I've been holding off on Bob Dylan here at Cover Lay Down, unsure that I had anything to add to the existing cacaphony in the blogworld. But now that the fervor for the I'm Not There soundtrack been replaced by a reckless affection for the Moldy Peaches, it's time, I think. We begin our journey through the works of Dylan with one of his sweetest confessional ballads, Girl from the North Country.
I've never been a fan of Dylan the performer -- something about that broken, almost tuneless wail never really touched my soul. But years of listening to coversongs make it impossible to ignore the power and poetry of Bob Dylan, songwriter. It says something that practically every folksinger I've ever heard plays at least one Dylan song regularly in concert. It says something more that I'm actually willing to listen to Dylan himself if it's the only way to hear those songs.
Happily, a cover collector has plenty of Dylan songs at his disposal. There are hundreds of covers of Girl from the North Country alone; even before the Covers Project over at My Old Kentucky Blog did a feature on it a couple of summers ago, I owned a decent earful of them. Even Dylan covered this one: originally released on 1963 record The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, it was subsequently rerecorded (with Johnny Cash) for 1969's Nashville Skyline, and then featured again on Dylan's 1984 live album.
If the number of times Dylan recorded this song is any indication, Dylan loved this song as much as the rest of us. And it's not hard to see why. With its timeless rural references, its simple melody, and a trope that rises and falls like wind rippling through wheat, Girl from the North Country sounds more like a traditional folksong than a work of early genius from the guy who electrified American folk music.
To be fair, the song is based on Scarborough Fair, one of the most popular of those traditional folksongs, thanks to Simon and Garfunkel. But the majority of those who cover it recognize it for what it is: something wholly Dylan, textually sweet and musically elegant, and tailormade for the sparse, yearning, softly regretful touch most artists choose to adopt when covering it.
Here's nine such tributes, each one a folk gem of a different tone and timbre, each one no less stunning than the song itself. They range from eerie lo-fi guitar-and-pianofolk (Mohave 3, Yo La Tengo) to warm, rich coffehouse folk (John Gorka, Leo Kottke), from syrupy folkpop (Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell) to a heavy concentration of weary-voiced alt-country indiefolksters (Eels w/ strings and piano, Eels w/ strings and squeezebox, a plugged-in, drunken-sounding M. Ward and friends). But it's Jimmy LaFave's slow, wailing Texas folk cover that really brings the song to life for me. No wonder some folks call LaFave the best living interpreter of Dylan songs.
(from A Nod to Bob: An Artist's Tribute To Bob Dylan)
(live from Kerry's Farm, 1993; more Jimmy LaFave here)
(live from KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic, 2005)
(from Eels With Strings: Live At Town Hall)
(live at No Exit Coffeehouse, 1968; used for the film North Country)
(from Return to Sender)
(live on WFMU, 2006; more Yo La Tengo here)
(live, 1970; alt. version on The Best Of The Johnny Cash TV Show)
(live; more Ward, Oberst, and James)
As always, wherever possible, all album and artist links above take you towards wonderful, local, artist-centric places to buy albums, and as far away from faceless major-market megastores as possible. I think Dylan would appreciate the authenticity of it all, don't you?
One of these days I'll have to do a whole post on the Dylan covers of Jimmy LaFave. In the meantime, pick up the original Girl from the North Country, plus a heck of a lot more covers, at My Old Kentucky Blog. It's not all folk over there, but a lot of it's worth hearing, especially Sam Bush, The Waterboys, and Dear Nora.
Single Song Sunday collections previously on Cover Lay Down: