Saturday, October 11, 2008

Dylan Covers: The Dylan Sound

Angel Snow: Meet Me In The Morning


Chris Smither: Visions of Johanna


Vic Chesnutt: Buckets of Rain


Ramblin' Jack Elliott: Don't Think Twice, It's Alright


I'm a relative newcomer to Bob Dylan fandom, having grown up immersed in a very different, more melodic branch of the folkworld. And I came to that fandom through covers, and thus have spent much more time considering the songbook than I have considering the particular vocal and guitar folkstyle which, love it or hate it, is inimitably unique and Dylanesque. So it's only very recently that I've started to appreciate that carefully constructed nasality, the broken-voiced rawness which Dylan chose to evolve in himself, the better to make meaning in song.

I'm not the best candidate to explain Dylan's particular sound, and I don't think I need to. A library of books and reviews and films have been written on the subject, and it's also true that the Dylan sound is so iconographic, both as sound and as influence, it kind of speaks for itself. But as this wonderful week's journey through the Dylan songbook has progressed, I've found myself thinking about how difficult it is to cover Dylan's tone successfully. I would even posit that the ragged musical trappings are one of the biggest reasons why Dylan songs are so universal and coverable, so much and so immediately a part of the folkways of the larger culture. Which is to say, just as the older folk of Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson are so mutable in the hands of others due to their own stripped down, prototypical recorded form, one of the functions of Dylan's almost tuneless approach to song is to make those songs seem more available for others to finish in their own way.

As I came to understand the power of this deliberately fundamental, elemental nature of Dylan's performance, I have grown to appreciate Dylan for more than just his songwriting and composition. And so, though I used to lean towards fuller production in my own musical taste, I increasingly respect the rawer, more elemental folk musicians, like Nick Drake and Elliott Smith and, more recently, Denison Witmer and newcomer Angel Snow, who, with just guitar and slightly wobbly voice, seem to be working in that same space where Dylan worked.

So I thought it would be worth looking for Dylan covers which try to bring that same sense of rawness to the performance -- songs which, in their own way, seem to be covering both Dylan's song and Dylan's connection with the baseline of emotion and sound that make song so direct a connection between performer and culture. Here's a few of my favorites from that camp, as a kind of end-of-week celebration of Dylan's influence beyond song itself.

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