Melancholy Mood: Bob’s extraordinarily successful total reworking of a classic


I don’t know what it means either: an index to the current series appearing on this website.

Commentary by Tony Attwood, audio kindly provided by Mr Tambourine.

Melancholy Mood starts at 1′ 14′ 08″ and is an upbeat rendition of the original song with just a few small lyrical updates and modifications to suit Bob’s voice.  The main difference from the original score and recordings is the omission of the slow prelude to the main part of the song and overall a more upbeat approach.

But as it turns out there is something much more profound going on here…

Bob clearly likes this song, as at the time of writing he has performed it 249 times, according to the official Dylan site.  And I hope below I can explain a little of why this is the case.

The music was written in 1939 by Walter Schumann with lyrics written by Vick Knight and Bob’s version appeared on the Fallen Angels album.  It was first recorded by Kenny Baker in the year of its composition, and I believe it is certainly worth returning for a moment to that original recording, just to see the magnitude of what Bob has done with this song.

In Bob’s case, the song first appeared on the Fallen Angels album – the album that consists of cover versions of twelve classic American songs chosen by Dylan from a range of songwriters.  You may recall that as with “Shadows in the Night” every song on the album, except for one, had previously been recorded by Frank Sinatra.

Indeed the album was well received and Fallen Angels was also nominated for the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album at the Grammies in February 2017.

But what has Bob actually done here?   Well, by removing the opening part of the song and taking it in a more upbeat fashion the song becomes not only not melancholy in its approach, but also very short.  While we are used to Dylan songs in concert being five minutes long, and sometimes much longer, this one is just a couple of minutes long.  Very un-Bob-like.

Of course contrary to that, taking a song and then re-writing the whole approach of the piece by changing the rhythm, the speed and the style, is very much what Dylan does, and his arrangement does indeed make for easy listening and suggests it could well be a dance track.  But at first hearing, especially if one was familiar with the original, it just seems rather out of touch with the lyrics.

The opening bars – the prelude – does indeed ready to reflect the lyrics, and yet at the same time when one listens to the lyrics of the opening verse, it is hard to see what the connection subsequently is between the music and the lyrics.   Certainly, the gentleman in the audience who shouts out during the musical prologue, along with the others who feel moved to give voice to their feelings, don’t seem in touch with ….

Melancholy mood forever haunts me
Steals upon me in the night, forever taunts me
Oh, what a lonely soul am I, stranded high and dry
By a melancholy mood

And in fact this is not just the contradiction as the song seems to bounce along behind the lyrics that say…

Gone is every joy and inspiration
Tears are all I have to show, no consolation
All I see is grief and gloom, until the crack of doom
Oh, melancholy mood

Now it is true that the second “melancholy mood” in the vocals is more in touch with the music overall, and it is a tribute to what Dylan’s arrangement does, that as the song continues with this oddity of the upbeat nature of the music with the downbeat lyrics.

Deep in the night I search for a trace
Of a lingering kiss, a warm embrace
But love is a whimsy, as flimsy as lace
And my arms embrace an empty space

Bob then continues with all the verses of the song and amazingly, as it continues somehow the bounce of the music now doesn’t seem to be a contradiction of the lyrics at all.   One seems to be able to accept that a melancholy mood can indeed be completely upbeat.

Melancholy mood, why must you blind me
Pity me and break the chains, the chains that bind me
Won't you release me, set me free, bring her back to me
Oh, melancholy mood 

It is an extraordinary achievement to balance such a relaxed upbeat version of the song with those very, very downbeat lyrics which I don’t think any performer has tried before.

It is also interesting (to me if no one else) that Bob then adds a very short musical coda and that’s that.   No musical extemporisations, no verse repeats (not that Bob ever does do that) – just a very short song in which tye lyrics and music at first seem out of kilter with each other, but then fall into place as one.

Working through the recordings that Mr Tambourine has so kindly provided, this performance is certainly something that really stands out for me thus far.  I find it an utterly amazing piece of re-writing, and one that I want to play over and over again.

The Rough and Rowdy Ways series

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *