Play lady play: from “me me me” to exquisite re-interpretations

Song selection: Aaron Galbraith.  Commentary: Tony Attwood

When, in the ancient days, I played in a band or three, there was a tendency for guys in the group to choose songs for us to do, primarily because they liked them.  Being a difficult sort of person I would ask if that was enough of a reason for us to play such songs.  From what I can recall the discussion rarely got any further than that, the general response to my questioning being that the song was ****ing great and if I couldn’t see it was ****ing great then I was a ****ing idiot.

I thought of this on listening to Cher’s performance of “Like A Rolling Stone”.  What, I wonder, is the point of turning it into a jingle jangle rendition of part of the song?  I mean I know in the early days you couldn’t get the whole of a long song on one side of a 45rpm record, but days have moved on.  Maybe it should be called “Like A Rolling Stone (Bits of)”

Does it add anything to Dylan’s version?  To me, quite the reverse.  It strips out all the brilliance, the anger, the finger pointing, the sad reflection, the head shaking, and instead just goes through the words.  It couldn’t be that she recorded it just to have a go at Sonny could it?

Moving on to the second selection, I think I’ve indicated that when the main invention in a woman’s treatment of a Dylan song is to use to it as an excuse for showing off the lady’s vocal virtuosity, then generally it doesn’t do much for me.

And that is what Tina Turner does.  Her voice can go all sorts of places and meander thither and yon, but I have this old fashioned vision of the arts – what the artist does should be done for a purpose; to add a feeling or emotion or give new insight.   There’s a moment when the good lady gets to the word “Christmas” and it becomes a shriek.  And I ask “why?”  It doesn’t sound good, it doesn’t fit in with the message of the lyrics, in fact it seems to be there just because she can.  To give a comparison, I could write the word “herbivore” at this point, just because I can, but it doesn’t make this a better article.

For me all songs are duets, a meeting of the singer and the music.  I am not sure Ms Turner would ever agree.

I think the point can be made by listening to the same band playing “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” in that the singing is exactly the same – the sudden reaching out to the limits in the middle eight, and I am left wondering what on earth it is all for.

So time to move on…

The contrast with Joni Mitchell is complete.  I found the background guitar effects come as a shock and at first I felt they were overplayed but as the performance continues the whole effect of the well-known lyrics with the slight changes in the melody and particularly the chords give an arresting effect.

By the time we got to the vagabond at the door I really was transported to another vision into the famous lyrics, which surely is part of the reason for covering a famous Dylan song.  The musical effects add to the ethereal sense and to the whole feeling of drift, which is surely the utter essence of the song.

In fact by the end of the performance I was feeling very uncomfortable whereas with Dylan’s original I felt the opposite, as if the saying goodbye was perfectly all right and it being time to move on was the everyday order of the natural universe.

And I don’t value this new interpretation because I like to feel uncomfortable, but rather that it is part of the world of emotions, and that, after all, is what life is all about.

But now for something completely different…

If you are a regular reader of this series, or indeed any of the series that Aaron and I develop together, you will possibly know that we are separated by some 3500 miles of land and (mostly) water, and we don’t discuss the songs before Aaron presents them to me.

So quite why he puts them in the order he does is never revealed.  And I had to admit that after taking myself down into the utter depths and expanses of Joni, to have the bouncy fun of Dolly was a shock.  She really does turn “Don’t think twice” into a lively jaunt, as if she is off to the jamboree; the real self-centredness of the person leaving, with not a single thought for the sorrow of the ex-partner who is left behind.   Blame, blame, blame, I’m off.

Which is of course how it often is, but if the one left behind is not as guilty as the song makes out, it can be hurtful.   But hey, it’s only love.  Yet as one who has oft been injured in love, it does make me think, has there ever been a nastier line than “you just kind of wasted my precious time”?

And so we move on to …. Janis Joplin.

Now what can be said for a performer who starts at full virtuosity and vigour and then really has nowhere to go but more of the same, and who chooses to perform a song which in the first line has the plea, “Please don’t put a price on my soul”?

I am just gobsmacked.  (That might not be a word that is familiar in your part of the word, but it describes my feeling perfectly.  I’m shocked, amazed, bemused.)

And then the end.  It just… well… stops.  Just like that.  Bang, the end.  Hmmmm.  Not for me.  Not at all.  Quickly I move on…

For Joan Baez’ performing “Seven Curses” Aaron has left me a note saying, “I wanted to include the demo of this track which was released on an extended version of her brilliant album “Play Me Backwards” as it’s utterly fantastic, but it’s not on YouTube, but this version from the Chimes Of Freedom album will have to do, it’s pretty similar and still great…

And indeed it is very interesting to come to this straight after the train being driven through the farmyard shed (which is the main image that comes to mind with the Janis Joplin recording above).

This rendition of “Seven Curses” reveals a perfect understanding of what is in the song – and really this demonstrates the point that I am stumbling towards in this little piece.  The issue is what dominates: the singer or the song?   In an ideal world the two merge as one, the singer is the song, the song is the singer, the accompaniment aids both.  Here it works to perfection.  We ascend to the ideal.

Next Sheryl Crow – Mississippi.

Now we all know Mississippi and we know what to expect, which is why the little organ four note introduction is such a shock.  This is not what this song is about … except odd and unexpected though it is, it doesn’t stop me wanting to stay with this…

And then when we get to “don’t have anything for myself anymore” well…

Now if you have meandered anywhere near to my rambling series on Bob Dylan’s compositions year by year, in which I take a look at the subject matter of each song, you will maybe have noticed the emergence of the idea that quite often Dylan uses phrases not because of their deep meaning but just because they sound good.

And this rendition of Mississippi uses such “sound good” phrases to perfection.  Just listen to “Everybody’s moving” moving onto that utterly gorgeously unexpected line “give me your hand and say you’ll be mine.”

This becomes an utterly joyful piece of fun.  Again, just listen to the last rendition of “Only one thing I did wrong”.  By the end I am still not sure about that four note organ theme, but hell, this is fun.  This really is joyful, amusing, lively, get-up-and-go, take on the world, do your own thing.  With Dylan it was a song of deep reflection.  Now it is transformed.

Next for something quite different: Linda Ronstadt – Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues

The point here is that we know exactly where we are when we hear those opening chords.  They are the essence of Dylan’s own version and they are kept; we know it is going to be a no-messing rendition.

And it is none the worse for that.  The “I don’t have the strength” line still sends shivers through me each time I hear it and Ms Ronstadt hits it to perfection.

So here is the paradox.  This is the song, as is.  No radical changes.  And yet it works and I want to listen.  I want to hear it.  I want to listen again.  I enjoy it.   The lesson to be learned is that you don’t have to change a song radically in order to make a new version worth hearing.  OK I’m not too taken by the instrumental break; I think I could have done better myself on the organ, but, well, possibly I exaggerate.

Last in this series, Emmylou Harris – Every Grain Of Sand

Aaron’s note to me says, “Emmylou also does a great “When I Paint My Masterpiece” but I went for Every Grain Of Sand…but it was a close call!”

That wouldn’t be my choice however, for what leaps out at me in this rendition is the curious drumming and rhythmic changes.  The drummer is emphasising the second and third beats of each four-beat bar.  It is odd.  It goes “one two three four”  over and over again.   But then suddenly we are into the 12/8 section in which we can hear the lilting 123 – 123 – 123 – 123.

To explain… it begins

In the time (beat beat) of my confession (beat beat), 
in the hour (beat beat) of my deepest need (beat beat)

And so on until we get to

Don't have the inclination to look back on any mistake
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break
which is in the lilting 1-2-3 1-2-3 that Dylan wrote it in, originally.

Playing with timing like this can work.  Jochen and I recently had an interesting discussion about the way Dylan plays with the timing in “Not dark yet” by adding two extra beats at the end of the line, and that really does work, because it adds to a sense of unease.   (Incidentally he plays the same trick again but with only one beat added in one of the songs on the new album, but we’ll come back to that anon.)

Anyway, for me the song really demands that beautiful gentle 1-2-3 to make it work and this experiment, brave though it is, makes me feel uncomfortable.

So there we are. Aaron, as ever, I hope I have done justice to your selection, and that you are not too offended by my comments on the tracks that weren’t to my taste.  Let’s do it again.

Meanwhile, here is where we have been

Play Lady Play

Untold Dylan: who we are what we do

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  1. I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!(lol)

    “Well-known lyrics” indeed!

    MichelL sings “the past is past” not “what will last”,
    and not ‘reindeer(or empty-handed) armies”, but “reindeer navigators’..,which certainly lend themselves to a different interpretation.

    Tell Ol’ Tony when he comes home that if he doesn’t stop writing that Dylan’s or whoever’s words don’t count, I’m going to cut off his arm!!

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