Imperfect Interpretations: When the Song Sung Isn’t What the Song Said (Part 1)

Music lyrics, like the Bible, like poetry, are subject to all manner of interpretation. They’re comprised of words, God bless ’em, and to the everlasting intrigue and contentiousness of humankind, words can have nearly infinite shades, contexts and emphases as they are filtered through each individual person’s consciousness.

And you at least double the intrigue when you add a singer’s and arranger’s musical interpretations to the words on a lyric sheet. This is when hearing the same song from different artists can be a vastly different experience.

I think it’s safe to say that our natural bias in music is to prefer songs as we originally heard them, from the first singer to give them expression. No matter how many worthy covers we may hear from subsequent artists, there seems to be a kind of imprinting of an original music track, with its rhythms and intonations for which we create a memory and to which we subsequently cleave. Whether this has an organic basis or merely an emotional one (“It’s O.K., but nobody sings that like Joni!”), I do not know.

That said, sometimes cover artists pick up on an aspect of a song that the original singer either didn’t project at all or else projected differently. In these cases, the cover version comes as a revelation, a welcome elaboration of an original that didn’t explore a song deeply enough, or had missed something altogether that the cover artist found and bent to a more profound or surprising interpretation.

 

 

 

What we will explore in this two-part post are two songs representing the different ends of this original singer/cover artist tension. One will be a song, Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings,” that I believe was quite fine in at least the original 1964 version on his album “The Times They Are a Changin’”, but which he severely compromised in subsequent versions in a kind of cover treatment of his own song, with radically different effects.

The song later found its tonally perfect elaboration in a cover version by the country singer Jerry Jeff Walker, which we will discuss below.

In Part II of this post, we will examine another song that to my mind was near perfect in its original version and was later violated by another artist with no doubt the best of intentions but a severely mismatched sensibility.

 

“One Too Many Mornings” is a surpassingly sad song, with Dylan mourning the loss of a relationship, beyond any hope of repair. The first verse sets the stage in stark, heart-ravaged terms:

Down the street the dogs are barkin’
And the day is a-gettin’ dark
As the night comes in a-fallin’
The dogs’ll lose their bark
An’ the silent night will shatter
From the sounds inside my mind
Yes, I’m one too many mornings
And a thousand miles behind

Oh, but we have all been there, yes? The dark silent room, haven’t eaten a thing all day, dusk descending, with maybe the dregs of a whisky glass on the end table, its ice long since melted as we haven’t quite been able to summon the energy to lift it even one more time.

Lone-some…

Dylan has done multiple treatments of this song. Let’s listen to the original here, stripped down to the bones with just Dylan, his guitar and some harmonica coming in to sound the right mournful notes.

 

 

All well and good. Sad man, sad mismatched love. Lone-some.

But then we get this, a rocked-up, electrified Dylan tearing through the same song with the help of The Band (with the person who posted it to You Tube adding a strange joking prelude clip featuring John Lennon). The song is fun enough, with Dylan bouncing jauntily along to heavy instrumentation and some vocal accompaniment by The Band’s Rick Danko.

 

 

But wait—where’s our lone-some desperately sad lover, sniffling into his whiskey glass in some god-forsaken highway motel outside Fort Worth?

Do the lyrics here suggest in any way that other people will be singing loudly along with our desperado, clanging away on multiple guitars and a loud omnipresent organ? I don’t think so.

From the crossroads of my doorstep
My eyes they start to fade
And I turn my head back to the room
Where my love and I have laid
An’ I gaze back to the street
The sidewalk and the sign
And I’m one too many mornings
An’ a thousand miles behind

 

Another version is a duet with Johnny Cash that inexplicably begins with some fun finger-picking on the opening notes of “Oh Susannah.” It’s humorous, but why the humor to open such a dark mournful song?

Then Dylan and Cash keep a steady pace through it, Cash taking the lead and adding some chirpy guitar plucking that annoyingly underscores every note.

I can’t say it’s uninteresting, these two behemoths of modern musical culture twisting this song into a unique shape. But it seems to me to miss the mark on what these lyrics say and the tone they suggest. It doesn’t do justice to the barely functional, way-slowed-down protagonist who is just trying to get through the next moment and breath before his heart melts all over the cheap battered furniture in his room.

Here, judge for yourself, and feel free to disagree.

 

 

Which brings us to Jerry Jeff Walker’s version, but let’s pick up the final stanza of Dylan’s lyrics first:

It’s a restless hungry feeling
That don’t mean no one no good
When ev’rything I’m a-sayin’
You can say it just as good
You’re right from your side
I’m right from mine
We’re both just one too many mornings
An’ a thousand miles behind

The conclusion is shot through with resignation and acceptance, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s now famous final stage of coming to terms with death, in this case the death of a relationship.

Walker, perhaps drawing on country’s greater propensity for heartache than anything found in folk music, mines this sense of mournful acceptance to profound depths. It’s just him, alone as can be, drawing out each syllable just this side of a quiet sob, backed by a lone quiet guitar, harmonica, and a touch of piano. All of them underscoring the singer’s plaintive tone of regret for love gone wrong, with no one but the fates to blame.

I hear you, my man, I hear you and feel for you.

 

 

Walker is the very essence of lone-some here. The lyrics are a man stripped to his emotional bones, wailing about being alone. How can you fast-pace or noise that up with a bunch of clanging electric guitar and organ?

Sorrow like this lasts forever—or at least that is the fear of the sorrowful one. And the words take halfway to forever to emerge from his broken heart.

There won’t be any jaunty tripping or rocking or banjoing through this devastated landscape, at least today. The song has to be stripped down, just as the singer is, stripped of all the joy and comfort he once knew, all the hope he once harbored.

It’s a lonesome road ahead, and it stretches for a long time, and there will be no fast car or loud guitar to help speed it along. Jerry Jeff gives this reality perfect expression in a resung song that is even better than the original—and miles ahead of any treatment since.

***

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Bob Dylan photo near top of page by Jerry Jones, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/skeletalmess/

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Desert road photo by Wiliam Warby, London, England, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wwarby/

6 comments to Imperfect Interpretations: When the Song Sung Isn’t What the Song Said (Part 1)

  • wmckeown  says:

    Nice analysis, Andrew! I agree that the first time one hears a significant song seems to be the best, despite subsequent covers. Many get covered by others anyway, apparently searching for the magic. It also matters what the young person was doing at the time. I remember some original tunes because I was in the backseat of a friend’s convertible on a sunny day, smooching with my sweetie at the time. Johnny Mathis and “Misty” seemed to be everywhere then….
    The words hold folks to the feeling of the tune, though. If the words change significantly, everyhing else may change with it. I wouldn’t hold Dylan to singing the same tune the same way, not after all the changes he has been through. By that measure, he’s a jazz man.
    I played at an old folks home onetime. One of the old guys (Alzheimers, I believe) started trembling when I covered some of the classic jazz standards. With much effort from he and his nurse, he brought out his funky old sax and played along with me, any tune any key.
    I later asked his nurse what’s with this guy? She said something about the “Dorsey band and “Chicago”. I expressed surprise that he could still play in his state.

    She said,” Oh, melody is the last thing to go….”

    Thanks, Andrew!

    Waldo de Baldo

    • Marianne  says:

      Hi Andrew,…yeah, great comparisons. i agree that that raw and simple treatments of the song are more true to the sorrow. In those times, i was listening to the Joan Baez version, which I just heard again. Although it is her usual beautiful voice, somehow the lilting, toe tapping beat is not the right fit.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=088DhELIqw8

      In the rendition with the Band, Dylan is using that “forced style” he used for a while. It’s as if he’s pushing the words through a sieve. The strain of it also makes me think of another activity.

      Then, we can take another swig from the dregs of the whiskey and really get down some more…Love is Just a Four Letter Word – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1fpDWXwfso
      Can I assume most of us have been this low? Beyond the lonesome sorrow of a relationship gone wrong, one gives up on love. Oh, now I can think of another song…J.Geils, Love Stinks.

      Even more songs come to mind, cynical and lacking in faith, that say love will not come again.

      But, yes it will, because we grow through experience and shed the skin of the past for all the possibilities of a fresh future.

      • Andrew Hidas  says:

        Wonderful anecdote from the nursing home, Walt; that’s just priceless. (And I think the nurse was right about melody.) Yep, songs and even smells or the sound of rain hitting the roof in a certain way can take us to very particular, concrete moments from long in the past; all quite remarkable!

        I agree we can’t hold Dylan or anyone to one version & approach to a song, especially when they have to sing it live hundreds of nites a year for decades! But some songs twist into different shapes better than others do, and the ways he went on to twist this song felt misshapen rather than differently shaped to me.

        Thanks for the laughs, Marianne. Dylan and that voice! (Or voices; he’s had a few…) A subject unto itself…And though it may sound like I’m being hard on him, there is no arguing his greatness or cultural impact. The fact that he tossed off songs like this at all—by the bushel, in his early 20s!—is testament enough, I think. We have not much known his like, and he is still at it, workmanlike as can be. He’s a musician, so he makes music…

        Yes, I’m aware of the Baez version and had the same take you did. Nice in that usual Baez way, but not quite right. Stomped along a fair amount to J. Geils in the old days, but not aware of “Love Stinks.” Nice forthright title, I must say!

        And you’re right about that other stuff, too. :-)

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Wonderful comments indeed – Waldo you (or the nurse) are so right – Oliver Sacks recounts many such amazing stories of patients of his in Musicophilia (http://www.oliversacks.com/books-by-oliver-sacks/musicophilia/ ) – including people with Parkinson’s, stroke victims – music seems to inhabit a very different part of our brains and connects at an amazingly deep level… Speaking of love songs when you are low – Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” is a fave – a nice tribute and video was posted by NPR last year: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/11/19/365283446/motown-s-jimmy-ruffin-dies-sang-what-becomes-of-the-brokenhearted – it’s interesting that the song is given a semi-gospel treatment – an emotional pleading… and speaking of covers true to the spirit of the original, in a Motown Tribute (“Standing in the Shadows of Motown”) Joan Osborn burns down the house with her cover of Ruffin’s hit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVt6woj-sEY

    Thanks for the musical musing Andrew…

  • Amy Zucker Morgenstern  says:

    There’s another, IMO better version with The Band; the Basement Tapes version is calmer and has more feeling, although Rick forgets the words for a moment. To me that harmony on “behind” is a key part of the song that I miss when I listen to the Times They Are A’Changin’ version, much as I like it.

    The Walker version is one to break your heart, though. Thanks for the tip. I notice that he, like Dylan, is not afraid to change the words–with some positive effects (he gets rid of that weak “rhyme” of “good” with “good”), others less so.

    And poking around YouTube for Jerry Jeff Walker brought up Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard’s version of “Pancho and Lefty.” Talk about a mismatch. The vocals are good, especially Merle’s, but the orchestration–cheery intro, plunk plunk plunk bass line, soulless choir chiming in for no apparent reason (playing the federales, maybe?). . . Whoever produced this travesty should be forced to listen to Townes van Zandt for 1000 hours straight without benefit of antidepressants. That’ll teach ’em what this great song means.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CvdmxszsDM8

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Kevin, I’ve been meaning to get around to that Sacks book and Levitin’s “This Is Your Your Brain on Music” for the longest time now. The latter is on my little bedside bookshelf, in waiting mode!

    Have loved Ruffin’s “Brokenhearted” since it came out, and I sang right along with every word right now from memory. And yo, Joan Osborn’s White Gal Soul—love it!

    Amy, I’m glad you mentioned little changes in lyrics, because it’s something i had meant to discuss. Sometimes minor changes have powerful effects. Dylan adds an additional two lines to “…Morning…” on his “Hard Rain” album with this:

    “I’ve no right to be here
    If you’ve no right to stay
    Until we’re both one too many…”

    And then Jerry Jeff offers his own twist:

    “It’s a restless hungry feeling
    That don’t mean no one no good
    Everything I’m feeling,
    I never thought I would”

    Those last two lines are heart-renders, I think, their own little bit of songwriting artistry to add to Dylan’s.

    And I also want to say this: May God bless you & keep you for bringing up Townes Van Zandt! I feel like someday he deserves me doing something crazy on his behalf, like writing up, “Townes Van Zandt: Schopenhauer With a Guitar?” (The thought just occurred…)

    I know you’re joking, but it may well be true that one should be careful about listening to him without benefit of anti-depressants. But better, I think, is a listening partner so you can help keep each other from crawling too close to the edge while you marvel together at the depth and sheer inventiveness of his lyrics and music.

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