  
||--2--||--------------------------||  ---------||  
||--3--||--------------------------||  ---------||  
           1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8        7  8  
\end{tab}  
 
 
\begin{tab}  
 
||--------2--------2--||-----------||-----2--2--||  
||-----3--------3-----||-----------||--1--------||  
||--2--------2--------||--2--2--2--||-----------||  
||--------------------||-----------||-----------||  
||--------------------||-----------||-----------||  
||--------------------||-----------||-----------||  
    2  5  7  2  5  7      2  2  2      4  7  7

The first thing we notice is that the steps 2, 5, and 7 incidentally form a chord: D major (or D minor, if we use the minor seventh for the ‘7’). This might be a clue to a solution, but I don’t think it is, for several reasons. The main reason is that the tones and the melodic fragment that is mentioned here, a broken D major chord against (or even ‘in’) the key of G, is not something I recognize from Dylan’s music making. The dominant is not very important in Dylan’s music – one might say: other than by being absent (in which capacity it draws some attention to itself).

The other reason is that the D major chord emerges out of the numbers 2, 5, 7 only under the assumption that Dylan uses the traditional numbering of the tones in the scale, but this is not necessarily so. We know from the terminology of blues musicians that there are many ways to refer to chords and scales. I don’t know if Lonnie Johnson is known to have used any particular terminology in this respect, but at least one alternative is worth mentioning before we abandon the search for a meaning in those particular numbers: If we shift the relation between numbers and scale one step, so that ‘1’ denotes the first step above the keynote and not the keynote itself, we get the following:

 
   Chord    Scale                       alternatively:  
||--3--||-----------------0--2--3--||  --1--3---||  
||--0--||--------0--1--3-----------||  ---------||  
||--0--||--0--2--------------------||  ---------||  
||--0--||--------------------------||  ---------||  
||--2--||--------------------------||  ---------||  
||--3--||--------------------------||  ---------||  
           0  1  2  3  4  5  6  7        6  7  
 
||-----0--3-----0--3--||-----------||-----3--3--||  
||--0--------0--------||--0--0--0--||--3--------||  
||--------------------||-----------||-----------||  
||--------------------||-----------||-----------||  
||--------------------||-----------||-----------||  
||--------------------||-----------||-----------||  
    2  5  7  2  5  7      2  2  2      4  7  7

This makes far more sense: a playing around with the main steps in the chord, with a sixth thrown in for good measure. This accomodates both the ‘sing-song’ style of singing that we all love so well, and many of Dylan’s trademark licks.

Formulaicism: Inventive Redundancy

In a more thorough study than this, I might have gone through a number of tapes and searched out examples to corroborate this interpretation. But when I do go in that direction, in the next chapter, it is not in order to check for these particular numbers. I strongly suspect that such a search would be futile; one might find such examples, but they would not prove anything. A more fruitful path is, I believe, to take Dylan’s statement more as an indication of a general principle than as an exact example. This principle would consist in:

  1. a selection of some scale steps, either within the chord or, for that matter, outside of it,
  2. which are combined to simple patterns
  3. which are repeated or combined as building blocks.

What this means is that Dylan’s system is a formulaic system of composition/performance, where a set of generic rules can be applied in a variety of situations and produce the goods.4

This not only makes sense in relation to Dylan’s music making since 1988, it also makes sense as a description of an improvisational system. In order to be usable in practice – not the least as a ‘learned’ system – such a system should be simple, and it should be based on or related to a wider musical system (in this case, e.g. the musical grammar of the blues and its descendants).

A little music theory (has never killed anyone)

A tonal system means a system out of which meaning can be gleaned from conjunctions of tones. Fundamentally, musical meaning does not lie in the connection between certain tones and something in the outside world (i.e. a piece of music cannot in itself mean love, rain, brick walls, etc.), but is founded on connections between certain combinations of sounds and certain experiences and expectations, and this must be learned, through repeated exposure to the connection and to the regularity by which the sound is accompanied by the experience. This is what we know when we know a musical style: we know that in a blues tune an E is followed by an A, and we expect a turnaround at the end. In this way, and only in this way, can the tones of ‘Another Brick In The Wall’ mean meat grinder, inhumanity, and bricks.

Musical meaning thus lies in a habitual fulfillment of the expectation of this kind of connection to take place – and the constant adjustment of expectations against the experienced fulfillments.

A complex system at the base allows for a wide array of possible meanings within the system. In the classical music tradition, harmony has been the central field of development since the fourteenth century, culminating in the invention of the twelve-tone technique in the early twentieth century. Thereby, the range of possible connections between tones was stretched to the extreme (some would say: beyond that): everything is accounted for (or accountable) within the system.

But that is not the only option. Expectations can be established temporarily. Play an ever-changing series of tones, and nobody knows what to expect for the next tone – play 2, 5, 7, 2, 5, . . . and you have already established a pattern with certain inherent rules which makes people expect a 7 to follow; and play that against a song which follows another set of rules, and you already have a quite complex field of potential meaning, created with very simple means.

Inventive redundancy

Against this background, Dylan’s description can be rephrased in more general terms:

Make patterns out of any selection of tones, and repeat and combine them;

by repeating the patterns, you thereby temporarily establish a new tonal system, exploiting the field of tension between the musical backbone of the song and the new pattern;

this meaning is brought out in the interplay between expectations and experience – between the cultural knowledge that the listeners and the musicians have, and the newly established tonal system;

in order for this to be recognized as a new tonal system, however ephemeral, in the short time that is at the musician’s disposal, the patterns must be simple;

but if they are, and a balance is struck between redundancy and inventiveness (there is a limit to how long you can play 2 5 7 2 5 7), it will always work, with these very simple means.

A translation

This is, I believe, the core of Dylan’s technique, which he has explored – with varying degrees of success, but mostly ending up with a huge surplus in the balance – during the 90s and the 00s. It also explains some of his other statements where he explains his system in more general terms:

A song executes itself on several fronts and you can ignore musical customs. All you need is a drummer and a bass player, and all shortcomings become irrelevant as long as you stick to the system.

The method works on higher or lower degrees depending on different patterns and the syncopation of a piece.

Very few would be converted to it because it had nothing to do with technique and musicians work their whole lives to be technically superior players.

This can be translated fairly exactly, if not word for word then at least concept by concept, into the following:

A song can exploit several different meaning systems at the same time, and you are not limited to the rules set by one such set of musical customs. Since I play rock, I need a drummer and a bass player, but all shortcomings become irrelevant as long as you stick to the system, since this system is based on a conscious play with ‘inventive redundancy’ and not on the intricacy of the base system and the technical prowess of the musician.

Since the system works in the interplay beween the song and the newly established fields of meaning, the concrete way of playing or singing will have to be adjusted to the different patterns already present in the song.

Very few would be converted to it because, whereas most music making takes place in contexts where value judgement is based on complexity and most musicians thus depend on technical prowess to accomplish this, the ‘Lonnie’ method instead emphasises and requires simplicity, both on the part of the performer and as a constitutive element of the system itself.

This is my take at what Dylan has meant: he describes a method for temporarily establishing a formulaic system of musical meaning, involving a conscious use of certain numbers, at the base of which may lie a belief that these numbers have certain objective properties. In short, what I have called inventive redundancy.

In Dylan’s description, he emphasises the redundancy part, and pairs it with the metaphysical qualities of numbers which make the system Just Work. My interpretation is a little different: That the redundancy may be a precondition for the system, but what really makes it Just Work is the other element: inventiveness. I don’t think it is a system that someone else can learn to use, at least not directly, as a system – it is hardly insignificant that there are twenty years of touring and music making between the time he first learned it and when he understood how to put it to use. It has taken him those years to gain the musicianship (and perhaps also the need for routine which persistent touring must bring with it) which he then could cross-fertilize with what Lonnie Johnson had told him, to produce his new method. In other words: I think Dylan should receive more of the credit for it than Lonnie.