A Dylan Cover a Day: Oh Sister

By Tony Attwood

This has never been one of my favourite Dylan songs – his performance (for me, and this is as ever a very personal reflection) is (in terms of the original Dylan release) too slow.   The viola and the harmonica clash, the percussion is too heavy, the instrumental verse after one vocal verse stops the song from progressing…   Of course none of that stops this being a song that millions love – it is just a personal reflection.   And for me only the middle 8 (We grew up together from the cradle to the grave…) saves it, (mysteriously in fact, as the lyric says) but then it is so short the relief hardly has a chance to settle in.

So it is with some trepidation that I steel myself to listen to a collection of cover versions.   And here there is relief.  If you have a moment, play Dylan’s own version first… and then go straight on to Lisa Wahladnt…

Lisa Wahlandt has rescued the song for me.  She sings it with the lightness I believe it needs, she has a stunningly beautiful voice, and the arranger knows exactly what she or he is doing.   Here the cello works to perfection, the middle 8 now sits simply in all its glory, and I can take in the emotions.

And just listen to what she does to the lyrics “from the cradle to the grave”.

If you would like to know a little more about this extraordinary performer she has a superb website.

Of course having started by saying that I find the Dylan version to be very hard going and then offered a performance of sublime and utter elegance, what else can be offered?

Actually nothing much – so you might want to stop reading here and just go back to playing the above version again, but if you insist on keeping on…

Andrew Bird and Nora O’Connor, in my view, get it half right, although my own view is that they could be with a totally different video, or maybe no video at all.

And listening to this version, it does seem to emphasize the feeling that this song presents a real problem in terms of accompaniment, although I don’t quite know why.  What is that strummed string instrument?  A banjo?  A strummed violin???   I am not at all sure, but whatever it is, I wish it wasn’t.  And I am not at all sure about the whistling either.  But take that out, and what one would have would be a lovely version of this piece.

So I am wondering if the arranger heard Bob’s version and thought, “ok we need some extraneous instrumental sounds in it,” without actually thinking, “Why do we need these extraneous instrumental sounds?”  After all, just because Bob and co did it, it doesn’t mean it’s right.

The introduction to Jimmy LaFave’s version brings hope that simplicity will be restored, and to a degree it is, but the sudden desire to emphasize individual guitar notes again surely comes from what the arranger of LaFave’s version hears on the Dylan original.  And sady Mr LaFave feels the need the throw in a few extra lorry loads of emotion, which I really don’t think are needed.  I don’t have a sister, but I did find out (earlier this year in fact) that I have a brother I never knew about.  We have now met once, and are about to meet for a second time.  So I think I know a little about having a brother, if not a sister.   And believe me this type of accompaniment has got nothing to do with the emotions that overwhelm me every time I think about my brother, just discovered, who through all my life I never knew existed).

But I digress.  Back with the music the accordionist then feels he/she needs a few twiddles…

Yes really there is something about this song that makes vocalists, arrangers and instrumentalists go over the top.  It is a simple, gentle song talking about powerful emotions.  What have twiddles got to do with it?

I’ve noted the work of VSQ a few times in the past and at least we know with them we won’t get any larking about with unexpected instruments.  Two violins, a viola and cello, that’s what you get.

The trouble is, the repetitive nature of this song doesn’t lend itself to the string quartet.  The lead violinist does a sterling job but we still get a feeling of chug-chug-chug which is not the slightest bit implied by the original or the lyrics.

And oh, the middle 8 is a disaster.  I had to stop the recording.

So, ten out of ten to Lisa Wahlandt, and minus several million out of ten to everyone else.  And after that I needed to clear my mind.

Now you might well not agree with me at all, in which case I’m amazed you’ve got this far, but as you are here, and in case you need lifting as I have feel I need lifting, having listened to these versions of what is beneath it all a beautiful song, here is a bit of fun, but with the same problem of an over-enthusiastic arranger.

What you find below is a fun song, but just listen to the instrumentation of the chorus (“Take it easy, take it light…”)   It is the same problem.  “OK guys we need something else in the chorus – how about a few thumps?”

But maybe it’s just me turning into a grumpy old man.  Maybe my adrenalin level is above the danger mark because I’m about to meet my brother for a second time.   If that is the case, take no notice.  Tonight I’m going to London to watch my football team tonight, a bit of shouting and cheering ought to sort me out.  (As long as my team win).

The Dylan Cover a Day series

  1. The song with numbers in the title.
  2. Ain’t Talkin
  3. All I really want to do
  4.  Angelina
  5.  Apple Suckling and Are you Ready.
  6. As I went out one morning
  7.  Ballad for a Friend
  8. Ballad in Plain D
  9. Ballad of a thin man
  10.  Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
  11. The ballad of Hollis Brown
  12. Beyond here lies nothing
  13. Blind Willie McTell
  14.  Black Crow Blues (more fun than you might recall)
  15. An unexpected cover of “Black Diamond Bay”
  16. Blowin in the wind as never before
  17. Bob Dylan’s Dream
  18. You will not believe this… 115th Dream revisited
  19. Boots of Spanish leather
  20. Born in Time
  21. Buckets of Rain
  22. Can you please crawl out your window
  23. Can’t wait
  24. Changing of the Guard
  25. Chimes of Freedom
  26. Country Pie
  27.  Crash on the Levee
  28. Dark Eyes
  29. Dear Landlord
  30. Desolation Row as never ever before (twice)
  31. Dignity.
  32. Dirge
  33. Don’t fall apart on me tonight.
  34. Don’t think twice
  35.  Down along the cove
  36. Drifter’s Escape
  37. Duquesne Whistle
  38. Farewell Angelina
  39. Foot of Pride and Forever Young
  40. Fourth Time Around
  41. From a Buick 6
  42. Gates of Eden
  43. Gotta Serve Somebody
  44. Hard Rain’s a-gonna Fall.
  45. Heart of Mine
  46. High Water
  47. Highway 61
  48. Hurricane
  49. I am a lonesome hobo
  50. I believe in you
  51. I contain multitudes
  52. I don’t believe you.
  53. I love you too much
  54. I pity the poor immigrant. 
  55. I shall be released
  56. I threw it all away
  57. I want you
  58. I was young when I left home
  59. I’ll remember you
  60. Idiot Wind and  More idiot wind
  61. If not for you, and a rant against prosody
  62. If you Gotta Go, please go and do something different
  63. If you see her say hello
  64. Dylan cover a day: I’ll be your baby tonight
  65. I’m not there.
  66. In the Summertime, Is your love and an amazing Isis
  67. It ain’t me babe
  68. It takes a lot to laugh
  69. It’s all over now Baby Blue
  70. It’s all right ma
  71. Just Like a Woman
  72. Knocking on Heaven’s Door
  73. Lay down your weary tune
  74. Lay Lady Lay
  75. Lenny Bruce
  76. That brand new leopard skin pill box hat
  77. Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts
  78. License to kill
  79. Like a Rolling Stone
  80. Love is just a four letter word
  81. Love Sick
  82. Maggies Farm!
  83. Make you feel my love; a performance that made me cry.
  84. Mama you’ve been on my mind
  85. Man in a long black coat.
  86. Masters of War
  87. Meet me in the morning
  88. Million Miles. Listen, and marvel.
  89. Mississippi. Listen, and marvel (again)
  90. Most likely you go your way
  91. Most of the time and a rhythmic thing
  92. Motorpsycho Nitemare
  93. Mozambique
  94. Mr Tambourine Man
  95. My back pages, with a real treat at the end
  96. New Morning
  97. New Pony. Listen where and when appropriate
  98. Nobody Cept You
  99. North Country Blues
  100. No time to think
  101. Obviously Five Believers

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