By Paul Hobson and Tony Attwood
This is the first in what we hope will be a series of articles looking at Bob Dylan’s live performances; performances which offer us quite different versions of the songs when compared with the original recordings.
In this first article we look first at how Pretty Peggy-O moved from a fast country ballad to a slow piece of modern Americana in 1999. Then we consider Ring Them Bells as it moved to being a big band number in Tokyo in 1997. And finally, how Bob reclaimed Visions of Johanna in 2002, turning it from being a song that we all know by heart, into a piece that can astound and amaze us once again.
Pretty Peggy O
This folk song appeared on the first Dylan album, and has been performed 52 times by Bob, according to the official site which includes that annoying concept that it was written by Bob but with the letters “arr” after the statement – meaning actually he arranged it.
The song originated as The Bonnie Lass o’ Fyvie, and has mutated many times since, but the essence generally remains the same; a solider meets a young maid, seduces her, is ordered to leave by his regiment, and abandons her. However in some versions matters are reversed and the girl says no she will not follow the solider, and when he is ordered away it is he who dies of a broken heart.
As with so many songs, Pretty Peggy O was taken from Scotland to America, where it changed further reflecting different political realities. Meanwhile the soldier’s personality is transformed in version to version – he can be cold hearted and exploitative, or he can be tender-hearted and ultimatedly broken hearted.
The lyrics in this live version are much expanded from the version to be found on BobDylan.com. But what makes this such a fine performance is that although Dylan has the verse-verse-verse construction of the song which doesn’t vary, and a very simple story to tell, yet it is the band that holds our attention – something that is emphasised by the instrumental break in the third minute.
In fact it is the instrumental breaks in general which drive the feeling and emotion forward as the band clearly feels the emotion. As a result these emotions which cannot be expressed so easily when this is a simple folk song, are now emphasised by the music. The detachment has gone: music and singer are now there, feeling the pain.
Ring Them Bells
Here the big band constricts Bob’s ability to expand and shorten lines to some extent, and yet as this recording shows he is still perfectly able to bend and twist melody and rhythm around the orchestra.
Quite clearly there has been a significant level of rehearsal here which is unusual for Bob – we are more used to hearing about him changing the key that a song is played in, in order to surprise his band on the night. But this is quite different. The orchestration is not overly complex, but the instrumentalists are not going to change just because Bob suddenly does. He has to bend his creativity on stage to the overall ensemble.
If this is going to be done to any song, Ring Them Bells is a perfect vehicle because of the moving chords that make up each verse. Indeed what the orchestra is doing is playing the chords that Bob played on the piano in the original recording.
The introduction of the orchestra changes the feel and the meaning totally. Previously the atmosphere is of the individual calling out to his religion, in order to reach out to the world. Now with the orchestral instruments and multiple percussionists at work the piece becomes a shout of triumph; no longer is it a reaching out to announce that the souls will be saved in the future, but a message that the saviour is here.
And all achieved without changing the lyrics!
Visions of Johanna
Even though Visions is so famous and has been with us for so long, if one has not listened to it for a while, it can come as a shock to go back and hear the sparceness of the original LP version. That solo guitar, the harmonica and then the drums and bass, with the organ making its entrance so tentatively several bars in. It is space, space, space – we are in a room where the heat pipes cough, looking at the opposite loft with nothing to turn off. The whole message is that there is nothing here except the remembered images.
Now in this live version we don’t have much extra by way of orchestration, but we do have – as Paul put it – battling guitars. As a result the space has gone. The room is not so bleak, it is almost soft and cuddly.
Against this Bob’s voice comes in sudden bursts, like a series of slaps around the face. The inflections at the end of the line can go up or down – the cadences are challenges not resolutions.
The same is true at the start of the second verse – Bob pushes out the words like a soft machine gun. Indeed sometimes it is hard to imagine the lyrics moving any faster. And we get the impression that these are the New Visions, not the old visions that we heard before.
Because yes, somehow the Visions of Johanna have taken Bob’s place – the song is now more than the composer; it is so successful it has taken on a life of its own. A life without Bob. And so Bob is now pulling it back, taking it within his arms, giving it a good shake about, and saying, “well, that’s where we now are.”
Which is how it should be. We all know the song off by heart; it sure does need something special to jolt us out of our familiarity.
Coming up next in this series: Like a Rolling Stone, Positively 4th Street, Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues.