Every Wednesdayish, some friends and I hold a listening evening over Zoom. It sprung out of a real world book club and is, of course, a creative way of dealing with lockdown ennui. A different person every week plays five songs based around a loose theme. And the theme can be as loose as “Happy Songs”.
In my head, the evenings are based on something I did in Joburg a few years ago, called Slow Listening. That was a joy – people who were passionate about music getting together and listening to someone lay bare their take on the beauty of a particular genre, band, musician or cultural moment. If memory serves me, we had Gus Silber talking about Paul Simon’s Graceland, Miles Keylock talking about exile musicians. The Blk Jks did something, and Chris Letcher gave a talk about songwriting.
This lockdown listening is a lot more laid back, and it’s all about sharing some small joys. For my last one, I looked at cover versions of Dylan songs, but covers that show how the different artists think about Dylan. And one song by Dylan himself, which fits the cover theme, because it shows how he responded to other musicians. In his autobiography, Chronicles Vol 1, Dylan talks about listening to covers of “Hollis Brown” and “With God on our Side,” sung by Aaron Neville. “It always surprises me to hear a song of mine done by an artist like this who is on such a high level. Over the years, songs might get away from you, but a version like this always brings it closer again.”
So to be clear – this isn’t a finely honed piece of music journalism, with each song getting the same amount of attention. I’ve really only put some effort into the first song, as seeing Wanda Jackson live in the twilight of her career touched me. These are just the random notes I used to present the songs, a mix of personal memories about some of the songs, and some cut and paste from artist websites for the others. Oh, and an earnest attempt to amuse my friends and help us forget, for a little while, that we are pandemic anchorites.
1. Wanda Jackson, “Thunder on the Mountain” (The Party Ain’t Over, 2011)
Dylan album: Modern Times (2006)
Wanda Jackson is 82 now. I saw her perform in the small St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas, in 2014. She must have been around 76 years old then, and she said that it was the first time in her performing career that she’d ever had to sit down during a performance, due to (I think she said) a hip injury. And bear in mind that she’s been performing professionally since she was at school. She made her first record when she was 17, for Capitol Records. “Jackson asked Capitol to sign her but was turned down by producer Ken Nelson, because she was underage, and who also told her, ‘Girls don’t sell records.’ So she signed with Decca Records instead. On March 27, 2019, Jackson announced her official retirement from performing.
“Thunder on the Mountain” is from an album she did with Jack White (White Stripes, Raconteurs, Dead Weather, etc) in 2011. The Party Ain’t Over was her 30th studio album.
Some stories Wanda told us that night (paraphrased!).
She said that she was initially reluctant when Jack White asked her to do a new album. “But – and the ladies in the audience will know what I’m talking about – you don’t say no to Jack White when he comes calling.’
“I first met Elvis when I was 18, and I used to stay over at his house. My daddy thought Elvis was a real Southern gentleman, so he trusted him. If my poor daddy only knew….” And then she sighed, a sigh so redolent of memory and passion that it stilled the audience’s laughter for a beat.
From an interview with Fox: “He asked me to be his girl and I had his ring. I wore it around my neck for about a year… But I lived in Oklahoma and he lived in Tennessee. So we didn’t see each other except on the tours that we did together. My daddy traveled with me. He wouldn’t let me go out with guys usually. But he liked Elvis really well.
“He knew Elvis was a gentleman. So he would let me go out with Elvis to a movie or for a burger afterward. Then it wasn’t long until he became so popular that we couldn’t go out after the show. When they would see that pink Cadillac, they knew Elvis was in there! So it got hard to get together. We were together until the first part of 1957. Then he went to Hollywood to start his film career.”
On her version of Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountain”, Jackson changes the Dylan lyrics:
“I was thinkin’ ’bout Alicia Keys, couldn’t keep from crying
When she was born in Hell’s Kitchen, I was living down the line
I’m wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be
I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee.”
“I kept thinking about Jerry Lee couldn’t keep from crying
When he was born in Ferriday, I was living down the line
I’m wondering where in the world could Jerry Lee be
I been looking for him, clear through Tennessee”.
She toured with Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Here’s her talking about them. “The wild men? Well, my dad didn’t let me hang out with the guys during the tours… but I heard about their antics. And there were a lot! But they were great guys. They were my buddies. I liked them. But I did not get involved in their antics. My reputation stayed intact!”
Among other lyrical changes, she changed Dylan’s line “Some sweet day I’ll stand beside my king” to “Some sweet day I’ll stand beside the King”, which I’d like to believe is reference to Elvis.
Interesting trivia. With Modern Times, at age 65, Dylan became the oldest living person at the time to have an album enter the Billboard charts at No. 1. With her album with the cover of Thunder on the Mountain peaked at number 58, this made Jackson (at the time) the oldest female vocalist to have ever charted on on Billboard Hot 200 album chart.
2. Nina Simone, “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” (Let It All Out, 1966)
Dylan album: The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964)
When people quibble with Dylan’s Nobel Prize for literature, I always think, well, if he was good enough for Nina Simone, he’s good enough for a Nobel prize. And of course, Simone also covered Dylan’s “I shall be released’ with Miriam Makeba.
Simone’s introduction to the song in this video is astonishingly visceral, but in brief: the song is about a farmer in South Dakota who, made desperate by poverty, kills his wife, his five children, and then himself. It ends with the lines:
“There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm,
There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm,
Somewhere in the distance there’s seven new people born.”
3. Joan Osborne, “The Man in the Long Black Coat” (Relish, 1995)
Dylan album: Oh Mercy (1989)
In Dylan’s amazing autobiography, Chronicles Vol 1, he talks about making Oh Mercy with the famous record producer Daniel Lanois (recommended to him by Bono). He talks about writing “Man in the Long Black Coat” specially for Lanois, because the producer needed a song like that – something Dylan had only ever done for a producer once before. Lanois wanted a quintessential Dylan song, like “Masters of War”, and “Man in the Long Black Coat” is the closest he could get. “I would have like to get him the songs he wanted… but those songs were written under different circumstances, and circumstances never repeat themselves…. I had done it once, and once was enough. Someone would come along eventually who would have it again….”
4. Antony and the Johnsons, “Knocking on heaven’s door”, I’m Not There soundtrack (2007)
Dylan album: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid Soundtrack (1973)
Guns ’n Roses, “Knocking on heaven’s door” live.
You have to listen to a bit of the Guns ’n Roses cover to hear how badly a song can get mangled and misunderstood, and to fully appreciate the the subtle, impeccable way Anohni interprets it. The sight of Axl in his tighty whities, rushing madly around the stage, boyishly jousting off Slash’s big double necked guitar… well, it’s really not what the song is about. The Anohni version (the name she now uses) is much truer to the sadness of the Dylan original.
5. Bob Dylan, “If Dogs Run Free” (New Morning, 1970)
Bob Dylan’s 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One, on the making of “If Dogs Run Free.”
“For one of the sets of lyrics, [Al] Kooper played some Teddy Wilson riffs on the piano. There were three girl singers in the room who sounded like they’d been plucked from a choir, and one of them [scat-singing Maeretha Stewart] did some improvisational scat singing. The whole thing was done in just one take and called ‘If Dogs Run Free.’”
“If Dogs Run Free” is number 6 on Rolling Stone’s list of Ten Worst Dylan songs, as chosen by fans. So much for fans.
BONUS: KT Tunstall, “Tangled up in Blue” (Live, 2005)
Dylan album: Blood on the Tracks (1975)
Just watch the intro to this live version, to get some insight into why women like KT Tunstall choose to cover Bob Dylan.
And here’s a Spotify playlist.