Musical selection by Aaron Galbraith, commentary by Tony Attwood
We’ve decided to have a little look at some of the performances by women of Dylan’s songs, and there’s surely no better place to start than “I Believe In You.”
Cat Power included the song in her album Jukebox following it immediately with her Dylan tribute song “Song To Bobby” on the album.
In the entry concerning Charlyn Marshall (Cat Power) Wiki states that her recordings “have frequently been noted by critics for their somber, blues-influenced instrumentation and melancholy lyrics, leading LA Weekly to dub her the “queen of sadcore.” She has rebutted this saying that far from being sad, her songs are triumphant. And certainly, her repertoire is varied enough to incorporate many different formats ranging from blues to soul, rock ‘n’ roll to hymns.
What she does with this song is singularly interesting in that she performs it in a minor key – an approach most commonly associated with sadness, while Dylan’s original is in a major key which has the opposite impact on most listeners. There is a jagged feel to Cat Power’s recording which is emphasized by this key change and which causes anyone who knows the piece to take several metaphorical steps in reverse trying to adjust to the new sound and the meanings it implies.
Phoebe Snow included the song on her 1981 album Rock Away – an album with an extraordinarily worrying cover for anyone with even the slightest concern about heights.
There’s an assertiveness in the opening which then utterly explodes in the second half of the verse. However there is so much made of the melody and lyrics so quickly, it seems hard to find anywhere else to go. It raises the issue of where the real significance of the song is – where the build up should be, and how far it should go. And that is the question that clearly concerns every performer here.
Every performer will surely be inclined to take the opening verses gently
They ask me how I feel And if my love is real And how I know I’ll make it through And they, they look at me and frown They’d like to drive me from this town They don’t want me around ’Cause I believe in you They show me to the door They say don’t come back no more ’Cause I don’t be like they’d like me to And I walk out on my own A thousand miles from home But I don’t feel alone ’Cause I believe in you
But the question is, does the song then build at “I believe in you even through the tears and the laughter” or should the performance wait until “Oh, when the dawn is nearing”
Or indeed the reverse.
Or (as can be seen if you care to stay with us through this piece) neither.
The brilliance in terms of the composition, of course, is that every performer has these choices to make, and will make them in different way. And this brilliance stems bother from the lyrics and music.
However Dottie Peoples from the excellent Gotta Serve Somebody album raises the second question of just how much the lead guitar needs to do – and how far the vocal gymnastics need to go. Indeed the key issue is that with lyrics this powerful and a melodic line this exquisite just how much does need to be added?
And as we can now see, not everyone agrees that the song needs to explode in an orgy of overwhelming deliverance.
Judy Collins, of course, is the past master of knowing how to hold back – largely because her voice is so exquisite that she can demand attention through a whisper, if she so wished. But here she does not just hold back but also something quite unexpected: she changes the melody of the chorus, while resisting all attempt to push the emotion ever further. Ms Collins is also taking into account that we all know the song, and therefore she can lead us around it by a different route, without ever losing the sense of where it is and what it is. And she can do that not least because of the harmonies she can conjure out of the melody.
Alison Krauss is also in the restrained school of signing – her version was included on the Aly McBain and Jerry Douglas album the Transatlantic Sessions – Series 5, Vol. Three. The contrast here with some of the renditions above could not be starker, for here the vision is that the song is easily beautiful and powerful enough to carry the listener through to the end through its simple gentility. With such songs less can most certainly be far, far more.
Which brings us to Sinead O’Connor.
As you may recall, if you are a regular Untold reader, I (Tony) wrote a piece concerning Sinead O’Connor and this song and expressing my own views concerning Ms O’Connor’s response to the piece, in relation to her own experiences in the Magdalene Laundry.
It is appropriate to finish with this version, because while some of the earlier examples we have above are strident in their rendition of the title through the song, and others go the opposite, much more gentle route, here a third approach is used, an approach which takes us into a wholly different dimension.
For here the song is treated as a delicate, fragile, trembling almost broken affair … one feels that Ms O’Connor is so torn apart by her experiences of the Catholic Church she can hardly make it to the end. And yet she can still say she believes. The point is however we no longer know what there is left to believe in.
This is an extraordinary rendition of an extraordinary song and reveals just how the meaning of a piece can be changed by its performance. Which in turn raises the question, which meaning is the right meaning? Or is there ever such a thing as the “right meaning?”
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