- 08 Jun 21
Pablo Dylan may be the grandson of the great Bob Dylan, but he is going to have to stand on his own two feet artistically. The influence of the grandmaster is unmistakable on his relative’s new EP, Solitude. So too is the importance of the young contender’s Irish roots.
Earlier this year, Pablo Dylan released his first album on Columbia Records. The all-acoustic five-track EP Solitude is the first of a trilogy, composed during, and dealing with, these pandemic times. After listening to it, I spoke to Dylan about the songs — and one in particular.
All the songs are roots music, heavily blues-influenced, often sounding like Hank Williams or Blind Willie McTell, with long, intricate lyrical lines that give them a ballad flavour. One, however, takes its tune from ‘The Foggy Dew’ by way of Dylan’s favourite version, sung by The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.
‘Before The Plague’ appropriately opens the record. It is a reflection on the abrupt ending of Dylan’s first nationwide tour in the United States, which was stopped by the spread of Covid-19 in mid-March 2020 after just a handful of dates. He and his bandmates James Harte (guitar) and Darren Boling (bass), self-isolating together, hit the studio almost immediately upon their return home to Los Angeles, and kept working as the plague continued its ravages. Dylan has called Solitude “a reflection on loneliness and remembrance of previous times.”
For Dylan, that remembrance of the past includes a deep immersion in both Irish music and his family’s heritage therein.
We all know about his father’s side of the family: Dylan’s father is the film director and producer Jesse, and his grandfather is Bob. His mother’s side are Irish. Dylan’s grandmother Margaret (Peggy) Feury was a renowned actress and acting teacher; both her parents, Richard and Margaret, were born in Ireland.
“My mother’s family are from County Limerick, the town of Glin,” says Dylan. Variant spellings of the name include Furey, as in the doomed young singer, Michael Furey, of James Joyce’s The Dead — Dylan knows the story well, and mentioned this fact even as he discussed the name.
“There were some really great fiddlers in the family,” he says. “My aunt Stephanie (the LA-based acting coach Stephanie Feury) was telling me there’s one of them on a wall in town.”
‘The Foggy Dew’ was selected as Ireland’s favourite folk song in an RTE poll in 2019. Its tune was, of course, not original to its 1919 composition, and nor was the title; John McCormack recorded a love song entitled ‘The Foggy Dew’ to the tune in 1913, and the air goes back at least as far as 1804, under the title ‘Corraga Bawn’. Dylan knows its history, and how the history of Irish music, and Irish immigrants, have affected and shaped the country in which he lives.
“The melodies of Ireland are so important to me. After the famines of the middle 1800s, people came and fought in the Civil War, north and south. It’s impossible to separate the Irish from American music. It’s in the blues, still living on — there’s a deep deep pain, people crying out to be heard.”
He thinks back a bit farther, and reflects for a moment on ‘The Minstrel Boy’ and Thomas Moore’s friendship with Lord Byron, and their shared Celtic heritage (Byron was raised in his mother’s family home in Aberdeenshire). The rhyming capabilities of Byron and Moore, as well as W.B. Yeats, have impressed Dylan enough to read widely in their poetry.
“Yeats can be writing about idle love – and then there’s a poem like [‘Sailing To Byzantium’] I’ve sailed the seas and come to the holy city of Byzantium. I’ve always found there’s a sort of neo-Platonism in Yeats – forms, emanations. I’ve spent my whole life drifting, and now I’ve come to this holy city of Byzantium. ‘The Second Coming’ is a great example of image into form. ‘Easter 1916’, and that terrible beauty, the change that’s happening in the moment, but still related to its earlier form.”
Under these influences, Dylan set out to write a song for our own bad times:
“As I sing of man’s lost humanity
The spheres are rife with fear
The wand’ring souls of the highway now are gone
Sisters sing of remembrance dear
For there once was a time, when all did stand
And voices shook the night
I remember amorous vespers’ hand
Outspread on the cathedral strike”
Those wand’ring souls of the highway, the classic minstrel-boy figure, filtered through Yeats’s wanderers, are all at home now under lockdown. We’re not standing together in any venues, from concert halls to cathedrals, sharing our voices in these days of solitude. Dylan’s lines matter to him, so much so that he has provided his own commentary for the song’s published lyrics.
The next two EPs will also to draw on Dylan’s Irish roots, and influences. Dylan says that he, Harte, and Boling “wanted to make an Irish music style call and response. And we made it as a reaction to the times.”
Like Solitude, the forthcoming Fortitude and Renaissance will each, in their turn, have five songs, “moving from solitude to revolution to strength and renaissance, putting the pieces back together.”
Implicit is a promise that things may just get better. Here’s hoping.