The Story Behind Self Portrait

John Howells

The Sessions

Basic sessions began in Nashville on April 24, 1969 and concluded March 5, 1970.

This information courtesy of Michael Krogsgaard.

April 24, 1969 (Nashville):

  1. Living The Blues
  2. Spanish Is The Loving Tongue


Charlie McCoy (bass)
Pete Drake (steel guitar)
Robert S. Wilson (piano)
Kenneth Buttrey (drums)
Charlie E. Daniels (guitar)
Fred F. Carter Jr. (guitar)

April 26, 1969 (Nashville):

  1. Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go)
  2. A Fool Such As I
  3. I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know
  4. Let It Be Me
  5. Running


Charlie McCoy (bass)
Norman L. Blake (guitar)
Pete Drake (steel guitar)
Robert S. Wilson (piano)
Kenneth Buttrey (drums)
Charlie E. Daniels (guitar)
Fred F. Carter Jr. (guitar)

May 3, 1969 (Nashville):

  1. Take a Message to Mary
  2. Blue Moon
  3. Folsom Prison Blues
  4. Ring of Fire


Charlie McCoy (bass)
Pete Drake (pedal steel guitar)
Fred Carter Jr. (guitar)
Robert S. Wilson (piano)
Norman Blake (guitar)
Doug Kershaw (fiddle)
Kenneth Buttrey (drums)
Charlie E. Daniels (guitar)

March 3, 1970 (New York):

  1. Pretty Saro
  2. Little Sadie
  3. Dock Of The Bay
  4. Went To See The Gypsy
  5. In Search Of Little Sadie
  6. Belle Isle
  7. Universal Soldier
  8. Copper Kettle
  9. When A Fellow's Out Of A Job
  10. These Hands
  11. It Hurts Me Too
  12. The Boxer
  13. Spanish Is The Loving Tongue
  14. Woogie Boogie


Al Kooper (organ or piano)
David Bromberg (guitar)
Emanuel Green (violin)

March 4, 1970 (New York):

  1. Went To See The Gypsy
  2. Thirsty Boots
  3. Tattle O-Day
  4. Railroad Bill
  5. House Carpenter
  6. This Evening So Soon
  7. Days Of '49
  8. Annie's Going To Sing Her Song
  9. Early Morning Rain
  10. Wigwam
  11. Time Passes Slowly


Al Kooper (guitar and keyboards)
David Bromberg (guitar)
Emanuel Green (violin)
Alvin Rogers (drums)
Stu Woods (bass)

March 5, 1970 (New York):

  1. Alberta
  2. Alberta # 2
  3. Little Moses
  4. Alberta # 1
  5. Come A Little Bit Closer
  6. Come All You Fair And Tender Ladies
  7. My Previous Life
  8. Gotta Travel On
  9. Went To See The Gypsy
  10. Time Passes Slowly
  11. Come A Little Bit Closer
  12. All The Tired Horses


Al Kooper (guitar and keyboards)
Emanuel Green (violin)
Alvin Rogers (drums)
Stu Woods (bass)
David Bromberg (guitar)
Hilda Harris. Albertine Robinson, and Maeretha Stewart (vocals)

After the basic tracks were recorded in New York City, the tapes were flown to Nashville, Tennessee for overdubbing. These sessions took place from March 11, 1970 through April 3, 1970.


Charlie McCoy (bass)
Kenneth Buttrey (drums)
Bob L. Moore (bass)
Fred Carter Jr. (electric guitar)
Charles E. Daniels (guitar)
Bubba Fowler (guitar)
Karl T. Himmel (sax, clarinet. trombone)
Ron Cornelius (guitar)
Bill Walker (leader & arranger)
Rex Peer (trombone)
William Pursell (piano)
Gene Mullins (baritone horn)
Dennis A. Good (trombone)
Frank C. Smith (trombone)
Martha McCrory (cello)
Byron T. Bach (cello)
Gary van Osdale (viola)
Lillian V. Hunt (violin)
Sheldon Kurland (violin)
Martin Katahn (violin)
Marvin D. Chantry (violin)
Brenton B. Banks (violin)
George Binkley (violin)
Solie I. Fott (violin, viola)
Barry McDonald (violin)
Carol Montgomery (vocals)
Dolores Edgin (vocals)
June Page (vocals)

The Story Behind the Album

One of the oddest chapters in Dylan's career was the recording and release of the legendary album Self Portrait, released in 1970 to almost uniformly negative reviews. Many critics and fans thought they were on the receiving end of a massive joke, or if not a joke then a seriously deteriorated Dylan who had finally lost all touch with reality. Or perhaps Dylan was just out of ideas? The lead track from the album certainly seemed to indicate that with its repeated chorus "all the tired horses in the sun, how am I supposed to get any riding done?", which sounded a little like "how am I supposed to get any writing done"!

Various reasons for the seemingly poor quality of the album were given, including the idea that all the songs were scraps left over from Nashville Skyline and New Morning sessions (the latter album would be released after Self Portrait, but many of the songs on that album featured the same musicians on many of the Self Portrait songs, so the sound would fit). Since so many of the songs on the double album were apparently filler (four songs from the Isle of Wight festival, different versions of some songs on the same album, lifeless jams, etc.), the skimpy artistic nature of the album was clearly highlighted.

And the title of this mess was Self Portrait! This was supposed to define Bob Dylan? With its cubist self portrait on the cover (the original cover was reported in Rolling Stone at the time to be a picture of Bob standing in the window of an abandoned tenement building - wonder whatever happened to that picture?), and with the straight faced comical pictures of Dylan hanging around a barnyard with chickens, the visual impact of the album was jarring. To hear the sound inside was even more jarring.

What follows is a sort of insider's look into the making of this album. Rather than taking quotes from reviews, I chose to use actual quotes from people involved in the making of the album, or those close enough to Dylan to know what may have been going on in his mind during this strange period.

From Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography by Anthony Scaduto, 1971

At the same time, Dylan had just completed another album. The reports coming out of Columbia were too incredible: Dylan had put together an album tentatively called Blue Moon, filled with his interpretations of other artists' works, songs by Rodgers and Hart, Paul Simon, Gordon Lightfoot, and a large number of the old traditional country and folk things he had been doing back in Minnesota. Bob had cut a couple of dozen songs in New York and had to discard many of them because they simply didn't turn out well at all. He then went to Nashville for some help from the country boys, but things were only slightly better down there.

When the album was finally released in June, 1970, the most insane rumors seemed to be true: Bob Dylan had put out a product, a two-record set mysteriously called Self Portrait, filled mostly with the works of others and some examples of Americana, produced in a style that appeared to be almost Mantovani music, dreary enough to pipe into elevators or corset shoppes. You laughed when you first heard it - Bob Dylan trying to turn his nasal twang into a bass baritone, in the style of Johnny Cash. It seemed to be a huge joke. Bob Dylan as commercial popular songwriter and singer, a one-man Simon and Garfunkel. Or, perhaps, the Dylan Brothers - his version of Simon's The Boxer, Dylan dubbing harmony with Dylan, sounded so lame at first hearing that it had to be a parody of Simon, except that Dylan was spending a lot of time with Simon in New York and out on Fire Island, and parody doesn't make sense.


Dylan is somewhat defensive about the Stone interview, while sounding absolutely certain about the worth of Self Portrait: "It's a great album," he said to me. "There's a lot of damn good music there. People just didn't listen at first."


The quote from Dylan indicates that he was surprised at the negative response and felt at the time that the album was a genuine worthy effort. The Rolling Stone review is worth seeking out. It features a round table discussion between several prominent Rolling Stone critics and pretty much trashes the album without mercy. [JH]

From No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan by Robert Shelton, 1986

I told Dylan that Self Portrait confused me. Why had he recorded "Blue Moon"? He wouldn't be drawn out, although obviously he had been stung by the criticism. "It was an expression," he said. He indicated that if the album had come from Presley or The Everly Brothers, who veered toward the middle of the road, it wouldn't have shocked so many.


Again, an indication that Dylan was serious about the nature of the album and was disappointed at the criticism. [JH]

Roger McGuinn interview with Ed Ward in Rolling Stone, 1970

EW: Does the latest Dylan puzzle you any?

RM: Not at all. I understand it thoroughly.

EW: Really?

RM: Well, I'm more on the inside of it than most people because we were supposed to work with Dylan at the time. I got a call from Clive Davis, president of Columbia, saying, "How would you like to work with Dylan?" and we'd previously discussed doing albums with other Columbia artists and so I said, "Sure thing, let's get together. Just tell me when and where." So I called Dylan and he wasn't there, but he returned the call and said, "Did Clive Davis call you about doing an album?" and I said, "Yeah, but I don't know what we'd do. Do you have any ideas?" and he said, "No, I haven't thought about it myself. Maybe if you come in with some of the old stuff and I do too that'll be all right." I think he meant some of his old stuff, so it would be all his publishing. So I said, "Well, the only thing we could do is go into the studio and see what happens, right?" And I asked him if he had any material to spare and he said no, that he was kind of hard up, that he hadn't been writing as much as he used to and I mentioned that we all get fat and lazy and he laughed. And we wound up the conversation by saying that we'd be in touch with each other, nothing definite.

So we got to New York and did a couple of gigs - Felt Forum and Queens College - and that took care of the weekend. By Monday we were still in town, but waiting for some kind of word. Finally the guys took a 12:00 plane back to the Coast. And at 1:00 I got a call from Billie Wallington, a friend of mine at Columbia, and she said that the session was in Studio B at 2:30. Well, I explained to her what the situation was, and she called Dylan and he was pissed off that we didn't have the courtesy to sit around and wait for his phone call. Well, the crux of it all was that Clive was supposed to come down to the show the night before but he didn't show up, and we could have settled it all right there. The other thing was a political thing with Bob Johnston. We'd fired him as our producer, right, and Bob Johnston, as producer, is responsible for notifying the musicians of the time of the session within 12 hours. It's a union regulation. He knew where we were, but he didn't call us and Clive didn't call us. Like I say, it was political.

What I think it would have amounted to is that we would have been backup musicians for Dylan, like the Band, on a couple of cuts on his new album, which he never mentioned to us. He said it could be a separate album, the Byrds and Dylan, and I asked him what kind of billing we'd get on it and he said well, he didn't know, but Clive assured me that we'd be getting at least 33 percent billing on it.

I would have liked to have done it, if it had worked out at all. In view of the circumstances, I'm just as glad that we didn't get on...this...particular...album...that came out, because it was poorly prepared, that's my opinion. He came into the studio prepared to use a lot of outtakes from Nashville Skyline and a lot of the Isle of Wight stuff, which is just a remote, just a live recording rather than anything musically good. The New York stuff, "Wigwam" and a lot of those, are pretty good.

So I understand the album thoroughly. I understand why there are repeats to fill time because he didn't have enough new material to do it, why he used a lot of old folksongs that everybody's known for 10 or 12 years.

EW: Why is he claiming he wrote them?

RM: He's probably taking publishing on them as re-arrangements of public domain material. It's a standard trick. I've done it myself. But I usually make a few changes. "Old Blue." That's one.


The above is an insight into why the album may have turned out as poorly as it did. If the original concept had been to have Dylan record some traditionals with the Byrds, it would have been truly great, but because of confusion and misdirection it never happened, and Dylan was forced to rely on outtakes from Nashville Skyline instead, the first indication that this is indeed what he may have been planning in the early stages. The mystery for me is how he could have ever thought this would result in a decent album. [JH]

Bob Dylan interview with Kurt Loder in Rolling Stone, June 1984

KL: It always seemed to me that you where sort of infallible in your career up until Self Portrait in 1970. What's the story behind that album?

BD: At the time, I was in Woodstock, and I was getting a great degree of notoriety for doing nothing. Then I had that motorcycle accident, which put me outta commission. Then, when I woke up and caught my senses, I realized that I was workin' for all these leeches. And I didn't wanna do that. Plus, I had a family, and I just wanted to see my kids.

I'd also seen that I was representing all these things that I didn't know anything about. Like I was supposed to be on acid. It was all storm-the-embassy kind of stuff - Abbie Hoffman in the streets - and they sorta figured me as the kingpin of all that. I said, "Wait a minute, I'm just a musician. So my songs are about this and that. So what?" But people need a leader. People need a leader more than a leader needs people, really. I mean, anybody can step up and be a leader, if he's got the people there that want one. I didn't want that, though.

But then came the big news about Woodstock, about musicians goin' up there, and it was like a wave of insanity breakin' loose around the house day and night. You'd come in the house and find people there, people comin' through the woods, at all hours of the day and night, knockin' on your door. It was really dark and depressing. And there was no way to respond to all this, you know? It was as if they were suckin' your very blood out. I said, "Now wait, these people can't be my fans. They just can't be." And they kept comin'. We had to get out of there.

This was just about the time of that Woodstock festival, which was the sum total of all this bullshit. And it seemed to have something to do with me, this Woodstock Nation, and everything it represented. So we couldn't breathe. I couldn't get any space for myself and my family, and there was no help, nowhere. I got very resentful about the whole thing, and we got outta there.

We moved to New York. Lookin' back, it really was a stupid thing to do. But there was a house available on MacDougal Street, and I always remembered that as a nice place. So I just bought this house, sight unseen. But it wasn't the same when we got back. The Woodstock Nation had overtaken MacDougal Street also. There'd be crowds outside my house. And I said, "Well, fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can't possibly like, they can't relate to. They'll see it, and they'll listen, and they'll say, "Well, let's get on to the next person. He ain't sayin' it no more. He ain't given' us what we want", you know? They'll go on to somebody else. But the whole idea backfired. Because the album went out there, and the people said, "This ain't what we want," and they got more resentful. And then I did this portrait for the cover. I mean, there was no title for that album. I knew somebody who had some paints and a square canvas, and I did the cover up in about five minutes. And I said, "Well, I'm gonna call this album Self Portrait."

KL: Which was duly interpreted by the press as: This is what he is...

BD: Yeah, exactly. And to me it was a joke.

KL: But why did you make it a double-album joke?

BD: Well, it wouldn't have held up as a single album - then it really would've been bad, you know. I mean, if you're gonna put a lot of crap on it, you might as well load it up!


By 1985 Dylan was in a revisionist mode and confessed something that I had long suspected anyway: that the album was a deliberate joke. Perhaps at the time he didn't really want to believe it, but by this time Dylan was no longer interested in defending the album on its own merits and was ready to admit that he put it out to test the limits of his fans' credulity. [JH]

From Record Collector magazine, September 1992 - "In the Studio: Al Kooper on Dylan"

RC: How did that [Blonde on Blonde sessions] compare with the sessions for the next album you worked on with Bob, Self Portrait in 1970?

AK: I don't know what he was looking for on Self Portrait. We'd just go in and do 'cover' songs, all day long.

RC: Wasn't it obvious to everyone that the stuff you were cutting wasn't up to scratch?

AK: By this time we were really good friends, so his charisma had worn off for me. He was just this guy, you know, not some superhuman. But the other people on the session were really excited just to be there, and so everyone approached it with the enthusiasm they would have done if it was a new Dylan song they were doing.


So, according to Kooper they were recording the cover songs all along and nothing here to indicate that there was any actual original material being worked on, which is contrary to what Dylan will say later on. More on this later. [JH]

From Record Collector magazine, September 1992 - "In the Studio: Charlie McCoy on Dylan"

RC: The last album you did with Dylan was Self Portrait. Do you have any idea what he was trying to create out of that strange mixture of covers and new songs?

CM: In my estimation, Bob had already decided by that point that he wasn't going to work with Bob Johnston any more - for what reason, I don't know. Bob Johnston brought us a tape full of demos that Dylan had done - just guitar or piano and vocals - and on a lot of the songs, Kenny Buttrey and I simply overdubbed drums and bass. Dylan did do a couple of sessions here for that album, but he wasn't here for the whole thing, by any means.

I'm not sure, actually, that Self Portrait was a 'mutual agreement` project. Either Dylan told Bob to just go ahead and finish it up, by taking those demos and patching them up; or else maybe Bob Johnston still had to come up with some more tracks to complete his production contract with Dylan, and he just did them off his own bat. We never knew what the deal was.


Hmmm. The mystery deepens here. McCoy claims that they were really just overdubbing acoustic demos that Bob delivered and that he was rarely in the studio for much of the album. This makes great sense to me, because an awful lot of the album sounds like it may have been done in this way. Possibly the sessions that Kooper attended were different and Bob really played in the studio with the rest of the musicians, but I can see where songs like "It Hurts Me Too", "Alberta", and others may have been demos with later overdubs. [JH]

From Rolling Stone, November 26 1970 - "The Man Who Did Self Portrait" (David Bromberg article)

"On the Self Portrait album I was sitting right across from Dylan and I played whatever came to mind and there was hardly any discussion. On the new one [New Morning] there were more musicians in the studio - Dylan had the songs pretty well worked out beforehand. What they did was sit me in a corner where I had dobro, mandolin, mandocello, electric guitar, acoustic guitar and nylon string guitar. Usually I did rather than the solo things on Self Portrait was a lot less obvious things. Most tunes were first takes, sometimes second, because Dylan likes a spontaneous sound. Maybe the best thing I did on the album was not to play too much."

[Bromberg describes meeting Dylan and making vague plans to record together]

"...I didn't hear from him for about a month and then he called me up about two o'clock one afternoon and asked me what I was doing. He said he was going to test out these studios and would I like to come along, and I said sure. It turned out we had to be in the studio in half an hour and that was the beginning of the sessions for Self Portrait."

Bromberg remembers the sessions as "stream of consciousness things" - one song after another for hours, and he was sick with a high fever. He would work all day, go home, fall asleep and wake up in time to go back to the studio.

"I didn't remember anything we'd done until after the album came out. It was really a challenge, for instance, working on Little Sadie. You can tell if you listen to it that he's improvising almost everything he does and even he doesn't know what he's going to do next. All I can say about him is he's a good man, I get good vibrations from him, I like to play with him. That he's a genius, I don't question for a minute."


Bromberg's statement that Dylan was testing out studios would indicate that he was less interested in putting down great music and more interested in finding a good sounding studio in which to record his next album. Maybe Dylan didn't consider Self Portrait to be anything more than a warm-up for his next "real" album? The description of Dylan improvising throughout the sessions certainly rings true when you listen to the album.

From Biograph notes, 1985

Self Portrait, Dylan explained recently, "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. You know, if it actually had been a bootleg record, people probably would have sneaked around to buy it and played it for each other secretly. Also, I wasn't going to be anybody's puppet and I figured this record would put an end to that...I was just so fed up with all that who people thought I was nonsense."


Now Dylan was revising the story once again. He now claims that the tracks were warmups for the real material they were going to do. As Paul Williams asks in Performing Artist: the Early Years, where is this material? Is there a whole bunch of unknown recordings laying around that no one knows about? It's doubtful for several reasons. First of all, if this material exists why hasn't it been talked about by the musicians involved in the sessions? Second, Dylan's typical "good stuff" from the time was pretty mediocre, so I wouldn't hold out much hope for anything better than what we hear on Nashville Skyline or New Morning. But this leads me to what I've suspected all along: that Self Portrait was a collection of warmups recorded during sessions for both of those albums. The statements by Kooper and McCoy would seem to contradict this, though. [JH]

So, there you have some of the background surrounding Dylan's strangest album. If anyone has any more quotes by people involved with the sessions, or any other material that may shed light on what went on during the recording of this unique album, please drop me a line!

UPDATE: With the release of Another Self Portrait (volume 10 of the Bootleg Series), this seems like a good time to re-evaluate this period. One thing Another Self Portrait shows is that there was always the potential for Dylan to make a great album, but he either chose not to or was thwarted by circumstances beyond his control. Looking at the session details at the beginning of this article, it seems clear that the material that eventually wound up on Self Portrait spanned from the tail end of the Nashville Skyline sessions to the very beginning of what would become New Morning. The fact that songs from both album sessions show up on Another Self Portrait further emphasizes the connection. Self Portrait, therefore, was a sort of placeholder, and perhaps it was never intended to be a "real" album. The early sessions in Nashville were really more Nashville Skyline sessions, even though that album had already been completed. "Living the Blues", "Take Me As I Am", "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know", "Let It Be Me", "Take a Message To Mary", and "Blue Moon" were recorded at these sessions. Those songs, along with the ones that didn't make the final album, would have made an interesting follow-up to Nashville Skyline. There are bootleg versions of several of these songs without the eventual overdubs, and they sound quite nice.

However, it's likely that the feeling was that Dylan didn't need another album just like Nashville Skyline, and so Dylan set out on a different path. He took to New York (see the comments from David Bromberg above) and informally recorded some demos of traditional and modern folk songs with minimal accompaniment. These sessions, with just Bromberg and Al Kooper, in early March, make up the best material on Another Self Portrait and show what the album could have been. This material is so good that it's unlikely to me that Dylan intended to do anything other than make a great album along the lines of John Wesley Harding or the unreleased Basement Tapes, but somehow the misguided notion of sending the unfinished demos to Bob Johnston to overdub in Nashville led to one of the most disastrous decisions of his career (although later Dylan would try to spin this as a deliberate attempt to alienate his fan base).

The New York sessions, with the minimal accompaniment supplied, would have made a great single album, but for whatever reason the decision was made to also use the Nashville songs from April and May. The two sounds did not merge well, in my opinion, and to make matters worse it was also decided to use some of the Isle of Wight live tracks for filler. At one time the plan was to release Isle of Wight as a live album, but that was nixed when it was decided the quality wasn't good enough. Instead, we get Self Portrait. Luckily, now we get the entire Isle of Wight concert as a bonus to the 2-CD Another Self Portrait, so we can hear it in its proper context.

So, to sort this all out, there were three different potential albums here: a set of country standards; a set of traditional and modern folk standards; and a live album with The Band. At the same time, toward the end of the Self Portrait sessions, a new sound was emerging which would become New Morning - probably released much sooner than anticipated due to the anger unleashed at Self Portrait. I would love to someday hear all of the Nashville and New York sessions without the massive overdubs which ruined this great material.

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