Bob Dylan and Bluegrass
Bob Dylan has been a part of the American musical consciousness since the early 1960s. In other words, a man now three-quarters of a century old has fascinated, irritated, entertained, intrigued, and inspired Americans for more than half a century. Through dozens of records, this man, who refers to himself as a folk singer more than anything else, has helped to revolutionize the American musical landscape. It’s little wonder that Dylan’s music has inspired and encouraged bluegrass musicians to cover his songs, particularly the ones written and popular early in his remarkable career.
Dylan is popular enough for someone to have had a Facebook page called Dylan Bluegrass Covers. The site’s collection of the bands that have covered Dylan ranges from the early days of first-generation bluegrass to quite contemporary bands, including bluegrass greats from all eras, including the Dillards, Tony Rice, the Seldom Scene, Earl Scruggs, Addie Adcock, Doc and Merle Watson, David Grisman, John Hartford, Pete Seeger, the Hillmen, The Country Gentlemen, Druha Trava, J.D. Crowe & the New South, the Kruger Brothers, Ronnie and Rob McCoury, Nickel Creek, Sam Bush, Tim O’Brien, the Johnson Mountain Boys, and the Rice Brothers.
Dr. Gary Boye, librarian in the Hayes Library at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, wrote a monograph called, “Bluegrass Covers of Bob Dylan Songs In the Sixties” in which he identified over 100 covers of Bob Dylan songs from 1963 – 2007, mostly using songs written in the ’60s, with a large number of bluegrass bands among the performers. He comments, “The search for covers with ‘crossover’ potential – songs that could make it into the popular music charts and not just the more regional country charts – was to have wide-ranging impacts on the music and the artists of bluegrass, as well as their audiences.” It’s clear that Dylan, though widely recognized in folk, folk-rock, and rock and roll, has had significant influence on bluegrass performers and the bluegrass audience. Two of his songs, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Wagon Wheel,” to which he contributed the chorus and perhaps a verse, have both become staples of jammers and local/regional bluegrass bands.
“Boots of Spanish Leather” is one of the most beloved Dylan ballads from his early catalog, recorded on his 1964 album The Times They Are A’Changin’. Telling the story of two lovers separated across the sea, it’s a haunting song that has been recognized as fine poetry, included in the Norton Anthology of Poetry (5th Edition). The Seldom Scene recorded it on their 2000 release, Scene It All.
In one of his earliest recorded performances (1963), Dylan sings “Man of Constant Sorrow” as a folk song, with a rhythm no one would try nowadays, because Ralph Stanley’s version has become the gold standard for this old song, originally called “The Farewell Song,” published by Dick Burnett in 1913. Like many such songs, it may have been adapted by Burnett in the early part of the 20th century from earlier versions. Regardless, Stanley made it his own, yet the song has been covered countless times.
The “Pickin’ On” series consists of a number of recordings put together by mostly anonymous Nashville studio musicians playing bluegrass versions of a variety of songs from rock and country singers. The versions that I’ve heard are melodious and ear pleasing, with most of the edges rubbed off for bluegrass listeners. Some of the musicians on the records include Pat Bergeson, Bryan Sutton (five time IBMA Guitarist of the Year), Randy Howard, and Robby Turner, Charlie Cushman (2016 Banjo Player of the Year), Brent Truitt (mandolin player for the Steel Drivers), and a number of other contributors.
The Tuttle Family performed a cover of Dylan’s “It Take a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” at the Strawberry Music Festival, one of the festivals sponsored by the California Bluegrass Association. It’s a rousing bluegrass version of a song Dylan recorded, and it has a completely different vibe to it than the original. Molly Tuttle, playing banjo on this video, is now a graduate of Berklee College of Music and fronts a band of her own. Does the cover serve the song, or change it completely? Should a cover serve the composer and the song or recreate it with a differing meaning and sensibility?
Bluegrass has, throughout its history, borrowed (a less polite person might say “cannibalized”) older music. From its very beginning it has used music once popular in other formats from 40 or 50 years earlier, including parlor music and minstrel songs from the 19th century as well as gospel and folk music from hundreds of years of tradition. Sometimes it takes the edge off songs from, say, jazz or ragtime. At other times, it puts an edge on with fast harmonies and cutting instrumentation. It changes them and makes them its own. In the case of Bob Dylan, whose singing style, use of figurative and stream-of-consciousness language, as well as boldly descriptive images that cut to the quick of people’s imagination have found their way into bluegrass repeatedly since the genre was born, always enriching and extending it.
I’ll be reviewing Dylan’s autobiographical book “Chronicles: Vol. 1” over on my blog in a week or so. For my take on this fine book, go over and visit.