By Paul Hobson and Tony Attwood
In this series we are looking at live performances by Bob Dylan in which he transforms a song in a most unexpected way. Paul has selected the videos; the commentary is by Tony.
You can find the first article in the series here where we looked at Pretty Peggy O, Ring them Bells and the total reworking of Visions.
The second article took in Like a Rolling Stone, Positively 4th Street and Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues.
This time we are taking in Tears of Rage, Masters of War and Man of Constant Sorrow.
Here is Tears of Rage
This is such a different interpretation of the song from that on the Basement Tapes that it is hard to express what is going on. Gone are the strange twists of the melody at the end of the lines, gone are the vocal harmonies, this is a stripped down version in which the lyrics rather than the music comes to the fore.
And given the history of the song and its co-writer it is thus much more powerful – if that is possible.
But it is the end of the chorus in this interpretation just tears me apart.
Come to me now, you know we’re so alone
And life is brief
If she comes to him, all is ok, but if not all is lost. A whole life changed through one simple decision. And I have the feeling that is so often how it is.
Perhaps that is what moves me so much about the song, and thus about this performance. If you do feel that life is often ruled by chance, those two lines really take on such a powerful meaning. If not, well, I guess the impact is going to be a bit less.
In fact, there can’t be many songs that can make “Masters of War” seem like light relief but in this context it does happen – particularly when this re-imagined version of “Tears of Rage” is followed by this re-imagined version of Masters of War.
And actually I can’t believe anyone who heard this version of Masters of War knew from the introduction what song was about to emerge.
What Dylan is doing here is deliberately singing off tune and bending the verse and line structure so that the neat divisions of the original are completely lost. As a result the horror of what would happen if the masters of war unleashed the powers they have created is made much more real.
An easy listen it certainly isn’t but the task for the listener here is completely different from when we first heard the song.
For when “Masters of War” appeared for the first time, we all needed to hear the lyrics, for this was a completely new and different type of anti-war song; one that got to the very heart of American society and the much lauded “American way”. It took the American dream and revealed it to have been turned into a nightmare by the people who were running the show.
Now the words have become so familiar to so many of us, how can the song be performed any more without it just becoming a set of words so oft heard that the meaning vanishes? The answer is through this extraordinary performance.
It is certainly not a comfortable listen, but then it wasn’t when we first heard it. All that has happened is that the original has become too familiar.
But if that transformation with “Masters of War” was unexpected, then what Dylan did to the early 20th century folk song “Man of Constant Sorrow” was even more unexpected – and indeed even more remarkable.
This song, originally called “Farewell Song” appeared for the first time around 1913 in a book published by Dick Burnett, and it has been part of the American folk song tradition ever since.
It is interesting how Dylan plays with the lyrics which interpret the original lyrics in a different way from the version on his first album.
Also the repetition of the last line of each verse give a much more dramatic impact to the whole piece. Here are the first three verses from this version
The three beats that pound through the whole piece are extremely powerful, leaving us unable to rest or jog along to the music (which is certainly something that can happen with the normal folk version of the song).
But all of that is actually the background, for there is something else here which gives us a very uncomfortable feeling about the whole song. Normally speaking the phrases of songs last for four or eight bars. Once you have heard a few dozen pop or folk songs you know exactly what is going on. You might not know any musical theory or know about four bar phrases, but you can certainly hear them and appreciate the roundness of the conception.
But here the first two lines of each verse lasts five bars. The next two lines take up another five bars. Then the final line is three bars line.
Dylan achieves this by stretching various parts of the song in unexpected ways. As a result it constantly tricks us, so we don’t know where we are. I have never come across a song doing this before.
The extension primarily happens at the start of each verse; it gives us that immediate sense of being on the edge – and being in constant sorrow. It is a remarkable technique. I hesitate to say it is unique – but I can’t think of anyone else doing it.
So another three re-interpretations. I hope you enjoyed them.
What else is on the site
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