Sarah Jarosz: Ring Them Bells (orig. Bob Dylan)
Our "rings" theme was designed to honor the Olympics, but even after leaving it on the boards for an extra week, we didn't do so well - only three posts made it to the blog, perhaps our quietest lull ever. And I take some responsibility for this: at the time, I was in the midst of some rebalancing, trying to find my center in the midst of overcommitment and chaos - thanks to theater performances, work issues, and a struggle to stay connected to my own family, I was pretty much absent from here for a while, and as such, missed the chance to test the waters on this among many other well-constructed themes.
But here we are, on the other side. And although the rings that this song features are not round but resonant, I cannot help but take the opportunity to share one of my favorite Dylan covers ever.
It's easy to do this song badly. Natasha Beddingfield's take on the tune, featured on this past year's gigantic Dylan tribute from Amnesty International, starts quite powerfully and sparse, but turns too soon into a bombastic pop wail framed by anthemic guitar and hammond organ, which seems to me a total misread of its narrative. Sufjan Stevens' deconstruction, which featured prominently on the soundtrack to 2007 Dylan film I'm Not There, is playful, I suppose, and fun for experimentalists, but Stevens' tendency to treat each verse and transition as an opportunity for a genre- and phase-shift obscures the consistency of the lyrics, and buries the message in a haze of production trickery as we struggle to find our footing in its blizzard of collage sound.
But Sarah Jarosz is an angel who can do no wrong in my ears. Her 2011 neo-grass take on this song is a warm, bittersweet triumph of interpretation, a potent message of aching for hope in a world where we just might make it after all. Clean and consistent, fluid and fine, the music supports the lyrical sentiment, capturing Dylan-the-cynic at his most hopeful without losing the tenuous temerity, the self-effacing folly, the very awareness of hubris that lies at the heart of such a bell-ringing celebration from such a complex songwriter. And if we needed proof, we need only listen to this "alternative" solo gospel piano version from Dylan himself, which contains its own fragile mix of despair and hope.
So ring out, you Christmas bells. Cut into my heart as we look back on a year of pain and sorrow, triumph and struggle. Ring loud, so that all may share the experience, and celebrate together: it's the season of hope, and we made it through alive once again.
PS: here's a sweetly ragged live version from Ron Sexsmith (with Sheryl Crow and Elvis Costello) that comes almost as close: