Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #97: You Ain't Goin' Nowhere

"You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" is, I would guess, one of the Basement Tapes songs that casual fans would know, and probably not from the version that actually made it on the official album. More likely, that casual fan has heard the version from the 2nd Greatest Hits (which is a lot of fun, especially the "pull up your tent, McGuinn" bit, and actually manages to sound quite different even while using the same chords) or the version the Byrds recorded on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, their famous 1968 country-rock album. The song's reputation is entirely deserved; songs don't come much simpler than this one, both in the verse structure, the chord progressions, and the economy of language, and yet the song never sounds simplistic or tossed off. Presumably it's a love song, to the effect that the narrator is waiting for his bride to arrive (which makes me wonder who he's admonishing to not go anywhere in the song), and the strange imagery contained within serves to bolster the obstinancy of the narrator and his determination to wait for his beloved. And that chorus, in both versions of the song, is just so uplifting and sweet that you can't help singing along.

I've always been more partial to the Basement Tapes version; there's something about the gentle tempo of the arrangement that just floats along, Dylan speak-singing the verses and blissfully dueting with Manuel (or Danko) on the chorus, the Band offering sympathetic accompaniment (perhaps the most sympathetic of the official album), that really appeals to me. Dylan could have been reading the phone book on the verses - hell, it would've made more sense than the bit about Genghis Khan - and I'd still be totally with him when he got to that chorus. For a while I didn't even care for the Greatest Hits version at all, as something about that different arrangement just rubbed me the wrong way. Time has mellowed me on the track, though, and I can now hear it and really enjoy how Dylan more or less completely changed the mood of the song (both in tempo, in the way he sings it, and by removing the fuzziness of the original version with a cleaner, sharper acoustic arrangement) while keeping the same spirit of the original. Essentially Dylan recorded a cover of himself, and he recorded a darn good one.

Getting back to the original version, it seems pretty interesting to me that "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" was so easily adopted into the country-rock style of Sweetheart of the Rodeo (a style that, incidentally, had its seeds in some of the previous Byrds albums - it wasn't all Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons); in fact, taking away some of the twang and McGuinn's distinctive vocal, you could be easily forgiven if you mistook that version for Dylan's. And that's pretty easy to explain - the very simple structure of "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" is well-suited for a country arrangement, and the Byrds managed to retain that easygoing feel of the original while drawing it more towards the sound that would eventually define Parson's career. But there's something deeper and more interesting in that explanation - basically, the Basement Tapes has very strong ties to Americana, and few genres have as deep a tie to the oldest forms of American music than country. We tend to forget that Hank Williams predates rock and roll, and that you can find many similar tropes in old-school country music (simple arrangements, lyrics steeped in legend and folklore, even the same wry humor as a song like "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere") as the Basement Tapes had. It's as close to a perfect fit as you can imagine.

And that, I think, helps make Nashville Skyline somewhat easier to explain. I'm not talking about that voice he adopted - we'll probably never really understand why he chose to abruptly change the way he sang (I've always thought that the album would've been easier to accept without that change, although the songs would have lost a lot of their sunshine-and-lollipops appeal). What I mean is that Dylan, who has always been one to respect that which came before him, would have always had country music at least a little in mind throughout his career, with the possible exception of the latter days of his electric warrior period. Tapes exist of Dylan covering Hank Williams in his Greenwich Village period, Dylan had been friends with Johnny Cash more or less ever since Dylan burst onto the folk scene, and certainly a group as steeped in Americana as The Band would've introduced him to more country records while they jammed up in Big Pink. That country vibe, while never overtly expressed throughout the sessions, could very easily have been on Dylan's mind, and with his already pressing desire to cast aside the Dylan of 1966, it seems obvious in retrospect that he'd move in that direction. John Wesley Harding was the first tentative step (only "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" really holds that country vibe), and Nashville Skyline was the logical conclusion.

The always speculative side of me wonders how Dylan must have felt about all of this, still out of the public eye, the world waiting with bated breath for the return of their idol, speculation running rampant about what Dylan was up to and where his career would go, if there was still a career left. And there he is, cranking out this wild and wonderful music with his pals, music that just happens to be extremely different from what he'd recorded before, probably puzzling out those same questions himself in his own mind. That we got music as timeless and amazing as "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" is truly something to behold. And that Dylan ended up saying "screw it" and continuing down that path, kicking off nearly a decade of music that alternately surprised, shocked, and even angered his fans (let alone the general public) is something even more remarkable.

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9 comments:

NICOLE M said...

i thought this cover of the song featured on the Im Not There soundtrack was great too. Don't you think there are socio-historic implications of the Genghis Khan reference? Great post!

Reinaldo Garcia said...

This is the first song, with its G-Am-C repetitions, I ever learned on guitar. I sang it for hours and hours back in 1971.

Justin said...

Unlike a lot of cut & dry cases of different version showdowns in the Dylan songbook, I always vacillate on my preferred You Ain't Goin' Nowhere. I heard the '71 version first because it was on a Greatest Hits and therefore among the very first Dylan songs I'd ever listened to attentively. I didn't come to TBT for I'm guessing another two years, so that allowed the latter performance to set up shop early and get ingrained. Objectively I'd say the Basement version is likely the superior. But they're just both so thoroughly charming -- both arrangements, both sets of lyrics, both pronunciations of Genghis.


"Dylan, who has always been one to respect that which came before him, would have always had country music at least a little in mind throughout his career, with the possible exception of the latter days of his electric warrior period."And even then, I'm not sure how Blonde on Blonde could be recorded in Nashville with Nashville session musicians and have country music completely excised from it.

"certainly a group as steeped in Americana as The Band would've introduced him to more country records while they jammed up in Big Pink."I might guess it was even more in the other direction, though; something tells me it wasn't the Band who were calling out the requests to do Gid Tanner songs. Heylin probably rightfully zings Robertson for trying to claim that he tutored Dylan on Sun Records.

"That country vibe, while never overtly expressed throughout the sessions"There is that smorgasbord (or, well, old country buffet) of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash songs that I presume were recorded as a medley all in the same day. Must've been in that kind of mood or sumtin.

NICOLE M said...

http://expectingrain.com/dok/who/k/kiplingrudyard.html

http://www.everypoet.com/archive/poetry/Rudyard_Kipling/kipling_gunga_din.htm

i remembered what I meant to post to you - the gunga din reference is a Rudyard Kipling poem and a 1930's war film , check it out!

Anonymous said...

Every song on Bob Dylan's album Basement Tapes rated & commented

Anonymous said...

The Basement Tapes only ever made total sense to me when I was hospitalised following a serious illness. It's the sound of a man badly injured and trapped. People write all kinds about these songs, but (just like songs about being dumped or falling in love) you never really feel them properly until you're in the same state yourself....

Anonymous said...

If you listen to the Mills Brothers (!) version of Ole Rocking Chair there is a Moment where the singer stuck in his chair bemoans that " I aint going Nowhere". (The chorus then sweetly almost mockingly responds " You aint going nowhere".) More than the exact match on lyrics though what is stunning is the lines delivery. The singers flat definitive elongated tone on that line is echoed in Bob's BT version as if it s a tribute.

Gronk said...

"Chingis Khan and his brother Don / Could not keep on keepin' on ..." Innocuous enough, until you consider that not only was "Chingis" (and not "Genghis") the title given to Khan by his countrymen, but also that the outer extent of Khan's empire was marked by the river Don in Russia. Pretty epic, no?

Music of Bob Dylan said...

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