In fact, I enjoy his singing on his eponymous first album — one of the few Dylan albums I owned previously — so much that I recently bought it on CD. So, why do I like his singing on this album and not others? In light of my previous post, I’ve been asking myself this question since my purchase. I think I may have found an answer.
Unlike the singer’s subsequent albums, Bob Dylan contains very few original compositions, only two out of 13 songs. At the time the record was recorded in 1961 (it was released in 1962), Dylan was known more for his eccentric performances in folk clubs than for his then still-burgeoning songwriting, although he was beginning to be recognized for that as well. Consequently, most of the songs on Dylan’s debut album were coffee-shop standards, whether traditional folk songs or compositions by vintage bluesmen. Of the two original tunes, one, “Talkin’ New York,” is a talking-blues song that isn’t dependent on a singing voice, while the other, “Song to Woody” (a tribute to his hero Woody Guthrie), is an early composition that doesn’t foretell its writer’s coming musical sophistication.
In other words, the writer who would pen hooky melodies like “If Not for You” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” isn’t in evidence. The songs that Dylan sings are elemental in their backroad origins and make use of only limited chord changes. So, such rough-hewn tunes are a good fit with Dylan’s rough-hewn voice.
A compelling case in point is Dylan’s take on the Blind Lemon Jefferson song “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” Where Jefferson’s original version is solid but unruffled, Dylan’s raspy interpretation of the lyrics — “There’s one last favor I’ll ask of you/You can see that my grave is kept clean” — sounds like the final yelp of a perishing mortal actually in his last throes. This lends the song a strong sense of desperation that Jefferson’s version only hints at. The other regional songs on Bob Dylan also make good use of the singer’s scarred voice to convey the urgency of the lyrics.
But after the singer’s eponymous debut album, his subsequent records featured his own songs, relegating traditional tunes to the occasional anomaly. And his original songs — as all music lovers know — went well beyond the primitivism of the folk standards that inspired him. On his own, Dylan came up with more intricate melodies whose chord changes created inspired passages that could instantly catch the listener’s ear. Unfortunately, Dylan’s gift for writing melodies outgrew the mere functionality of his voice. These songs now called for vocalists who could hit and give shape to these compelling notes and lyrics, something that Dylan’s straggly voice was seldom able to achieve.
For example, compare the songwriter’s own vocalization of “If Not for You” to George Harrison’s cover version on his album All Things Must Pass. Dylan’s original vocal only skims over the song’s melodic lines, not capturing every note, thus leaving a full vocalization more in the listener’s head than in the ear. By contrast, Harrison’s cover (a version that many of the song’s fans consider definitive) gives unpretentious voice to all of the notes and does justice to every melodic line — in addition to boasting a buoyant acoustic-based arrangement. The difference between the two versions is like that between a demo and a finished recording.
If you like the way Bob Dylan sings, I don’t want to interfere with your enjoyment. And I agree that, as with the case of the album Bob Dylan, there are certain kinds of songs where his abrasive voice is an asset. But the talented tunesmith outpaced the singer’s pedestrian voice long ago. I admire Dylan’s stature as a tireless and undaunted force in both music and popular culture. But his songs now demand skillful singers who can give full voice to their tuneful melodies. Bob Dylan’s captivating songs now demand a singer better than Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan sings ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’