Sunday, June 28, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #117: To Be Alone With You

My sneaky favorite* of Nashville Skyline, and potentially my outright favorite - it's either this or...well, I won't spoil the surprise. I distinctly remember the first time I ever heard this album (I immediately called it one of my favorites ever - my ardor has somewhat cooled in that regard) and being struck the most by this little ditty. In my opinion, everything that makes this a great album is encoded in the 2:12 that this track runs. There's the unassuming quality of that little studio snippet at the start, Charlie McCoy's snappy lead guitar intertwining with Bob Wilson's equally punchy piano workout, the band kicking things up a notch for the middle eight, and Dylan's croon smoothly sliding over everything like butter melting over pancakes. It's a pretty sweet way to really get things rolling on the album, if you ask me.

In the "Girl of the North Country" post, I'd mentioned how that particular song worked best as album opener, and that none of the other songs that made it on the album would have worked in the pole position. I still stand by that statement (it would be unseemly to back away from that just one post later, if nothing else), but the closest any of the 9 tracks afterwards comes to being an acceptable album opener would be this one. One could argue that, in some ways, it actually IS the album opener - at least, the song that gets you more prepared for what Nashville Skyline has to offer. After all, the Cash one-off is just that - a one-off - and the song afterwards is a fun, but ultimately superfluous instrumental (which, I should mention since I didn't in the last post, features some fine banjo work from well-known banjoist Earl Scruggs); it is right here where the album truly reveals its hole cards, giving us listeners the first taste of what kind of material Dylan was cranking out at the start of 1969. And, I can only guess, it was the kind of material that had to throw people for a loop.

Perhaps this is the sentimental side of me talking, but I have a picture in my mind of Dylan up in Woodstock, still ironing out the last kinks in "To Be Alone With You", strumming this song as his children (or child; he had at least one by 1969) sat at his feet and listened. And I think that's something worth thinking about. We all know that Dylan, at this point in his life, had more or less done a Beatles and stepped away from the public eye as much as he could. And we also know that Dylan, still following his muse, was recording albums and writing songs and keeping himself busy as a recording artist (otherwise I'd already be at Planet Waves or something by now). Perhaps I'm entirely off-base about this, but it could be possible that the family man Dylan we all remember from those pictures up at Woodstock, the one with the spindly beard and the nifty eyeglasses, was thinking about his recording career not just in terms of songs he's written for himself, or for Sara, but for his offspring as well.

You might scoff - and I wouldn't blame you if you did - but it's not outside the realm of possibility that Dylan might have been recording songs that his children could enjoy as they grew and started to mature. After all, we have all sorts of evidence of celebrities and musicians creating something aimed towards younger folk (the children's book market, for a while, was practically glutted with famous people's contributions); maybe Dylan wasn't recording a 1969 version of Yo Gabba Gabba!, but the overall sweetness of this album sort of makes me feel like he might have had his children (who, as any first-time parents would tell you, trump everything else in a way no non-parent could ever imagine) in the back of his mind while playing these songs. And there are some quibbles with this - the notion that country music is simplistic enough for children to understand can be taken as a major insult, and basically every song on this album is about love or the lack thereof. Now, while I obviously don't think country music is simplistic, it can definitely be performed in a stripped-down, less complicated manner, and while the songs do deal with love, they deal with it in about as sanitized and non-offensive a manner as possible. So what's left to deal with?

I imagine I might get a little bit of flack for this, as it could very easily look like I'm saying that "One More Night" is on the same level as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" or something like that. Hopefully nobody's gotten that idea (and if they have, I'm entirely to blame). What I hope I've put across, instead, is that a young man just settling into the idea of having to care about more than himself and his wife, a young man that also happens to be maybe the most talented musician that ever lived, might have thought about channeling his enormous gift into something that, yes, his children might enjoy as they grow up. And far from suggesting that Dylan went country just so he could write moon/June couplets that even three year olds would get, it would seem that Dylan's interest in Americana and country music might have intersected with that burgeoning family life, and he chose to write and perform songs that have the catchiness that appeals to all walks of life, with lyrics that deliver their points with brevity and ease, rather than meander around them or confound us by hiding those points under cryptic imagery. And let's face it - if I wanted to make a child happy through music, and I had to choose between "To Be Alone With You" or "Only A Pawn In Their Game" (or, maybe, even "Like A Rolling Stone"), there doesn't seem to be much of a choice at all.

*just in case you were wondering, my sneaky favorites for the albums I've already posted about:

Bob Dylan - "Gospel Plow"
Freewheelin' - "Bob Dylan's Blues"
The Times - "Boots of Spanish Leather"
Another Side - "Spanish Harlem Incident"
BIABH - "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream"
H61 Revisited - "Queen Jane Approximately"
Blonde On Blonde - "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)"

Kinda hard to call some of those "sneaky favorites", given how well-known most of his early albums are, but what can you do?

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Shaunlmp said...

Wonderful take on it. Maybe it was subconsciously about the whole feelgood thing of family life in general. I must say I always thought the instramental was great it had elements of ragtime, bluegrass and good old country pickin' all rolled into one. It could have made a good opener and still set the same vibe.

Anonymous said...

To Be Alone With You was the song my wife and I had our first dance to at our wedding reception. The wedding band totally rocked it out and it made for the beginning of a great party and marriage. I love this song too!

Anonymous said...

a nice interpretation to read, but i don't think Bob wrote it for his children, neither with the children in his mind.
because: "I wish the night were here
Bringin' me all of your charms
When only you are near
To hold me in your arms."
that's not something you sing to your children, do you?
but the song itself could be appreciated by both his wife & his children, because it has a nice positive sound. But Bob never wrote songs only for his family, I think he always had a audience on his mind. Never forgot he was / is a professional... (a song + danceman as he called it himself)

J├╝rgen Kloss said...

As someone once said: “It’s easy to be clever. But the really clever thing is to be simple.”
Everybody can write important sounding songs and hide behind so-called "poetry". It is much more difficult to write simple songs that sound both new and familiar & I think that's what Dylan tried with "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" and Nashville Skyline.

Md23Rewls said...

It's definitely not outside of the realm of possibility that some of these songs were written either with his kids in mind, or perhaps just in the sort of family atmosphere that would generate a laid back song. He did write "Forever Young" for one of his children (and also as a response to "Heart of Gold," if I remember my Dylan myths/legends correctly), and although that's not on this album, obviously the general concept wasn't below Dylan.

Moose said...

My own sneaky faves.
BD-Pretty Peggy-O
Freew-Honey Just Allow me one More chance
Another-Motorpsycho Nitemare/Spanish Harlem
BiaBH-BD 115th Dream
H61R-Tombstone Blues
BoB-They run together
JWH-Drifter's Escape
NS-I threw it all away

David George Freeman said...

Yes another interesting analysis. Read enough? Then come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to all the great versions of this and every Dylan song.