Beautiful Obscurity: The Hour that the Ship Comes In.

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

On this site we look at cover versions of Dylan songs in two ways.  One is simply by listing covers that we enjoy, song by song as in: Covers of Dylan songs

The other is via  Beautiful Obscurity in which we consider the covers in more depth.  In this series Aaron picks the cover versions and Tony, on the other side of the Atlantic, writes a commentary as the music plays (to stop him getting too pretentious and looking stuff up).

Aaron: As promised in an earlier piece here are a few interesting covers for this Dylan classic.

I choose this track principally to include these first two, and I then went searching for a few more to make up enough for this article.

So first up it’s The Pogues. This is from an album they made after Shane MacGowan quit the band, so Spider Stacy took over as lead singer. I love it!

Technical: we’ve got that regional variation again – hopefully one of these two links will work for you.  If not, try Spotify or a Google search.

Tony: What a scream!  Having never heard this before I was shocked, as if I was looking at an sombre old friend never known for outlandish ways, coming to my village, and walking up to my house dressed in a clown’s outfit and then doing a jig on my doorstep.

But why not, this is fun, and that variation between the first and second part of each verse never becomes obvious – it caught me each time.  Loved the false ending too.  There’s real imagination in creating this reading of the song in this way, and delivering it.

The second of the videos above (which is the only one I can play in the UK) is followed by the Peter Paul and Mary version, which is always worth hearing again.  But I’ve listened to that just the once this time, before going back to the Pogues, just to make sure I really did hear what I thought I heard.

Aaron: Now Arlo Guthrie, who always seemed to find space for a Dylan cover in most of his albums. 1972’s Hobo’s Lullaby was no exception.


Tony: Having just listened to the Pogues (and Peter Paul and Mary) I really had no idea what I was going to hear next – and this is really good.  It takes the music in a new direction by varying both the chord sequence and the melody.  We still know it is “When the ship” of course because we’ve all heard it so often, but now this is gives us variations and re-emphasises the meanings.

There is a change to the chord structure that he does in the penultimate line of each verse that changes the song – and prepares us for the change in the last line.  And all that is all before we think of what he has done to the rhythm.  Dylan does it as a straight four beats in a bar.  Here it something different – more like 12/8 time.  OK that’s just me getting carried away, but the timing has changed, and its that which gives us a totally different feel.  I love it.

Aaron: Next, it’s Chris Hillman’s pre Byrds group The Hillmen.  (Another regional variation here, so once more hopefully one of these works for you – if not go a searching).

Tony: OK they have well considered harmonies and its neatly arranged, but for me that’s it.  It just continues as it starts and there is nothing unusual or unexpected enough to get me excited.

The problem for me is not just that the banjo and the vocal harmonies continue the same throughout, but they sing the first and second halves of the song in the same way rather than varying them, which the recordings before do.  So, since I know the song off by heart, it just gets a bit ordinary.

That of course is the trouble with strophic songs – there is nothing in the form that allows variation.  Good for a sing along, but not so good when the song has been a part of your life for 50+ years.

Aaron: Barbara Dickson made a Dylan covers album? Who knew!? Don’t Think Twice, it’s Alright came out in 1992 and this is a surprisingly great version of Ship…stick with it, it picks up when the drums kick in.

Tony:  I’m glad you said stick with it Aaron, as I wasn’t sure it had started.  So, bagpipes – not heard that done before with this song, and the great thing is Barbara Dickson has the voice to carry this off.

Actually, this one stopped my typing up my comments for several moments until I remembered the rules we had agreed (that I have to finish my review by the time the recording finishes, largely set up to stop me pontificating eternally).

I loved the idea, not least because this notion of building verse by verse requires a really good orchestrater / arranger to hold it together, but oh……no……    What happens before the instrumental break is that for no reason that makes any sense the piece is moved up a semitone or a tone (I was so shocked I didn’t fully take it in).  Anyway what I mean is that suddenly the piece is performed in a new utterly unrelated key.

That jerk from one key to the next really is a dodgy thing to do, and generally shows that  the arranger has run out of ideas.  Its a solution that does nothing to the music except make it sound as if it has changed when it hasn’t.  What a letdown.

Aaron: Now I wanted one more version to end this with, and couldn’t decide between the Hollies, the Chieftains or Peter, Paul & Mary. Then I came across this version by Billy Bragg and couldn’t not include it. I believe every single word he sings here. Spine tingling.

Tony: Well, with an intro like that, Aaron, I was holding my breath.  And at first I didn’t quite see what was exciting you so much.

But you are right: he holds the stage and transfixes the audience by delivering the song straight.  Very tiny changes to the melody, but nothing artificial.  It just is.  Even the instrumental half-verse simply is strummed.

It is quite extraordinary how he does that.  He holds the song, plays it straight, and yet delivers a punch.  Amazing.

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