Another gratuitous comment about Bob Dylan’s birthday
I’ve heard more frequently in recent years, folks contending Bob Dylan’s songs are better performed by other artists. I tend to assume this is because of his mumbling vocals, but find his voice quite intrinsically rhythmical and sing-songy, if not melodic. In fact, his delivery can be compared to genius comic timing, except without the humor. (Though he gets the humor in there sometimes, too.)
His unconventional rhyme schemes don’t easily flow from the lips of any singer, either, and I find many artists covering Bob seem to approach it as a lazy attempt to easily capture an audience’s meandering attention span. If your own songs aren’t connecting, for example, you can always fall back on “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.”
It’s gotten where covering Bob Dylan strikes me as kind of like bringing pre-made potato salad to a barbecue. It’s too easy and obvious. Almost as overdone as Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (it’s never Cohen they’re doing; always Jeff). And this is coming from a gal who took until her 30s to even warm up to Mr. Zimmerman.
Don’t get me wrong. I love folk songs. Obviously. Even moreso, I love watching pop songs grow into folk songs. The only way a song becomes welcomed into the folk vernacular is for it to be picked apart, poked, and prodded by enough people that folks begin to take for granted they can fashion it into their own possession, rather than the once-artistic statement of a single vibrant and provocative poetic genius.
Dylan had a fair point when he rejected the folksinger label. Not because he happened to have been making rock and roll at the time, but because he hadn’t yet been around long enough for his songs to become folk songs. They were too new. There was no way of knowing whether their timeliness would age into timelessness; no way to predict whether his off-the-cuff poetry would one day distill an era into a nostalgic soundtrack. But now, as he approaches his 70th birthday, it seems a little more fair to call at least the Bob Dylan of 1963 a folksinger, retroactively.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” hasn’t quite evolved as far as, say, “We Shall Overcome.” (Kids of this generation have yet to figure out how to respectively move the words around and add their own verses. That might take another 70 years.) But, it’s safe now to say that song will survive the next near-3/4 century. The answer to how to fix all our mistakes is indeed still blowing around in the wind, and we’re still standing on the ground, looking around.
At any rate, Bob Dylan turns 70 next week, in case you hadn’t heard. (There have been a number of posts in this community alone regarding his birthday, and the various ways the music industry is capitalizing on it for the sake of moving products). Red House Records sent me a collection of some of its finest artists paying tribute to the man, and I’m listening to it today.
And my feeling about this record is very dubious.
Red House Records is one of my favorite indie labels. Every record they’ve put out is worth owning. If you don’t have the time or money for that kind of commitment, though, they put out a 25th Anniversary collection a couple of years back. (I wrote about it for the old ND editorial site – during the couple of months between the mag going out of print and this format launching.) The artists on this collection are some of the best singer-songwriters I know of: Eliza Gilkyson, Meg Hutchinson, Cliff Eberhardt, the Pines, Pieta Brown, Lucy Kaplansky, etc.
Had I never heard of Bob Dylan, I might take this compilation as a solid statement from a community of songwriters who all happen to make records under the same Minnesota-based label. I might think some of these songs were dangerously and artistically non-melodic. I might think the shapely emotions pouring through these sparse arrangements were part of what makes me proud to be at all involved in the modern music industry – even if just as a person who comments on it. Particularly the performances of those artists I just named. Terrific. Beautiful and arresting renditions.
But on this day – and maybe it’s the rain, the grey and unseasonably cold air hanging quiet and staid in these hills – I’m getting hung up on something else.
As tends to be true of Bob Dylan covers, there’s the swinging pendulum of artists going out of their way to sound as unlike Bob as possible (Peter Ostrouchko’s “Mozambique,” for example) and those trying to mimic his rhythm and timing – even if unconsciously, as it seems with Danny Schmidt’s “Buckets of Rain.” This is always the problem I have with Bob Dylan covers. As an artist, Dylan is so incredibly stylized, so quintessentially Dylanesque, it’s hard for even the best singer-songwriters to deliver his songs without being conscious of their vocal lilting or the compensation of the instrumentation. The only time a Bob Dylan cover hits is when it’s such a part of the artist delivering it, you’d just as soon believe that person wrote it themselves. (Robin & Linda Williams, Meg Hutchinson, and Lucy Kaplansky, in this case.)
Outside of this disc, there have been some people who nail the unconventionality implicit in Dylan’s work – Joan Baez has most famously figured out how her voice can contort around his lyricism; Ani DiFranco did a pretty good job with “The Hurricane”…maybe you can think of others.
I’d almost go so far as to say Bob Dylan will never be a folksinger until folks can stop trying to sing his songs like he does. Folk music, after all, isn’t about aping someone else – it’s about singing for yourself. Frequently, it’s about singing for each other. Bob Dylan has been singing for himself for half a century.
In the meantime, though, to wrench myself away from the day’s cynicism, A Nod to Bob 2: An Artists’ Tribute to Bob Dylan on His 70th Birthday is a fine collection of good singers singing good songs.