Rory Block 2024
Photo: Sergio Kurhajec / Mark Pucci Media

Rory Block Pays Tribute to Bob Dylan and New York Roots

Blues singer/guitarist Rory Block reaches back to her youth for inspiration in this tribute to Bob Dylan, choosing tunes that “touched her heart and soul”.

Positively 4th Street: A Tribute to Bob Dylan
Rory Block
Stony Plain
28 June 2024

Rory Block enjoys a reputation as a brilliant interpreter of the blues. She’s a great slide guitar player who learned her craft when still a teenager from past masters like Rev. Gary Davis and Mississippi Fred McDowell. She began her musical career in the 1960s and has pursued her blues muse since.

During the past 20 years, Block has released a series of albums dedicated to her blues forbearers, such as Bessie Smith, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka [White], and others, to much acclaim. In 2021, she won the celebrated Koko Taylor Award for Traditional Female Blues Artist. Block has done more to successfully promote the classic blues than just about any other single artist.

Block grew up in Greenwich Village during the early 1960s during the “great folk scare” (as Pete Seeger called it). Her father was a country fiddle player and the proprietor of a sandal shop that served as the nexus for many prominent artists at the time, including Bob Dylan. Dylan has played his share of the blues over the years. Consider such notable tunes as “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, “Tombstone Blues”, and “Stuck Insider of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”. One would presume Rory Block would cover these and similar tunes when she decided to do an album of Dylan songs. That’s not the case.

Instead, Block said she chose the Dylan tunes that “touched her heart and soul” the most. The nine tracks on Positively 4th Street cover a wide range of Dylan’s oeuvre, from 1963’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” from his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan to the 2020 songs “Mother of Muses” and “Murder Most Foul” from Rough and Rowdy Ways. None of the tunes are blues songs, but Block brings out the blues influence on Blind Boy Grunt through her impassioned renditions of the material.

Dylan’s lyrical strength can often be found in the ways he mixes the cosmic with the comic. Rory Block brings out the dark humor of songs such as “Everything Is Broken” (from 1989’s No Mercy) by juxtaposing the heavy words with the light manner in which she plucks the strings of her guitar and sings. She croons lines like “Ain’t no use jiving, ain’t no use joking”, like she is jiving and joking. Even on the bleak “Not Dark Yet” (from 1997’s Time Out of Mind), Block uses the spaces between the words to ease the burden of a song about death into one that offers hope. She keeps the pace slow to relieve the weight of our shared existential condition, turning a word like “murmur” into a four-syllable prayer.

Like Dylan, Block has a naturally gruff voice. She performs the most famous cuts, “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Mr. Tambourine Man”, not all that differently than the originals. Her voice frequently echoes that of the original singer. Besides singing and playing guitar, Block also provides all the percussion that adds a martial element to the proceedings, especially on “Like a Rolling Stone”.  

The biggest surprise is Rory Block’s cover of the 20-plus-minute opus “Murder Most Foul”. She clearly articulates the lyrics, which address everything from the contemporary history of the United States to trends in popular music and culture as myth and truth. It’s a complicated song whose depth and explication are worth a book-length treatise. There’s a good reason why Dylan deserved the Nobel Prize for literature, and this song could serve as proof positive.

Block does the song justice. Her guitar playing keeps things sprightly over the tune’s long length. She orally captures its many nuances, whether in her phrasing of a word or line or in their juxtapositions with each other. Dylan’s lyrics purposely ramble to show the passage of time. The singer understands the world is a complex one that only makes sense. The individual elements only matter as keys to the kingdom. The murder of John F. Kennedy can only be understood in context.

Block chose “Positively 4th Street” as the title song because it refers to the part of New York City where she grew up. There is nothing sentimental about the song. Its bitter lyrics still maintain their shock value. Rory Block sings and plays it straight as she tells off a false friend. The singer/guitarist reaches back to her youth for inspiration, although much of the material is more recent. Her straight take on the song reveals her love for the songwriter’s music. If she and Dylan ever meet again on the streets of the Village, no doubt the encounter would be more sanguine.

RATING 8 / 10