Friday, October 10, 2008

Dylan Covers: Masters of War

In planning my posts for this week, I remembered that the blogosphere was all abuzz a while ago with Pearl Jam’s cover of Dylan’s “Masters of War." Here we had the meeting of two religions, the cults of Dylan and Vedder getting together for interfaith services. While I admire both, I don’t share the devotion of either group of fans, and I wound up not even playing the song when everybody was posting it. I had never even heard Dylan’s original until this week.

Now that I have, I must say that it is not Bob Dylan’s best work. The lyrics express a view that I absolutely agree with, but I find them angry and strident. The arrangement is simple, just a driving acoustic guitar and voice, but there is not much variety, and a song which is on the long side is made to feel even longer.

So why am I posting this? Given the simplicity of Dylan’s original, something remarkable happens when the song is covered. Some artists treat the song almost as an unfinished work, and feel free to fill out the arrangement and make it their own. And some of the results are amazing. And the words inspire some great impassioned vocal performances.

Martin Simpson: Masters of War


Martin Simpson is originally from England, where he started his career in folk music. Wanting to add some traditional American folk stylings to his guitar playing, Simpson came to the United States, and wound up staying. Simpson replaced Dylan’s guitar part with his own, to great affect. Simpson’s vocal style is very much in the English folk tradition, the song works very well delivered this way.

Bill Frisell: Masters of War

[purchase, available in mp3 format only]

Bill Frisell is one of the finest jazz guitar players working today, no wait! Bill Frisell is an Americana artist who specializes in instrumental numbers with a jazzy flavor... Perhaps it’s best just to say that Frisell’s music fits in the cracks between musical genres. I’ve often wondered what his music would sound like if he worked with a singer. It would have to be someone who could also straddle the line between jazz, blues, and country. Cassandra Wilson would be an obvious choice, and I would love to hear that, but I was actually thinking of...

Maria Muldaur: Masters of War


... Maria Muldaur. Now, if you’re thinking of “Midnight at the Oasis”, you must think I’m crazy. But as Maria Muldaur has aged, her voice has become richer and deeper, and she has learned to use it as a great jazz and blues instrument. Her take on “Masters of War” came out on her newest album this past July. This is her first album of all political material, which says a lot about the times we are living in.

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