I Shall Be Released

I was pleased to see the news story this week that Bob Dylan picked up a Nobel Prize in literature, the first for the U.S. in a generation. Dylan always considered himself a poet as much as a musician. He explored poetic and musical influences from all over the spectrum. I’ve been impressed with the way his songs continually evolved. The live versions often bear only scant resemblance to the album versions, and live versions from concerts several years apart often bear only scant resemblance to one another. I saw him in concert in Oklahoma City about fifteen years ago and was amazed.

I Shall Be Released was recorded by Dylan a number of times. I don’t particularly care for the album version of the song. For me, the quintessential recording is on the 1974 album “Before the Flood”–a live concert recorded with The Band. Robbie Robertson’s lead guitar work and The Band’s harmony vocals take the song to the next level. My own version owes more to Before the Flood than to Dylan’s original album version. This song, especially in The Band’s recording, shows a lot of blues and gospel influences that fit with the lyrics perfectly.

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They say every thing can be replaced
Yet every distance is not near
But I remember every face
Of every man who put me here

I see my light come shining
From the west down to the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released

They say every man needs protection
They tell me every man must fall
Yet I swear I see my reflection
Some place so high above the wall

I see my light come shining . . .

Down yonder stands a man in this lonely crowd
He’s a man who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him shout it out loud
Calling out that he was framed

I see my light come shining . . .

Tupelo Honey

Van Morrison is a great singer-songwriter. His Moondance album is particularly superb, but many of his others had great songs. This is one of my favorites. It’s a love song as only Van Morrison could write it. As I type out the lyrics, I realize that it’s actually quite short, but Morrison has an ability to take a small number of words and get lots of mileage out of them.

You can take all the tea in China
Put it in a big, brown bag for me
Sail right around all the seven oceans
Drop it straight into the deep blue sea

She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey
She’s an angel of the first degree
She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey
Just like honey, baby, from a bee

You can’t stop us on the road to freedom
You can’t keep us, ’cause our eyes will see
Men of insight, men in granite
Knights in armor bent on chivalry

She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey . . .


Wondering Where the Lions Are

This week, it’s a cover from the great Canadian guitar player and songwriter Bruce Cockburn (pronounced Co-Burn). He’s an absolute wizard with the guitar, and most of his stuff is pretty far beyond my modest skill level. I can just about handle this one. It’s played in an alternate tuning with the bass string dropped to a D instead of an E which allows for the thumping bass rhythm of the song. It’s one of Cockburn’s most popular and enduring tunes–it was even covered by Jimmy Buffett a few years back.

Cockburn wrote the song in the late 1960s at a time when the Soviet Union and China were in the midst of their diplomatic split. Some intelligence analysts at the time believed that a nuclear war between the countries was imminent. Cockburn recounted that he had been having dreams about lions prowling around outside his door, dreams that left him terrified. One night, after hearing the news about the troubles in the world, he was visited by the same dream, but this time he realized that the lions weren’t actually menacing or frightening. They were a benign, even benevolent presence. He woke in the morning knowing that everything would be okay. I think the message is as valid today as it was in 1969.

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Sun’s up, mmm hmm, looks okay
The world survives to another day
And I’m thinking ’bout eternity
Some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me

I had another dream about lions at the door
They weren’t half as frightening as they were before
Got my mind on eternity
Some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me

Up among the firs where it smells so sweet
Or down in the valley where the river used to be
Got my mind on eternity
Some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me

Walls, windows, trees, waves coming through
You be in me and I’ll be in you
Together in eternity
Some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me

And I’m wondering where the lions are . . .

Huge orange flying boat rises off the lake
Thousand year old petroglyphs doing a double take
Pointing a finger at eternity
I’m sitting in the middle of this ecstasy

Young men marching, helmets shining in the sun
Polished and precise like the brain behind the gun
Should be. They’ve got me thinking ’bout eternity
And this ecstasy got a hold on me

And I’m wondering where the lions are . . .

Freighters on the nod on the surface of the bay
One of these days were gonna sail away
Gonna sail into eternity
Some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me

And I’m wondering where the lions are . . .

Pancho and Lefty

A cover of Townes van Zandt’s border bandito song “Pancho and Lefty.” Van Zandt was one of the great Texas songwriters of the 1960s-1980s, of roughly the same generation as Guy Clark and Willis Alan Ramsey. I picture this song taking place on the Mexican border near the beginning of the twentieth century at a time when trains and cars overlapped with horses and wagons. We never really get a clear picture of what Pancho and Lefty actually did or how they fell out (though the implication seems to be that Lefty betrayed Pancho), but van Zandt’s terse lines paint evocative, almost cinematic pictures.

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard made the song famous during the 1980s with their cover of it, and I was first exposed to the song through their version. I later discovered van Zandt’s original and much prefer it, though my own version probably borrows indiscriminately from both. (more…)

King of the Road

Roger Miller wrote many great country tunes, and this may be his greatest. He had a wonderful gift for wordplay. His repertoire ranged from the quirky (“Roses are red, violets are purple/sugar is sweet and so is maple surple”) to the serious (“It’s my belief pride is the chief cause of the decline in the number of husbands and wives”). King of the Road has the adventurous feel of a hobo road trip. It is fun for me musically because of the way it modulates before the bridge. Like many guitar players, I once struggled with barre chords, and this song was one of the ones that helped me overcome that struggle. (more…)

City of New Orleans

This song is an American classic written by the country/folk master songwriter Steve Goodman (also known for David Alan Coe’s quirky country hit “You Never Even Called Me By My Name”). It describes the voyage of the Amtrak City of New Orleans line from Chicago to New Orleans across middle America. Amtrak discontinued the City of New Orleans service for a period during the 1990s, but I believe it is up and running again. Sadly Goodman’s description of “fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders” holds about as true now as it did in the 1960s when the song was written.

Goodman has a wonderful ability to play with you ear in his lyrics. Consider the line in the last verse “The conductor sings his song again/the passengers will please refrain.” To those who have never ridden a train: at each station, the conductor makes an announcement asking the passengers to refrain from flushing the toilets while in the station. Goodman picks up that line (i.e. the conductor’s song) and seems to be asking the passengers to sing along (“refrain” in the musical sense of the word) as the train makes its voyage through the darkness and fades out of our lives.

When Arlo Guthrie covered this song, he changed Goodman’s lyrics in the first verse to “passing trains that have no names” and lost part of the point. (Willie Nelson used Arlo’s lyrics in his cover of the song). As the train rumbles across rural Illinois, it passes through dozens of faceless small towns with no train stations and the less glamorous industrial suburbs of the cities. I’ve recorded it using Goodman’s original lyrics.

Riding on the City of New Orleans
Illinois Central, Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders
Three conductors and 25 sacks of mail

All along its southbound odyssey the train pulls out at Kankakee
And rolls along past houses, farms and fields
Passing towns that have no names
And freight-yards full of old, black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles

Good morning America, how are you?
Don’t you know me, I’m your native son?
I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans
I’ll be gone 500 miles when the day is done

Dealing cards with the old men in the club-car
Penny a point, ain’t no one keeping score
Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle
And feel the wheels rumbling ‘neath the floor

And the sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers
Ride their father’s magic carpets made of steel
Mothers with their babes asleep
Rocking to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel

Good morning America, how are you? . . .

Nighttime on the City of New Orleans
Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee
Halfway home, we’ll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness rolling down to the sea

And all the towns and people seem to fade into a bad dream
And the steel rails still ain’t heard the news
The conductor sings his song again
The passengers will please refrain
This train has got to disappear in railroad blues

Good night America, how are you? . . .

I Would Change My Life

Another gem from Texas songwriter Robert Earl Keen, Jr. This is from one of his earlier albums. At the time he was known mostly for drunken party songs like “The Road Goes on Forever.” Many people never got past those songs to see Keen’s versatility and skill as a songwriter. I particularly love the rhythm of the words in the beginning of the second verse: “I have spent my hours on some misbegotten dreams/I have spent my money on some foolish-hearted things/and I have spent my memories on old and bitter wine.”

As always, enjoy and feel free to share! (more…)

You’re a Big Girl Now

In 1965, Bob Dylan was booed off the stage at the Newport Folk Festival for abandoning his folk roots for electric guitars and rock and roll. During his electric phase, he produced some great albums such as Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing it All Back Home and some enduring songs such as “Like a Rolling Stone.” His musical collaborations with The Band during the late ’60s and early ’70s still hold up well today.

In 1974, Dylan returned to his folk/acoustic roots with Blood on the Tracks, perhaps his greatest album. Bits of the album borrow from Dylan’s electric phase, but maintain the deep, lyrical sensibility of his early work. “You’re a Big Girl Now” has some of Dylan’s best lyrical work on an already great album. My particular favorite line is the last one: “I’m going out of my mind/with a pain that stops and starts/like a corkscrew to the heart/ever since we’ve been apart.” This cover isn’t a note-perfect recreation of the album so much as my own personal spin on this Dylan classic. (more…)

L.A. Freeway

Guy Clark was one of the great songwriters of the last fifty years. His music shaped the Texas singer-songwriter scene alongside other worthies such as Steven Fromholz, Townes Van Zandt, Willis Alan Ramsey and more recent musicians such as Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett. In the late 1960s, Guy and his wife Susanna moved to L.A., but it didn’t work out there. They ultimately settled in Nashville, though Guy maintained strong connections in Texas throughout his career.

Guy passed away this summer after many years of health issues. He leaves a towering legacy among American songwriters. This song is one of my favorites of his. (more…)

Best of the Barley

A lovely ballad by the Scottish songwriter Brian McNeill from his collection Back O’ The North Wind. It tells the true story of his uncle’s immigration to the United States where he found work as a woodworker in 1920s Michigan–successfully finding drink even in the midst of Prohibition. (“To find a dram in a foreign land is the natural gift of a Falkirk man/and Lady Liberty looked the other way”).  He endured the depression and returned to his native Scotland to serve in the Second World War and storm the beaches at Normandy. He married a girl he had waved at from the deck of the ship on one of his voyages. McNeill’s lyrics tell a powerful story of resilience and persistence in the face of adversity.

I learned the song from a recording by Ed Miller a Scottish singer, songwriter, and folklorist from Austin, Texas. When I was a kid, Ed would occasionally host the “Folkways” show on KUT on Saturday mornings. As a performer, he is wonderfully funny and engaging. (more…)

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