Friday, May 24, 2013

Bob Dylan's "Mama, You've Been On My Mind"

Bob Dylan turns 72 today, a fairly unremarkable fact, certainly not on the order of wonderment of, say, the notoriously self-abusive Keith Richards looking forward to birthday #70 in a few months following yet another extensive and strenuous Rolling Stones concert tour, or Pete Seeger's continuing vitality in his twin roles of musician and activist at the age of 94 - and as the godfather of American folk and roots music through most of the 20th century. Dylan remains simply Dylan, soldiering on doing his Dylan things, writing, touring, and performing, and now reaping accolade after accolade and award after award as cultural institutions around the world trip over each other in a mad rush to acknowledge his genius while he is still around. To any real Dylan fan, and I would guess to Bob himself, the recognition is fine, but it belabors the obvious - that in the words of the special 2008 Pulitzer citation he has had a "profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power." Time Magazine included Dylan in its controversial and typically idiosyncratic list of the most important people of the 20th century, and there is an international coalition of college professors who have organized and mounted a campaign to have Dylan named as a Nobel Laureate in literature.

That last may be a bit of a stretch - or not, depending on what you think literature and poetry are, just as one's reaction to the "singer" part of Dylan's role as a singer-songwriter depends very much on what one values in singing. A polished pop vocalist like Frank Sinatra (a towering figure in 20th century popular music, every bit as significant as BD in overall impact) he is not, but it is beyond serious question that his evolving vocal styles have shaped the sound of rock music throughout the world, and a recording in that genre that does not demonstrate Dylan's influence is as rare a bird as a pop vocal that does not have Sinatra's fingerprints all over it.

I have almost from the start enjoyed Dylan's vocals - almost, since on his first album he was affecting a kind of Woody-Guthrie-reheated singing style that just didn't come close to matching the easy, homespun sincerity of Guthrie's own. Traces of that remained in some of the performances on the second album pictured above, but the fact that The Freewheelin' featured mostly original compositions, including several that became folk/rock standards like "Blowin' In The Wind" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," overshadowed the actual renditions themselves as the quality of the lyrics essentially proclaimed the arrival of a new and very accomplished writer of folk-styled music. Still, the vocals here are merely a foreshadowing of the explosively original approach that Dylan seemed to perfect in the landmark 1965 recordings for Highway 61 Revisited, especially "Like A Rollin' Stone."

Of course, not everyone is as enamored of Dylan's vocals as most folks seem to be of his writing. Alec Macpherson, for example - a younger music reviewer for Britain's The Guardian - took a sledgehammer to the icon's singing in his review of Dylan's 2012 album The Tempest (a recording I thoroughly enjoyed, by the way). Macpherson commented that

For all the reverence Bob Dylan attracts in certain circles, it's been surprisingly easy to live life, as first an obsessive music fan and then a professional music critic, thoroughly untroubled by him. A sole ill-fated attempt to get into him....ended two-and-a-half songs into a best-of compilation with me flinging the CD out of the window, outraged that anyone could have the temerity to sing like that and call it art.

And further -

Dylan's lyrics don't come to life because he doesn't bring them to life. His voice is famously divisive – but, as horrible a rasp as it is, the problem is more about what he fails to do with it. He colours between the lines performatively, almost wilfully avoiding any element of spontaneity or surprise....lyrics in pop, rock and rap are not poetry: they're performance. The best exist not in a dry textual vacuum but are inextricably connected to the nuanced vocal inflections, the rush of notes, the tempo shift. A line that appears banal on paper can be – not seem, be – profound in the mouth of a talented vocalist. Words that look like nonsense can sound intensely meaningful if delivered as though there's something important at stake. And music can breathe vitality into cliches...

...which Macpherson maintains that Dylan never quite achieves, even when the words demonstrate the sublime lyricism for which Dylan has become so celebrated.

While I salute Macpherson's apt and usually-overlooked distinction between poetry and song lyrics, I can't quite go along with so total a diss on Mr. Zimmerman's melodizing, and my Exhibit #1 for the defense is Dylan's work on one of his best love songs, 1964's "Mama, You've Been On My Mind," a studio recording that inexplicably was never released as an official Columbia track until 1991, though bootlegs of it and of live performances had been circulating almost since it was written. The song is said to be about the break-up of Dylan's relationship with the late Suze Rotolo (the young woman pictured above, of course), and the June 9, 1964 recording is a classic of the kind of folk simplicity that Dylan was soon to abandon.



At his best in his early years, Dylan's singing could express both rage (as in many of the political songs) and pain, as here. "Spontaneity and surprise"? Maybe not - but both or either would be utterly out of keeping with the nature of the lyrics, and the fact that Dylan avoids them is a credit both to the performance and to his understanding of the nuances of his own verses.

Joan Baez provided Dylan with the biggest early boost to his career (along with Peter, Paul and Mary) - Baez was already a folk superstar and the subject of a Time Magazine cover story before Dylan even arrived in New York City. Her formal studio recording (as "Daddy, You've Been On My Mind" to make the lyric gender-appropriate) appeared in 1965, almost a year after she began performing the song live, often with Dylan in tow as an opening act who would join her on this number.



The purity of the young Baez's soprano and the more conventionally-understood excellence of her singing puts a different spin on the tune - and makes it rather more commercially palatable than BD's rendition above.

Johnny Cash's signature rockabilly-influenced sound also lent itself to an interestingly different take on the song:



Note that in deference to censors and the standards of the more conservative country radio stations which at first gave Cash his greatest airplay, he tames the lyric a bit in the third verse from the original "I don't even mind who you'll be waking with tomorrow" to "It don't matter to me where you'll be waking up tomorrow..." Cash, of course, helped to bring Dylan's writing to country audiences as much as Baez did to the folkies.

Beatle George Harrison also loved Dylan's whole musical approach - the band's 1967 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was directly influenced by BD, and Harrison covered a number of Dylan's songs in live performance. This is a studio recording from Harrison's Living In The Material World album from 1973:



I find it interesting that on this track Harrison is affecting a Dylanesque tenor to his singing, unusual because in most of his solo work George H. had a quite distinctive and pleasing vocal style all his own, one that sounded nothing like this. Think "My Sweet Lord" or "Give Me Love."

The Kingston Trio came a bit late to the Dylan party, likely because their chief competitors at the top of the pop-folk heap were Peter, Paul and Mary, who had scored two top 15 singles hits with Dylan tunes before the Trio had recorded even one and who seemed to have a lock on the reputation as interpreters of BD. The KT had been used to setting trends in folk, not following them, though the group eventually recorded a number of BD songs toward the end of its first cycle. This rendition (as "Babe, You've Been On My Mind") was not released until 1969, two years after the group broke up and a bit before KT's Bob Shane re-formed the band with different partners as The New Kingston Trio.



The lead vocal and 12-string guitar work here are by John Stewart, who was shortly to embark on his own career as a singer-songwriter. Stewart's voice has the perfect tinge of loneliness and longing appropriate to the lyric, though it's worth noting as well the as-always supremely tasteful and understated harmonies provided by Nick Reynolds on the latter verses.

There have been scores of covers of the song over the decades, and it has continued to find its way into the repertoires of younger artists to this day. One of the better recent versions is from the Swedish duo Mando Diao, here from a live performance from 2005:



Sounds to me as if the guys had been listening to Johnny Cash and Simon&Garfunkel and fused their styles into this track.

Lastly, Jack Johnson has been a favorite of my high school and college students for over a decade now, and he has a distinctive approach to the songs he covers - here, slowing the tune to a more reflective pace:



Johnson uses a range of musical tools here, including bringing in more instruments as the recording builds to its climax. Good stuff.

Not surprisingly for a blog about folk music such as this one is, Bob Dylan's name crops up scores of times in the more than 180 articles here. How could it not? Though I have issues with the mawkish adoration and hagiography that have become attached to a very real person and artist, and though a realistic and balanced understanding of both the extent of his achievement and its very nature is likely decades and perhaps generations away, I do like a remark made by critic J. Hoberman in The Village Voice a few years back because it gets at the essence of Dylan at the same time that it expresses the problematic nature of his relationship with folk music. Hoberman says "Elvis might never have been born, but someone else would surely have brought the world rock 'n' roll. No such logic accounts for Bob Dylan. No iron law of history demanded that a would-be Elvis from Hibbing, Minnesota, would swerve through the Greenwich Village folk revival to become the world's first and greatest rock 'n' roll beatnik bard and then — having achieved fame and adoration beyond reckoning — vanish into a folk tradition of his own making." It can't be summarized better than that.

So a happy birthday to Robert Zimmerman, wherever you may be. Long may you run.

Addendum

I can't believe that this version did not appear in my YouTube search - or rather, I do believe it, since the YT search protocols reek and are a disgrace to its corporate master Google. In any event, Linda Ronstadt was one of the great singers of the era, and this version - ferreted out of YT obscurity by my longtime friend from back in the day Mike Peterson, to whom I tip my cap and pull my forelock - has the distinct folk rock sound she helped popularize, with more than a bit of the Stone Poneys[sic] sound, the band she had just left to record the solo album this is from.

1 comment:

SK Waller said...

I'm always baffled by people who blast Dylan for his voice, especially when there are so many truly bad singers out there these days. I think it's rather like the ever-popular coulrophobia. Of all those who say they're afraid of clowns I wonder how many of them actually are. It's a convenient peg on which to hang oneself in hope of fitting in with all the others who claim to suffer from it. Banging on about Dylan's voice is equally convenient. I mean, we went through Punk and now have all the cookie cutter "anemia girls" and "grit boys" who can't carry a tune without the pitch control knob, and people are still going on about Dylan's voice? Sheesh.

SK Waller