It’s curious how we seem to value the recordings of songs over the songs themselves. That is, in times past it was the song itself that mattered and the song that has survived. There might be a known composer, there might be a singer’s name attached to it on sheet music (“as sung by”), or it might simply be a song that emerged from who knows where, to be sung by anyone who needed to sing – folk music.
Recorded music changed all that. It established the idea of an original. A song became encapsulated in a performance that you could purchase, retain and re-play. Whatever came after it i.e. another artist performing the same song, or even the same artist revisiting the song, became a copy. It might be imitation or variation, but the first would always be first. That’s the logic of the copy. It acknowledges succession, and by implication diminution.
This is what is so intriguing about the cover version, something I have defined before now, for successful cover versions that is, as needing to be an arresting interpretation of an established original. Whether successful or not, there will always be the sense of an echo. The best was first. All we create is only a failed attempt to re-create something that existed previously. Imitation is an admission of our failure.
Occasionally a cover version breaks the mould and becomes the established version. Jimi Hendrix’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’ is a good example (even if I prefer Dylan’s ‘original’). Almost anyone’s version of ‘Hallelujah’, even the painfully slow version by the hapless busker outside the coffee shop where I started writing this post, is better than Leonard Cohen’s dreadful ur-rendition. But these are exceptions. What came first makes the song.
I don’t agree – or, at least, I find it disappointing that this is so. I think any recorded song, if it is to be successful, has to have the quality of folk music about it, where it becomes anyone’s song, and there is no hierarchy (‘Hallelujah’ has become the shining example).
With such thoughts in mind, I have been putting together alternative versions of some Bob Dylan albums. It is common enough to create cover version compilations of the noted songs of an artist or composer, but seldom are they shaped to replicate an original album. Booker T and the MG’s 1970 tribute to Abbey Road, McLemore Avenue, does so approximately. Petra Haden made a startling a capella version of The Who Sell Out in 2005. Thea Gilmore’s 2011 John Wesley Harding is entirely her covers of Dylan’s songs in the order in which they are found on his 1967 album of the same name.
But compilations featuring different artists producing their own, accidental version of an original album, must be rarer. Something like the 2018 jazz album A Day in the Life: Impressions of Pepper, with artists such as Mary Halvorson and Makaya McCraven taking on Sgt Pepper, is a willing collaboration. But the accidental collection, re-imagining not just the original songs but their original context, is all the more illuminating.
So, because Spotify is very good at enabling you to compile music in whatever form takes your fancy, I have produced five alternative Bob Dylan albums. There being so many Dylan cover versions you might think this would be a possible exercise for any almost any album, but quite a number of them have that one track that has never appealed to anyone except those copyist bands who endeavour to perform every Dylan track. Freewheelin’ is hampered by ‘I Shall Be Free’; Oh Mercy by ‘Where Teardrops Fall’. Then there is the need for excellence. Plenty of the songs have covers that add nothing, therefore failing the ‘arresting interpretation’ test. The goal is excellence – individually, and collectively.
So how have these alternative Bobs panned out?
Bringing it All Back Home is an album of discovery and excitement. It fizzes with the opportunities the vital language offers it. That expression of discovery applies to any period – so the Red Hot Chili Peppers segue into Duane Eddy who segues into Solomon Burke and each is singing from the same songbook. Some individual renditions stand out in particular – Dave Edmunds gets into the guts of ‘Outlaw Blues’; Melanie’s heartfelt ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ brings out all the song’s promise of hope and loss; Norwegian singer Ingrid Olava’s ‘It’s Alright Ma’ is a vital rediscovery; the 13th Floor Elevators know they have the finest of songs to work with in ‘It’s All Over Now (Baby Blue)” and that they are the people who can do it justice. An album for all the ages.
Highway 61 Revisited is an album that knows it is iconic. It has as much swagger as it has depth, knowing that it has do something very well with such ability at its command. It has to lead from the start, taking the listener to where they had no conception they might find themselves in the end. It’s a long journey from Articolo 13’s witty mash-up of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ through to Chris Smither’s worldly-wise ‘Desolation Row’. The absence of a single singing voice dissipates something of the album’s epoch-making effect, but the same voice is in the words and that binds it together. It’s an album that speaks in tongues.
Blonde on Blonde shows off. It’s mightily pleased with itself, though it has every reason to be so. The songs are eminently shareable – they feel like anyone could find their voice in them. Marianne Faithfull, Emma Swift, Nina Simone, Patti Labelle and even Richie Havens taking on the pompous privacy of ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ discover themselves in making those songs their own. It’s a showcase collection.
Is John Wesley Harding the finest of the ‘Dylan’ albums? On this evidence it could be. Songs of lost characters fighting private battles in public view, of sin and redemption, of the old West, fall together in these versions as though the artists all knew each other and had agreed on their plan. Thea Gilmore, who has produced a very fine John Wesley Harding album herself, is the right person to establish theme and tone. In an album full of highlights (so in an odd way they are not highlights at all, only necessary parts of the whole) there is special delight in the ringing tone George Thorogood finds in ‘Drifter’s Escape’, the elevating gospel of Marion Williams’ ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’ and Andy Fairweather Low ending things with a perfect sigh.
Blood on the Tracks is a document of one man’s sorrow. How can it work through multiple voices? Necessarily it must work differently. The contributors treasure the stories and the characters, without wholly understanding the source of its power. It is, in this form, a tribute album. When you listen to Diane Krall singing ‘They sat together in the park / As the evening sky grew dark / She looked at him and he felt a spark / Tingle to his bones / ‘Twas then he felt alone’, you know that she is telling us what she saw of Bob and Sara. It is a narrator’s album. The man himself is hidden from view, until he comes bursting through with ‘Buckets of Rain’, ostensibly a Bette Midler track, but the man on backing vocals can’t help but take over his own song. It’s the right way for the album to end.
I’ve not been able to put together other Dylan albums in this collaborative manner, at least not in a form that I find satisfying. Maybe others can do so. Certainly others could come up with different versions of the five above, which might then say different things. All, as individual songs or collectively, would be original.
Update (August 2023): I’ve added an Alternative Nashville Skyline and (thanks to Rebekka Bakken covering Where Teardrops Fall) an Alternative Oh Mercy: