Say what you will about Bob Dylan, two points are practically and incontrovertibly beyond dispute. First, he has been an absolutely protean musician, changing musical styles and voices and directions constantly throughout the years, from angry young man to rock star to recluse to born again zealot to obnoxious head case on stage to...fill in the blank... and second, he has written some stunning and wonderful songs.
I'd add one more accolade - he's absolutely sui generis, - completely unique, often imitated but never duplicated. Sure, musicians cover his songs in the thousands, but like most genuine artists, his own work is fundamentally inimitable. I may prefer, for example, the musicality of Peter, Paul and Mary's versions of his earliest songs like "The Times They Are A-Changin'" (for my money, PP&M's single best cut ever) or "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" or "Blowin' In The Wind" - but I have to admit even at that that they don't capture the peculiar edge that Dylan brings to his own work. Like any great artist from Van Gogh or Jackson Pollock or Aescyhlus or Mozart - no one does it quite like the master himself. I have never heard anyone cover nor can I even imagine anyone trying to cover the most "Dylanesque" of his songs, such as "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" or "Like A Rollin' Stone."
But please don't count me among the hardest core Dylan fanatics and hagiographers. He's not a poet really - not to most people like me who have a far-ranging and lifelong love of poetry. His words lie flat on the page without the melodies that amplify, uplift, and ennoble them - and even more, the performance voices that bring the words and melodies to life.
That's no rap on Bobby D though - the really greatest poets in English of the last century - Eliot, Yeats, Auden, Frost, Williams, Sandburg, Plath, Stevens, to name a very few - couldn't do a thing with music, and collectively they never reached an audience as wide, as far-ranging, or as diverse as Dylan has.
Bob's not much of a musician either, unless three chords and a cloud of dust is someone's idea of great music. John Coltrane or Tommy Dorsey or Aaron Copland or Richard Rodgers or Stephen Sondheim or Leonard Bernstein might have a word or two to say on that score (no pun intended) - even as much as some of them like Bernstein and Sondheim genuinely appreciated Dylan's genius....
...which is as a songwriter, an artist whose gifts combine the poetic with the musical and create an entirely different art. Dylan bears comparison to Stephen Foster or Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer. It's an art unto itself, one that Dylan crafted and dramatically re-shaped in the last half of the last century (and for which, my friends, the erstwhile Robert Zimmerman won a "special citation" - NOT a "prize" - from the Pulitzer committee - the wording of that citation was for "profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power" - but not for poetry or musical composition, both categories awarding genuine prizes that same year).
One of Dylan's most widely covered songs, "Tomorrow Is A Long Time," existed for nearly a decade only in a bootleg concert tape and a discarded studio cut from 1963 that made it only onto a Dylan album in 1971 on his Greatest Hits, Vol.II. Why this is so is a bit of a mystery, since so many other artists had covered it by then (a greatest hit in that sense) and because Dylan himself does such a fine job on this simple, very folky song -
- but both the recording companies and Dylan's own people have been aggressive about keeping his own performances off of YouTube, which is too bad because no one does Bob like Bob. So we start with the highest profile recording of this song, by Judy Collins:
Several other groups and soloists recorded the song before the Kingston Trio added it to their repertoire. I first heard them do it (and their uptempo take on "One Too Many Mornings") on the farewell tour in late 1966. The polish of ten years of professional work shows in this lovely arrangement - you'll have to click on the "Watch On YouTube" link on the video to get a couple minutes of the song, but it's well worth it:
Or alternatively - from the very last performance by the original group at San Francisco's Hungry i in June of 1967:
I sometimes wonder if the Trio got the idea for the song from Bud and Travis, who recorded it here in '64 or '65. Bob and Nick and John all showed great affection and reverence for Travis, who lives in Scottsdale and comes to fantasy camp every year - best to Travis in his current health troubles! If anyone has forgotten just how fine a singer Travis is or how good this duo sounded together, listen here:
Nick Drake, a kind of Gram Parsons figure from the UK who flamed out and died at 26 in the 60s, left behind a lovely version of the song:
I may have heard this first from Canada's greatest folk duo (maybe just its greatest folk act of any description), Ian and Sylvia:
Harry Belafonte, one of the greatest vocalists of his generation, gives a full-on pop rendition:
There are scores more versions on YouTube,many quite good done by amateurs in their living rooms and professionals on stages. But the best (or at least my favorite) rendition from the younger generation comes from the San Diego-based Americana band Nickel Creek:
I remember being very disappointed that the Nick, Bob and John Kingston trio's last album Children Of The Morning didn't include this song - it would have fit in well with the tone and tenor of that album and is (arguably) a better composition than some of the songs that made it onto the record. But then - like I'm sure many of us did - I walked into a record store in 1969 and almost had a seizure when I saw a double LP:
I still think that this number is the best performance on the album, which for lots of reasons is not in my top fifteen of enjoyable KT records. But back then as now - I'd have bought it for this cut alone and felt I'd spent my money well.