Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #4: Man of Constant Sorrow


Most of you, I'm sure, have only heard one version of this song, and it's probably not going to be this one. I've always wondered what traditional folk fans must've thought when the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack blew up in 2001, a year after the movie was released. After all, this was a genre that, for all intents and purposes, no longer retained any commercial value, and all of a sudden this soundtrack to a Coen Brothers movie entirely comprised of old standards and blues songs rockets up the charts and spawns a surprising hit single that actually received airplay on non-country stations. Did those people think "wow, what a crazy fluke; at least now some people will appreciate the musicians that actually record this kind of music"? Or did any of them truly believe a new folk renaissance was coming? For their sake, I truly hope it was the former.

At any rate, it's always funny how certain things manage to take hold of our national consciousness without any warning and causing a massive wave of adoration, an often equally massive backlash, and (inevitably) a host of imitators trying to steal them blind. And, in most cases, the imitators and copycats tend to destroy the original's power and ability to stun and amaze - the easiest benchmark to see when a trend has run its course is when the mainstream has bent it to its will. I remember it happening with Pulp Fiction, it happened with Saturday Night Live, and has been happening since time immemorial.

For whatever reason, that didn't really happen with folk music in 2002. There were a few more copies of Allison Krause & Union Station sold, I'm sure, but when "I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow" stopped getting airplay and the soundtrack stopped selling, that was really that. O Brother, Where Art Thou? has more or less receded from memory (and with good reason - it's funny and charming, but hardly a major Coen Brothers effort), and lovers of traditional music have returned to their yellowed copies of Broadside and Chambers Brothers vinyls. Maybe that's for the best. It would be maybe a little too meta and weird for the American consciousness to absorb a form of art that is already so inured with American consciousness - granted, the "old weird America" Greil Marcus wrote about, as opposed to the modern, weird America we live in. Or maybe it's too much to expect wood-chopping songs to make a real comeback.


So, for whatever reason, this was a song that Dylan really seemed to hold in high esteem around the time of the recording and release of his first album. It shows up on the legendary Minnesota party tape, recorded in the apartment of (girl)friend Bonnie Beecher in 1961. Of course, it's one of the songs on his debut. And he chose it to perform on his first-ever TV performance, a show called "Folk Songs And More Folk Songs" that aired in March of 1963. That's a lot of venues for this song to show up, and a lot of important ones from a historical standpoint.

Then the song disappeared from his repertoire, only to reappear in (you're not going to believe this) - 2002, right around the time the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack was at its commercial peak. I wanted to find an mp3 of one of the performances to link to here, but my memory tells me not to bother, as the arrangement is very close to the O Brother version and loses its novelty very quickly. It's kind of amusing that Dylan, a trendsetter for many years, would dust off one of his oldest recorded songs and give it a runthrough in a manner markedly different from his debut. He does have a puckish sense of humor.

The Bob Dylan version is far more laid-back, as you'd imagine, really as much a showcase for his harmonica skills as anything else. Actually, comparing it with the more famous O Brother version, Bob's version is a real disappointment, and not just because the O Brother version is so fantastic. Dylan makes an odd artistic choice in stretching out certain words in the first and third lines of the verses, which kills a lot of the narrative tension in the song. And, for whatever reason, the lyrics are quite different, maybe closer to the original (except he changes the place he left from Kentucky to Colorado), but not as poetic or interesting as the more famous version. The last verse, in particular, is head-scratchingly mundane: "I'm going back to Colorado/The place that I started from/If I had known how bad you'd treat me honey/I never would have come". He manages to turn something heart-tugging and emotionally resonant (even for a blues song) into a crappy kiss-off. Thanks, Young Bob!

As a bonus/apology for not finding the 2002 live version, here's the video of "Man of Constant Sorrow" as performed on TV in 1963 (and used in Scorcese's No Direction Home). It sounds exactly like the album version, so if you've never heard Bob Dylan, well, now you kind of have. Enjoy!

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Anonymous said...

I'm (a man of constant) sorry, but I cannot endorse the O Brother version of the song, a nice bit o' fun, over Dylan's rrrraw lament. To me, Bob actually sounds like a man of at least semi-frequent sorrow. The singer in the Soggy Bottom Boys version, with its downright poppy harmonies, just sounds self-consciously oldtimey (and looks like George Clooney).

I don't like to rate such things against each other, actually, because I'm such a pushover for Bob and easy believer in "no one can interpret and fully invest themselves into a song like Dylan" (when he's committed, of course, and not just goofing around with something like "Nowhere Man" or "Homeward Bound"). So I'm not much of a real arbiter. Really, though, I suppose the two versions have very different intentions. While its commercial achievement was surprising, the OBWAT? MOCS is still a (don't get me wrong, successful and fully realized) commercial bluegrass arrangement. Whereas Dylan's is full-on white blues, all up in the Appalachians and whatnot.

IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII do think the elongated first lines carry some drama in their own right -- aural if not narrative tension. Of course, as would become even clearer 30 years later with the cover albums, and as you get into nicely in your post on Baby Let Me Follow You Down, Bob is not really a maverick when it comes to the *arrangements* of traditional songs, and stays consistent with them, perhaps best exemplified when he goes so far as to replicate Blind Boy Fuller's "Aw Shucks!" during his performance of Weeping Willow at the Supper Club. So I would venture that it probably wasn't his idea to sing it that way, but that that's how it was done in his favorite version of the song that had been shown to him. A version which presumably also carried this particular iteration of lyrics with Colorado et al.

I agree with you that the 2002 version is only kind of neat. I guess it was a tribute to his longtime acquaintance T-Bone Burnett in light of the popularity of the song -- and the fact that, as fate would have it, the soundtrack ended up, erm, defeating Love And Theft for the Album of the Year Grammy a month before he started playing it. Plus Dylan conveniently had the perfect band for him at the time to execute that arrangement with the harmonies. He's also clearly got a lot of renown for Ralph Stanley, who I think first popularized the song -- the version of which that the Soggy Bottom Boys are pretty clearly paying homage to -- as they recorded a duet together on an album in the late 90s.

Anyway, if the '02 NET performances, with the start-stop (sounds kind of like Solid Rock?), are merely interesting (not the first, or tenth, best bluegrass cover he was doing with Larry and Charlie harmonies he was doing around that time), the acoustic version he did in 1988 is truly breathtaking, as were most of the covers from that year. As with the '02 version, he uses the Kentucky lyrics consistent with Stanley and the Soggy Bottom versions, but keeps the lines from the first album about rambling "through ice and snow, sleet and rain." Folk is a song of constant changes.

Tony said...

Man, you weren't kidding when you told me you had a monster reply. This is as nerdy and meta as we can get about Bob, and I love it.

First of all, let's not forget the Soggy Bottom Boys also look like Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro, aka The Jesus. Are YOU going to fuck with the Jesus, mang? That being said, I see your point re: Dylan's growly folk version > the poppy OBWAT? version. I guess what it comes down to is I'm sucked in by how catchy the Oh Brother? version is, not to mention my previously stated worries and odd feelings re: Dylan's debut to begin with.

Amazing tip-in with Ralph Stanley - were I the type to actually do much in the way of research, I might have added that little spicy nugget of knowledge (or, at least, read about it and discarded it as irrelevant). I'm also glad you pointed out how Dylan very rarely changes arrangements (which is why "trad. arr. Dylan" is such a cute little joke), and must confess that my memory of the 90s cover albums is *extremely* hazy and will need to give a rehear or two. I always forget that my depth of Dylan knowledge is merely a Lake Huron compared to your Lake Superior.

Looking forward to hearing the '88 acoustic versions - he had some really fantastic performances there (the Berkeley San Francisco Bay Blues deserves official release, IMO), and I'm sure this is no different. And, btw, the '02 Solid Rocks were AWESOME.

Unknown said...

Although I don't think you could justifiably call it a renaissance, I do think there is some increased interest in folk music. Artists like Six Organs of Admittance, Devendra Barnhardt, Animal Collective, Joanna Newsom, Iron and Wine, The Sunburned Hand of the Man, etc. all make music that is directly inspired by folk music.

Most of them are pretty terrible, and play new compositions almost exclusively. A few of them (Six Organs of Admittance) are pretty great, and there is a good deal of interest in some of them (Devendra Barnhardt, Iron and Wine).

Tony said...

I'll have to check out Six Organs of Admittance. I will admit that a lot of the bands you mentioned I've either not listened to yet (Joanna Newsom - that will have to be rectified, also) or didn't particularly care for (Animal Collective - Sung Tongs was SUCH a waste of time).

Iron and Wine, on the other hand, is great, and I really enjoy his music. And his cover of Dark Eyes with Calexico is truly outstanding.

Unknown said...

Oh, I'm totally with you. Most of those bands are not worth listening to at all. I'm not even really a big Iron and Wine fan (and Animal Collective is very, very bad). However, it *is* folk music, if not traditional folk music, and it is much more popular than most contemporary folk musicians. And possibly for good reason. I'm a very big fan of bluegrass music, but most contemporary bluegrass musicians are totally without interest.

Anonymous said...

I would definitely say there is a folk resurgence. I think has been blended into indie/folk more so today, but especially in the Lansing area, folk is pretty big. Frontier Ruckus, Two Gallants, and even more stuff with a lot of influence from artists like Bob Dylan like quite a bit of Wilco, etc.

Unknown said...

Of course, there were four versions of this song in O Brother. The four was the newgrass version, but the first was a robust guitar + vocals version (, while the middle two were briefer instrumentals. The movie exalted all sorts of rustic music-- not only Appalachian folk, but acoustic (and acapella) blues, gospel, country, and bluegrass. These genre divisions are generally more important to music listeners than to music makers, and indeed the most influential music makers routinely hybridized styles: Dylan, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, U2, the Beatles, Zeppelin, etc.

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello there Tony, yes another fine analysis of a song recorded and performed by Bob Dylan. Come and join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers and so much more.