Time Passes Slowly but oh how gorgeous were those alternatives

 

by Jochen Markhorst

Infidels (1983), which is celebrated as a resurrection, is not Dylan’s first comeback. That would be the album New Morning (1970), another work for which time has been less kind than the press and fans were when it was released. The album was revalued in 2013, after the release of The Bootleg Series 10 – Another Self Portrait. On it, there are nine rejected New Morning outtakes and the flaring sentiment is comparable to the regret after the release of the Infidels outtakes: New Morning could have been a so much better album. The alternative arrangements by the later frustrated Al Kooper –

“When we had recorded everything, Bob pulled out some random tracks he had cut in the last year and added those to the oversupply we already had from the current sessions. Then we began to select and sequence. He changed his mind daily and the weeks began to drag on. This drove me nuts. We had a final title and cover artwork, but we had a new sequence and songlist every day,”

– the strings in “Sign On The Window”, the truly splendid rasping and growling horns in “New Morning”, Leadbelly’s “Bring Me A Little Water”, “If Dogs Run Free” without the nerve-racking scat of neurotic Maeretha Stewart… all of them wonderful variants, more compelling, more musical or more charming than the choices Dylan eventually puts on record.

Only the forgotten gem Time Passes Slowly does not lose its lustre even 44 years later. On Another Self Portrait there are two alternative, very successful versions, which are much more groomed anyway. The #1 is sung with passion and is enriched with the catchy lalala blabbering that is eventually used for “The Man In Me”. Al Kooper has put even more love into #2. Roaring organ work in an arrangement copied almost exactly from Joe Cocker’s “With A Little Help From My Friends” and once again a passionate Dylan. It is definitely a remarkable piece of work in his oeuvre; this sound and this Janis Joplin-like energy are hardly anywhere to be found. But for once the master is right: with this song, with these introspective, pastoral lyrics, the arrangement is completely out of place.

The record version is rough, small and intimate – and above all honest. Indeed, in this messy format, the music immediately gives voice to those first words. Time passes slowly, here in the mountains.

Considering all the effort and the struggles that have been fought over this song (from March to August 1970, this song keeps him busy, thirty recordings are made, the twenty-fifth appears on the album), it is all the more confusing that Dylan drops it immediately after New Morning, to never play it again. It is, however, rightly selected for the retrospective Biograph (1985), so it is not entirely vilified.

But it is no more than an isolated outburst; Dylan will never play the song after 1985 either. The master thus places “Time Passes Slowly” in the same category as, for example, “Never Say Goodbye” and “Clothes Line Saga”, wonderful songs that chronicle a peaceful life outside the frenzy of the day, that bear witness to a wrinkle-free existence, that breathe a corniness that cannot be accused of any worldly commitment – except for home sweet home and harmony. And perhaps that is why these songs are not taken to the stage; they are far too small for that.

As an extreme metaphor for that life outside Time, for that domestic peace, for “no reason to go anywhere”, Dylan the poet again chooses the image of the fishing dad. Apparently, that is one of the poet’s first associations with peace and quiet. In “Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread” (1967) trout fishing still has an exuberant, adventurous air, but three years later “fishing” illustrates idyllic peace of mind. “Sign On The Window” sings of trout fishing as one of the things “what it’s all about”, in “Tangled Up In Blue” the narrator has some peace when working on a fishing boat, when Hurricane doesn’t have to box, he looks for paradise where the trout streams flow and in “Floater” he doesn’t fish for trout for a change, but for catfish (“bullhead”, of the catfish genus). There are no testimonies of Dylan fishing, and there are no photos of the master in mud boots with a fishing rod. It is therefore likely that “fishing” is mainly meant metaphorically – to illustrate a detachment of the narrator.

Judy Collins is quick on the uptake. New Morning is released on 19 October 1970, but in August 1970 “Time Passes Slowly” is already on her album Whales and Nightingales. The album has some curiosity value because she has a few humpback whales singing along, on a rather insufferable a cappella arrangement of “Farewell To Tarwathie”. A song that has left traces before, by the way; in ’64 Dylan discovered the song in Baez’s record collection, probably on Ewan MacColl’s and A.L. Lloyd’s Thar She Blows! (1960), and decided to use it as a template for “Farewell Angelina”. It’s a nice whaling ballad in its own right, but not really a traditional, which is what Baez, Collins, Wikipedia and dozens of other sources parrot after each other to this day. Lloyd introduced the world to Tarwathie with an earnest, quite impressive story in the liner notes, in which he reveals that the song was sung by whalers in the nineteenth century and how it was probably written by one George Scrogie somewhere near Aberdeen around 1850. And Lloyd himself learned it in Durban from a native of Ballater (Aberdeenshire) in 1938.

The German folklorist Jürgen Kloss convincingly shows on his fascinating, rich website Just Another Tune, that this song too is in fact a forgery – the folk giant A.L. Lloyd (1908-1983) suspiciously often “discovered” ancient folk songs that he had actually created himself. Ironically, in this case, he probably based it on two American Cowboy Songs from Lomax’s collection (1938), “The Railroad Corral” and “Rye Whiskey”.

Anyway, Dylan’s “Time Passes Slowly”. The song fits on my album, Judy Collins later writes in her autobiography Sweet Judy Blue Eyes, because it, too, is one of the songs that “explore the power of nature in our lives, the idea that all life is sacred, and the idea that the planet, in its beauty and fragility, is being hunted, like the great whales, to depletion”. Big, perhaps a little too theatrical words, which do, however, fit Collins’ approach to “Time Passes Slowly”; stately and very serious, with violins and all. But in spite of that, her version still seems to have loyal fans, or maybe because of it. Perhaps, though, Collins could have let the song mature a bit first.

Nevertheless, she is to be credited with being the first, and one of the few, to recognise the power of the song; to the present day it is very rarely covered. A sympathetic exception is Ted Shinn’s version on the wonderful tribute project Positively Pikes Peak – The Pikes Peak Region Sings Bob Dylan (2011); in any case, a much more intimate, and much more mountainous, reading than Collins’.

Both are surpassed by Rachel Faro, who in 1974, with the help of legendary producer John Simon (The Band, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen), is allowed to record her first record, the forgotten gem Refugees. Simon’s influence on the arrangement and sound are unmistakable, but Rachel is a force of nature on her own: gorgeous rustle on her voice, beautiful phrasing, and heartbreakingly fading away in the final, slow minutes as she sings Time passes slowly and fades away. Her rendition of the song does pass very slowly, as it should.

Rich Robinson deserves credit as well. The former guitarist of The Black Crowes and acknowledged Dylan fan, who always left the singing to big brother and fellow Dylan fan Chris, sings “Time Passes Slowly” on stage every now and then and does a brilliant job. He incorporates the Another Self Portrait version #1 partly into his interpretation and scores especially with his delivery: Robinson sings “behind the notes” and thus demonstrates, arguably even more so than Dylan does, the languid carefreeness of the narrator.

 

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

Two footnotes from Tony:

If you don’t have a CD of Another Self Portrait, it is available in full on Spotify, and really worth a play.

And to add one other thought: Jochen and I have been having a very friendly exchange of different opinions over the value of Judy Collins’ interpretations of Dylan, after I initially raved over her “Time Passes Slowly” and then tried (not very well) to justify myself in a little piece “Judy Collins Sings Dylan”.  In my view, its really worth a listen.

And while we are on the subject I’d also like to include a mention for Aaron’s remarkable series Play Lady Play which takes on the whole issue of women singing Dylan and is really worth looking through.  There are some utterly stunning renditions there too.

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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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