Other people’s songs: See that my grave is kept clean

Previously in this series…

by Aaron Galbraith (in USA) and Tony Attwood (in the UK)

Aaron: Bob’s version appears as the closing track on his debut album.

Tony: It was hearing this first Dylan album that persuaded me to ask my parents for a guitar for my birthday.   I am not sure that they thought I would stick at learning it, although I was a competent young pianist at the time, but they gave me the guitar, and I was playing and singing that first album quite soon after, but with none of the mastery of Dylan’s performance here, of course.

And coming back to it, having not played the track in a long old while, I am knocked out both by the power of the singing and technical mastery of the guitar work.  Bob really does deliver.   Mind you he was of course 20 or 21 when he recorded it, so he had had time to get the music together, but still, it is quite remarkable how assured he was in singing these songs that go back way before he was born.

Aaron: The song was written by Blind Lemon Jefferson and first recorded in 1927.

Tony: I’ve included two links to the original, as the one Aaron has provided from the USA doesn’t want to work in the UK.  Hopefully you’ll find one of them works.


Tony: So we can hear that Dylan has cut out the chord change in the second line, and given a much more desperate delivery from that of the original.   I think I always took it from the  approach Dylan took for the song that the vocals were directed at his friends and relatives, while Blind Lemon Jefferson seems to be appealing to the Almighty.

And if you have time do play the Lemon Jefferson track to the end; it has a very curious ending that seems to make light of all that has gone before, whereas for Bob, the desperation is there from the start to the end.

Aaron: Here we have some other modern versions to compare to Bob’s

Lou Reed

Tony: I do like reworkings of songs that mean one would not be able to guess what is coming up from the instrumental introduction, and that is certainly the case here with the introduction.   But when we get to the vocals it is not a disappointment, for this rendition really does go its own way, and gives a grim horror-laden approach.   And the extension of the music between the repeated lines really does increase the horror.   And it lasts for the full 7 minutes 30 seconds.   Absolutely overpowering.

There are two verses in addition to Bob’s version

The second verse is

 Long line ain't got no end
        Lord, there's a long line that ain't got no end
        It's a long long line that ain't got no end
        Bad wind that never came
        It's a bad wind that never came

Verse six is

Dig my grave with a silver spade
        Why don't you dig my grave with a silver spade
        Why don't you dig my grave with a silver spade
        Why don't you lay me down with a golden chain

Not sure I could listen to this twice in quick succession, but wow, what a performance.

Mavis Staples


Tony: More lyrics changes.  And I am not at all clear where they have all come from – were they introduced by the composer or added later?   It would be good to know.

Here we’ve got a set of backing singers, and I think it is remarkable that the producer and Ms Staples have made this work without sanitising the song.   It would be very easy for the depth of feeling in the lyrics to be lost, but that doesn’t happen, I’m delighted to say.

But having listened to Aaron’s selection I am still utterly haunted by Lou Reed’s version.  And haunted is the right word for me; I really don’t think I can go back and play it again.

At least not today.

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