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The international Dylan songbook

Julie Bender | Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Heralded as one of the greatest lyricists in the history of rock and roll, Bob Dylan is a mysterious and secretive man of immense talent and versatility. Throughout the years he has released over 40 albums, each one radically different from the last, but all containing songs of equal meaning and poignancy. In the early 1960s, he touched the hearts of folk purists with albums such as The Free-Wheeling Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changing. 1965 brought him “plugging in” and shocking fans with the likes of Bringing it All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. He has dabbled in country, in American soul and even in Christian music. This past year Dylan surprised many by taking his talent to the big screen with the film Masked and Anonymous which is currently opening in small venues throughout the country. The film, featuring a cast of many A-list stars including Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, John Goodman, Jessica Lange and, of course, Dylan himself, has a flavorful soundtrack of multi-cultural Dylan covers, and even four songs performed by the Man himself.Showing just how influential Dylan has been in the international scene, the album’s opener is a version of “My Back Pages,” performed by the Magokoro Brothers. The opening guitar betrays a familiar melody, but almost immediately a striking difference is heard as the lyrics take center-stage, not in English, but rather, in Japanese.Track two changes radically with “Gotta Serve Somebody” interpreted by Shirley Caesar as a gospel number. The combination Caesar’s powerful vocals and a gospel choir give the song a distinct “Bible Belt” feel.Also included is the traditional song “Diamond Joe,” sung by Dylan and his excellent touring band of late. Performed as a bluegrass number live on the set of the film, the song has a light, dancing feel that places it in the context of a Tennessee line dance. Perhaps one of the most interesting and radical tracks on the album is the “Like a Rolling Stone” cover by Articolo 31. A unique combination of old and new, the song effectively combines elements from the 1965 original version with new rap overdubs. The famous organ opening of Al Kooper is preserved, but a sudden “Ugh” and a heavy bassline pave the way to verses rapped in Italian. Shifting back to 1965, Dylan’s original vocals pick up the refrain singing “How does it feel / To be on your own …” with Italian translations sung in between each line. The album continues to diversify with covers by the Grateful Dead, the Latino band Los Lobos, and multiple other international bands, plus three other tracks performed excellently by Dylan himself.Regardless of the language the lyrics are sung in, or the musical genre the songs are performed in, this album proves once again the power of Dylan’s words. With the ability to transgress generations and cultural boundaries, Dylan’s lyrics contain beauty, wisdom, versatility and the essential capability of articulating universal human emotion. Dylan’s songbook remains one of the best there is.

Contact Julie Bender at jbender@nd.edu