A Dylan Cover a Day: Restless Farewell. Exquisite arrangements, unbelievable power

by Tony Attwood

An unusual – perhaps unique – episode of this long running series which originated from a time when lock down ruled my part of England and I was spending day after day on my own, and really was writing an article every day in the series.

And I’ve always known that we would eventually get to this song, and that I would have to break my own rules by including a version of the song in which Dylan covers his own work, and at the same time refer back to the music that existed before Dylan’s composition.

But let us leave that for a moment.   First Mark Knopfler, who opens with instrumentation that makes it sound like a Scottish folk song.  And which is quite reasonable since the melody, as we all know, is based around the traditional folk song “The Parting Glass”.

Mark Knopfler shows a real understanding and grasp of what he is singing.  Indeed I find this an utterly exquisite rendition, wherein the beauty is reflected both in the singing and the orchestration.  Nothing is forced – his voice flows naturally through the whole song, every verse offers a new insight.    One can focus on any little phrase one chooses, such as “no special friend” and there is emotion and feeling pouring out from those individual words.

Indeed even oft-used devices such as taking the orchestration completely back to basics for the final verse, works perfectly.  As does the decision not to round off the song by ending on the tonic chord (the foundation of the key that the piece is in, which is what normally happens).

So changing direction…. and you may not know the Singing Loins – a band from the Medway, part of south east England, just south of London, which developed its own style of music.  Sadly the extraordinary vocalist of the band, Chris Broderick, passed away from cancer in January 2022, and I’m really pleased to be able to include a recording on this site of him in full flow.

His vocals bring a completely different dimension to this song, and listening to this version today I can imagine that this was how it was meant to be – although of course I know that is not the case.  But this version does show just how flexible Bob’s songs can be (although of course there is a case here for saying “just how flexible traditional English folk songs can be”).  Even if you are taken aback by the way the song is redeveloped I do hope you’ll hear it through.

Moving back to the origins of the song – and I will spend a moment with the actual origins at the end of the Dylan-related recordings – this next recording which was released as part of the tribute to Bob on his 60th birthday, merges the original and his re-writing of the piece.   The accompaniment is exquisitely simple with just the single violin and the guitar.  Exactly the opposite of the version above, but for me each one adds something to my understanding, and my enjoyment.

It is of course also a song that would appeal to Joan Baez and she handles it most delicately, and I do like the way the arranger reworks the piece for her – although after a while it does start to sound a little forced.

What happens is this: the opening part of each verse is in the standard 4/4 rhythm of four beats in a bar, and then it suddenly moves (as other instruments join in) to 6/8 in which we get 1 2 3 4 5 6 with the accents on the first and fourth beat of each bar.

This alternation of the two rhythms is something that I can’t recall from any other performance of any other song.  In a sense it is a little artificial, but it really does make one think again about the lyrics.

There is also the unexpected cadence at the end of each verse – technically it is an interrupted cadence – wherein the chords don’t go where we might expect.

In short this is, musically a complete re-working of Dylan’s original piece.

Moving on to Bob himself (and I know that’s not really allowed because this is a series about cover versions), I can’t leave out the performance by Dylan for Frank Sinatra, who apparently specifically requested this song.

I also featured this recording in the Dylan Obscuranti series in which we created an album of obscure Dylan performances that a record company could pick up and release.  Curiously they never did – or maybe Bob vetoed it.  (The full set of tracks with links is given here).

I’ve noted this version so often here I can’t say any more, and it is after all not really a cover in the normal sense, but still if you have never heard it or not heard it for a long time, do have a listen.  Dylan covering Dylan.

So there we are – four actual covers, and a reworking of the song by Bob himself.  And yet I am still not finished.   For here is an utterly overwhelming and stunning arrangement of the original.   And I really would beg you, if you have never heard this before, to listen now.  Block out the modern world totally, and accept this for what it is.  A beautiful piece of music.

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