Monday, March 8, 2010

Bob Dylan 37: Good As I Been To You

The poet of his generation had turned fifty, and what did he have to show for himself? How about an album of mostly folk songs? Good As I Been To You is wholly acoustic with vocals, just like his first four albums thirty years previous. But for the first time since his first time, these unaccompanied songs were all traditional folk, and a couple of pop standards, not a one written by the man himself.
The first, most striking thing about the collection was that the guitar parts were all and only Bob. He hadn’t let himself be this exposed for such a long stretch for a while, and while his fretwork is certainly intricate and the strings are fresh out of the package, the mix has them right up front, so there’s a lot of scraping. They have good intentions, but it takes work to get past his (even for him) nasal delivery to invest in the stories he tells.
Most of the songs defy classification; “Sitting On Top Of The World” and “Tomorrow Night” would have been known to fans of Cream and Elvis Presley respectively, while few would have guessed they’d ever hear “Froggie Went A-Courtin’”, much less six minutes of it, on a Dylan album. “Frankie & Albert”, “Jim Jones”, “Blackjack Davey”, “Canadee-I-O”, “Little Maggie” and “Diamond Joe” are all in the folk tradition of the Harry Smith anthology; most are public domain but previously documented arrangements, such as “Arthur McBride”. “Step It Up And Go” and “You’re Gonna Quit Me” are more blues than folk, but cut from the same cloth. “Hard Times” was written by Stephen Foster before the Civil War, but Bob manages to nail it.
Back then, Good As I Been To You screamed contract obligation; seeing as these were the types of songs he played for an acoustic set on the now Never-Ending Tour, these seemingly random choices could have been put together in his sleep. The same could be said for the packaging, which consisted of one recent crusty photo plus a shot from the 1986 run with the Heartbreakers. Yet time has been kinder to the album, especially taken within the big picture. After all, there’s nothing random about Bob. Even if we didn’t know what the hell he was doing, he would do better next time.

Bob Dylan Good As I Been To You (1992)—3

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