Bob Dylan + The Great American Songbook = True!

“These songs are some of the most heartbreaking stuff ever put on record and I wanted to do them justice. Now that I have lived them and lived through them I understand them better. They take you out of that mainstream grind where you’re trapped between differences which might seem different but are essentially the same. Modern music and songs are so institutionalized that you don’t realize it. These songs are cold and clear-sighted, there is a direct realism in them, faith in ordinary life just like in early rock and roll.”
(Bob Dylan interviewed by Bill Flanagan)

There really isn´t an absolutely precise definition of “The Great American Songbook”, neither of the term “American Standards”. Nevertheless, most would agree that we are thinking about the most popular songs, mostly in the jazz field, or songs made famous through Broadway, musicals, theatre and movies, in the first part of the 20th century, notably from the 1920s through the 1950s. To become a part of this group of songs, most would agree they had to be sung or played by a large number of singers or jazz musicians, growing into a kind of unofficial “standard” or into “The Great American Songbook”. And mostly this particular “song book” is from the days before rock´n roll. Some would argue that it´s a genre, others that it is “American classic music”. Many of the songs weren´t jazz songs at first, but came from Tin Pan Alley and was discovered from jazz singers because of their catchy lyrics and memorable melodies. What´s inside the Great American Songbook, and what´s not, certainly have changed and will change, but it would be fair to say that the traditional americana genres, like folk, blues, gospel, bluegrass, country, rock´n roll, soul, mostly are on the outside, though you from time to time would see that also artists in this genres sings or plays the “standards”. The songs are from the days before rock´n roll, but also from the days before the singer/songwriters would revolutionalize the music business, more and more making, singing and recording their own songs – the “factory” of songwriting lost it´s importance and would never be the same again. As Bob Dylan put it in 1985: “Tin Pan Alley is gone. I put an end to it. People can record their own songs now.” Of course he was right about that. But – that doesn´t mean that neither Bob Dylan nor other artists stopped singing “the standards” from “the Great American Songbook”. As we know, some of the greatest singers and musicians of all time has been singing and playing those songs, like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Bing Crosby, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra and many, many more, but also lesser singers that don´t have the ability to bring the value of the songs to you as a listener, reducing it to just “easy listening”. Some of the versions of the songs digs right into your heart and soul, others just leave you cold, burying the greatness of the song in muzak. At least, that´s how it is for me. It always depends on the singer or the musicians success to make the song hers or his own.

This kind of songs were of course part of the music that Bob Dylan grew up listening to, but it´s also obvious that he in his youth listened more to the competing genres, like folk, like country, like blues, and like rock´n roll, and to his contemporary songwriters. This was true also for most of his own work in the sixties and seventies. An exception was his recording of “Blue Moon” for “Self Portrait” in 1970 – obvious a “cover” of Elvis Presley´s version of the same song.

Something changed in the eighties. Maybe earlier, actually – Dylan told us that he ever since he heard Willie Nelson´s set of standards on his “Stardust” album in 1978, started thinking of making his own standards album, but it never was the right time, until the appearance of “Shadows In The Night” in 2015. But let´s go back to the eighties. One of the first examples of Dylan singing a song from this special tradition, could be said to be “This Was My Love”, made known by Sinatra in the 50s. Dylan recorded it during the “Infidels” sessions in 1983, and later made a stab at it rehearsing for the tour with Tom Petty in 1986.

In 1985, Dylan appears very happy at his performance at the first Farm Aid Festival, playing one of the great standards from the great american songbook, “That Lucky Old Sun”. The song, from 1949, was only the first year released by several different artists, the first was Vaughn Monroe, but then both Louis Armstron, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra and Frankie Laine recorded it the same year. Laine had the greatest hit.

A great song and great singers, but there is no doubt that the sentiments in the song did fit Dylan like a glove.

“Good Lord up above, can’t you hear me cryin’?
Tears all in my eyes.
Send in a cloud with your silvery linin’,
Lift me to paradise.

Oh, show me that river, take me across,
Wash all my troubles away.
Like that lucky old sun, gimme nothin’ to do,
But roll around heaven all day.”

Dylan did sing the song over twenty times on the 1986 tour with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and a few more times on the “Never Ending Tour”, before he recorded it on his first “crooner album”, Shadows In The Night, in 2015. And even if all versions are good, the way he sings “Lift me to Paradise” and “Show me that river, take me across” this time, transcends all of the previous. It´s like he has arrived at a place and time in life where he totally can do the song justice.

After this he played it two more times, once in 2015 and once in 2016.

A couple of nights on the tour in 1986, he also played from the “songbook” the old Ink Spots song, “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow And Me”)” and on a hotel bar session in February he played several standards, among them “Blue Moon” (Rodgers/Hart) and “I Love You” (Cole Porter).

In 1987 Bob Dylan released the, mostly, cover album, “Down In The Groove” – one of the song was from the “songbook” we are speaking of here, “When Did You Leave Heaven?” by Carl Sigman.

Actually, he had earlier rehearsed the song in an alternative version.

I was so lucky to see him make the first live version of it in Stockholm 1989. A really great moment, Dylan finding his way to deliver the version live for the first time.

The original version was by Tony Martin – of course in a more standard standard version of the song. Is it really the same song? Of course it is, and of course it´s not.

In 1987 Dylan made an unlikely appearance at The Gershwin Gala, contributing a wonderful version of Gershwin´s song, “Soon”.

What´s long time been known as the “Never Ending Tour” (but of course some time has to end), starting in 1988 and still on the road, a steady rolling train of shows all over the world, the musicians has changed from time to time, but the great bass player Tony Garnier has been playing the role of “Old Faithful” since 1989. More than 2500 shows since it started. An enormous span in all kind of ways, both in genres and songs played, both of Dylan´s own songs, and his huge catalogue of cover versions, maybe as many as 200, many of them, especially the last years, from the “Great American Songbook”.  I´ll give you some examples.

In 1990, the night after Stevie Ray Vaughan crashed and died, he played a touching tribute, “Moon River”.

The old song “Answer Me, My Love”, made famous by Frankie Laine (as was That Lucky Old Sun) he played seven times in 1991 – he also participated in the Guitar Legends Festival with this beautiful song. Frankie Laine´s version was more of a prayer, “Answer Me, Oh Lord Above”, but Dylan is more sticking to the Nat King Cole version of the lyrics.

“Answer me, oh, my love
Just what sin have I been guilty of?
Tell me how I came to lose your love
Please answer me, sweetheart

You were mine yesterday
I believed that love was here to stay
Won’t you tell me where I’ve gone astray?
Please answer me, my love”

On his album from 1992, “Good As I Been To You”, mostly with songs from the blues and folk tradition. “Tomorrow Night” might be called a standard, written by Hugh Williams and Sam Goslow, recorded in 1939 by Henry Russell. Dylan´s version is obviously more inspired by Lonnie Johnson´s version.

In 1994 also made a live version of the song, this time as a duet with Trisha Yearwood.

He also played “I´m In The Mood For Love” a few times.
Maybe he had listened to Nat King Cole´s version?

A couple of times Dylan also made a tribute to one of his favorites from the youth, Charles Aznavour, by singing the english version of his song “Les Bons Moments” – “The Times We´ve Known”. It´s obviously not from the “Great American Songbook”, but still, it´s within the same tradition. To live outside the law, you must be honest. I´ll give you both Dylan´s and Aznavour´s version.

After Dylan´s phenomenal “come back” album, “Time Out Of Mind”, in 1997, Dylan from the next album on, “Love And Theft”,  2001, really started to explore the pre rock´n roll American Song Tradition, not just in one, but a string of genres. One could even say that his “Make You Feel My Love” from “Time Out Of Mind” was something of a starter for this. If the strict definition of the Great American Songbook should be expanded, then maybe this is one of the songs that could be included – both in sentiments, melody and lyrics it would fit right in – the many cover versions is exhibit 1. It´s like he tried to make an evergreen. And he did.

On “Love And Theft” there are several songs written right into the swinging “standard” tradition, both in lyrics and melody. This is especially the case for “Bye And Bye”, “Moonlight” and “Po´Boy”. But – to be fair, all of the lyrics are unmistakable dylanesque. He´s extending the lines, one more time. It´s like he is trying to write himself into the “Songbook”.

“Bye and bye, I’m breathin’ a lover’s sigh
I’m sittin’ on my watch so I can be on time
I’m singin’ love’s praises with sugar-coated rhyme
Bye and bye, on you I’m casting my eye”

“The seasons they are turnin’ and my sad heart is yearnin’
To hear again the songbird’s sweet melodious tone
Won’t you meet me out in the moonlight alone?

The dusky light, the day is losing, Orchids, Poppies, Black-eyed Susan
The earth and sky that melts with flesh and bone
Won’t you meet me out in the moonlight alone?”

“Time and love has branded me with its claws
Had to go to Florida, dodgin’ them Georgia laws
Poor boy, in the hotel called the Palace of Gloom
Calls down to room service, says send up a room”

On his next album, he takes this work one step further, by almost using the old “songbook” melodies for his new songs. Like “When The Deal Goes Down”, where Bing Crosby´s “Where The Blue Of The Night” has to be the model.

“In the still of the night, in the world’s ancient light
Where wisdom grows up in strife
My bewildering brain, toils in vain
Through the darkness on the pathways of life
Each invisible prayer is like a cloud in the air
Tomorrow keeps turning around
We live and we die, we know not why
But I’ll be with you when the deal goes down”

“Where the blue of the night
Meets the gold of the day
Someone waits for me

And the gold of her hair
Crowns the blue of her eyes
Like a halo tenderly

If only I could see her
Oh how happy I would be

Where the blue of the night
Meets the gold of the day
Someone waits for me”

The same can be said of Dylan´s “Beyond The Horizon”, using “Red Sails In The Sunset” as the blueprint – maybe Bing Crosby´s version as well. Dylan is using the language of the “Songbook” to make Bob Dylan lyrics, and it´s a fabulous romantic combination.

“Beyond the horizon, behind the sun
At the end of the rainbow life has only begun
In the long hours of twilight ‘neath the stardust above
Beyond the horizon it is easy to love

My wretched heart’s pounding
I felt an angel’s kiss
My memories are drowning
In mortal bliss

Beyond the horizon, in the Springtime or Fall
Love waits forever for one and for all”

“Red sails in the sunset way out on the sea
Oh carry my loved one home safely to me
He sailed at the dawning, all day I’ve been blue
Red sails in the sunset, I’m trusting in you
Swift wings you must borrow, make straight for the shore
We marry tomorrow and he goes sailing no more
Red sails in the sunset way out on the sea”

The next album, “Together Through Life” are more steeped in blues and texmex, but between them you also can find a song like “Life Is Hard”, nodding once more to the “songbook” patterns.

“The evening winds are still
I’ve lost the way and will
Can’t tell you where they went
I just know what they meant
I’m always on my guard
Admitting life is hard
Without you near me”

And then of course – maybe the biggest surprise of them all, the whole shebang of Christmas standards from the Great American Songbook, almost every song sung both by Ella, Bing, Louis and Frank Sinatra – “Christmas In The Heart” – a standards album if there ever was one, disguised as a Christmas album, which it, of course, also was.

And then, in 2015, after all these years of playing, or playing with, the “standards” and the “Great American Songbook”, exploring the dynamics in both the melodies and the lyrics, Dylan comes to the point where he really give us the whole package – ten beautiful interpretations with his aging vocals never sounding better, giving new meaning to the old and often too much covered songs. He invites us into this dark room, “Shadows In The Night”. It´s an album that breathes, and that makes he who listens hold his breathe, to not miss a single syllable from the singer, making one and each of the songs his own – don´t you remember, he was always your clown, come on, really, why try to change him now?

Dylan tell us about the recordings: “I don’t see myself as covering these songs in any way. They’ve been covered enough. Buried, as a matter a fact. What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering them. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day.” And that´s what he does with them. He brings his own life in as the Midas touch to each song, the age, the experience, the feelings. He had it all, he tell us when he is singing to us.

The album is covered in black and blue, but Dylan still got some humor, and gives us the video to go along with the album in black and white, a complete “movie” in the style from the time where the “standards” and the “Great American Songbook” was ruling the world of music. From the days before rock´n roll.

The very touching prayer, “Stay With Me” was one of the first songs he worked into his new, more low-key set, from the autumn 2013, at first crooning a few of his own songs, almost like he was preparing himself, and maybe us, for this new turn in his creative output. It felt like it could be the last album he made, and it felt like he knew exactly that. And – he would show for the whole world, even the doubters, what an extraordinary singer he is, a point every critic had to admit.

David Letterman once again made a scoop, getting Dylan to sing on his last show, the autumn of 2015. And he is singing like this is a question of life and death, not just a song, not just entertainment, this is dead serious, this is the sorrow of life and love passing. He makes it clear that this is important, and that he wants us to listen to the songs that too long have been buried in a lesser understanding of the sentiments they contains.

One year later we can see Dylan make another TV appearance, this time a pre-recorded tribute to the “Tony Bennett Celebrates 90” Special. Once more Dylan shows us his unique ability of “timing and phrasing”, a song from the then forthcoming triple album, “Triplicate”.

The title and the first line is the same as the first words in Dylan´s maybe most known song, the opening to fairy tales. The lyrics is a simple love story, but when Dylan, at this age, sings it, full of passion and conviction, it becomes something more than that, it´s looking back, way back, on a long life well lived, it´s about the loss that still lingers in your heart, after all this years she´s still the one. He makes us believe the song. “Once upon a time never comes again.”

Actually, at the time Dylan has another album out, but characteristically he doesn´t choose one of the songs from “Fallen Angels”, one should think to the despair from the executives in Sony. But that one is behind Dylan at this time, the songs recorded at the same time as “Shadows In The Night” – and now bygones. Something never change.

Still – in his live set – some of the songs from “Fallen Angels” finds their place, no one more than the swinging “Melancholy Mood”, lyrics you would think fits him as a glove this time in his life. And he sings this standard almost every night, also into the summer of 2017.

“Melancholy mood
Forever haunts me
Steals upon me in the night
Forever taunts me
Oh, what a lonely soul am I
Stranded high and dry
By a melancholy mood
Gone is every joy
And inspiration
Tears are all I have to show
No consolation
All I see is grief and gloom
Till the crack of doom
Oh, melancholy mood”

“Fallen Angels” is a bit lighter and a bit more swinging than the previous masterpiece, “Shadows In The Night”. On “All The Way” there is even a touch of country in the arrangement. Also on this album Dylan strips the songs to the core, sweeping away the big bands, but transforms the original arrangements to his own hand-picked band, just adding an extra guitar and a few horns. He unwraps the songs, both musically and lyrically, the last by his knowing vocals full of weltschmerz and wisdom: “When somebody loves you / It’s no good unless he loves you all the way.” He knows.

Most of the songs are in one way or another about love, love in all stages, the sweetness of falling in love, the fulfillment and satisfaction of loving and to be loved by someone, the sorrow and sadness when you lose love, when it´s over, when you´ve been deserted. As in “I Could Have Told You”.

“I could have told you
She’d hurt you
She’d love you a while
Then desert you
If only you’d asked
I could have told you so

I could have saved you
Some crying
Yes, I could have told you she’s lying
But you were in love
And didn’t want to know

I hear her now
As I toss and turn and try to sleep
I hear her now
Making promises she’ll never keep
And soon it’s over and done with
She’ll find someone new to have fun with
Through all of my tears
I could have told you so”

Just listen to the way he sings the word “soon” in the line “and soon it´s over”, the way he sings this single word tells more than thousand songs about the loss he is feeling. His delivery is impeccable, and it´s one of the highlights of the last collection of songs, the wonderful “Triplicate” – almost a hundred minutes of standards, maybe finishing of the whole project with the triple.

In the Bill Flanagan interview they are talking of the fact that even those songs have been developing, like “My One And Only Love”, a rewrite of an older and not so popular song, “Music From Beyond The Moon”. Flanagan makes a point of this being a part of the “folk process”, but that it´s questioned when it´s used in other genres. He asks Dylan if this hasn´t been the same in all genres. Dylan´s answer is interesting and goes real deep, and tell us a lot about his creative process, maybe also about his relations to the “songbook” we are dwelling on this time – the songs keep a secret and they are handing down secrets from past times and from other songs, or maybe from a book someone once read:

“I’m sure it has, there’s always some precedent – most everything is a knockoff of something else. You could have some monstrous vision, or a perplexing idea that you can’t quite get down, can’t handle the theme. But then you’ll see a newspaper clipping or a billboard sign, or a paragraph from an old Dickens novel, or you’ll hear some line from another song, or something you might overhear somebody say just might be something in your mind that you didn’t know you remembered. That will give you the point of approach and specific details. It’s like you’re sleepwalking, not searching or seeking; things are transmitted to you. It’s as if you were looking at something far off and now you’re standing in the middle of it. Once you get the idea, everything you see, read, taste or smell becomes an allusion to it. It’s the art of transforming things. You don’t really serve art, art serves you and it’s only an expression of life anyway; it’s not real life. It’s tricky, you have to have the right touch and integrity or you could end up with something stupid. Michelangelo’s statue of David is not the real David. Some people never get this and they’re left outside in the dark. Try to create something original, you’re in for a surprise.”

Later in the interview Dylan also admits that the songs gives him the possibility to sing lyrics he absolutely not could have written himself, and he explains why:

“I would never write “Where Is the One,” but it’s as if it was written for me, so I didn’t have to write it. It’s a tough place to get to, it’s vulnerable and protected. You’d have to be like the invisible man to get through, or you’d have to batter down walls, strip yourself naked, and then even if you did get in you’d have to wonder what’s the point. Someone else has been here and gone and took everything. Someone else had to write this song for me. Its nerves are too raw. You leave yourself too open. I’d rather not go there, especially to write songs.”

The nakedness in many of the lyrics are really heartbreaking in all its nakedness and eternal searching for love. Such as in “Where Is The One”:

“Where is the one
Who’ll end the search I’m making
Where is the one
Who’ll change my dream to waking
Behind some far off secret door
There’s my love
There’s my life
In store
The journey’s long
Much longer than I reckoned
In any throng
I’ll know her in a second
Some lucky day
I’m bound to find her
And when I do
I’ll find love
The journey’s long
Much longer than I reckoned
In any throng
I’ll know her in a second
Some lucky day
I’m bound to find her
And when I do
I’ll find love”

Dylan himself told us that he started to think of this project when he first heard Willie Nelson´s album “Stardust” from 1978. He uses only two of the same songs as Willie, “All Of Me” and “Stardust” itself, another dream of Paradise.

“Beside a garden wall
When stars are bright
You are in my arms
The nightingale tells his fairy tale
A paradise where roses bloom
Though I dream in vain
In my heart it will remain
My stardust melody
The memory of love’s refrain”

Is it nostalgia, the whole project? According to Dylan – not at all. And I can understand that, because the project is so closely weaved with the whole Dylan project of songwriting and tradition of all genres, well, of course he would draw the full circle. Maybe it´s a sentimental journey, but it´s not nostalgia. This still is about living in the moment.

“Nostalgic? No I wouldn’t say that. It’s not taking a trip down memory lane or longing and yearning for the good old days or fond memories of what’s no more. A song like “Sentimental Journey” is not a way back when song, it doesn’t emulate the past, it’s attainable and down to earth, it’s in the here and now.”
(Bob Dylan interviewed by Bill Flanagan)

Even when Dylan is asked to look back on himself as a performer forty or fifty years ago, he grasps for “the songbook” to answer the question:

Q: When you see footage of yourself performing 40 or 50 years ago, does it seem like a different person? What do you see?

A: I see Nat King Cole, Nature Boy – a very strange enchanted boy, a terribly sophisticated performer, got a cross section of music in him, already postmodern. That’s a different person than who I am now.

Well, that´s right, of course, to a certain degree, but as we also know, the personality in us doesn´t change that much. Bob Dylan is still a strange enchanted boy, an extremely sophisticated performer with a cross section of music in him. And without the work he has done for the last three years, diving into the “Great American Songbook”, the job wouldn´t be finished, and Dylan wouldn´t be Dylan, setting a new standard also when singing the standards. In that way, the project is much more about Bob Dylan, the Nature Boy, than about Frank Sinatra. It´s more about the nature boy, Ol´Man River, than about Ol´Blue Eyes.

Nature Boy (Written by eden abhez)

There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far, very far
Over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he

And then one day
A magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return

Johnny Borgan

One thought on “Bob Dylan + The Great American Songbook = True!

  1. Pingback: “Alias Anything You Please!” – Bob Dylan at 80. | Johnny B.

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