Dylan re-writes Dylan: Hard Rain and Ring them Bells

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

In the first little venture into the idea of exploring how Bob Dylan can re-write his own songs (to which we gave the adventurous name  Dylan re-writes Dylan) we looked particularly at how the music was changed between one version of “We better talk this over” and another.  In the second it was the lyrics that changed and took us around the block a few times with  Groom’s Still Waiting at the Alter. 

So we enjoyed ourselves with those, even if no one else did, and so we’re carrying on.  Aaron’s still in the USA and Tony’s as ever in the UK.

Aaron: How about taking a look at Dylan’s performance from the Great Music Experience in Japan in 1994?

Let’s start with “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” – I remember hearing this on the Dignity CD single back in the day and been blown away.

Tony: I remember this too and was utterly amazed that Dylan would perform with an orchestra, because it meant that he could no longer re-arrange the song as he went along – which he often seems to do on stage.

There are two elements that utterly, utterly move me in this re-arrangement.  One is the orchestration which could so easily have been overwritten in the hands of a lesser arranger.   However it changes throughout but keeps its place behind Dylan, while dramatically adding to the meaning throughout.  It brings tears to my eyes even today.

But then listen to Bob – totally controlled (because of the need to stay with the agreed and rehearsed arrangement).  Indeed, I don’t believe he ever puts as much into a performance of this song as here.   For me this truly is utterly staggering beyond belief.   I find it so emotional much as I want to play it twice, but I can’t, and have to leave it for later when I’ve finished the writing.

And all the way through remember this is a piece we all know off by heart.   Yet somehow when he tells us about the deepest dark forest and the pellets of poison, for me at least, it is as if I’ve never heard it before.

I can well understand why orchestral performances with Bob did not become a central part of his work in years to come because the level of preparation, and the agreement not to re-write the song the night before, are just not how Bob likes to perform.   But I can say that if I had been there I doubt that I would have been able to take in the rest of the concert, so overwhelming do I find this.

However if you can take it (and I am sure it is just me doing my hyper-emotional thing again) when the piece finishes just go back to the 30 second marker and listen to that first verse again.  It is one of the absolute, overwhelming, extraordinary and compelling performance statements by Bob Dylan in his entire career.

Ring Them Bells 

Tony:  OK so having got overwhelmed by “Hard Rain” I am more ready for this but it still knocks me out.  I wonder how this worked – did the idea come up and the arrangement was written and then Bob just accepted it and played to it?  Maybe the story of it is in a book somewhere, and I’ve forgotten.  Feel free to remind me – but do remember you are talking to an old timer now, whose memory is not what it was.

Bob still manages to put his own feeling and emotion into this – as one can hear with the final words, “right and wrong”, but somehow the arrangement (although incredibly powerful) feels a little more obvious, a little less revolutionary than with “Hard Rain”.  Perhaps it is because this is more of an obvious song to work with in this context.

By which I mean, to me “Hard Rain” always feels as if it should be an acoustic session with a couple of performers contemplating the end of the world.  I would never have thought this could be done with “Hard Rain” – but with “Ring them bells”, maybe yees.

And I thought I’d just add a little PS with this video of “Ring them Bells” because in the video below it looks to me as if Bob is actually saying to the band, “Let’s do Ring them Bells” – which seems more like the norm of Bob across the years.

The orchestral version is utterly magnificent and I am not trying to suggest that the version above should be compared with the version that follows – it just seems to add to the contrast between the orchestral performance and what the normal Dylan we are used to.

Hope you enjoyed those as much as I did.  That’s Aaron.  Can we do some more?

One comment

  1. Perhaps a quibble, but re-arranging the music that accompanies a song’s lyrics may change the mood of a song (even unto the sublime), but when the lyrics stay essentially the same, I’d hesitate to call it a rewrite.

    The intended meaning of the lyrics may be wonderfully enchanced by the re-arrangement, but the words and the meaning(s) of the words chosen by the songwriter remain the same, rather than re-written( confirmed by consulting the published lyrics) though one might argue about how these lyrics ought to be be interpreted.

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