By Tony Attwood
A strange moment to be writing this: despite this being a mid-morning in July and thus the English summer, there is a huge storm raging and the rain is teaming down. Rather appropriate in a way. Thunder rolls in the background, but the temperature is pleasantly warm.
And I choose (by chance) this moment to comment upon one of Bob’s simplest songs in a musical sense but one with complex entwined lyrics (what are we to make of “the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount”?), that can be easily overlooked because of that repetitive simplicity within the music…
'Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and bloodWhen blackness was a virtue the road was full of mud I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form "Come in," she said, "I'll give ya shelter from the storm"
The rhymes are simple (blood/mud; form/storm) the construction is simple, the accompaniment is simple; the meaning is, well, possibly very simple, the meaning is increasingly obscure. What is the cover artist to do with this complex simplicity?
Cassandra Wilson and the production team add to the accompaniment while keeping the idea of openness and she manipulates the melody beautifully and elegantly with the occasional but appropriate pauses. Even when she adds extra emphasis it stays within the context, and keeps within the bounds of the song.
We also get some interesting manipulations of the chordal background especially in the inter-verse pauses. Of course one can be critical of some of the variations, but if there are no variations at all then what is the point of doing a cover?
Personally, I am not sure about the coda and fade out, but then, it’s her production…
Rodney Crowell has taken us further back to the basics with the two-person harmonies from the off, and I think they have made the right decision by not overplaying the part. We can get used to the way the whole piece is worked through before they unexpectedly change key for the female vocalists. But what really makes this work is that everything is under control. OK the return to the original key when the male vocal returns is obvious and expected, but this is a simple song with its repeated line at the end of each verse. The expected is fine.
Personally, I think the song can live without extra guitar effects, but this is a delicate version of a beautiful song that we all know intimately. And for me it really works.
The only bit I am really going to complain about is the spoken verse. Lots of singers try it, but (once again, for me) it never ever works. Maybe that’s just me, but really, it is a song, not a recitation.
The song in fact is so simple that listening to lots of covers it is clear that many performers and arrangers don’t quite know which way to look.
The notion of slowing the whole thing right down as per Steve Adey, is interesting, but I think the problem is that I know the song so well, it is now too much to take. Maybe if I were just sitting at home with nothing to do and wanted to drift into another place this would work, but in the morning at home, watching the rain pour down, it still seems to have gone too far.
If I had just come across Barb Jungr without reference to any of the above I am not sure what I would have made of this version, but this is now interesting…. I particularly like the “I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail, Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail” verse.
But way beyond everything above the version by Tom Lum Forest (of whom I know nothing) is just out on its own. Everything is perfect – accompaniment, vocals, harmonies, the progress of the music through the whole piece…
Jochenn’s review is of course still on this site and he notes, “The approval of the master himself only Cassandra Wilson receives, even before he has heard her version. In the Time Magazine interview with John Farley, September 2001, Dylan sings, unrequited, her qualities:
“Among the few contemporary acts that excite him is jazz singer Cassandra Wilson. ‘She is one of my favorite singers today,’ says Dylan. ‘I heard her version of Death Letter Blues—gave me the chills. I love everything she does.’ He says he would like to see her cover some of his songs.
Cassandra does not give him a chance to change his mind. Immediately on her next album, Belly Of The Sun (2002), she performs a chillingly beautiful version of “Shelter From The Storm”, full of pent-up suspense, a slightly hoarse, muffled and most of all sensitive, lyrical execution.
And really I can’t argue with that. although maybe on my desert island, I’d still take Tom Lum Forest. But I’m willing to try Cassandra again.
The Dylan Cover a Day series
- The song with numbers in the title.
- Ain’t Talkin
- All I really want to do
- Apple Suckling and Are you Ready.
- As I went out one morning
- Ballad for a Friend
- Ballad in Plain D
- Ballad of a thin man
- Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
- The ballad of Hollis Brown
- Beyond here lies nothing
- Blind Willie McTell
- Black Crow Blues (more fun than you might recall)
- An unexpected cover of “Black Diamond Bay”
- Blowin in the wind as never before
- Bob Dylan’s Dream
- BoB Dylan’s 115th Dream revisited
- Boots of Spanish leather
- Born in Time
- Buckets of Rain
- Can you please crawl out your window
- Can’t wait
- Changing of the Guard
- Chimes of Freedom
- Country Pie
- Crash on the Levee
- Dark Eyes
- Dear Landlord
- Desolation Row as never ever before (twice)
- Don’t fall apart on me tonight.
- Don’t think twice
- Down along the cove
- Drifter’s Escape
- Duquesne Whistle
- Farewell Angelina
- Foot of Pride and Forever Young
- Fourth Time Around
- From a Buick 6
- Gates of Eden
- Gotta Serve Somebody
- Hard Rain’s a-gonna Fall.
- Heart of Mine
- High Water
- Highway 61
- I am a lonesome hobo
- I believe in you
- I contain multitudes
- I don’t believe you.
- I love you too much
- I pity the poor immigrant.
- I shall be released
- I threw it all away
- I want you
- I was young when I left home
- I’ll remember you
- Idiot Wind and More idiot wind
- If not for you, and a rant against prosody
- If you Gotta Go, please go and do something different
- If you see her say hello
- Dylan cover a day: I’ll be your baby tonight
- I’m not there.
- In the Summertime, Is your love and an amazing Isis
- It ain’t me babe
- It takes a lot to laugh
- It’s all over now Baby Blue
- It’s all right ma
- Just Like a Woman
- Knocking on Heaven’s Door
- Lay down your weary tune
- Lay Lady Lay
- Lenny Bruce
- That brand new leopard skin pill box hat
- Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts
- License to kill
- Like a Rolling Stone
- Love is just a four letter word
- Love Sick
- Maggies Farm!
- Make you feel my love; a performance that made me cry.
- Mama you’ve been on my mind
- Man in a long black coat.
- Masters of War
- Meet me in the morning
- Million Miles. Listen, and marvel.
- Mississippi. Listen, and marvel (again)
- Most likely you go your way
- Most of the time and a rhythmic thing
- Motorpsycho Nitemare
- Mr Tambourine Man
- My back pages, with a real treat at the end
- New Morning
- New Pony. Listen where and when appropriate
- Nobody Cept You
- North Country Blues
- No time to think
- Obviously Five Believers
- Oh Sister
- On the road again
- One more cup of coffee
- (Sooner or later) one of us must know
- One too many mornings
- Only a hobo
- Only a pawn in their game
- Outlaw Blues – prepare to be amazed
- Oxford Town
- Peggy Day and Pledging my time
- Please Mrs Henry
- Political world
- Positively 4th Street
- Precious Angel
- Property of Jesus
- Queen Jane Approximately
- Quinn the Eskimo as it should be performed.
- Quit your lowdown ways
- Rainy Day Women as never before
- Restless Farewell. Exquisite arrangements, unbelievable power
- Ring them bells in many different ways
- Romance in Durango, covered and re-written
- Sad Eyed Lady of Lowlands, like you won’t believe
- A series of Dreams; no one gets it (except Dylan)
- Seven Days
- She Belongs to Me