On my first copy of Slow Train Coming,
back in the old days, there was a huge
gap before ‘Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking’,
its length depending on the
speed with which I could get up, walk
over to the turntable, and flip the vinyl so
the needle could drop on side two of my
first and still favourite Bob Dylan record,
kicking off this extremely underrated song,
recently rewritten by Dylan himself
and re-recorded together with Mavis
Staples in Los Angeles on March 4, 2002,
almost 23 years after its original take.
This was Dylan’s contribution to a most
remarkable project by Jeffrey Gaskill,
the praise of which is the intention of this
It would have been a nice idea to have another huge gap, maybe 15 to 20 seconds, before this raucous blues track by Bob Dylan and his 2002 touring band, indicating its stylistic dissimilarity to the ten gospel songs preceding it. This however, to be honest, would have been the only amendment I would have suggested. The song, which is the only song on the album recorded and mixed by Chris Shaw, who also recorded and mixed “Love And Theft”, is indeed a worthy contribution to the project; but a longer gap would still have been nice.
One verse of the rewritten lyrics of the song, starting with ‘Jesus is calling, He’s coming back to gather His jewels.’, somehow foreshadows ‘A Voice From On High’, which was performed later that year. But my favourite lines of the rewrite would be ‘The sun (son?) is shining, ain’t but one train on this track’, and ‘Storms on the ocean, storms out on the mountain too. Oh Lord, You know I have no friend without You’. And of course, I do find the staged dialogue with Mavis Staples simply hilarious, in a good sense.
For more than a year I had been anticipating the release of this collection, after first reading about it on the internet, and then especially some weeks prior to the release, when its own very fine web site www.gottaservesomebody.com was launched, where one can find much info on the project, including credits, liner notes, interviews with singers and musicians, links to their respective web sites, press releases, reviews, thirty pictures from the studio sessions, and by now even a streaming video.
The working title for the album, before it was signed by Columbia, had been Pressing On: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan, but with ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ (a Grammy winning greatest hit, appearing on numerous compilations, and performed frequently in recent years) being synonymous with Bob Dylan’s gospel period, the album title has been changed. The delay in release was merely time to negotiate an agreement and for the label to properly prepare for the release.
Having been initiated into Bob Dylan as a teenager in Germany with Slow Train Coming and Saved, the only two Dylan albums I took to Ohio as an exchange student in the summer of 1981, adding Shot Of Love a few weeks later, I remember the hard times trying to understand the lyrics of these gospel songs, until I finally could track down the songbooks. The lyrics of these songs have been a part of my life ever since, and whenever Dylan chooses to perform one of those songs these days, it is for me a reason to rejoice.
Still I see Slow Train Coming as the finest studio album in music history, and the underrated Saved also ranks among my favourite Dylan releases. Understand- ably, as a believer in Jesus Christ, I do have a different connection to the very personal lyrics of those gospel songs than those with a different or no faith, who also might hear the live performances from those years with different ears. However, most would agree that Dylan’s music and singing during that time was great art by any standard, even if they do not relate to the messages conveyed in those songs in the same way I do.
So I just knew that I was going to like this compilation of ‘The Gospel Songs Of Bob Dylan’, even before its release. But I had no idea that the performances of those songs and the production of the record would be that good, and that I would like it that much. For me this album is simply one of the finest releases I can recall. I cannot praise it highly enough. But who would I be if I didn ’t try.
Normally I do not much like cover versions of Bob Dylan songs, and I do not hunt them down. The old slogan ‘nobody sings Dylan like Dylan’ has some truth to it; and like many others I have more Dylan songs sung by Dylan himself to listen to than time on my hands, so I do not own many of those cover albums of Dylan songs, most of which seem to be compilations of previous recordings by various artists, of songs from various stages of Dylan’s career, performed in various styles.
This compilation however is something else. The ten cover versions also feature differing styles, but they all are gospel styles somehow. Moreover, these ten songs were all recorded and mixed by the same fine producer, Joel Moss, and they have all been performed in the studio specifically for this project, with a common aim, thus creating a coherence normally not encountered in cover compilations. The sum here is even greater than its already great parts. Listening to the songs one can also sense that the individual artists wanted to contribute something special to this project, and that they had a personal connection to the lyrics they chose to convey.
All songs on this disc were taken from only two Dylan albums, which had originally been recorded within nine months of each other (May 1979 and February 1980), however all songs bar two from the latter album (‘Are You Ready’ and ‘A Satisfied Mind’, which is not a Dylan original) had been performed on stage since November 1979. So all eleven songs on Gotta Serve Somebody were regulars during one, two, or all three legs of pure gospel shows, which Dylan conducted from November 1979 to May 1980, but only one song (‘Pressing On’) has not been performed by Dylan since then (either live on stage or re-recorded in the studio).
Interestingly enough, Bob Dylan’s own contribution, ‘Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking’, was the first of these songs to be dropped from his live repertoire, in February 1980, around the same time when the newest song on the album, ‘Are You Ready’, had its live debut, only a few days before it was recorded in the studio. The latter then appeared regularly on stage in April and May 1980, but only once afterwards, in the fall of 1981. ‘When He Returns’ became a rarity already in the spring of 1980, and it also had only one fall 1981 appearance after that (with full band, on the same Cincinnati stage where I first saw Bob Dylan perform only 24 hours later).
The majestic concert closer of the gospel tours, ‘Pressing On’, was not performed at all after May 1980; but ‘What Can I Do For You’ had ten more appearances in the fall of that year, and another dozen more outings in the summer of 1981. ‘Saved’ appeared only twice in the fall of 1980, and ten more times in 1981. ‘Saving Grace’ had been laid to rest in May 1980 as well, but as we all know, it was gloriously resurrected with three performances in February 2003 in Australia, and then with nine more in April and May 2003 in the US. The other songs on the album had stayed regulars until November 1981, and some of them even appeared frequently until recent years. ‘When You Gonna Wake Up’ had been rewritten for the 1984 tour, and had only one appearance after this, in 1989. ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ and ‘I Believe in You’ had numerous never ending tour performances over the years, and ‘Solid Rock’ had 19 appearances in 2002.
I love those gospel songs performed by Dylan, then and now, studio and live. But I also love these cover versions, very much so, ever more with every new listening, which for me is a sign of great recording art. In some of the songs on Gotta Serve Somebody the artists do not try to cover the arrangement of the original, but deliberately approach a distinctly different style. The difference is noticeably the strongest with most of the songs performed by the male voices.
The nice groove and fine vocal performance of Lee Williams in ‘When You Gonna Wake Up’ even make up for the lyric changes he made, and I am grateful that no attempt was made to copy the arrangement of my favourite Bob Dylan studio track. The brilliant rendition of ‘Are You Ready’ by the Fairfield Four is also very different to Dylan’s original ,but both versions are great recordings of one great challenging gospel song, written by one great songwriter. ‘Saving Grace’, as performed by Aaron Neville, and ‘When He Returns’, as performed by Rance Allen, sure are presented in a totally different manner than Bob Dylan ever sang or would ever sing those fine songs he wrote. On these recordings, to quote the liner notes, ‘we can separate what Dylan is saying in his gospel songs from the drama of his saying it’.
This goes also for the renditions on this album which are a little closer to the arrangements of the original than the ones previously mentioned, as these renditions still are very distinctive in their own right. The joyful version of ‘Saved’, as sung by the Mighty Clouds Of Joy, is one powerful performance; and ‘Solid Rock’, equally powerfully performed by the Sounds Of Blackness, even features some members of the original gospel tour band, including Jim Keltner, who in Europe in 2002 got to play this song again on stage with Dylan, only a few months after this recording.
Also closer to the original arrangement yet still very distinctive in their own right are the four remaining gospel songs, featuring four outstanding female lead vocalists. Both ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’, performed by Shirley Caesar, and ‘I Believe In You’, performed by Dottie Peoples, are extremely fine sounding versions of great Bob Dylan songs, with extremely committed lead vocals. Absolutely great stuff.
One of my favourite parts on the whole album is the ending of ‘What Can I Do For You’, as performed by Helen Baylor, and the way she somehow retranslates back into human language what used to be Dylan’s harp solo: ‘I wanna know . whatever you want me to . I’ll do . I need to know . yes . oh yes . yes . whatever you want me to do, Jesus . tell me . what can I do, yeah yeah yeah yes . when I was down, you lifted me up . when I was sinking fast, you were right there . just . tell me . tell me . anything you want me to do . tell me . what can I do for you?’
However, my personal highlight of this wonderful collection of songs would be the absolutely brilliant rendition of ‘Pressing On’, performed by the Chicago Mass Choir, featuring on lead vocals none other than Regina McCrary, the background singer ‘who told you the story about Jesus before, remember?’ (as Dylan introduced her on 20/04/80). I easily could listen to this uplifting performance of ‘Pressing On’ three times daily for the remainder of my natural life. It simply is the finest cover version of any Bob Dylan song that has ever entered my ears.
The ten performances on this album, preceding Dylan’s contribution, are gospel music as good as it gets, no doubt about it. Brilliantly produced, and very nicely pack- aged, this collection of gospel songs is a very important release, doing more than justice to those wonderful yet often underrated songs, which had been a part of the artistic result of the greatest songwriter of the century believing the gospel of Jesus Christ, making himself a different set of rules.