CK Retro Review: Good As I Been To You by Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s decision in 1992 to release an album of traditional songs was a signal to some doubters that his creative juices were spent. Yet Good As I Been To You actually shows that Dylan’s interpretive and performing skills were as heightened as ever, even as the songwriting portion of his brain took a hiatus. Bob finds unexpected levels of heart and sorrow in these well-selected evergreens, reminding everyone what a compelling performer he could be with just acoustic guitar, occasional harmonica, and a voice that seems to intuitively understand the material. Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

13. “Pretty Maggie”- There’s a little bit of a rockabilly feel to Dylan’s guitar work here. The song has the disjointed quality of one of Bob’s own narratives in that one verse seems to spring in a completely different direction than the one that preceded it. Yet, unlike one of Bob’s, it doesn’t quite come together as well.

THREE STARS

12. “You’re Gonna Quit Me”- It’s got a nice, loping feel to it, suggesting that the threats the narrator makes to his wayward love might not get carried out after all. Certainly one of the simpler songs on the collection, but not without its charms.

11. “Arthur McBride”- The arcane language lends this one a bit of flair, and it’s somewhat interesting how the benign melody contrasts with the pitch-black tale of young ruffians beating the tar out of military recruiters. Maybe it would have worked better in a rousing arrangement, but Dylan’s unruffled version does cast a strange spell.

10. “Blackjack Davey”- It’s a pretty chilling tale in its way, in that the wife coldly leaves her husband and child to follow her passion and the charming titular rogue. We get some Dylan déjà vu when we hear of footwear made of Spanish leather. He pretty much stays out of the way of the song here, letting it work its murky magic. Bob would concoct an even darker version of this scenario, with a few more twists and a lot more death, on Tempest with the song “Tin Angel.”

9. “Sittin’ On Top Of The World”- Some great interplay between Dylan’s woeful harmonica, bluesy guitar, and resilient vocal shows highlight this one. Bob not only nails all the themes effortlessly, he may even lend the song a few more layers than it actually possesses.

8. “Step It Up And Go”- Yeah, man, indeed. Dylan drops into a croaky lower register to bring out all the rough edges in this jumping number that serves as a fun wake-up call after all the somber numbers that precede it. I love the little interjections Bob gives at the start of his rollicking final solo.

7. “Diamond Joe”- These traditional songs really have a way with words, don’t they? When the narrator sings that Diamond Joe “never took much trouble/With the process of the law,” it’s a polite way of saying that he was a degenerate crook. And yet the narrator seems powerless to resist Joe’s entreaties, though it causes him a lifetime of hardship. I like the punch line at the end too, which Dylan delivers without a wink or a nod, the funniest way to do it.

FOUR STARS

6. “Froggie Went A-Courtin’”- As someone who first heard this song on a Tom & Jerry cartoon, it was revelatory to hear Dylan perform it and lend each of these animal characters dignity. You can practically imagine a bunch of kids sitting at Bob’s feet eagerly awaiting each funny new verse.

5. “Canadee-I-O”- The intriguing thing is how this song sets you up for one of those typical folk-song tragic endings and then happily pulls the rug out from under you with a nifty little twist. Come to think of it, it is a bit of a tragic turn for the sailor boy who gets dumped in favor of the captain, but at least the heroine comes out OK. Dylan soars out of his monotone occasionally here to deliver a strong performance.

4. “Frankie And Albert”- The mistake that an interpreter might make with this age-old tale of a vengeful woman would be to overplay it and make it too melodramatic. Dylan is way too savvy for that, refusing to judge either party in his measured yet still spirited take. The way he sings that matter-of-fact refrain (“He was her man but he done her wrong”) solves all the song’s mysteries and answers any questions about Frankie’s motivation. Attention must also be paid to Bob’s nimble guitar work.

3. “Tomorrow Night”- By stripping away the finesse of this song’s Tin Pan Alley, Big Band-era origins, Dylan makes it somehow lonelier and more haunting. He sings it with just the right amount of doubt in his voice that he’s going to get a positive response to his questions for his temporary lover. The long harmonica notes really bring home the pain of a guy in romantic limbo.

2. “Hard Times”- Dylan is one of the most empathetic songwriters of any era, so it’s easy to hear why he would take to this touching Stephen Foster ballad. Foster never specifies just what ills befall those suffering in the song, but that’s not really the important part. What’s important is that we don’t turn away from the mournful song of the oppressed. Dylan compositions from “Chimes Of Freedom” to “Ring Them Bells” would echo those sentiments in more dazzling fashion, but Foster’s simple plea is potent in its own special way.

FIVE STARS

1.“Jim Jones”- While the titular prisoner may have delusions of escape from and vengeance on the Australian penal colony to which he is sentenced, Dylan’s tender, vulnerable delivery betrays the fear and desperation of what life in such a brutal environment must have been like. The song is expertly structured, allowing Dylan to seize on its sturdiness and give a humane and moving reading. It’s equal parts beautiful and powerful.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For a more in-depth look at the songs of Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, available now at all major online booksellers.)

http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0810888238

 

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9 Comments on “CK Retro Review: Good As I Been To You by Bob Dylan”

  1. PK says:

    Great write up as always CK! My faves off this album are “Hard Times” “Top of the world” and “Arthur McBride”. I really enjoy frankie & Johnny, but I’ve heard the song in so many different variations that it’s always a little bit offputting to hear about “Albert”.

    As usual, I’m wondering how (or if) you’re going to address (compare/contrast) other work from the era, I’m thinking specifically of “This Old Man” and “You Belong to Me”.

    Old man, redsky, and Froggie really open up an interesting window into what a “Bob Dylan Children’s Album” would have been like. I would have loved to have a full album of that stuff (Throw in a few Xmas and jettison -in the heart all together).

    Additionally You Belong To Me is possibly the best performance from that album (and of course it wasn’t on the album and is really difficult to find minus the NBK Commentary).

    Keep up the good work, I love rediscovering the old catalog with your reviews.

    • countdownkid says:

      For the most part, I haven’t really looked too much at things that weren’t given an official release, only because I’ve been busy enough with the official albums. I think “You Belong To Me” did make it to a soundtrack somewhere if I’m not mistaken. You’re right though that it would have made for an interesting compilation if all those childlike songs make it onto one title. Maybe he could have redone “Forever Young” and “Man Gave Names To All The Animals” to round it out. It certainly would make a cool Spotify mix.

      • PK says:

        You Belong To Me ended up on Oliver Stone & Trent Reznor’s Natural Born Killers Sdtk. But there is movie dialog interspersed and although it works great in the film, it kind of kills some of the impact from the track. But it really is such a sweet performance. I wasn’t aware that “Tomorrow Night” was also a Big Band number. I also think it would be really cool to hear all of Dylan’s “Big Band” songs. I may be off base, but I’d throw “Soon” and “We Three” in there as well as peeks into what could have been a really intriguing collection.

  2. Shelley says:

    Half the fun with this album (same with World Gone Wrong and even his debut record) was tracking down the original (or at least an earlier) version to try and hear what turned Bob on to the song, and in turn the differences / similarities in Bob’s performance. Through Dylan one can see the folk process at work. This is one of the great rewards of being a Dylan fan, he can lead you into countless other musical worlds if you’re interested. From this album alone one can explore Mississippi John Hurt, Nic Jones, the Carter Family, Mississippi Shieks, Cisco Houston, Elvis, Patti Page, Stephen Foster and Blind Blake for starters. And it was much more difficult (and in a way more fun and rewarding) in 1992, when you couldn’t just type Sitting on Top of the World into iTunes and see what comes up.

    The standout for me is Black Jack Davey. Any early versions I’ve heard thus far (Carter Family, Woody Guthrie) are in a major key, but Dylan’s minor key I find much more effective, making the storyline a bit more ominous and spooky.

    Not long after the record’s release, Dylan performed a lovely version of Hard Times at Willie Nelson’s 60th birthday show, delivering a much more softer vocal than on the album. (He and Willie also did a great Pancho & Lefty, both worth a listen if they’re available somewhere).

    • PK says:

      I agree with all of this. Willie’s 60th was pretty great. And both of their Duets are awesome. “Heartland” from that concert is really nice too.

  3. Thanks for writing this but it’s calked “Little Maggie” (the inspiration for Maggie’s Farm) and I’m sorry but except for the first paragraph, I disagree with everything. Sorry, but “that’s just the way it is.” “Arthur McBride” is an amazing song, very well done on the record. But write on. 🙂
    “You Belong To Me” is a masterpiece too, never heard of the other song comenter refers to.
    Yours,
    B

    • Shelley says:

      “This Old Man” ended up on a disc called For Our Children, it was a Disney compilation to benefit the Pediatric AIDS Foundation. I think it’s just Bob with a drum machine, harmonica and an organ overdub.

      • PK says:

        It does sound a little artificial. I was wondering if it maybe was originally an acoustic track. I’d love to hear stuff like that, Oh Mercy, and TimeoutofMind in their acoustic original forms.

  4. Cory says:

    Nice review. My favorite part of the whole record is in Canadee when Bob sings, “if the sailors prove false to you, well the captain he might prove true./You’ll see the honor I have gained by the wearing of the blue.” He way he sings ‘true’ and later ‘blue’, man, takes me where I want to go.


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