Judy Collins sings Bob Dylan, and why I appreciate it so much

By Tony Attwood

In his review of the covers of “Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues” Jochen indicated that he really didn’t appreciate the Judy Collins version.

Now although we don’t meet up to discuss the articles on this site (what with him being in the Netherlands, and me in the middle of England) I do find that I agree with most of his thoughts about music and lyrics.  But here I find myself totally at odds, for I find Judy Collins one of the most exquisite re-interpreters of Dylan’s work.

So since I have the benefit of being the person who decides what is published on this site, I thought I’d use that position of power to try and explain why I like Ms Collins’ version of Tom Thumb, and several other Dylan classics.

First a moment of background.  Ms Collins, as you may know has been making albums from the start of the 1960s, (and is indeed even older than me) and rose to fame in 1967 with Both Sides Now.  But long before that she was achieving fame – not least as a child prodigy classical pianist.

Obviously you can read all about her music, and her sadly troubled life, elsewhere on the internet, but I just want to focus on her Dylan interpretations, starting with one that I recently got carried away by, in my “All directions” series… Time Passes Slowly…

What I wrote about there was what I felt was the way in which she can deal with the ebbs and flows of this song simple song in a way that Dylan himself could not contemplate.  And because of this she is able to take the middle 8 (Ain’t no reason to go) and give it a calm beauty that Dylan intends in the lyrics, but can’t deliver as he not only doesn’t have the range, but didn’t have the benefit of Ms Collins’ musical arranger.  Bob of course can hear it in his head (otherwise he could not have written the piece) but it takes a voice as beautiful as Ms Collins to show us what this really means.

It works because the high point of that simple song is the middle eight, and the vocals give the music an extra urgency at that point through its harmonies with the electric guitar, while then taking us down again with “ain’t no reason to go… anywhere”).

So to return to  “Tom Thumb” Jochen said…

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…”

What I like so much, is that Judy Collins takes these really edgy dark lyrics (“they’ll really make a mess of you” turns up in the first verse, and by the second verse “I haven’t got the strength to get up and take another shot.”

Now to add such a simple accompaniment is not that difficult, it can be used to give a sense of bleakness very easily.   But no, here it is the woodwind that gives us the accompaniment – even when we are howling at the moon.

The contrast is stunning, and it works for me so perfectly because Ms Collins is so utterly controlled.  It is like standing in the middle of a battle field in the first world war and listening to Mozart’s string quartet number 14.  It is utterly incongruous, and I have no idea if the battle field and Mozart idea would work, but Judy Collins does make it happen.

There is a sort of sympathy and understanding of a world reduced to the simplicity of its utter collapse as expressed in the lyrics.  Yes it is dark and disastrous, but somehow she is sailing through unharmed.  We don’t know how or why, and really I don’t want to know how or why, but somehow she is existing through the horrors of the lyrics.

It is, for me, the contrast of so much of daily life.  Here am I, typing away on my computer, my world seems quite safe, I am financially ok, those I care about are ok, the snow in my garden is glistening in the winter sunshine, but the world around me is falling apart.  The virus is still ripping its way through much of the planet, my country’s economy is destroyed, my country has a leader who appears to me (and it’s just a personal view of course) to know as much about leadership as the turnip I put in last night’s stew, I haven’t seen many of my friends for months, and… well I won’t bore you with my personal details.

What Judy Collins does, as I listen to her at this moment, is somehow contrast the good and the bad, the beauty and the ugly.  I don’t understand most of the world any more, and that lack of understanding combined with a fair amount of horror and anger on my part could be expressed by jagged edges, or it can be expressed by contrasts.  What Judy Collins gives me is the contrast.

A similar effect can be heard on “Like a Rolling Stone” in the introductory verse, where she resits the temptation to put any energy into “Didn’t you”.  “It’s all over now baby blue” works simply because Ms Collins has such a gorgeously huge vocal range, which is what the song really requires.  And she can put in different emotions, no matter which part of that range she is using.

Sometimes the arrangement ideas are so simple – on “Simple Twist of Fate”… each lines draws us forward, we don’t know if there is a beat’s pause coming up at the end of line, or how long the pauses are going to be.  This makes the opening three lines, which are musically identical, all hold our attention.  We really don’t know how long each note is going to be held… we are simply carried forward.

Even songs such as “Gotta Serve Somebody” which are written in a way to make the message as clear as possible, there is still some fun to be found.   But it is when we get to Dark Eyes that I really found myself having to sit down and listen again and again.  The voice is out of time with the piano, and through this the meanings are transformed.  Through that version of the song I get a new set of insights of a song I have known and played since the day the album arrived in the UK.  That version of this song really does give me a feeling that no what irresponsible nonsense the politicians of my country pour forth, I can survive and still be me.  The fractional change of the orchestration for the “Drunken man is at the wheel” verse is something I can never forget.  Along with the instrumental verse that ends the piece.

“I believe in you” which I have mentioned before, comes from this album, and it makes me wonder not for the first time if Judy has the same orchestrator with all her work.  Whoever makes the arrangements, she or he has a remarkable understanding of what her voice can do.

I’ll stop my eulogy and leave you (if you are still with me) with one more

Do you have a tale to tell via Untold Dylan?

We now have over 2000 articles on this site, and many of them are personal tales about attending a concert, listening to Dylan, cover versions, or the individual writer’s own appreciation of Dylan and his music.

These articles are written for Untold by Dylan fans, and if you have a view of Dylan that you feel could be of interest to others, we’d love to hear from you.

To see the variety of approaches we have included in this site, just go to the top of the page and look at the various headings under the picture – each one contains an index of articles on a Dylan theme.  Or look at the latest series listed on our home page.  If you write a piece you can add to these, or create your own theme, or simply send in a one-off contribution.   As long as it gives a different insight into Dylan and his work, we may be well interested in publishing it.

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