Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
I was in Toronto for the weekend, rummaging through record shops as I tend to do, and all of a sudden it hit me. The sound of a gospel choir singing Bob Dylan’s anthemic “The Times They Are A-Changing” rang out through the dusty shop and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. It was as powerful a musical moment as I have had in recent memory. Somehow this music grabbed me by the throat and shook me. I needed to know what it was.
Dashing to the front desk, I blurted out (rather unceremoniously) “what is that?” as the old shop-keeper looked up from his morning paper and smirked. I suddenly felt like a child who had spoken too loudly in church, but he calmly responded ,”Oh, that’s the Brothers and Sisters. Isn’t it beautiful?” Beautiful wasn’t nearly a good enough word to describe what I was hearing. I stood listening, with tears in my eyes as it dawned on me that Dylan’s words had been soulfully re-contextualized into just what the album’s title suggested – a gospel. “Come gather ’round people, wherever you roam, and admit that the waters around you have grown…”
The old man seemed pleased to chat about the record, and he told me story of the Brothers and Sisters. This was a group of twenty-seven gifted backing vocalists from the 1960s. Producer Lou Adler had assembled this all-star gospel choir to record the songs of Bob Dylan back in 1969. The record was long out of print and was recently selling on ebay for over $600, but thankfully someone had finally decided to reissue it.
Adler knew that all of these singers had grown up singing in church choirs, so in an effort to create an authentic church setting he had pews set up in rows in the studio. The singers stood shoulder to shoulder as if they were in church and delivered their vocals with raw sincerity and chilling honesty. These tracks are a stellar example of vocalists communicating the spirit of the text with authenticity and clarity.
Some of the singers were recently featured in the documentary film, Twenty Feet From Stardom. Merry Clayton sang with Ray Charles and Burt Bacharach, and famously sang a duet with Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones hit, “Gimme Shelter.” It was her voice that captured my attention as the lead on “The Times They Are A-Changing.” In a recent interview, Clayton comments on how the Civil Rights Movement was in full force when they were recording and how the African-American singers really believed that the times were changing for the better. Dylan’s words gave them hope, and that hope comes through in the music. On side two, Clayton also delivers a snarling lead on “Quinn the Eskimo.”
Edna Wright (younger sister of Darlene Love) sang backup vocals for Ray Charles and the Righteous Brothers, among others. Her performance of “Lay Lady Lay”is soulful and longing.
“I Shall Be Released” is one of the standout tracks, as the choir phrases the words dramatically with pauses, crescendos and compelling delivery. The backing band is minimalist and true to the form of many Baptist churches, with piano, organ, bass and drums. There is just enough instrumentation to support the singers without intruding on the vocals.
Other highlights include “Mr Tambourine Man,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “My Back Pages” and a stirring interpretation of “Chimes Of Freedom.”
I’ve had this record for less than a week and I have already listened to it at least a dozen times, as well as playing it for my vocal students as a shining example of inspired singing. Dylan’s Gospel is firmly entrenched in my lifetime top-ten list of great records. When something strikes you, embrace it. This is a sublime masterpiece. You need to hear this record. You need to own it.
From the Editor: As the founding editor of The Electric Review (with a particular interest/expertise in Dylan’s music and its impact on modern culture), I usually write these kinds of columns myself, rarely turning over the reins to a guest reviewer. However, in this case it’s quite the pleasure to reprint David Reed’s essay on this phenomenal compilation; simply, Reed has hit the nail on the head here and captured the flavor of this record with definitive perfection. Dylan’s Gospel is a tour de force that documents the brilliance of Dylan’s writing as it lauds the universal tone of each song. This isn’t about rock-and-roll or folk or gospel labels. Instead, this is about the healing power of music as the melodies swirl into dance, soul-to-soul, heart-to-heart, tongue-to-tongue. This story originally published April 10, 2014 in the Belleville Intelligencer. Reprinted with permission. Duplication expressly prohibited without the permission of the Belleville Intelligencer.