Monday, August 10, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #134: Belle Isle

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In a weird way, it's kind of comforting to hear Bob go back to one of his roots, covering a very obscure Celtic/Canadian folk song (he's credited with writing the song, but the Dylan encyclopedia Keys To The Rain makes a strong case that it's a folk song). As we know, Dylan had not lost his admiration for the ever-wide and diverse folk catalog; his thrilling and gorgeous performance of "Wild Mountain Thyme" at the Isle of Wight is proof enough of that. Actually, it's gratifying that Dylan didn't use that performance as a trial run for a take on this album - I'd have hated to hear that tune gussied up with strings or backup vocals or what have you. Instead, Dylan chose this tune about a man meeting a beautiful maid on the shore of some lake, one that even hardcore folkies may not have heard before. How can you not like that?

As for the actual arrangement...well, it's beautiful to listen to, I'll say that. Keys To The Rain is not a fan of the strings arrangement, but I kind of like it in this particular context. The song is, after all, a tune about falling in love with a random woman on the banks of some random lake, and it's written in a way that almost demands a lush orchestral backing. That's one thing about this album I like, even a little - there's a certain consistency with all the string arrangements throughout the album, which helps give the album a musical identity (whether or not that identity is a good thing is entirely up to you). Unfortunately, Bob ruins the mood of the song by singing really badly out of key for the entire song; it's actually worse than "In Search of Little Sadie", in that there's a consistent chord structure to plant his voice in, and yet Dylan's vocals are just all over the map. Too bad - had Dylan actually chosen to rerecord those vocals (I wonder if those were his guide vocals and he just decided to keep them), this would be a real favorite of mine.

This particular section of the RS review happens to be one of the most interesting sections of the review; Marcus discusses the then-nascent bootlegging industry, which more or less kicked off with the release of Great White Wonder, and how Dylan's only chance of having his past completely co-opted by his audience (both in buying his bootlegs and ignoring his official output) was to release music with the power of the Electric Trilogy. Aside from the fact that it's pretty cool to think about how long some of the bootlegs we all know and have heard have been circulating for over four decades now, there's a really good point being discussed here. We've always been fascinated with Dylan's unofficial work, partially because there's so damn much of it (to the extent that the Bootleg Series was basically created to ward off all the guys getting rich because people wanted to hear "If You Gotta Go, Go Now"), but mainly because a great deal of that work is really fantastic. You can easily get lost in the maze of Dylan bootlegs (as I have), even more so now that it's expanded exponentially, to the point where the official catalog might not interest you the same way. Back in 1970, with Dylan's catalog a mere ten albums, this might be a huge problem.

The concept of Dylan as myth has never really gone away (and never will, I would guess), but will never have the same weight as it did in those days, when Dylan stayed as much out of the public eye as he could, only communicating with increasingly confounding albums. Marcus states that JWH and Nashville Skyline lack the power of his great electric albums, and while this is profoundly unfair (both albums have their own power, and actually benefit by not leaning on what you might consider Bob Dylan music to be at that point), there is something to be said for just how remarkable, beloved, and influential the Electric Trilogy really were, even more so a few scant years after their original release. There was a real sense (certainly seen in this review) that Dylan was shirking his duties to the marketplace and to his fanbase with this retreat into covers and half-baked ideas, with the release of what essentially amounted to an official bootleg. And I agree with Marcus - I'd rather be listening to Guitars Kissing and the Contemporary Fix than this.

You listen to songs like "Belle Isle" or "Blue Moon", and you can hear why this album was compared to a bootleg (under what other circumstances would Dylan release these songs???) and where all the worry comes from. Sure, individual moments stand out in a good way (in fact, we're getting to two of them in the next posts), but the album as a whole stands as testament to a man that could care less about his past and about his audience co-opting the same. And, in a funny way, there's something kind of liberating about that - I've written before about just how constricting it must have been to be Bob Dylan back then, and to experience something very few people (certainly not the RS staff, that's for sure) have ever experienced in the history of mankind. To hear Dylan not give a hoot about what anybody thinks of him, recording music only he wanted to hear himself record - that's exciting. Sure, the results may have been mostly dreck, but it was the dreck he wanted to make, unbidden by expectations or the weight of the world. You look at Self Portrait that way, and it actually kinda, sorta, just a little bit, seems a teeny bit cool.

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J├╝rgen Kloss said...

The lyrics of this song are "traditional" & it seems to me that Dylan learned the words from a printed source, most likely "Sing Out!" magazine (like other songs used on SP). But he wrote a new melody (that is somehow similar to the one he wrote for his own "My Back Pages" in 1964). Therefore it's usually credited as trad/arr. BD. The songbook I have actually says "New music by Bob Dylan".

By the way, in his early years Dylan often lifted complete melodies from so-called "Folk Songs" and wrote new words: for "Belle Isle" and "Alberta" on SP he does it the other way round: he takes "traditional" lyrics and sets them to new music.

Jo said...

I get the feeling that you are hoping that we vote for one of the lower 3 categories!

Josh said...

I love this album, mostly 'round the kitchen table drinking, smoking with friends and family.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me that, while you have opinions and are entitled to them, you actually have very little idea of what you're talking about. If you've actually listened to Belle Isle, how can you say it's a song to a random girl on a random lake? A random girl he knows well and a lake called Erin?
He's also not actually "really badly out of key for the entire song". Yes, it's in his loopy country boy style and likely done in one take but the pitch problems aren't that bad.
When you get the simplest things wrong, how are we to take anything you say about the song seriously?

tjpb92 said...

Belle Isle is one of my favorite song. Does anyone know where is located this island mentioned here ? Thanks. Regards. Thierry

Anonymous said...

belle isle is in county fermanagh northern ireland on the edge of lough erne and is owned by the Duke of Abercorn of Baronscourt.jd

Music of Bob Dylan said...

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