Yesterday was Sunday. It was also Bob Dylan’s 74th birthday. So even though today is Monday and it is no longer Dylan’s birth anniversary, it seems still appropriate and interesting to combine Sunday+BobBirthday to get the record we share tonight: the Gospel songs of Dylan as rendered by some of America’s finest African American gospel singers.
Now I know Bob’s ‘Jesus’ phase is spurned by many of his hardcore fans. It is seen as a dangerously close to career ending diversion. They point to the most acidic and judgmental of his lyrics, the poor production quality of the records and a general ‘holier than thou’ attitude that no matter where it comes from is not pleasant to be on the receiving end of.
I grew up a born again (and again, and again and again) evangelical Christian. When Slow Train Coming appeared in the stores this was like a hand from heaven. JUSTIFICATION and CONFIRMATION straight from on high that HE EXISTED. And that JESUS really was THE WAY. We listened to the album with reverence receiving from it the same authority we got from the Gospels themselves. Or from the Old Testament prophets. And even though I was not courageous enough to say so out loud, I was smirking inside. “WE got him! He’s on OUR side! You’re the losers!”
I loved (and still do) Slow Train Coming. Shot of Love was harder to stomach, even for true believers like myself. Saved grew on me and is now one of my favorite Dylan outings. And when Dylan entered his terrible 80s with one panned album after another, the Jesus messages were harder and harder to point to. Which about coincided with my own wandering from the Church and Faith of my fathers. So all in all I’ve always enjoyed Bob’s gospel stuff. At its best it deserves as much admiration as any of his post 1974 stuff. (The bad stuff is indeed quite bad but there is far less of that than conventional wisdom allows).
Although I no longer consider Jesus to be a personal savior of mine or anyone’s I have never considered stop listening to Gospel music. And so when I spied this second hand CD in a Brussels shop last year I shelled out the outrageous amount of Euros to the weasly Belgian behind the counter. The idea of having genuine gospel artists turn their interpretive skills to Dylan’s Christian corpus was absolutely spot on. The only question is why did it take nearly 30 years for some company to compile a collection?
This collection opens with a cracker version of You Gotta Serve Somebody by the scarily powerful Shirley Ceasar. Originally included in the Mask and Anonymous soundtrack, this version crackles and snaps with intensity. If you want to know what ‘pushy’ means, listen to this. Dylan’s original is down right laconic and slack mouth by comparison.
The next few selections are good but hardly anything to shout Hallelujah about. Things start to get interesting with the Fairfield Four’s Are You Ready from the Saved! Album. Sounding like something you’d hear on the radio in the 1940s, this a cappella rendition is mighty and moving. From this point onwards each track gives the original something new and comes to even the seasoned fan (me) as fresh and arresting it its own right. Aaron Neville’s falsetto warbling on Saving Grace is heavenly and the Sounds of Blackness Solid Rock keeps the arrangement of the original but adds a choir singing lead which adds a broader dimension to the song. The highpoint without a doubt is the tremendous and spine tingling interpretation of Pressing On. Full gospel choir in 5th gear in a song about hope and faith that has to be considered one of the best gospel songs ever written by anyone anywhere. Another highpoint is Allen Rance Group’s complete reworking of When He Returns. Stunning in its majesty and elegance and beauty.
Dylan and Mavis vamp it up before ramping it up in the closing cut allowing Dylan to have the final word.
Where are the adjectives to describe this music? You find them as you listen to it.
01 Gotta Serve Somebody [Shirley Ceasar]
02 When You Gonna Wake Up [Lee Hamilton & Spiritual QCs]
03 I Believe in You [Dottie Peoples]
04 Are You Ready [The Fairfield Four]
05 Solid Rock [Sounds of Blackness]
06 Saving Grace [Aaron Neville]
07 What Can I Do For You? [Helen Baylor]
08 Pressing On [Chicago Mass Choir]
09 Saved [The Mighty Clouds of Joy]
10 When He Returns [Rance Allen Group]
11 Gonna Change My Way of Thinking [Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples]