Words Never Spoken: Shadow Kingdom, Bob Dylan (2023)

Still from Shadow Kingdom.

Okay, boys. I’m gonna talk a little between numbers. Just to give some idea of what we’re doing. For our ears only, you understand; won’t be on the record.

First off, we’re gonna be playing old songs. Not the real old ones – not ballads or some ancient blues – but their grandbabies: my songs. My old songs. Which makes them what? 40, 50 years old? Who’s counting? Songs from when we were all a little younger.

Before we go any further, let me introduce who we are tonight. That’s Jeff on accordion: done bluegrass, Western swing, all kinds of stuff. Out of Nashville now. Played accordion in his father’s polka band; went to Eastman for sight-reading. Don’t let the truck-stop cap fool you.

Accordion’s gonna set the tone, while Tim there – on guitar – will set the tempo. He’ll be our timekeeper: the strum we all follow. Played with Michael Jackson, Bon Jovi, Alice Cooper: a bonafide hit-maker. Knows his pockets.

Greg on guitar, too (we’re gonna need a lot of guitars) – and maybe dobro – and maybe some slide – and pedal steel. Played in country bars and clubs for, what? 25 years? before he even got in a studio. Believes in the idea of a band, you know? In that “collaborative experience.” Worked a lot with Bill Frisell, Jackson Browne, Clapton.

Who else? T-Bone, of course, doing some tremolo electric guitar. And Don over there on stand-up bass. He’s kind of the glue: how a lot of you found your way here. He’s not producing this time around but … he’s producing.

3 or 4 others may drop in and out; whatever fits the song. I’m telling you now: none of you will get any credit. The best bands are anonymous; the less said the better.

We’re a dance band for tonight, all right? Live in the studio. Our job’s to keep the people on their feet, even if the people are invisible. What kind of dance band? String band, I guess. Pop musicians playing blue-grassy folk. No drums but lots of swing. No keyboards unless you count that accordion. Which is gonna add a little gypsy sound, right? Or Cajun. Maybe the ghost of Flaco Jimenz. ‘Cept he ain’t dead; in his 80’s, just a couple years older than me. And I ain’t dead, either.

We’re gonna play them right off the floor, okay? No overdubs, no edits, one take. Sit in a circle. I’ll get a vocal mic, but for the rest, we’ll just take the sound in the room: however we bleed into each other.

Play each one through, and if someone needs to be louder or softer, we’ll move his chairs a little closer or farther from the mics, and go again. Like a conversation, right?

Let’s try one, then. The one with all the stops. Make it jump a little, boys. And keep it funny:


Good intro, right? “When I paint my masterpiece…” Never quite happens, of course, but you keep trying. “Someday, everything’s gonna be different.” Yea! A European serenade: set in Rome, Brussels, where masterpieces were born. It’s a song with a certain amount of foolish hope. A toe-tapper to get people going. Then, we’ll hit them with something they gotta move to. Like this:


Man, I’ve always liked the jump to that. It’s a young person’s song. I don’t recall when it was written: 1965? 1742? Kind of a revenge song, right? “Time will tell just who has fell.” But the way we did it just now, it’s … gentler. More seasoned. Time will tell. Did I know that when I wrote it? Hard to say. But we know it now.

I like how all the guitars mesh. And the accordion as a kind of wash – like the tide. Don’t want these songs to be nostalgic. I mean, if they’re any good, they won’t be. But it’s okay to have a little perspective on them. After all, there’s a lot of gray hair in the band tonight. Don’t laugh: that’s a good thing.

Let’s do the list song next. I think of it as a list of grievances: all the stuff that can and does go wrong. “When you’re sick of all this repetition.” But let’s make it a kind of cabaret number, ok? Not a moody one, more open hearted. Like an invitation. “When you need someone to protect you.” It’s almost too much to say out loud:


Whew! Lots of interlocking parts. It always strikes me, when I come back to this stuff, how it’s funnier than people think. And, like I said, gentler. There was always something gentle under the old songs – forgiving – and I hope it’s in these, too.

That bass line works good, Don; the freedom of no drums, huh? We sound like a guitar pull from back in the day. Or maybe this is back in the day. Let the strum set the rhythm: everyone else come in and out like kids on a jungle gym. Maybe that’s why they call it “playing.”

Do that on this next one and it’ll end up rock&roll, even if the instruments aren’t. Well, maybe some electric guitar just to make the point. And I’ll try to sing it big and raw and welcoming, ok? “Shut the light … you don’t have to be afraid.” Let’s try it:


I like the part where it slows in the middle: “the mockingbird’s gonna sail away.” Gives the dancers a chance to get close. I figure any set of songs is like a story. The one talks to the other, round and round. We’re gonna cut a bunch – 25? 30? over the next few weeks. And then pick the ones that talk to each other.

Let’s go straight to the next one, boys.


A song – if it’s built right – a song will keep speaking to you. It changes; it says different things; but it keeps talking. I never heard that one done where the rhythm section is basically accordion and acoustic guitar. Changes the conversation.

A song about feeling small – Tom Thumb small – and lost: cops don’t need you, and nobody else does, neither. But played the way we played it – as an acoustical band – I couldn’t help thinking how, when you’re that down and out, you can come to realize what you’re missing: the friends who aren’t in the song – the ones the song misses, if that makes any sense. “I’m going back to New York City,” eh? I’m going home.

 Which brings us to this next one – another blues. I’ll kinda recite it, if that’s okay. Just some background music – electric, pedal steel? Let the dancers catch their breath. Me, too.


 Man, if I really could get Ma Rainey and Beethoven together, we’d have a band! Didn’t you say that once, Don? How a great record comes from putting great musicians in a room and trusting their instincts. Let’s hope you’re right. Then, you just got to find a plain enough melody to ease someone’s pain. Doesn’t sound hard, but … well, you boys know.

“Daddy’s in the basement, looking for the fuse.” Well, here’s the fuse; let’s light it up! Tim, let me just show you this one progression …. that’s it. “My mortal bliss” – gotta like that, right? – “is to be alone with you.” Okay, first and only take. Kick ass:


Lots of these are sounding more fun tonight, but that one always is. I like the bed of sound: we made it, we get to jump on it.

Once a crowd gets excited – once you reach them – they’ll want more. They’ll shout for it. And you got to wonder what they want. It can build to what I’d call dangerous levels of interest. So, we’ll do one where I’ll kind of talk, again, instead of singing. Let the crowd get a beer; grab a smoke. I think when I first did this one, it sounded dark, maybe cynical. But the way I hear it tonight, it’s more … quizzical. What do you want?


Sometimes I think people want the songs to be ice-cold. If it’s cold – emotionally, I mean – then it’s sharp. Like a surgical tool. But it never was. Or, if it was, it didn’t stay that way. All these songs have gotten worn down. In a good way, I hope.

You boys been in a lot of studios over the years, done a lot of recording. It’s weird, right? I mean, the thing about music is: it changes over time. Hell, it changes within the 3-4 minutes of a song. In a lot of ways, that’s what it’s all about: it’s about how time varies. Whether you measure by a stopwatch or a guitar strum.

What’s weird is: you go into a studio like this one – with all these devices hanging over your shoulder – and the music gets captured. Fixed. “Recorded.” And that version becomes what it’s supposed to sound like. Instead of what it really is: a record of one moment in time.

It’s why I like my sessions to be … not improvised, exactly, but alive. Breathing. The way people talk to each other when they aren’t being recorded. That way, you can maybe hear that whatever we cut is just one version of the thing. There might be hundreds of others. Which hundreds you discover by playing it live, in front of people.

If my voice strains on this next, I got reasons. First off, it’s seen some miles. Ain’t nothing stays young forever, right? That’s kinda this song’s joke. But secondly, I don’t believe you can reach for hope without straining. Hope’s a high note, right? “May your heart always be joyful.” Jeff: can we get a kind of spinet or harpsichord sound? The kind of thing you’d play at a wedding. Or somebody’s funeral:


  Now, we get to the core of the matter. Another danceable blues, but it’s also a pledge. “I’m pledging my time to you.” That’s quite a thing to say, right? Even if the saying is hidden in a song. And, again, it’s full of hope: “hoping you’ll come through, too.” In the beginning, you maybe say it to one person in particular. But as you keep playing it, the song ends up talking to whoever’s listening, talking to all of them and yourself.

Needs a Jimmy Reed sound – if Jimmy Reed’s electric guitar were part of a jug band. Think of a Black jug band – the Memphis Sheiks – playing dance music at some White plantation outside of Memphis. All those contradictions. Right at the heart of what we love.

I mean, what are we doing as a band, a dance band – as musicians and performers – except pledging our time? Saying the thing that can’t be said: how much you care, how much you hope it works out, how good it is to get on the floor and shake that thing. You all know the Johnny Ace tune: “Pledging My Love.” “Forever, my darling, my love will be true.” An impossible promise, right? Dragged out and beautiful:


Lots of these tunes turn out to be jokes. In the best sense, I hope. Funny. Fluid. Meant to rouse you. Just two of us left at the end of a party, and “I can’t be the last to leave.” That sort of joke.

Jokes work like dreams: they say things you didn’t think you were saying. Didn’t even want to say. They expose a person. I guess we’re all brought up not to say too much. Maybe men especially? Don’t give yourself away, right? So you say it in different forms.

All of you here tonight got real good on an instrument – maybe more than one – and you can talk through your instrument: “say” things you couldn’t any other way. Speak an ancient language. In the end, that makes us messengers. So, in this next one, I give myself some old, well-travelled messenger advice: “If you can’t bring good news, don’t bring any.” On a Saturday night or on a car radio, whether the tune’s happy or sad, you try to bring good news.

This one’s got a falling melody line, so the words kind of slide downhill. There’s something about its jump I think of as Jewish. Those great klezmer bands: string bands by another name. Playing to their own kind of plantations, eh? Entertaining the masters:


Three more, ok? Three endings to the evening.

First one is rock&roll. We’ll need the electric guitar.

I think of this as the bookend to the opening piece, the one about painting your masterpiece. Except here, the masterpiece is sitting back and watching the river flow.

When you’re away from your love, out of the city, off the road, you aren’t at peace ‘cause you still want to … what? Paint your masterpiece. But you’re trying to make your peace with no peace. You’re watching the river flow. Talking to yourself.

That kind of humpy beat, if you will, like a river going over rocks. The original rock and its roll:


2nd ending: the Baby Blue song. Once upon a time, I think this was kind of a kiss off. Or a farewell. And maybe it still is. But late, after a long night of dancing, I think of it as another kind of pledge. Whatever this occasion has been, it’s over. The band is breaking up. That ain’t sad. Each day the song gets a little older, speaks its truth a little differently, and still stays something like young. And that’s hopeful; that’s the pledge. “Strike another match, go start anew.”


You guys have been great. I thank you all. We’ll end by doing this new instrumental thing because … because this is where the credits would roll if we were gonna have credits.

And then it’s nice to have something new on the record: kind of a promise of things to come.

And the other reason to end with an instrumental is because words, finally, can’t tell the story, right? You got to listen to the way the guitars mix and match, how the bass beats, that accordion shuffle. Together, they speak in ways we’ll never quite understand. But speak they do. Over and over:


Ok then. I know I’ve talked too much. But not to worry: the engineer will take all the talking out. It’ll be just the music flowing from song to song without interruption.

Consider these, then, words never spoken.

And thanks again.

Daniel Wolff’s most recent books are Grown-Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913 and How to Become an American: a History of Immigration, Assimilation and Loneliness.