Chimes they are a-changin’
Bob Dylan’s eternal gift, his songs, are revisited on Chimes of Freedom.
THERE’S beauty in the silver singing river, as Bob Dylan wrote in Tomorrow Is a Long Time, and there’s beauty here, too, in this long river of song that is Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan, a four-CD compilation of more than 70 Dylan songs to honour the 50th anniversary of Amnesty International. All money from sales goes to the human rights organisation. It follows a similar exercise Amnesty did several years ago with the songs of John Lennon.
The appeal of Chimes is in the freewheeling selection of more than 80 artists to cover Dylan’s repertoire.
Here, his first recordings to his latest are resculpted. The years fall away – 1962 meets 2012.
More than anything else, Chimes is a continual surprise. There have been, of course, many covers of Dylan songs but the beauty of this compilation is the sheer breadth and diversity, both in its interpretation and material, from the hits to the obscure.
Chart figures show thousands find it appealing: Chimes entered the Billboard Top 200 at No.11 on its first week of release.
Last week in Melbourne it was flying out the doors.
There are almost 70 years’ difference in age, and a million miles in attitude, between whirlwind singer Kesha and banjo-toting folkie Pete Seeger. Kesha (born 1987) covers Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right. Seeger (born 1919) performs, somewhat appropriately for a 92-year-old, Forever Young.
Yet here they are in service to two causes: honouring Dylan and Amnesty International.
The direct link, however, is tenuous, if not non-existent.
In 1961, Dylan, the young man from Minnesota, arrived in New York with a guitar in his hand and the ambition to be a singer and songwriter. That same year, in England, Amnesty International was founded by lawyer Peter Benenson. Sixteen years later it was awarded the Nobel peace prize.
There were many tides rising in the early 1960s: Vietnam, civil rights movements, student demonstrations and the rush and shock of the new in popular culture. Yet, as always, there was famine, civil war, censorship and torture and the brinkmanship of the Cold War.
Amnesty was a voice for the voiceless and politically dispossessed; Dylan gave voice to the young generation, though he bridled at the suggestion he was a leader. Through his songs, he became the hero of the protest movement but his gift couldn’t be contained. All his songs were, in fact, protests, whether personal or political.
Songwriters are unanimous that he changed the game. Australian songwriter Shane Howard once said ”he gave us all jobs”. He was the pioneer poet who forged a new path for pop-rock music. This compilation is testament to that.
After more than five hours of covers, it ends with Dylan singing Chimes of Freedom, a man alone with his acoustic guitar and his words, singing for himself, singing to the world.
Before those ”chimes of freedom flashing”, first there is Johnny Cash with the Avett Brothers, performing One Too Many Mornings.
Then follows both the well-known and unknown. There are mainstream artists such as Patti Smith, Pete Townshend, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Sting, Mark Knopfler, Joan Baez, Neil Finn, Carly Simon, Dave Matthews Band, Mick Hucknall, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and Seal with Jeff Beck, sitting beside indie, hard-rock, blues, pop, world and jazz artists such as Ziggy Marley, My Morning Jacket, Rise Against, Queens of the Stone Age, Angelique Kidjo, Jack’s Mannequin, Tom Morello, Bad Religion and My Chemical Romance.
And then there are left-of-field performances that against all expectations work, the most conspicuous being Kesha’s Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right, without theatrics, without effects. It’s pure audio dynamite. The next track – demonstrating the eclecticism and genius of this compilation – is the Kronos Quartet doing the same song. Dylan purists might be shocked but the quartet’s rendition is so far out there it works.
Some might also be aghast at the inclusion of popster Miley Cyrus but her take on You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go is polished country, tasteful and heartfelt. At another point on the spectrum, Diana Krall gives a subdued, spare, yet elegantly jazz-tinged reworking of Simple Twist of Fate. Krall has said of performing Dylan: ”It’s a different form. You’re telling a story in different rhythms, in different verses. It’s hard to describe. It’s like singing Beowulf or something. This stuff goes deep.”
No one goes deeper than Adele with her cover, recorded live, of Make You Feel My Love, from Dylan’s album Time Out of Mind. The song appears on her debut album 19 and was released as a single. Here, with just piano, Adele makes it her own while staying true to the core. It’s the way with all successful interpretations.
Chimes of Freedom abounds with such treasures. The sweetest listening is often from the lesser-known artists. There are many examples, such as K’naan, a rap artist born in Somalia and now living in Canada, who covers With God on Our Side, entwining his own verses into Dylan’s. The Carolina Chocolate Drops, a trio of young African-Americans playing old-time string music, energise Political World from Oh Mercy.
Malaysian singer-songwriter Zee Avi covers Tomorrow Is a Long Time with a gossamer delicacy, while Mexican singer Ximena Sarinana breathes her soul into I Want You.
And they may sound like a novelty band but the Mariachi El Bronx (the alter ego of punk group the Bronx) cover Love Sick with panache. When Dylan performed in Melbourne last year, his voice ranged from croaky to less-than-croaky. At 70, mortality’s shadow is lengthening but his eternal gift is his songs. On Chimes of Freedom they are given new lease of life.
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