Beautiful obscurity: the amazingly amazing cover versions of Blind Willie McTell

Selections by Aaron Galbraith, commentary by Tony Attwood

This series takes a new – and personal – look at some of the more unusual cover versions of Bob Dylan’s music.  It started out from a previous series which was summarised in

In this new series we have had…

So now, Blind Willie.

The Dream Syndicate 

This video cuts off suddenly at the end when I play it, but it is still worth hearing – unless of course you find a complete version – I think only a few seconds are missing at the end.

In listening to this, as with all versions of Blind Willie McTell, I am influenced by two notions.  The first is that Dylan’s original version has, within its music, absolutely nothing to do with Blind Willie McTell.

And second, following on from this, it is thus not a song about Blind Willie’s music, but about Bob’s reaction to the music – it is about Bob in fact.  So for me, reinterpretations ought to be saying something personal.

(Or if not that, it was just a handy line to put into the lyrics at the end of each verse, and here again it works perfectly)

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, “This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To new Jerusalem”
I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I can tell you one thing
Nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Thus I argue that when one produces a cover version, it is perfectly reasonable to make the piece about one’s own personal feelings in the music and a new interpretation, either of Willie McTell or of Dylan’s emotional reaction to the music or of the creator’s reaction.  In what follows I’ll try and show how those who are super-talented and willing to take risks, really can do this.

I enjoyed this opener – one can do bleak and desolated landscapes with near silence and with wild rock.  Both work.

The Band

If anyone had a chance to ask Bob how he came to write Blind Willie I guess it was members of the Band, and listening to their version straight after the Dream Syndicate is really interesting.  As is their sudden use of harmonies.

The Band makes far less of the descending bass lines, and I think there is a tendency for everyone to do their standard stuff without really considering what is in the lyrics.    As in OK – percussion, you come in here – and organ can you hold back to half way through the third verse.  But…

… after a while it loses my interest, but oh, how about the whole song sang with those harmonies.  Maybe without any accompaniment at all.  As it stands there is a desire to build and build, as producers always seem to demand.  But hey guys, rock songs don’t have to build and build, until taking us back down at the end.  Yes it works, but it’s not the only way through.  And it has been done 10  billion times already.

Of course the members of the Band know that, which we shall see below.

Mick Taylor 

Interestingly Mick Taylor keeps us in the same key (a coincidence of course) and playing his version after the Band’s sounded as if it could be a coda.

But from the off I think there is a bit too much showing off… “this land is condemned” and the falling of the martyrs is bleak and empty to me, not a chance to show off how good a guitarist one is but a chance to be, well, bleak and empty.

However the move into a rock number is inevitable, and I really do feel this is another one of these “hey guys lets take it real slow at the start and then we can suddenly make it a rock song.”  It’s been done before (you’d think they might have noticed).

Yes, well arranged, well sung, decent instrumentation, but a) not that standout and b) is there any thought about the meaning of the song?  Virtuoso performers surely still need to be able to hold on to the song’s meaning as well as their own personal performing brilliance.

So if you are still with me, now for something completely different….  And from here on we really are going somewhere else…

Garth & Maud Hudson

According to those in the know it was Garth Hudson who created the sound of The Band.  Keyboard magazine called him the “most brilliant organist in the rock world”.  With the rest of The Band leaving this mortal coil its just Hudson and Robertson still here, and personally I just listen in awe to what Hudson does.

I’d never heard this before (which shows how out of touch one can be leaving in rural Northamptonshire) and it just knocked me out.  It is one of those moments in which a true musician thinks “what can we do here?” and then does it because it makes perfect sense, rather than just being an idea.

If one is going to have a re-working of the song as far away from McTell’s music as Bob’s version then yes, this is it.  It is stunning because it is beautifully performed and because it takes me into the song in ways I have not been taken before.

It is beyond Indigo Girls performing “Tangled up in Blue” and beyond even Old Crowe doing “Visions of Johanna”.

Scarecrow Hat (the Girl From The North County Band)

Unfortunately I can’t find a copy of this on line in the UK, but Aaron found it in the USA here  

So since part of the idea is that you can hear what I am talking about I’m going to leave this one and slip in a link to our good friends in Poland Dylan.pl

You’ll recall they recently put on a live concert online which we covered, and that they also have in their ensemble our good friend Filip Łobodziński who has contributed to Untold Dylan.  There’s more about Filip in the “About the authors” section.

What Dylan.pl do is change the feel totally with the beat and the banjo, and through those two steps utterly alter the song’s impact.  And that to me is exactly what doing a cover version is all about… let’s take the music and see what else it can say to us.  You don’t have to speak a word of Polish to get this.  It’s the music that carries the message.  You know about God being in his heaven, after all, and yes we know what is his.  But power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is.

What a stunningly brilliant couple of lines that is.

Interestingly, when we ran our series on cover versions in which all readers were invited to contribute, no one wrote in about Blind Willie, so I am having to search elsewhere to find anything to add.   But since we have been a-speaking of the Band how about…

Now this I really do like because it is a proper re-think of what’s there.  Of course Rick would have a feel for what Bob was up to, and that clearly gives him a total insight.   Oh this is deliciously different and entertaining.

The real mark of a decent cover version is that it gives you insights into the song you never had before and that is exactly what I got.  Just listen to the instrumental break.  How did they get that sound?

In fact you really don’t have to go too far away from the original to add a new element to the song to add something that offers a new insight and of course, entertainment.  That is what this version does, and it is why I have chosen to stop here.

Music can be about a clear message, but the best music is about emotion – expressing something that cannot be said in words alone.  This is what I find here.  This is both entertainment and expression, insight and elegance, meaning and feeling.   This is beautiful. It is gorgeous.  It is insightful and delightful.

If you have got this far, thank you for reading, but mostly thank Iain for this recording.

What else?

You can read about the writers who kindly contribute to Untold Dylan in our About the Authors page.   And you can keep an eye on our current series by checking the listings on the home page

You’ll also find, at the top of this page, and index to some of our series established over the years.  Series we are currently running include

  • The art work of Bob Dylan’s albums
  • The Never Ending Tour year by year with recordings
  • Beautiful Obscurity – the unexpected covers
  • All Directions at Once

You’ll find links to all of them on the home page of this site

If you have an article or an idea for an article which could be published on Untold Dylan, please do write to Tony@schools.co.uk with the details – or indeed the article itself.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with getting on for 10,000 members. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link    And because we don’t do political debates on our Facebook group there is a separate group for debating Bob Dylan’s politics – Icicles Hanging Down

 

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1 Response to Beautiful obscurity: the amazingly amazing cover versions of Blind Willie McTell

  1. David Potts says:

    I would like to recommend Roger Chapman’s ( ex Family) version as particularly spine tingling with a stunning vocal performance. The instrumental coda is similar to that of The Band though.

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