Beautiful Obscurity: Hollis Brown, and why does it all have to be like this?

Research and track selections by Aaron Galbraith, commentaries and random thoughts by Tony Attwood

A list of the earlier articles in this series is given here

This is part of an ongoing series of reviews of cover versions of Dylan songs under the title “Beautiful Obscurity”.   We’re also, very laboriously, trying to putting together a complete index of covers of Dylan songs that we have commented upon over the years – the latest edition is here, and a new edition of that will be published in the next few days.

So here we go with Aaron’s selection, and Tony’s random thoughts.

Scottish rockers Nazareth from Loud n Proud (1974)

Tony: I do love covers which from the introduction don’t give you a clue as to which song this is going to be.  It’s not always possible of course but where it can be done, it gives a sense that this artist is going to try a serious re-interpretation.

The problem with the original, in terms of a re-working is that it is based entirely on one chord.  Dylan overcomes this by portraying the bleakness of Hollis Brown’s reality through the openness of the accompaniment and the fact that when the album came out, we’d never heard this before.  But as this recording shows, there are alternative routes forward.

Leon Russell also from 1974 from the album Stop All That Jazz

Tony: And wow doesn’t that opening throw us into a new dimension again – exactly as I was just saying needed to be done.   They’ve changed the backing rhythm too and the whole thing gives us a wild effect.

The only question is, having thrown so much in at the first, can they keep it up?  After all, we all know where this goes, but the horror of the starving children, and the knowledge of what Hollis Brown does keep me here, listening.

It’s really inventive and exploratory in its style, but I am not at all sure if I could listen to again.   It’s that “seven new people born” which is the problem.  How do you render this in music?

The Neville Brothers from Yellow Moon (1989)

The Neville Brothers give us a fade-in which works, and they change the rhythm of the lines which certainly holds my attention.  I particularly like what the bass guitar is doing, and the fact that the band holds back in contrast to the earlier recordings above.  I wonder if it would be possible to perform this with just a bass guitar and vocal?   It would certainly be haunting.

But I do like the pauses, which are retained throughout; it really adds to the horror.

Some more Scottish rockers Stone The Crows

Hmmmm…. that intro if not exactly commonplace is certainly something that is often heard, but then taking the music back, and the female voice really does make me listen again.

I have to admit a deep inner problem I have with this song, and that is the image of the deaths at the end.  Practicality burns into my head: how does he do it so that all of the family die and none run away?  Does he tie them up?  Is his wife complicit?   I turn the whole thing into a horror film, which actually I don’t like (but that’s my imagination for you).

Here the vocalist puts too much into the song as it builds for me.  It’s too easy to do that; the horrific silent scene of Hollis Brown committing suicide is lost.  Dylan gets it by telling  the tale in the same voice all the way through, so the deaths become matter of fact.  But the ghostly effects that the band try after the seven shotgun shells don’t work for me.

Maybe even now, after all these years of knowing the song, I am just too weighed down by it all.  As a result the organist going on a little jaunt around the 5th minute took me totally away from the scene of five children, a man and a woman lying dead at an isolated house.  This is the band having fun, each musician doing his or her stuff, without remembering Hollis Brown and his family.  The return of the vocal and the instrumentation of “roar” confirms; this is not an interpretation for me.

Aaron: You know I always like to throw a curveball your way so how about some Swedish Death Metal from Entombed

Tony: Sometimes Aaron, I reflect that it is a good job you live on the other side of the Atlantic rather than in my village.  I’d be round your house knocking on the door and demanding to know what the f*** you are playing at.

Does this add anything to the sum of human knowledge?  Does it offer insight or entertainment?  Does it carry a profound message or give a different view of reality?

As you probably have guessed, my answer is no.  There’s enough chaos in my life without this.

Aaron: After that onslaught you can clear out for brain with Stephen Stills excellent acoustic workout

Tony: Yes, thank you, although I’m not quite sure that I understand your comment above Aaron.  But the rule is I just write my response and don’t call you, so on we go.  And thank you for this, because this is an interpretation that I can appreciate, not least because of Stephen Still’s sublime talent.

It’s not just that he is a great singer and a terrific guitarist, it is that he can get right inside the song and express it in a way that reflects the complete meaning of the song as a whole, as well as the meaning inside each line.  This is one of the few in this collection that I could contemplate coming back to and playing again.  Although not today.

Aaron: Just two more to go. Academy award winning director David Lynch gave it a go on his 2013 album The Big Dream

Tony: Hmmm, don’t particularly appreciate the illustration above, and the introduction of the vocal was a disappointment to me.  But they do change the instrumentation as we progress and that works.

But it does strike me that many of these musicians and producers, talented as they are, are not considering one particular point: most of the people listening to their rendition are going to know this song off by heart.  The really, really, really good re-interpreters of Dylan do consider this – they know we know the song by heart, and so they start from that point of familiarity and take us on a new journey, making a well-known road somehow different.

That is why Hendrix’ “Watchtower” worked – he just totally shocked us by taking the music to a new place, while still keeping it as a Dylan song.

This version does that in part, but still can’t deal with the fact that every verse is musically the same.  Dylan didn’t have to worry because when he sang it, it was new to us.  But now…

Aaron: Last up it’s brother of Pete, Mike Seeger (and special guest) from his 1995 album Third Annual Farewell Reunion album

Tony: OK I think this is the eighth consecutive Hollis Brown I’ve listened to.  I’m still here, feeling that perhaps I should have stopped after four versions, and come back another day.  But I didn’t and I find myself now looking out of my window….  My study where I write is upstairs and looks down on my garden in a village so old it is mentioned in the Doomsday Book.  At the end of the garden are four huge trees with branches and leaves blowing in the wind.  To try and do my bit for the continuity of the village I’ve planted two more trees in my time here, (I’ve been here 21 years) and they are flourishing.  Beyond is farmland, the manor house and church built maybe 400 years ago, and the river flowing exactly as described in the Doomsday report.   When examined by King William’s researchers there were 36 freemen here and six slaves.

This village was thus created over 1000 years before Hollis Brown lived and died, and maybe will continue for centuries after I’ve given up the custodianship of my little part of it.  Hollis Brown reminds me how phenomenally lucky I have been with my life, and I wonder what I did to deserve it.  And I wonder why the world has to be like this – and at how I sit here where ten centuries ago the lives of the people who lived here was indeed nothing but a question of having enough food to survive until tomorrow.


You can read about other series on this site on the home page.

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