Beautiful obscurity: the cover versions of Watching the River Flow

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

Selections by Aaron Galbraith, commentary and a few extra choices 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…

If you would like to join in, please do write out your selection of covers, put in the links from the internet, and email to Tony@schools.co.uk     No extra comments by Tony will be added, unless you invite them.

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Aaron: Here I present some covers of Dylan’s wondrous 1971 single “Watching the River Flow”

First up – The Rolling Stones.   Mick and the boys recorded this for an Ian Stewart tribute album in 2011. Interesting side note, Mick, Keith, Ronnie, Charlie and for the first time with the band since 1992, Bill Wyman, recorded their contributions at different times in different studios. The song was chosen due to Stewart’s judgement that its “the only decent thing Bob Dylan ever did”.

So in the band we have Ben Waters, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood and Bill Wyman

If in your part of the world this video appears as “unavailable” then try this link….

Hearing this version really does prime us for what comes hereafter.  Many many artists have had a go at this song, but original versions and completely new interpretations are harder to find.  Everyone seems to think all they can do is find a bit of a variation on Bob’s work, rather than work on a truly original re-arrangement.

But, the instrumental break is interesting – it takes a lot of time to get going, and then doesn’t really go at all.  They have a second bash at the end, and I wondered whether the saxophonists actually played that break over and over or did they do a bit of trickery with the tape.  It is a long old time to play same three notes.

Joe Cocker

Immediately the point is made about everyone following the same approach – it is that rhythm that does it.  Once you hear it, you know what’s coming.

Joe again goes for the saxophone sound, but I really wish they wouldn’t try and mix saxes and a lead guitar doing their own thing both at the same time.   By the middle eight it sounds too much to me as if everyone is having a fight to get their favourite riff in.  Still, at least by the instrumental break things have calmed down a bit and we can have a spot of virtuoso sax playing.  It’s fun, it’s ok, but to my ears not that special.

Bobby Darin

Yes indeed Bobby Darin.  Remember Bobby?  He not only had a multi-million selling hit with “Dream Lover”, he also wrote it, so during his sadly short life he should have been ok for money.

One of things about doing this series is I learn all sorts of stuff I didn’t know.  Not relevant to the music I guess, but still I find it interesting.  Thus, for example, I have learned Darin had a child early on that was then put up for adoption.  I didn’t know that.  Nor indeed that he wrote what to my ears is the awful “Splish Splash” which was a hit in England for Charlie Drake (I think that’s so, I’m writing that from memory).

Anyway, it’s an ok recording, but again I am not sure I got any really big insights here.

Steve Gadd

Now my heart lifted when I came to this one (and you should remember that I – Tony – don’t know what Aaron has in store for me to write about when I open the file).  Steve Gadd is a musician – I mean like a real musician.  As a percussionist he has worked with everyone, and then some more.  Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Chick Corea, Steely Dan …. everyone wants him.

And this version of the song shows all those people who have performed it by just taking the song and doing it straight, exactly what there is to be found herein.   This is where one can go.   Thanks Aaron for picking this one.  Brilliant.

The last of Aaron’s selection is what he describes in his note to be as “George, Bob and a whole bunch of people (I think I see Jesse Ed Davis) present a (probably very drunken) impromptu performance as The Silver Wilburys.”

Yes well, lots of guitars – and no knowledge of what the song actually is.   Hmmmmm….

OK, well the deal is I (Tony) can throw in some of the versions of the song that I like as well.  And if you are still here, this is quite a contrast with the mess above.

Now in his 80s Chris Farlowe is apparently still performing – and I hope taking it easy.  Here’s another little note of no consequence, he was born and brought up not far from me in north London.  I’d love to know when this was recorded.  Can someone tell me?

What I like here is that this version just treats the song as bouncy fun – I’m doing all right, I’m sitting here watching the river flow, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But until now we have not had anyone who has decided to take this song anywhere new while keeping the lyrics in.  So here we go with Leon Russell.  And I really welcome this, because after all, what is the point of performing and recording a song that everyone else has done, if you don’t have something new to offer in the performance?

And I am going to cheat here and deviate and offer you Leon Russell’s own composition, in case you missed it, or have not heard it for a long time.  I’ll make it an optional extra by just putting the link to it here, but this guy was really a great songwriter in his own right.

Back to Basic

But still we have the problem – everyone ends up doing the song in the same sort of way.  Except it is rather nicely done without stretching the song beyond where it was meant to go in the first place.

So can anyone do something new with this song.

According to Wiki “Seatrain was an American roots fusion band based initially in Marin County, California, and later in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Seatrain was formed in 1969, subsequently drawing some members from the Blues Project when it broke up. Seatrain recorded four albums and disbanded in 1973.”

I don’t know anything else about them, but it is quite a nice track.  If there is more to know, please write in.

Last one now, if anyone is left reading and listening…. and believe me there are 1000 more recordings of this song that could be highlighted.  And I’ve left the one I rather like until the end, for no particular reason.  Except perhaps because at least Graham Bell has done his own thing.

But then he always did – including appearing in the LSO’s version of Tommy.  Sadly Graham is no longer with us, but like so many less than totally famous rock musicians, his music is most certainly worth remembering.

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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