A few weeks without gainful employment have seen us drifting happily around Cambodia and Vietnam. It’s fun to be away from normal routines – be those of everyday life or those I follow in pursuit of making music.
These last few days have led me back to Kampot, on the coast of southern Cambodia. Five years ago it was a forgotten haven for hippies and drop-outs, and although it’s now beginning to wake up to its potential for tourism, the overall vibe remains decidedly sleepy.
It’s even more soporific upriver. We’ve been staying in a perfect guesthouse called GreenHouse – a fantastic spot with fantastic food. Though a great amount of dedication has been thrown into doing nothing, I’ve also been trying to put the finishing touches to a new tune that’s been taking shape on the road. I thought I nearly had it, but whilst fiddling away I came up with a refrain where the guitar line follows the melody of the vocal. Kampot’s aura being quite at odds with any dedicated endeavour, I still haven’t been able to convincingly master that part. I’ll get to it eventually.
Still, it’s such a lovely place – with the wide lazy river threading its way out of the hills. I didn’t want to leave without having tried to record a song here. With my own composition found wanting, I thought I’d take a stab at a cover.
With two days of our stay left and nothing to play I turned to the Bob Dylan songbook. Messiah of modern music, poet of our times stuff aside, one of Dylan’s chief attractions for a man with a guitar in his hands is that most of his songs are easy to play. Plus, more often than not, there’s enough depth in the lyrics and melody that simply strumming along is sufficient to make the song work. You don’t even have to work out the chords, thanks to the phenonemal work done by Eyolf Østrem in painstakingly transcribing Dylan’s complete oeuvre on his site Dylanchords.
However, to change things up a bit, I decided to plump for one of the several brilliant tunes Dylan wrote using Open E tuning on the seminal Blood on the Tracks. I’ve always loved the sound of that tuning. In the past, retuning my guitar always felt like a BIG thing, and I’d never really ventured into Open E territory. But as I’ve become more confident as a player and gotten more into fingerstyle guitar, altered tunings and I have become friends.
In fact, the biggest challenge within the 48 hours between deciding to cover some Dylan and a rough and ready performance on the river was memorising the words. Thus A Simple Twist of Fate and Shelter from the Storm were put aside as being too much to remember, whilst I wasn’t sure I could get my fingers around the picking of Buckets of Rain in time. That left me with You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go – so I certainly can’t complain.
It was still a challenge to get my head around all the lyrics. There’s so many beautiful lines and imagery in You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome . . ; the rhyming crickets, the dragon clouds, the conceit of love as a physical presence, close enough to catch, but there’s also complexity in the meter and the rhyme scheme. This made mastering the song a lot trickier than first anticipated. Take
“You’re gonna have to leave me now I know”
Miss out ‘gonna’ and the meter falls short, and the crucial line ends up sitting awkwardly within its verse, something I kept stumbling over. On other songs you might get away with it, but not on You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome . . .
I still get parts wrong here and there during the video, but ultimately I’ve never felt that a song should be considered a sacred text when covered. Considering Dylan’s long history of repurposing folk songs to suit his own purposes, I feel especially irreverent when playing his tunes. Most of the moments I went off script were simply a case of not being able to remember the details of one of the lesser lines – those lacking in stand out imagery or narrative import (such as “I can’t remember what I was thinking of”, a line I kept forgetting!). I just bluffed through, blurted out something similar. In the old days, this was considered evolving the folk tradition.
I made one purposefully cheeky change. In Dylan’s original, he sings
“I’ll look for you in old Honolulu
San Francisco, Ashtabula”
I didn’t even know where Ashtabula was until Google told me (Ohio, folks). But singing those lines, I realised I had used a similar structure in a song of my own called Set Sail Whilst The Ship Still Floats*
You know I wanna go there
Seeing as Cambodia was once part of Indochina, I snuck in my own two place names in place of the American ones. The full lyrics to the original song (as well as the lyrics to all his others) can be found at bobdylan.com.
I made a point of not checking out Dylan’s take before performing my cover. When I first discovered Blood on the Tracks some fifteen years ago I listened to it plenty, but I couldn’t remember much about the nuts and bolts of the original. Listening now I don’t think there’s much that would have caused me to change my own approach, especially as you couldn’t really play it any simpler than I am doing. I am struck by how lovely the bass playing is, a common but often overlooked element of Dylan’s music after the ‘wild mercury sound’ had settled into something more full and acoustic. It’s something particularly evident on Blood on the Tracks, as well as John Wesley Harding.
Whilst checking out the original, I also discovered a version by Miley Cyrus.
I don’t like it.
Finally, this song is the debut of my new Yamaha Guitalele. A cute little thing, and a very good travel companion. I’ll tell you more about it some other time.
*Set Sail Whilst The Ship Still Floats is the opening track of my EP A Crown on a Chain. It can be listened to and downloaded for free here.. Shameless plug over.