by Jochen Markhorst
Man Of Constant Sorrow, the autobiography of Ralph Stanley (co-written with Eddie Dean, 2007), is a somewhat two-faced affair. The legendary bluegrass pioneer is a humble, down-to-earth and simple man, but emphasizes that so often that it is getting immodest, self-congratulatory and exuberant. It’s the fans, a grateful elderly Stanley says, who keep him sharp and lively. Fans like Bob Dylan he can not resist adding, a bit boastfully. And he likes to tell that he has recorded “The Lonesome River” together with Dylan. He tells it two times, and both times Stanley mentions: “He said singing with me was the highlight of his career.”
Also twice he recounts the anecdote that Dylan sent him a telegram on the occasion of the celebration in Nashville of his fiftieth anniversary in the music business, in 1996. (The first radio show of The Stanley Brother And The Clinch Mountain Boys was December 26, 1946, WCYB in Bristol, Tennessee). The second time he quotes the contents of that telegram:
“dear dr. ralph. the fields have turned brown. not for you, though. you’ll live forever. best wishes, bob dylan.”
And with the same childish pride he tells us about that time ‘not too long ago‘ that an anonymous stranger with sunglasses and a hoodie visits the memorial at his birthplace, takes photos and at the local grocery store asks for directions to Ralph Stanley’s home. “Don’t you know who that was,” the shelf stacker asks the cashier, “that was Bob Dylan.”
Boastful or not, Ralph Stanley has, of course, every right to be proud of his career and Bob Dylan’s admiration. That admiration is deep and sincere. In Theme Time Radio Hour radio producer Dylan plays five times a song by The Stanley Brothers, the last time (episode 72, More Birds) introduced by a rousing recommendation:
“We played The Stanley Brothers many many times. You can’t go around when you see a Stanley Brothers record. If you’re at a flea market or a yard sale, and you see a record with their name on it, it’s gotta be good.”
In 1997, Dylan plays three songs from the brothers on stage (“I’ll Not Be A Stranger”, “Stone Walls And Steel Bars” and “White Dove”), the cover of “Man Of Constant Sorrow” on his very first album is due to his love for the Stanleys and in the Newsweek interview (1997) he calls songs like “Let Me Rest On A Peaceful Mountain” his ‘religion’. “The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.”
A ‘lexicon‘, a dictionary rather is “Highway Of Regret”, the Stanley Brothers song from which he uses the opening and the third line for “Ain’t Talkin'” (Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’ and Heart’s burning, still yearning), and borrows the second line (Down that highway or regret) for one of his biggest hits, for “Make You Feel My Love”.
The metaphor immediately stands out, among the little original, tear-jerker poetry and worn-out images. Ironically, the lovingly stolen highway or regret is still the most dylanesque, is a metaphor like Desolation Row, Heartbreak Hill, river of tears and Rue Morgue Avenue, which in turn are all probably located in the vicinity of Presley’s Lonely Street.
The sweet character of the rest of the lyrics is also noticed by the most successful ambassador of the song, Adele. Her reservations initially concern her unwillingness to include a cover on her debut album (19, 2008). But her manager is a huge Dylan fan and keeps on bugging her, until she finally listens to that song.
“And then I heard it in New York when he played it for me, and it just really touched me. It’s cheesy, but I think it’s just a stunning song, and it really just summed up everything that I’d been trying to write in my songs.”
Because of that kitschiness the song is usually not very popular with the seasoned fans. The most disappointed do not shun the big words, on fan forums like expectingrain: ‘horrible’, ‘indefensibly mediocre’, ‘disgusting sentimentality’. The slightly more loyal fans sputter that the song is or can be ‘quite nice’ (and refer to live recordings on which things are not that bad), a part hides behind the dubious compliment that the song is a guilty pleasure and a faction pleads that “Make You Feel My Love” truly is a very good song.
The professionals are equally unimpressed. Clinton Heylin dismisses the song briefly and concisely; with dedain he states that it indeed belongs “on a Billy Joel album” (Billy Joel is in fact the first who releases the song, earlier than Dylan, on Greatest Hits Volume III, 1997) and that Dylan’s live performances do not reveal any hidden depths either. Greil Marcus is full of praise for Time Out Of Mind, but ignores this song completely, Greg Kot in Rolling Stone thinks that the album’s spell is broken by this ‘spare ballad, undermined by greetingcard lyrics’ and an acid Ian Bell snaps that the song ‘should have been shipped off instantly, gratis, to Billy Joel, Garth Brooks, and the rest of the balladeers who would take the vapid things to their sentimental hearts.’
That seems a bit all too bold and short-sighted. The song is really not that trivial. The music, for example, manages to push enough buttons to let “Make You Feel My Love” slowly but surely enter the canon. Among the up to hundreds of artists who now have the song on the repertoire are certainly not the least; In addition to the aforementioned megastars such as Adele, Billy Joel and Garth Brooks, it has also been picked up by colleagues like Neil Diamond, Bryan Ferry, Joan Osborne, Timothy B. Schmit and Ed Sheeran. Artists about whom one may have an opinion, but in any case musicians who have an understanding of pop music, catchy melodies and appealing compositions.
The indestructible melody Dylan seems to have borrowed largely from a song that apparently buzzes through his head: “You Belong To Me”.
“You Belong To Me” is a beautiful song from 1952, which Dylan probably admires in the performance of Dean Martin – or else the hit version of Jo Stafford, or Gene Vincent’s rock ‘n roll rendition, or the one of The Duprees, or Bing Crosby, or Patsy Cline … it is a song that is often recorded and is often a hit in the years that Dylan’s music taste is formed, so under his skin it is anyhow. He himself records it in 1992 for Good As I Been To You, but ultimately does not select it. Dylan’s recording eventually surfaces in ’94, on the soundtrack of Oliver Stone’s film hit Natural Born Killers.
Likewise, arguments can be cited against the supposed sweetness of the text. Admittedly, on hearing the song for the first time it does come across as the work of a lazy lyricist who dashes off a bunch of clichés. But at a second listening, and especially when dry re-reading the lyrics, something starts to gnaw. The narrator quite pushy, is he not? And is it not strange that he makes no mention whatsoever of his beloved, not a single word, apart from the intriguing fact that she apparently has some serious doubts (‘you haven’t made your mind up yet‘). Furthermore, the narrator merely sums up what he would do to make her ‘feel his love’. And for that matter: that ‘I will make you feel my love‘ does not sound not very tender either – certainly not after such a dubious vow like ‘I could hold you for a million years‘.
By then, one also starts to notice that it is nothing but abysmal misery. The rain hits her face, the whole world is nagging at her, tears, hunger, black and blue, storm and a ‘highway of regret’… and yet this girl still has her reservations about his ‘warm embrace’, his consolation and any of his offers at all. Smothering, to say the least, if not: stalker alert. No, perhaps it’s a good thing that this lady refuses to commit.
The majority of the covers are pretty much identical. Almost everyone chooses the same pace and similar arrangements, and sugar prevails.
Of all those uniform operations, Adele is indeed one of the finest; the English talent really is a great singer and she seems to have an innate, superior music feeling.
Behind that big leading group of superstars marches a huge platoon of artists of the second category. Ane Brun from Norway (who by the way performs one of the most beautiful versions of “She Belongs To Me”) does it beautifully, fragile and lonely at the Nobel banquet in 2016, much more poignant than the posed kitsch parade of another Girl From The North Country, Sissel Kyrkjebø in 2014.
A second absolute hit also comes from Scandinavia: the Swedish Pernilla Andersson manufactures a heartbreaking, sparsely arranged “Make You Feel My Love”, driven by a muted guitar, in 2004 on her album Cradlehouse.
The crown is for a man, this time. Josh Kelley from Georgia is a reasonably successful singer-songwriter who wins with his contribution to the soundtrack of the film A Cinderella Story (2004). With some good will one might hear how Jakob Dylan would address this song from his father; Josh’s voice sounds like him and Josh opts for a Wallflowers approach: prominent drums (great drumming arrangement, by the way), sound effects, organ and electric guitars – and no swooning with violins and sensitive piano tinkling or stuff.
Boy, what a most beautiful song of constant sorrow it turns out to be.
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