Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues: The sixties’ covers: Into the stratosphere

Previously in this series…

by Jochen Markhorst

“Paradoxically, In My Life was just what we hoped it would be: the singer-songwriter material my fans expected, plus some totally unexpected selections. Dylan was represented, of course, with “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” but with orchestration by Josh Rifkin that would have knocked the socks off Dylan had he been wearing any.”
(Judy Collins, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes, 2011)

Judy Collins’ self-congratulatory autobiography is rather marred by smug, immodest and boastful outbursts, and by that standard, her comments on her recording of this Dylan cover do fit in. But the arrangement that Collins continues to extol over 40 years later does not really stand the test of time. Her “socks-off knocking” cover is introduced by pretentious flute work that one would sooner appreciate in fabric softener commercials or a nature documentary about butterflies in the English countryside than in a rendition of a folk rock classic. The harp in the second verse doesn’t make it any better, and it keeps going downhill; melancholy clarinet, increasing neuroticism in the flutes, misplaced al nientes, silences suggesting a Disney dramatic build-up and Judy’s flat vocals… no, Dylan or any other fan of the song won’t need suspenders.

But she does pick up the song quickly. Judy records the song in the summer of ’66, when the song is less than a year old. But she’s not the first. Highway 61 Revisited is in shops August 30, and four days later, Friday, September 3, the then relatively unknown Canadian Gordon Lightfoot performs on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. He plays two songs: his unforgettable masterpiece “Early Morning Rain”, which Dylan will record a few years later for Self Portrait, and before that the brand new “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”. The orchestra tape features the music that can also be heard on the single; Gordon has already recorded the song before the broadcast, including the irresistible horns.

Tom Thumb is not the only overlap of both troubadours. In 1965, Lightfoot joins the artist menagerie of Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman, and has, at the time of his Tonight Show debut, been performing with limited success for a couple of years now. Gordon has recorded a few singles, and has already had some hits in Canada. He is also present at the Newport Folk Festival ’65, at Dylan’s famous electric gig, performing too, a few hours before, on that same Sunday, 25 July. His setlist is untraceable, but in a David Gahr photo book is a picture of Lightfoot’s 12-string guitar, taken that very same day. On the side is a handwritten note with some eighty song titles: his repertoire includes a handful of Dylan songs (“Blowin’ In The Wind”, “Hollis Brown”, “Girl From The North Country”, “Don’t Think Twice”) and songs that Dylan has on a pedestal as well (“Wildwood Flower”, “I Still Miss Someone”, “Diamond Joe”, to name a few).

And Dylan is a more than interested listener to Lightfoot’s records, as he reveals in an interview with Jann Wenner in ’69:

“I heard the sound that Gordon Lightfoot was getting, with Charlie McCoy and Kenny Buttrey. I’d used Charlie and Kenny both before, and I figured if he could get that sound, I could. But we couldn’t get it. (Laughs)”

Dylan refers to Lightfoot’s second album, The Way I Feel (1968), the album with the monumental “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” and the beautiful “Song For A Winter’s Night” – wonderful songs, with indeed a warm and sparkling sound completely different from John Wesley Harding’s dim, muffled sound.

Lightfoot’s Tom Thumb sounds like a rush job, though. For the single that will be released the same month of September, apparently the same master tape was used as for the Tonight Show. The sound is unbalanced, fluctuating between warm and shrill, and dull and sharp, mistakes are not corrected, the tempo is unsteady, as is the volume – yet the recording has an indestructible, timeless charm. Only the tambourine could have been mixed out.

Three months later, the second professional Tom Thumb cover demonstrates the opposite of such an indestructible, timeless approach. Barry McGuire records his version of the song for his second album, This Precious Time, which was to build on the world success of “Eve Of Destruction”. It is a nice album, but it is mainly of music history value because he has old friends make their studio debut as backing choir: John Phillips, Denny Doherty, Cass Eliot and Michelle Phillips. The birth of The Mamas And The Papas, in other words, debuting their “California Dreamin’”. Having done their work for McGuire, they politely ask Dunhill Records boss Lou Adler if they may sing and record their own version over the same tape. It’s Thursday 4 November 1965, all the leaves are brown and the sky is grey – and the rest is history.

Beautiful enough, but McGuire’s approach to Dylan’s masterpiece is a catastrophe. Overacting has always been McGuire’s pitfall, but here he even seems to be parodying himself on that front; posturing crackly voice and utterly misplaced bits of parlando à la Captain Kirk’s bizarre excursions into music land (William Shatner – The Transformed Man, 1968). McGuire obviously has a bigger budget and more studio time than Gordon Lightfoot, but still: more is often less. The producer decides on an irritatingly rigid left/right stereo separation and a reverb as if Barry were standing in the empty hall of a metal factory. “Ha ha,” Barry recites, bereft of any mirth, and “How does that feel?”, concluding with an incomprehensible “Baby walk home, come on”.

Equally dated, but charming nevertheless, is the pure Westcoast of West, Ron Cornelius’ little successful band. Hazy harmonies and breezy guitar fiddling like, say, Harpers Bizarre, Peppermint Trolley Company, or one of those many, many forgotten San Francisco bands of the Summer of Love – and partly exactly because of that, of that abundance, West never really floated upwards, presumably. Cornelius, however, remains infested with the Dylan virus. The B-side of their Tom Thumb single features “Baby You Been On My Mind”, and their second LP Bridges (1969) features a rare, and very enjoyable, “Down Along The Cove” cover. Produced in Nashville by Dylan producer Bob Johnston, who then invites Cornelius to help on Leonard Cohen’s Song From A Room and Dylan’s Self Portrait sessions. Apparently, Dylan likes what he hears; on New Morning Cornelius plays again, and after that he remains Cohen’s side-man for most of the 1970s (he has a co-credit on “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”).

In between, he makes one beautiful, totally ignored solo album (Tin Luck, 1972). “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” he never plays again.

The sixties still have some more obscurities to offer (obviously). Like the enchanting, but not overly talented Marianne Faithfull carbon copy Deena Webster in a touching old-fashioned Lady Jane arrangement;

On the otherwise equally moving LP Tuesday’s Child (1968), there are at least equally charmingly failed versions of The Bee Gees’ “New York Mining Disaster 1941” and Donovan’s “Colours”, but also a still special “House Of The Rising Sun”. Where Deena suddenly sounds like Joan Baez, by the way.

Also from the Westcoast comes the act that is even a few degrees more obscure than Cornelius’ West: the psych-folk duo Maffitt / Davies. Not only the beauty, but also the injustice is comparable; their only LP, The Rise And Fall Of Honesty (1968) is a gem of harmonies, Americana and guitar tapestries. The opening track is another wonderful Dylan cover, the spectacularly orchestrated “Just Like A Woman”.

Still, forever lost in the rain of Juarez, bizarrely – the record was never even re-released on CD.

Worth mentioning furthermore are at most Jennifer Warnes’ soulful attempt to emulate Dusty In Memphis (See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me, 1969) and Alex Campbell’s ludicrously hopping tune (At The Tivoli Gardens, 1967), but every sixties cover pales, of course, in comparison to the icy grandeur with which Nina Simone takes Dylan’s song into the stratosphere (on To Love Somebody, 1969, which also features her covers of “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and “I Shall Be Released”).

Sweet Nina, the goddess of gloom.

Next up: Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues part IX, the finale: The after-the-sixties covers

Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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