Play Lady Play: A Simple Twist of Fate

Music selected by Aaron Galbraith, commentary by Tony Attwood

Having written over half a dozen of these Play Lady Play articles I am getting to understand my own preferences for interpretations of Dylan’s music.  And what it comes down to is simply this: that the performers recognise that they are handling a work of art by the greatest songwriter of the era, and either the greatest or second greatest popular songwriter of all time (the debate there being between Irving Berlin and Bob Dylan).

In doing this I want the artist to be give us her or his own interpretation, but also show respect to the original and the genius who composed it.

To use a Dylan song to show off one’s own virtuoso abilities is not a crime – providing that the performance also enhances our understanding of the song.  If the song is used for self-aggrandisement, well it does nothing for me for it fails to recognise the integrity of the work itself, and its composer.

Embellishments are fine, but for me they have to add to the music not be a platform for the performer to shout LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME.  Thus by way of example, no one can ever accuse Jack White of not embellishing the songs he works on, but he always manages to do it in keeping with the work and enhances it.  And he does this by having an innate understanding of the music he is handling.

The ever dependable Judy Collins can do it too, by going in the opposite direction, stripping the song down to the basics, and then letting us hear and feel what the “Simple Twist of Fate” that is the heart of the song, actually does to the individual.   The pain and the joy of random events, so perfectly portrayed.  This is a perfect way to start our quest which is going to go to one or two rather strange places.  (I hope you are prepared.)

Moving on, if anyone has an automatic understanding of Dylan it ought to be Joan Baez, with that extraordinary voice, and her long association with Bob.

Here she uses the harmonies that she offers us, very cautiously, and so they have a much greater impact.   But also  the orchestration is exquisite – kept perfectly under control but adding so much to the rock band.

I only have two complaints, both related to repetition.   First the lead guitarist; having found that opening riff, delivers it about 20 times in the course of the piece, and really, we get the hang of it after a couple of renditions.   Two at the start and two in the middle would have done me.  The repeat we want, need and expect, is of the title phrase.  No other repetition is required.

The other is that verse that Joan speaks in a mock Dylan voice.  Maybe slightly amusing the first you hear it, but like the guitar riff, it is just boring if one plays the song several times.  And really that’s the point.  Dylan songs are meant to be played and played as we extract an ever deeper meaning from within.  That’s why the greatest of recordings can be listened to across the years.  And I’d happily listen to this again, if it weren’t for that twiddly guitar riff and knowing the silly spoken verse is about to come my way.

With Diana Krall, our next lady with the simple twist, we have another one of those frustrating situations where different videos seem to work on different continents.  And really this is a general point; if any video doesn’t play where you are, do a Google search, and you might well find one that does work in your country.   Aaron and I are (self-evidently) only checking these out for the USA and UK.

Here’s the link Aaron provided  which is not working in the UK.  And below is the recording I’ve heard…

This is an emotion-tugging beauty – if you listen to it and feel nothing, well, ok, maybe this isn’t the the song for you.

Dylan can deliver political messages, simple observations of life, religious treaties, humour, insights into the very depths of the human condition and emotional messages… and that’s hardly started the list of what he can do, and many of his songs can be treated in so many different ways because of the depth of the writing – as becomes evident here.

This performance pulls at my emotions more than I expected.  I know what the song is, and in writing this I am listening to the songs in the order Aaron presented them, not in an order of my choice, but at this moment I am wondering if I don’t need a break in order to come back to this later.

But no, I’ve given myself a deadline, and I must push on.  But really, after Diana Krall’s performance I am thinking I might need a break.  Not yet time for the coffee however, so I move on.

And the point then of course is, in choosing to go on, am I going to be able to appreciate further manipulations of my emotions.  And in this regard Kristin Lomholt’s performance takes me aback by its totally unexpected opening.

It is certainly a way of getting attention, but then so is the way she deals with the melody.  And this is not me complaining about divas showing off their range – there is none of that.  The lady plays with the melody, but in a way that is totally acceptable.

Personally I don’t feel the wordless sung interludes give me anything new – somehow I feel the continuity of the lyrics through the song are part of what makes the song work.  Fate keeps coming along and taking over, no matter much you try and keep it at bay, it is inexorable.

And at that moment with the chorus singing its wordless part once more the lady loses me – but that’s not her fault.  And if I now write “Wyrd bið ful āræd,” it is unlikely that you will have the slightest notion what I am saying.  It is Norse for “Fate is inexorable.”

Now you may well be seeing if there is a psychiatrist handy in my part of England given that I have meandered into an ancient tongue, but there is a point here.  These songs, at their most powerful, should trigger not just emotions, but also associations so that one’s mind is invited to drift, to explore, to consider…   That is what good music should always do.   It doesn’t matter that I travel to “Wyrd bið ful āræd,” and no one else has a clue what I mean.  The point is that great music opens the door to journeys like this, and great performers realise that and make further journeys possible.  Time to move on…

Concrete Blonde certainly offer us a different set of journeys with their guitar opening and the lady’s deeper voice, and Concrete Blond do take us somewhere completely new, but that is only half the point.

The personal issue is whether or not I want to go there, and here the answer for me is “in part”    The point is that the verses that are half sung and half shouted really don’t do it for me.  I get the feeling from the song that the singer is in despair in terms of what fate does.  But I have never had the feeling that there is anger in the phrase “blame it on a simple twist of fate,” so it doesn’t work for me.

What I don’t know, and Aaron, maybe you’d like to tell all of us, whether the order that you provide the songs in is carefully selected by your good self, or whether it is random.  After that concrete pain, I’d like to think you are giving me a chance to come back down to earth in a relatively gentle way.

But actually what happens to me here is that I rather wish I’d not listened to Sarah Jarosz’ version with that wonderful double bass accompaniment straight after Concrete.

If you don’t know the work of Sarah Jarosz you really should go exploring.  The New York Times said of her that she is “widely regarded as one of acoustic music’s most promising young talents: a singer-songwriter and mandolin and banjo prodigy with the taste and poise to strike that rare balance of commercial and critical success.”

So now, clear your head of all other thoughts, reset the recording above and listen again, and just think, could anyone else have created that?

Maybe the best thing is to continue through this little set of reviews, and then make a diary note to come back to this track tomorrow.  This lady really is something else.

What I can say is that if you just jump forward into the track of Barb Jungr, then it is best not to do it while undertaking heavy lifting.

For we are now somewhere very different, not least because this version totally removes the rhythm and takes us towards a modern jazz that was delivered by Dave Brubeck in the 1960s.

But that comment is in reality a reflection on my ignorance – I had a bit of background knowledge on this but it was lost deep in my past memories.  If you would like to know more about what is going on in the next example, then after the video of “Twist of Fate” I have added a second video (sorry Aaron I know it is your department) in which Barb Jungr explains a little of what she is up to, and then performs “Blind Willie McTell” – which I think is a much more approachable performance.  In fact I would go so far as particularly to recommend you do listen to Blind Willie, although maybe not to interrupt Aaron’s selection here.

Here’s the second vid with the explanations and Blind Willie

So, enough of my diversions, back to Aaron’s selection, with Dave’s True Story, a much more relaxing approach; the sort of version that reminds me of what I thought of the song when I first heard it 45 years ago.  (Oh my it really was 45 years ago.  What happened?)

This is a beautiful relaxing version that really does make me think of the past, remembering if I can when I first heard the song, where I was, what I was doing, what I hoped for in my life, and what actually happened.   Somehow I find myself thinking, did I get it right?  Did I do the right things?  Have I lived a good life?  Have I behaved like a decent person should?  As one approaches later life such questions seem important although impossible to answer, and rather painful to ask.  But perhaps not so pointless as they might seem.

And so we come to the end of the journey with Stacy Sullivan

It is as if Aaron knew I was going to be sinking into some sort of morbid reverie and wanted to jerk me back to today.

And I think we are not doing Stacy Sullivan justice by having her at the end of the review.  This isn’t a shockingly different piece but the lady and her band do more than justice to this wonderful song.  If you are ever minded to return to this little adventure, maybe it would be an idea to work backwards next time, in order to appreciate the new meanings she put into this song.

I think I’ll make a note in the diary to play it again tomorrow, rather than rush straight back to the earlier songs.

I must say I am drained having listened to each song and written each little review. My emotions have been pulled thither and yon as they used to say (at least in England they used to say that), I am stretched and exhausted, battered and needing a strong coffee.

Thankfully it is now after 10am, and by my acupuncturist’s rules I am now allowed my second (of three) cups of the day.

And I am also grateful Aaron left it at this point, for in his final note he added,

“As you can see it’s a very popular song to cover, there were many many other versions I could have chosen… KT Tunstall does a great live version, Aimee Mann covered it during the lockdown Dylanfest last week (maybe we can do a look at lockdown covers…I’ve seen many of them), a Dutch singer Stevie Ann sang it on a Dutch TV show amongst many others, but the ones I selected above seem to be trying something different with the track, unlike , say KT Tunstall’s version, which whilst fantastic is more of a “straight” cover.”

Aaron, my dear chap, I’m so glad you stopped where you did.  There is only so much emotional heart wrenching a poor reviewer can take.

Play Lady Play: some earlier editions

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