Dylan’s Make You Feel My Love revisited. Misery, rain, nagging, tears, hunger, black and blue,

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.

Make you feel my love: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

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13 Responses to Dylan’s Make You Feel My Love revisited. Misery, rain, nagging, tears, hunger, black and blue,

  1. LarryFyffe says:

    The seasons they are turnin’, and my sad heart is yearnin’
    (Bob Dylan: Moonlight)

  2. LarryFyffe says:

    I feel your touch, your warm embrace
    (Bobby Helms: My Special Angel)

  3. Jochen Markhorst says:

    I wondered whether any influence could be attributed to Sinatra’s “April In Paris”

    I never knew the charm of spring
    Never met it face to face
    I never knew my heart could sing
    Never missed a warm embrace till
    April in Paris

    And/or perhaps to Elvis:

    A million years it seems
    Have gone by since we shared our dreams
    But I’ll hold you again
    There’ll be no blue memories then

    (“My Happiness”)

    … but too thin, I reckon.

  4. LarryFyffe says:

    Making the case that Make You Feel My Love’s alludes to the ‘warm embrace’ of My Special Angel’ is backed up by similar phrasing and wording (ie, rain/tears/your/warm embrace, etc) in the lyrics of both two songs mentioned above.

    I reckon you could try and make a case for the other songs,
    but as you said ….

  5. LarryFyffe says:

    When the rain is blowing in your face
    And the whole world is on your case
    I could offer you a warm embrace

    reverses the image of:

    Tears from your eyes bring the rain
    I feel your touch, your warm embrace
    (My Special Angel)

  6. LarryFyffe says:

    But then again Sinatra has ‘face/ embrace’ and so does Make You Feel My Love. …Take what you have gathered from coincidence.

  7. Jochen Markhorst says:

    I read your article about it, Larry. It is interesting. And speculative, of course. In any case, I am not aware of any reference from Dylan to Bobby Helms or to “My Special Angel”. Not in Chronicles, nor in interviews, on the stage or in Theme Time Radio Hour.

    Dylan’s love and admiration for Elvis and Sinatra, on the other hand, is exhaustively documented. One can only speculate, but my guess would be that it’s more likely that those songs have gotten under his skin. The rhyme face / (warm) embrace, for example, can be found in dozens of songs, but I suspect that Sinatra’s “Ever Homeward” (warm embraces and friendly faces) or “The Look Of Love” (wondrous embrace / fabulous face) sooner comes to Dylan’s inspiration-seeking, songwriting mind. And in “Nancy With The Laughing Face” we even encounter the rhyming of face, embrace, case.

    The same applies to such a rhyme sequence as (dis)appear / tears / years.
    There are undoubtedly dozens of songs that use this sequence, rhyming imperfectly or not (the Johnny Mercer song “When October Goes”, Marty Robbins’ “Fresh Out Of Tears”, “Oh So Many Years” by The Everly Brothers, “Since You’ve Been Gone” by Millie Small), but my guess would be that Sinatra’s “Kisses And Tears” bounces around in the back of Dylan’s mind (Though the years / Unless you trust me, whenever a doubt appears / Your future with me will continue to be kisses and tears).
    Or maybe Joan Baez’ “What Have They Done For The Rain”:
    Just a little boy standing in the rain
    The gentle rain that falls for years
    And the grass is gone, the boy disappears
    And rain keeps falling like helpless tears
    And what have they done to the rain

    Still only speculation, obviously, but at least that’s all songs of which we are pretty sure they’re in Dylan’s record collection. Whether they actually inspire – we’ll never know. I certainly do not want to claim that Sinatra is Dylan’s guru, but, just like you: how the mind of a poetic genius like Dylan works certainly interests me.

  8. LarryFyffe says:

    Coincidence is my operative word….The Helms version picked at random….Jerry Vale as well as The Comets did the song and these guys are certainly mentioned by Dylan….
    there need be no conscious replication by someone who has so many songs in his head, and Dylan often deliberately or otherwise picks bits and pieces from all over the music map and elsewhere, and sticks them in a single song.

    So I think we agree to a certain extent.

    Sinatra certainly, and it could well be that Vale, and The Comets are all mixed into the lyric soup??

    ‘My Special Angel’ – an extremely well -recognized song by anyone who listened on the radio to the popular hits and their rhymes around the time that Dylan did when growing up. ..to Sinatra too!

  9. LarryFyffe says:

    Jerry Vale, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles ,and Bob Dylan, among many others, cover ‘You Don’t Know Me’ ….for what that’s worth.

  10. LarryFyffe says:

    Dylan makes fun of Doo Wop songs and it’s extensions
    (Acne), but says later on:

    “Doo Wop was the counterpart to rocknroll. Songs like ‘Earth Angel’, ‘In the Still Of The Night'(Satins’ song, not Cole Porter’s – my note), ‘Thousand Miles Away,’ these songs balanced things out; they were heart-felt and melancholy for a world that didn’t seem to have a heart”: Bob Dylan.

    ‘My Special Angel’ certainly fits into this counterpart,
    ie Bobby Vinton’s rendition, for example.

    It’s all very interesting ….Jochen, keep those excellant articles a-comin’…they make one think more about Dylan’s music and lyrics – that’s for sure.

  11. LarryFyffe says:

    It’s turtles all the way down…. (lol)

    If not for you
    Winter would have no spring
    Couldn’t hear a robin sing
    (Bob Dylan: If Not For You)

  12. James Johnston says:

    Cover versions very good but go back and listen to the original. Always hard to beat. Why complain when Dylan writes a simple song. Critics are too fond of promoting their own egos and dismissing simple beauty at times. It is a beautiful song to sing and to play. Enjoy it for what it is. Remember, Bob is only a song and dance man.

  13. Morten Jonsson says:

    I could learn to tolerate this song, greeting card sentiments, borrowed melody, and all, if it weren’t for that disastrous title. I have to take it literally–it doesn’t make much sense otherwise–and assume that what he wants from her, in return for all these impossible promises, is a hand job in a parking lot.

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