A Christmas Day Special: Chris Smither sings Bob Dylan

By Tony Attwood

It is Christmas Day in the UK – the biggest holiday of the year.  And so I thought I would do something different.  I wasn’t sure what but then Jochen and I were having one of our occasional email exchanges (we live in different countries as I have mentioned before) and he reminded me that he had already reminded me that I should be mentioned Chris Smither’s covers.  (People reminding me that I have already been reminded is becoming quite a part of my life these days).

And so rather than drop Chris Smither’s songs into the articles in A Dylan Cover A Day, I thought I’d do this terrific musician the honour of a special for himself – which he most certainly deserves.  If you want to know about this extraordinary performer there is a Wiki page on him of course, and of course he has his own website

So what is he doing?  Well, most obviously he’s using open tuning on the guitar, which I am not sure Bob does very much if at all (forgive me I’ve never checked – I just can’t recall where Bob does this.  Do tell if you’ve spotted it).  If you are not familiar with the way guitarists like to get more out of their guitar, there is a standard set up for the tuning of guitar strings (E A D G B E – going from the lowest to the highest) but there is nothing to stop anyone changing the tuning.

The most popular alternative tunings gives a chord of D or G when the open strings are played, but others are possible.  Perhaps the most interesting thing is that if one then plays some of the chord fingerings from the standard tuning, while the guitar is tuned in an alternative way, all sorts of interesting and unusual chords emerge.  It is an approach that has inspired many a performer looking for a way of giving the guitar a new sound, and of playing some chords one has not used before.

And if that did not move you enough try this

Already you should have a feel for what this musician is doing – and I really have not heard this sort of approach to Dylan before.  OK maybe there are others out there, but I live in rural Northamptonshire, and the local folk are still discussing the notion of introducing this new fangled postal service idea to the area, so news from elsewhere is a little slow.

This third example of his work again works in the same way – it is one that Jochen particularly reminded me of this morning, and indeed it is one that was used to illustrate a point in one of Larry’s articles, as well as in Jochen’s article “It takes a lot to laugh it takes “Chris Smither to make me cry”

Now there may be Dylan songs performed by Chris Smither but I haven’t found any yet.  However I have now diverted onto Spotify, and if you have a Spotify account do type in Chris Smither’s name and start playing.  From the very first track on the page dedicated to his music “Leave the light on” your life is likely to be changed – believe me it really is.

But in case you haven’t got a Spotify account here’s some more…

Chris clearly has his own style, but he retains the essence of Bob’s music and then merges the two so we get a new insight into each song.  Here all the atmosphere is created by the opening tuning and the constant pulse which I imagine is a foot tap.

His changes to the music itself are not profound – it is the sound that is different and which gives us different insights…

He does occasionally venture elsewhere but after listening to all the songs above, and quite a few more in the Spotify collection, I wasn’t really for this…

I think I’m going to have to come back to this later to try and take it in fully.  But I think first I am going to play “What was it you wanted” again.  I do hope Bob has heard this.  And maybe sent Chris a postcard of appreciation.

Anyway, there it is.  There is also a lot more of Chris Smither on Second Hand Songs although no more Dylan covers.  And if you have worked your way through those records above, I hope you have enjoyed something therein.

What with it being Christmas I’m visiting my children and grandchildren just now, so the timing of posting articles maybe slightly out for a couple of days (it depends if my grandchildren will allow me onto the internet while I’m visiting… “Oh Granddad I’m on line and you’re slowing the connection down” says the five year old) but one way or another I’ll be back soon.

Happy Christmas everyone, whether you celebrate Christmas or not.  And thank you for reading Untold Dylan.  Without you, it wouldn’t mean a thing.




  1. Tony needs to be reminded that Christmas is a big holiday in the Netherlands as well as in the United Kingdom, and lots of other places too.

  2. Also needed is a full length analysis as to why Smither, in ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh’, sings “even though my baby will” instead of just the simple “you know”.

    Is Smither’s song about the “male” train more sorrowful because he blames the narrator ( Dylan doesn’t) for the gal looking fine “coming” after he “dies” on top of the hill?

    Send your articles to Tony as to whether you think the ‘essence’ of the song is changed or not.

  3. Slowing down words as Smither does by manipulating his lips and his tongue by touching his teeth, and plalet in specific ways to emote a feeling of sadness does not require a listener to know exactly how he does this to appreciate the mood created; nor does a listener have to know how to play a guitar to appreciate the way the sound also creates a feeling of sadness in Smither’s rendition of ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh”.

    If only those who know how both these things are technically done can really appreciate songs and music, the industry would be in big time trouble.

    Take it from someone who sings wonderful songs……….in his head.

  4. I’ve been enjoying Chris Smither’s records for many years and have been lucky to see him live here in the U.K. on a few occasions (and he is back here in 2022, covid permitting) and although it is a rare thing that Bob’s tunes are bettered by other artists (Jimi’s AATW is an obvious example) Chris’s take on Desolation Row is, to my ears a beautiful alternative to one of Bob’s finest songs. And his back catalogue is really worth exploring …

  5. It’s a subjective call to say a cover rendition is “better” than Dylan’s own, but by the same token, it is difficult to deny.

  6. But Dylan is not all that clear who is on inside, and who is on the out side of Desolation Row, and why some people are content to be there while others are peeking into, looking forward to the carnival there, or punished for being there with wrongful motives , while others are prevented from even ‘escaping’ to Desolation Row ….

    The rendition above is more sorrowful than Dylan’s double-edged vision of Desolation Row, and I’m not sure Smither captures the irony that outside of Desolation Row where be dark Satanic Mills is not a happy place for humans to inhabit.

  7. Note that Smither sings ‘wrong play’ instead of ‘wrong place’, and omits the verse about the ‘superhuman crew’ of Dylan’s ‘classical’ version…

    Though the Sound School of Dylanogy would say it doesn’t matter…..

    Words do matter!

  8. In short, Dylan’s music is fine without lyrics, but his popularity came about because most of it is accompanied by his interesting turn of phrase and use of figurative and imaginistic language .,,,

    Nor does reading his lyrics just by themselves capture the essence of Dylan’s art.

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