A Dylan cover a Day: I pity the poor immigrant and all the fun of the fair

By Tony Attwood

A list of past episodes from this series is given at the end.

I must admit to being ready to skip over this particular song in this series of articles because I simply couldn’t imagine what one could do to the work by way of variation, without destroying the integrity of the lyrics.  And if you going to read this little piece all the way through may I ask you to recall that opening comment when you get to the end.

Certainly, listening to a multiplicity of covers today, I think most of the artists who have taken the project and whose recordings are noted below, have thought about that a lot too.

And with this collection I am stunned by what some of them have done.  After all the melody is very distinctive, the lyrics demand the slow plodding tune (to do anything else turns the whole song into nonsense) but even so hearing what a few artists have done with really valiant attempts to deliver the song in a different way is worthwhile.  And that’s before considering a band that has deliberately turned it all upside down.

In fact, to my surprise, there is a surprisingly large number of such covers which do actually try and rework the piece in a new way, either while or without retaining the message of the lyrics.  In fact doing anything meaningful with this song turns out to be a very difficult task, yet some do, and deliver a result far beyond anything I could imagine.

Interesting that the video above looks like one that might be set up by the amateur performers who get themselves on google page one by creating endless videos of themselves playing Dylan tracks.

But no, give the man time. It’s the video that is misleading – unless you know this band of highly talented multi-instrumentalists.   And it is the accompaniment that really makes this recording – not that the double-tracked vocalist doesn’t do an excellent job, it is just the inventiveness behind him that really makes this version happen.

They take the plodding nature of the song to its ultimate and contrast that with the choral effects.  One of those recordings I am not sure I will ever play again, but will remember for a long old time.

Valdemar featuring Ulf Dageby & Totta put this recording on their wonderfully named album “Not Dark Yet In Gothenburg”, and I think it is worth mentioning them just for that name.   The slowness is beguiling at first, but ultimately I’m left thinking, “OK I’ve got what you are doing… but can you do something else now?  They are on the way to that point, but somehow didn’t quite turn the final page.

If you have found yourself reading a variety of my ramblings on this site, you’ll know that Thea Gilmore’s reworking of the entire Dylan album contains (in my view) one of the greatest reworking of a Dylan song ever (Drifter’s Escape).  And the opening chord here is exactly the same as on that extraordinary cover.  She must have known that Escape was the absolute highlight of the album.

The plodding nature of the song is kept, but is made fully acceptable and indeed entertaining by what the band does, and of course by the beauty of the singer’s voice and expression.   Somehow without me noticing how she removes then removes that plodding nature of the song – and that despite the percussion giving us a reminder of the beat throughout.  I think it is once again that extraordinary lead guitar performance.  I would urge you to listen all the way through – if for nothing else than to catch the instrumental verse, and what Thea does after it.  To say it is “very moving” is to underplay it far too much, but I’m not sure what else to say.

It’s four and three-quarter minutes long – do listen all the way through if you can.

OK after that I had to find something completely different.  What troubles me here is the lead guitar in between each vocal line.  I really wonder if the performer quite knew what he was doing.   I guess so, in which case I wonder what the other instrumentalists thought of it all.

For me it is a perfect example of a producer’s idea (“can’t we have a bit of guitar in the background to keep it going?”) which should have been rejected but never was.  (These producers can be wretched fellows if left to  their own devices!)

Last one for today and it is included because of the way the musicians extend every bar and every line.  For the first couple of bars it feels like it isn’t going to work at all, and then the percussion comes in and yes, and for a moment I wonder, but then quite remarkably it does work – and how!  It turns into a song with extended vocal lines but a really fund bouncy instrumentation.

Of course it only works if you don’t listen to the lyrics, if you do you’ll probably think, “what does this music have to do with

That man whom with his fingers cheats
And who lies with every breath
Who passionately hates his life
And likewise, fears his death

But then, if you can, just think of those lyrics when listening to the instrumental break.  It is an absolute scream, and if I were in a band now I think I’d be saying, “hey let’s do this song in this way”.   Except that I am not too sure the audience would quite get it.  But still, I think it would be a hell of a laugh for the musicians.

Oh and just listen to the way it ends.  What a hoot (when one remembers the lyrics).  All the fun of the fair indeed.  Who cares about the lyrics!

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Untold Dylan was created in 2008 and is currently published twice a day –  sometimes more, sometimes less.  Details of some of our series are given at the top of the page and in the Recent Posts list, which appears both on the right side of the page and at the very foot of the page (helpful if you are reading on a phone).  Some of our past articles which form part of a series are also included on the home page.

Articles are written by a variety of volunteers and you can read more about them here    If you would like to write for Untold Dylan, do email with your idea or article to Tony@schools.co.uk.  Our readership is rather large (many thanks to Rolling Stone for help in that regard). Details of some of our past articles are also included on the home page.

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2 Responses to A Dylan cover a Day: I pity the poor immigrant and all the fun of the fair

  1. Jochen says:

    Although I certainly don’t want to pride myself on being able to point out an omission by Tony, I do like to draw attention to the – to my ears – very, very best cover: Jewels & Binoculars (https://youtu.be/ul8cBVB0unE)
    Who cares about the lyrics indeed.

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    Since Dylan’s not a jazz player, I hummed along the lyrics:

    On water the witty pour instruments
    I wished they had sprayed foam
    They used every drop in their tower to be civil
    But in the end anything left was all bone

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