Beautiful Obscurity: John Brown (but not beautiful)

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

Beautiful Obscurity is a series in which Aaron in the USA selects a Dylan song and a series of cover versions, and which Tony (in the UK) then listens to and writes his instant reactions, as the music plays.

There is an index to other articles in this series here.

Aaron: I was listening to the version of John Brown by Heron today, which we wrote about a while ago.   Here’s the track in question:

Suitably inspired I went on a search for more interesting versions.

The Staple Singers from 1967 album Pray On gave a very different version…

Tony: I think that with this song, because by now we all know what happens in the story, everything about the piece becomes spooky, and the repeating guitar part adds to that feeling of horror that certainly I feel every time I hear the piece.  But sitting here, having never been in the military, and having never experienced war in my home country, I wonder how I am going to take four more versions…

James Luther Dickinson from 1972

The feeling of the music reflects what happens in the story, and of course they have a lot to work on.   The lines at the end are so extremely simple yet utterly compelling

As he turned away to walk, his Ma was still in shock
At seein’ the metal brace that helped him stand
But as he turned to go, he called his mother close
And he dropped his medals down into her hand

So it’s an interesting re-working of the song, and I admire the work, but I don’t think I’ll add it to my spotify collection.

Eric Anderson from 2005

It is really interesting just how different each of these interpretations are.   And I particularly like this one because it allows the ensemble to make much more of

But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close
And I saw that his face looked just like mine

Of course it is not an original thought by Dylan, but it is powerfully put, and it is to express this that the arrangement needs to be carefully considered, in my opinion.  It is not just the fact that the woman’s vision was so self-centred and ignorant of the issues of war but the realisation of what he has found himself doing.  “Just a puppet in a play” indeed.

Aaron: Anderson was part of the early Greenwich Village Folk scene and wrote songs that were subsequently recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Judy Collins, John Denver, Linda Ronstadt and the Grateful Dead. We at Untold Dylan know him as the writer of Thirsty Boots (Bob’s version was included on Another Self Portrait). He also opened for Dylan during the Rolling Thunder Revue.

Maria Muldaur from her 2008 album Yes We Can

Tony: This works by maintaining the same music approach throughout – which is quite a brave thing to do with a song like this which has no chord changes at all.   I’m not sure this version adds that much – but then I have just listened to each version one after the other.  Maybe if I came across this on its own having not heard the piece for a while I might have a more positive feel for it.

Lastly, State Radio from the much mined Chimes Of Freedom album

“Much mined” indeed Aaron, I have found so much to enjoy in this collection – but…. I am not sure this is a track I have played more than once since finding the album.

It does indeed work, so I think the problem is mine having just listened to all the versions of this horror story.  If I say that I never watch horror movies nor indeed war movies, you can see this isn’t something I’d be attracted to.   But, it really does bring home the meaning of the lyrics in a way that I don’t think anyone else has done.

And in a sense this is the definitive track, because it is musically so inventive while retaining the essence of the song and bringing out the horror at the same time.

So, yes, brilliant.  It is just that having written this little commentary I wouldn’t be able to listen to it again.

Can we do a happy song next time?

Publisher’s note…

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If you would like to see some of our series they are listed under the picture at the top of the page, and the most recent entries can be found on the home page.

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One comment

  1. For what it’s worth, I don’t find the hyped-up heavy music and the sorrowful antiwar theme mesh as emoted in the ‘Chimes’ version – they do moreso in the ‘folkie’ versions.

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