Dylan cover No. 10: The stunning reworking of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest

By Tony Attwood

Now there are two things about Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.  One is that it is generally reported that this is where the band Judas Priest got their name from, while the other is that it has been covered by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, and yet that version just sounds (to me, of course, not necessarily anyone else) incredibly bland.  Which is surprising considering who it is performing the cover version.

Now if that were the only cover version on offer maybe we would all conclude that there is nothing to be done with this song – and that would be a reasonable conclusion given how the song was constructed by Dylan.

But fortunately we are rescued because there is another cover… by the wonderful Thea Gilmore, whose work I have often raved over on this site.   (Ah, the wonders of being the publisher as well as the author – the absolute freedom to set out one’s own feelings).

If you’ve been knocking around this site for a decade or so you’ll know that I’ve been in constant rave over her version of “Drifters Escape” which I consider the version par excellence.

So now, with Frankie Lee, what makes this cover so superb?

The song is an absolute challenge in that it is strophic (ie, verse verse verse verse ad infinitum).   And not just verse verse verse verse but 11 verses, all utterly identical musically.  And more than that, eight of the 11 even begin with the same word.

And yet more than that than that (if you get my drift) Bob hasn’t actually written a tune for the song… in the original version he declaims it – half chanting, half talking.

So here we are with 546 words across 11 verses with no clearly discernible melody and the same four chord sequence (with the first and last chord being the same) over and over and over – eight times per verse – and a moral at the end that seems to say don’t covet your neighbour’s house – which really isn’t that profound a thought.

And by now, with those facts in front of you, you might be asking yourself, who in his or her right mind would ever want to cover such a song?  And the answer is the wonderful Thea Gilmore.

Now with any cover version, in essence, what the performer/s have to do is find something fresh to put into the song, to differentiate their version from the original.   We can argue  that Bob didn’t have do this as he had the advantage of recording something we didn’t know at all (obviously; he’d just written it).  We were engulfed by the lyrics, which don’t seem to take us too far, but which seem as if they ought to, and so we listened and thought about what Bob was saying.

But by the time Ms Thea came along in 2011, the song was incredibly well known, and would have been heard time and time again by fans.

Apart from the album Bob did venture to play the song 20 times on tour over a period of 13 years, and I imagine that he too struggled a little to find what to do with a song so repetitive.  Certainly by 2000 he had got more of a melody into the song and was differentiating the verses by changing the melody / declamation to suite the lyrics…

So you see the challenge that the song presents to the would-be coverist (my new word for the day – a person who covers someone else’s song: coverist).

But up then steps Thea.  And what has she done?   In essence she has given us a melody based around Bob’s melody introduced in live performances, plus additional melodic variation, variation in the accompaniment, a feeling that there is a meaning in there somewhere, and some extra speed.

She starts with a standard trick – (standard but brilliantly done here) – of bringing in the band after a verse (or in this case two).

Third, there is the lady’s voice – she has that control and style that makes me want to listen.

Fourth, an unexpected, but also unexpectedly short, musical interlude.   And now as we are charging along (but with the vocals feeling utterly unhurried) we are inside the music, rather than sitting on the outside listening in, as is the case with Bob’s recorded version.

And you might well think well yes, the lady has nailed it.  She’s giving a really entertaining rendition, jolly good, well done, nice try.  But no, stop that patronising, for she has more for us, because suddenly and without any warning in the seventh verse,

Well, Frankie Lee, he panicked
He dropped everything and ran

she gives us a new melody.  Not so new that it sounds odd.  Indeed many of the people I have talked to about this recording didn’t actually notice that there was a new melody, but they felt something different.  And that is, the new melody.

It allows the “not a house its a home” line to have its full meaning, and so we return to the main melody with a sense of returning to an old friend.  Gone is any danger of feeling “how much longer???”

Better still, she resists the idea of giving us this new melody and accompaniment a second time, but instead, in the penultimate verse the accompaniment is held back so that we have the real understanding that we are approaching the end.   Then a short instrumental before we get to the clarity that this is end (“the moral of this story”).  And that leaves the opportunity to give us a slowing down in the final line without that sounding corny or hackneyed.

This is, in short, the perfect cover, a complete rediscovery of the original song, which amends and actually improves what is there, without in any sense removing the essence of the original.

Utterly brilliant arranging, performance, production and musicianship.  And that, my friends, is what doing a cover version is all about.

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3 Responses to Dylan cover No. 10: The stunning reworking of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest

  1. Jack Darrow says:

    You’re right about Thea Gilmore.

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    Yes, but unfortunately for Tony the punishment for blasphemers is to be stretched face-up in Hell on the great plain of the burning sand because he declares her rendition, and even Dylan’s own variant, an improvement on the original recording.

  3. Andrew Davies says:

    Thea Gilmore “gets” John Wesley Harding better than any other artist I’ve heard. I think she has covered pretty much the entire album.

    Her originals are pretty solid too. This one is just beautiful (with a backing from Joan Baez for the obligatory Bob link).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17tKXHne1UU

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