Why does Dylan love “Uncloudy Day”? A bolt straight from the heavens.

By Tony Attwood, with research by Jochen Markhorst

Of late I have been writing about some of the songs that Bob Dylan appears to have a particular affection for.  There’s a list of the other songs already covered in this series; today it is Uncloudy Day.

In many ways you only have to listen to the opening ten seconds of the recording that Bob Dylan mentions in interviews to realise this is going to be something very different.  And as you listen to this recording below, do remember it was made in 1956 – before the writing (or at least the writing that we still have recordings) of Bob Dylan the song creator, had started.

 

And it is not the lyrics that stop us in our tracks, although they are certainly arresting, for it is quite possible to go through the whole song without considering the words at all.  And in case you just have here is the opening…

Wo oh they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise
Wo oh they tell me of a home far away so far away 
Wo oh they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise
Wo wo they tell me of an unclouded day

Incidentally the lyrics sites that have this song listed tend to give a different version of the lyrics from that on the recording – even when they cite the Staple Singers.  That doesn’t really matter but if you want the exact version of this song – the one Dylan listened to, then these lyrics are not right.

The reason for the lyrical variation is the age of the song – it was written by Josiah Kelley Alwood in 1879 as a hymn.  Alwood was known as one of the “circuit riding” preachers who was later an elder in the North Ohio Conference of the United Brethren Church.  At the end of the century Alwood wrote about the writing of the song in A Rainbow at Midnight and A Song With Morning

It was a balmy night in August 1879, when returning from a debate in Spring Hill, Ohio, to my home in Morenci, Michigan, about 1:00 a.m. I saw a beautiful rainbow north by northwest against a dense black nimbus cloud. The sky was all perfectly clear except this dark cloud which covered about forty degrees of the horizon and extended about halfway to the zenith. The phenomenon was entirely new to me and my nerves refreshed by the balmy air and the lovely sight. Old Morpheus was playing his sweetest lullaby. Another mile of travel, a few moments of time, a fellow of my size was ensconced in sweet home and wrapped in sweet sleep. A first class know-nothing till rosy-sweet morning was wide over the fields.

To awake and look abroad and remember the night was to be filled with sweet melody. A while at the organ brought forth a piece of music now known as “The Unclouded Day.” A Day and a half was bestowed on the four stanzas.

But it was The Staple Singers version of the song from 1956 that turned Bob on, with Mavis Staples providing the lead.  The song was also performed by Phish at Farm Aid – Dylan’s favourite charity it seems, in 1998.

Many others have taken it up since including Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee, and The Blind Boys of Alabama.

Here are what I think are the original lyrics from the composer of the song…

O they tell me of a home far beyond the skies,
O they tell me of a home far away;
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an unclouded day.

O the land of cloudless day,
O the land of an unclouded day,
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an unclouded day.

O they tell me of a home where my friends have gone,
O they tell me of that land far away,
Where the tree of life in eternal bloom
Sheds its fragrance through the unclouded day.

O they tell me of a King in His beauty there,
And they tell me that mine eyes shall behold
Where He sits on the throne that is whiter than snow,
In the city that is made of gold.

O they tell me that He smiles on His children there,
And His smile drives their sorrows all away;
And they tell me that no tears ever come again
In that lovely land of unclouded day.

Bob has told the story of hearing the Staple Singers version of the song when he was a youngster:

“..it was the most mysterious thing I’d ever heard. It was like the fog rolling in. I heard it again, maybe the next night, and its mystery had even deepened. What was that? How do you make that? It just went through me like my body was invisible. What is that? A tremolo guitar? What’s a tremolo guitar? I had no idea, I’d never seen one. And what kind of clapping is that? And that singer is pulling things out of my soul that I never knew were there. After hearing “Uncloudy Day” for the second time, I don’t think I could even sleep that night. I knew these Staple Singers were different than any other gospel group. But who were they anyway?

I’d think about them even at my school desk. I managed to get down to the Twin Cities and get my hands on an LP of the Staple Singers, and one of the songs on it was “Uncloudy Day.” And I’m like, “Man!” I looked at the cover and studied it, like people used to do with covers of records. I knew who Mavis was without having to be told. I knew it was she who was singing the lead part. I knew who Pops was. All the information was on the back of the record. Not much, but enough to let me in just a little ways. Mavis looked to be about the same age as me in her picture. Her singing just knocked me out. I listened to the Staple Singers a lot. Certainly more than any other gospel group. I like spiritual songs. They struck me as truthful and serious. They brought me down to earth and they lifted me up all in the same moment. And Mavis was a great singer — deep and mysterious. And even at the young age, I felt that life itself was a mystery….

“…So I had seen this picture of the Staple Singers. And I said to myself,  “You know, one day you’ll be standing there with your arm around that girl.” I remember thinking that. Ten years later, there I was — with my arm around her. But it felt so natural. Felt like I’d been there before, many times. Well I was, in my mind.

Bob returned to this subject when introducing the song again in May 2006, adding

“Tremolo guitar bar – that’s one of the hardest things to master if you’re a singer – the tremolo bar. It’s hardly ever used, you won’t hear anybody use it, because it’s very hard to control. But when you use it the right way, it can be a very beautiful effect, as we can hear from Pop Staples and The Staple Singers, singing “Uncloudy Day.”

But I think we have to remember something else.  Listening today in 2019, I am amazed by this sound, and need to play it over and over again to get the hang it, to understand it, to encompass its meaning.  And after a lifetime of listening to and playing music I know what’s going on here.   But still I was absolutely stopped in my tracks when I listened.

So what must it have been like when Bob heard it in 1956?  No wonder he was totally knocked out.

The Staple Singers could have sung it unaccompanied, or with a standard accompaniment,  and each time it would have been something very special.  But this… this is something else.  Like a bolt from the heavens.

To finish, here are the Blind Boys with their utterly different version.

Why does Dylan like these songs?

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