A Dylan Cover a Day: the Quinn the Eskimo as it should be performed.

By Tony Attwood

“I don’t know what it’s about,” said Bob, and that’s good enough for me.  I like poems and songs and abstract works of art that are not about anything.   After all why does art have to be about something?

In terms of Bob Dylan there are hundreds of thousands of commentators out there who believe that Bob’s work must be about something – and wow! this particular writer has an insight that is real and true and well, insightful.   Except it probably isn’t.

My view (oft-expressed on these pages) is that Dylan, like many other poets before and since, like the sounds of words and phrases, and has always done so.  And indeed this is how much of the world is.  I look out from where I write each day in rural England, across the grass, beyond the small windmill to four trees at the end of my garden stretching up to the sky.   Does that mean anything?  Not especially, but I have chosen this room and this house, because I love this view, and it helps me write on the various subjects I’m paid to write about or want to write about.   That’s it.  I watch the seasons pass, I write stuff, people pay, I go dancing.

And that’s not to compare myself in any way at all with the genius that is Bob, or any genius, as obviously I’m not in that league, but rather to say, from a lifetime of being involved with the arts, in the theatre, in music and in writing, I’m utterly sure art does not have to be about anything.   And certainly, for me, that is the case with Quinn the Eskimo.   So the question for me with this song is, how do different performers deal with a song that means nothing?

Adding harmonies at the start and then keeping the rest of the song as it always has been, is a good way of handling a piece that we all have heard many times before.    Indeed the song is so well known, it is hard to do much with the music without destroying the essence of the song, so harmonies are great.

And then they add an interesting backing.  The harmonica, what sounds to me like a violin being plucked at one point, the jaunty bowed violin in the background elsewhere before it gets its jolly solo near the end…  It’s all fun.  What’s not to like?

Lots of heavy metal (and similar) bands have had a bash at the song, and then have found they have to compromise a bit to make the chorus work.   I’m not a heavy metal fan at all, but I can appreciate the short instrumental break… but beyond this I think it is a case of liking the genre or not.   Mind you I do like the subheading “Executing the classics”.   Yes indeed. I wish I’d thought of that.

Oh yes and that break around 1 minute 45 – it gets carried away with itself in my view, but I do like the way it starts.

The opening of Joan Osborne’s version doesn’t really give much hope for something different, but she does deliver fine harmonies, and someone on the team has decided to change the chord structure at the start of “Come on without” with the bass holding its note, to imply something quite different from the norm for the words “Come on within”.

As a result, for me, suddenly “come on within” is no longer a fairly meaningless reply to “come on without”.  With that held bass note it takes on a totally different concept.  It gives a notion of slow-growing progress that is not part of the song otherwise.

This Manfred Mann realisation of the song is the version that Jochen chose for his article: Quinn the Eskimo: one semitone is all it takes, which of course I do recommend if you want to know about the song itself.  It (this version) mixes genres although I am not sure that now, all these years on, it still gives me much to think about.   Although the change at around 2.20 really is unexpected and most certainly musically very interesting.

Trouble is, “interesting” doesn’t mean that one necessarily wants to go back and listen to it again and again.   Yes, being able to play fast and do the unexpected is good, and entertaining – and I most certainly was not expecting what happens at 3.30.   It is fun thereafter, but on my “do I want to play this again?” chart it doesn’t score.  They do get back to the song in the end, however – and there’s a lovely fun effect at the end which is worth waiting for.

I suppose I have included London Pops as an antidote to Manfred Mann, and although it is fun, it is clear that at moments they struggled to think of enough variations to keep going, so not one of my favourites.  But it leads me to….

This takes me back to the origins, and I love it.  The song is a bit of nonsense.  It is fun, and somehow listening to all the takes above I get to feel that some of these performers are taking themselves awfully seriously with a song that was never meant to be taken that way in the slightest.   These guys are just doing their thing and enjoying themselves, and enjoying the nonsense that the song is.

Being gentle with this song is like being gentle with an old friend, unexpectedly met once more – an old friend who perhaps hasn’t had the best of times across the years, but is your old friend and so needs respect and courtesy and maybe some encouragement and help.

Which is why I not only had to include this version, but also include it at the end.  It is, for me, how the song should be played.

Hello old friend.

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
  102. Oh Sister
  103. On the road again
  104. One more cup of coffee
  105. (Sooner or later) one of us must know
  106. One too many mornings
  107. Only a hobo
  108. Only a pawn in their game
  109. Outlaw Blues – prepare to be amazed
  110. Oxford Town
  111. Peggy Day and Pledging my time
  112. Please Mrs Henry
  113. Political world
  114. Positively 4th Street
  115. Precious Angel
  116. Property of Jesus
  117. Queen Jane Approximately

One comment

  1. Thank you for highlighting Reina del Cid – I love her videos (especially all the Dylan covers), she and her friends always seem to be having so much fun, as well as being very talented.

    But for me the archetypal Quinn will always be the original Manfred Mann version (not the Earth Band version you have featured, which I agree is rather overblown):
    That too just sounds like they are having a lot of fun, and transports me back to my teenage years.

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