Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Monday, 12 October 2015

33. Good As I Been To You (1992)

Two years after the release of the disappointing Under The Red Sky, and once again suffering a bout of writer's block, Dylan decided to lace up his boots and get back to his roots in order to meet his contractual obligations.  With producer/guitarist David Bromberg and a semi-electric band he put down enough folk and blues cover versions to fill an album, then went off on tour leaving Bromberg to mix it. On his return he decided to record some solo acoustic numbers to add a bit of light and shade, and it was during these sessions that the thirteeen songs that make up Good As I Been To You were committed to tape, the Bromberg recordings being completely discarded*.

This resulted in his first entirely acoustic album since 1964's Another Side, and here the "seen everything" world-weary tone of voice he was going for then is now real.  With the pressure of songwriting temporarily lifted from his shoulders, over thirteen songs of murder, deceit, adventure and love lost, Bob uses the words of others to recalibrate and to drill down to what's most important to him: age-old truths told plainly, in an intimate setting.

The songs he chose are mostly folk ballads, and one of the best known opens the album; his reading of Frankie and Albert, otherwise known as Frankie and Johnny, is that of Mississippi John Hurt which appeared on the Harry Smith Anthology of Folk Music, a collection much-loved by Dylan.  Rather more obscure is the cowboy ballad Diamond Joe, about a penny-pinching master who treated his employees cruelly, or the sorry tale of Jim Jones, convicted of poaching and transported to Australia.  The former uses an arrangement popularised by Ramblin' Jack Elliott, a man who exerted a significant influence on the young Dylan.  Like several arrangements here, Bob did not credit those responsible in the sleevenotes, and faced criticism (and some legal action) as a result.

One of my favourite of the folk tunes is Hard Times, written by American songwriter Stephen Foster and first published in 1854 as Hard Times Come Again No More.  Listen as Dylan sings "'Tis the song, the sigh of the weary" with his own fatigued moan:

Possibly the oldest of the folk covers is perennial US children's favourite Froggie Went A-Courtin', which has its origins in sixteenth century Scotland.  Several variants and dozens of recordings exist of this tale of marriage between Froggie and his Miss Mouse, one of my favourites being the exuberant version by Bruce Springsteen on his 2006 Seeger Sessions.  Bob plays it deadpan here, but it's not much less enjoyable for it.

Other than folk, the rest of Good As I Been To You consists of the blues, and on Step It Up and Go (a standard otherwise known as Bottle Up and Go or Shake It Up and Go) he makes an entertaining racket.  He even gets his harmonica out for Sitting On Top of the World and love song Tomorrow Night; funnily enough he played harmonica for Big Joe Williams on his 1962 recording of the former.

Dylan's guitar playing throughout the album is rough, but his picking is surprisingly nimble and the style suits the low key, down-home feel of the record, which conjures up images of Bob sitting on his front porch by the screen door, playing to no-one but his dogs and the crickets.  In actual fact it was recorded in the garage of his Malibu home, which although it had a lawnmower resting in one corner, was no doubt a much posher garage than yours or mine.

So far so good, eh?  Well yes, but Dylan has a habit of chucking a spanner in the works of a potentially great album, and here that spanner is his singing. Not his voice - it's nicely aged, and I'm comfortable with the nasal quality - but his actual singing, namely the lack of enunciation. With the type of music performed here the power lies primarily in the story, and if the words cannot be understood, this power is lost.  To my utter frustration he mumbles, mutters and slurs his way through the majority of the songs.  Listening under normal circumstances, i.e. in a quiet room on the big stereo, I can perhaps make out one word in five.  With headphones clamped into place, maybe one word in three is discernible to me.  I was only able to enjoy the account of love and betrayal that is Black Jack Davey, for instance, when I googled the lyrics, this Scottish border ballad only becoming a pleasure to listen to once I could read along about the lady of means forsaking her husband and child for the love of the blaggard Jack.  Without the lyrics in front of me as a guide, the album goes by in a bit of a homogenous blur.  I'm not looking for Joan Baez or Peter, Paul and Mary levels of clarity, but just enough to be able to sit back and enjoy the story without having to try to translate Bob's incoherent mumbling.  If Johnny Cash could manage to sing clearly with his weathered, often frail voice in his sixties, surely Dylan, in his early fifties at this point, could have too?

Also, there are no particular highs or lows.  This may be because he felt very comfortable in his secluded recording studio (quite literally 'at home'), compared with his recollections of the ego-filled sessions for Under The Red Sky.  Another factor may be the little or no direction from friend and producer Debbie Gold, who is said to have used a "hands off" approach to her job.  Whatever the reason, nothing on here can be described as riveting - although Froggie Went A-Courtin' is rather ribbeting...

The album as a whole has a timeless quality, like it could be a field recording, and for this reason the blues covers work better as they don't have stories that require following.  The tone of the folk songs make for a pleasant listen, but their most engaging aspect is agonisingly lost in translation. I read that the sessions were recorded with no notes or lyrics sheets, so well did Dylan know these songs. If only he'd provided the listener with such materials, or preferably gone beyond levels of Adele-like articulation, Good As I Been To You would have been orders of magnitude more enjoyable.


*Miss The Mississippi from the Bromberg sessions can be found on Disc 2 of the Bootleg Series Vol. 8.  A further track appears on its hard-to-find and overpriced 3-disc set.

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