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MUSIC REVIEW: How Many Roads: Black America Sings Bob Dylan

by Ed Ward

(Ace Records, 2010)

During the Great '60s Folk Scare, a number of folkies who were apparently totally ignorant of American musical history were preoccupied with the question of whether a white man (or woman) could play or sing the blues, while in their midst a few African Americans engaged with American folk music in their own ways: Odetta, Jackie Washington, Julius Lester, Taj Mahal, and Bruce Langhorne spring to mind. Langhorne, in particular, with his guitar filigrees and occasional percussion (he is thought to be "Mr. Tambourine Man") on Bob Dylan's mold-breaking Bringing It All Back Home album pretty much defined what was to become known as folk-rock.

So why was it, forty-five years later, that when I got Ace Records' new compilation How Many Roads: Black America Sings Bob Dylan, my first thought was "This probably isn't going to be very good"? Simple prejudice. Bob Dylan's music was so important to my generation of white middle-class kids that it was hard for me to imagine how the soul singers on these twenty tracks could get inside it in a meaningful enough way to bring their art to it. I'd already heard Aretha Franklin's attempt at The Band's "The Weight" enough times to feel sorry for her trying to please Jerry Wexler, her producer, by singing it. After all, Wexler had made other strange suggestions to her that seemed to have worked, but although she attacked it with all the soul at her command, to my ears, anyway, the song defeated her. (This didn't stop it from charting as high as No. 18 Pop and No. 8 Soul, although at that stage of her career, 1969, she probably could have sung anything and charted.) This prejudice must also have been why I'd forgotten that Bobby Seale has written of the Black Panthers formulating their platform in bull sessions fueled by repeated playings of Highway 61 Revisited. Or the black kitchen workers at the summer camp I worked at in 1965 turning me on to The Temptations, The Manhattans, and Cannonball Adderly, while I amazed them with my new Dylan record.

It turns out, of course, that my reaction was right and wrong. Two-and-a-half minutes into the album, I saw my mistake: I'd just heard the brilliant, doomed O.V. Wright cruise through "Blowin' In the Wind" as if it were a nifty gospel song he and the backup sisters had just whipped together at rehearsal, interspersing it with typical gospel phrases: "And here's one more thing I'd like to know...." My guess is he didn't get all of it (and here's one more thing I'd like to know: the white dove sailing the seas is a reference to the dove released by Noah's Ark, but why should the poor thing sleep in the sand instead of in a tree or maybe on a building like normal pigeons and doves do?), but the idea of a song made out of questions made sense to him, and enough of them were specific enough that he got the basics, and the only thing for Overton Vertis Wright to do at that point was come up with the idea of extending "blowing" an extra syllable so that "in" gets the emphasis the first time around and then doing it straight on the repetition of the line, thereby making a great new hook. Genius. (Did it chart? It did not.)

The other side of this is Marion Williams's valiant struggle with "I Pity the Poor Immigrant." One way in to a Dylan song for a church-based vocalist—and Williams was one of our most majestic gospel singers, who recorded this during her brief stint with Atlantic—is through the melody (no one on this disc has attempted "Subterranean Homesick Blues," for instance), and "Immigrant" is one of Dylan's finest. But the song has always made me uncomfortable because there's something vaguely anti-Semitic about it: the "immigrant" has Shylockian characteristics, like falling in love with wealth itself and using his fingers to cheat. As an immigrant, he's an Other, not one of us, but he has power and isn't afraid to use it. Overt anti-Semitism hasn't appeared in any of the gospel music I've ever heard, which is why it's weird to hear the great consoler wrestling with a song which condemns as it mouths pity for an outsider who seems Jewish. Strictly from a technical viewpoint, it's a tour de force, but Marion Williams never recorded anything less, it would seem, even if she does say "im-mo-grunt."

There are a few more of these performances here by Atlantic soul singers, recorded, no doubt, at the instigation of Jerry Wexler. Howard Tate is just too southern to get why the winds hit heavy on the borderline, and his "Girl from the North Country" is all girl and no north country, while Solomon Burke absolutely understands why he's not gonna work on Maggie's farm no more, and is quite convincing as he explains it. Not so Brook Benton, diddlybopping his way through "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" with a Sinatra-esque swing, enough so that the Dixieland band erupting during the last verse is no surprise and no help, either. The production here, though, is by Arif Mardin, who always did have a schlocky side.

But the other gospel-based soul singers here didn't have Wexler's hand guiding them, and there are some surprising finds. Freddie Scott is, unfortunately, not a household name, but I'm happy to report that his version of "I Shall Be Released" was everything I hoped it would be, not that it's too hard to find the gospel inside this song of hope, or to infuse some soul into its fine melody. Nor is Nina Simone's reading of "Just Like a Woman" a surprise, although there are layers of meaning here to untangle for those who like listening to her more than I do. Booker T. Jones's organ plus his voice plus "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" is likewise a slam dunk, as is The Staple Singers' version of "Masters of War," which marries to Pops's guitar with ease, leaving him to channel the fury—again, not a problem for a man and a group committed both to the church and to social change. Major Harris's "Like a Rolling Stone," on the other hand, suffers from his rewriting bits of the song and from backup singers who talk the last phrase of each verse, but the band is in the pocket, effortlessly straddling rock and gospel. Could the guitarist be Curtis Mayfield? And including The Persuasions here is also a no-brainer, as they've made a career out of harmonizing rock tunes, including The Grateful Dead, mostly a cappella. "The Man In Me" is one of their more inspired vocal arrangements, too.

Gospel and soul, though, are only part of the picture here. There's rock, funk, and the unclassifiable, too. For instance, I'm sure you can hear "With God On Our Side" if you know the song and when I tell you it's another Church of Aaron Neville deal, with him melisma-ing away in front of a deep bell-like synth pad. I think it's narcissistic, but people pay big money to hear him do stuff like this. Dylan's country side gets nice readings from the all-but-unknown Bill Brandon ("I'll Be Your Baby Tonight"), Esther Phillips ("Tonight I'll Be Staying Here with You"), and The Isley Brothers ("Lay Lady Lay," cut down from its eleven-minute album version). The most pleasantly weird take on Dylan is Con-Funk-Shun's "Mr. Tambourine Man," recorded in 1975 when they were first starting out, and bearing absolutely no resemblance, other than most of the words, to what Dylan himself (not to mention The Byrds) recorded. For those having trouble remembering the song, the chant "Witcher tambourine! Bump some booty!" does not occur in Dylan's original version, although the liner notes here say he really likes this interpretation. And the least pleasantly weird take is Patti LaBelle's coked-out, squeaky-voiced "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine," which is not nearly as cute as she probably thought it was at the time. There's also an outright rocker in Gary U.S. Bonds's take on "From a Buick 6," but that's no surprise because it's from an album which resulted from Bruce Springsteen's stumbling onto him in a club, and his romper-stomper vocal is backed by The E Street Band: just listen to those drums if you need proof. And Bobby Womack's "All Along the Watchtower" is just an excuse for him to pay homage to Jimi Hendrix, which is fine by me.

The album ends with a lovely performance of a Dylan song I'd never heard. Around the time he got "born again," I took a walk, and although I've seen him several times since then, because old friends of mine come and go in his band, I stopped listening to the new albums as they came out, and, thus, missed Empire Burlesque, the album on which The O'Jays found the title song for their 1990 album Emotionally Yours. It's way over the top in both arrangement and delivery, but it's still compelling in its absolute commitment to the song. Orchestra, gospel choir, and three seasoned vocalists tossing the lines back and forth—it's a slam-bang ending, and makes me wonder if Dylan's original is as good.

So what I got from this is something I probably need to be reminded of from time to time: artists need challenges, whether imposed externally (say, by Jerry Wexler) or internally. The weirder the challenge, the stronger the prospect of disaster or triumph; mediocrity rarely enters into it. Thus, I'm off to bump some booty. With my tambourine. 

For more on black artists covering Dylan, check out John Uhl's piece on Odetta from Music Issue #71.

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