Anne Margaret Daniel

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Selected Works

Books
F. Scott Fitzgerald. A novel. Redheads.
Essay
Rudy Vallee, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan. Dylan carries the flame for torch singers on his grand new album.
The RSC at the Barbican, London, ends 2013 and begins 2014 radiantly.
Bob Dylan and baseball in Cooperstown, NY
From Literary Imagination (2005).
Oscar Wilde's Salome in French and English
Three early-70s novels of Roth’s reread.
Magazine article
Bob Dylan and "Highway 61 Revisited," 1965
Bob Dylan's songs of innocence and of experience. (Reviewed for ISIS Magazine, September 5, 2012.)
Book chapter
Louis MacNeice, T.S. Eliot, High and low Modernism, and a long friendship

Bob Dylan, "Shadows In The Night" (2015)

Bob Dylan, "Shadows In The Night," via bobdylan.com

In The American Vein:
Bob Dylan and “Shadows In The Night” in All The Old Familiar Places
by Anne Margaret Daniel


Steel strings, slow and sad, start the song. Then, silence. And in the space, Bob Dylan’s voice, all alone, proclaims the first words: “I’m a fool.” The instruments rejoin him quickly, but only lightly, and as an accompaniment in the background. They cover up and muffle nothing of the vocal. “Shadows In The Night” is a record that, sonically, steps straight into the bright day and stays there – right to its conclusion by the light of the lucky old sun.

Dylan settles comfortably into the low notes, and stretches for the high – but knows what to do, rather than let a line run ragged. At 73, he no longer has the clear tenor lilt and put-on twang in which he sang Woody Guthrie’s and Lead Belly’s songs fifty years ago. Decades on the road performing most nights a year, and smoking, have hurt. He carries a note, but releases it into breath, relinquishing it as a sigh instead of hanging onto it. Dylan’s singing voices of choice on this record vary – though he seems happiest with the blues and the lounge bar (refreshingly, not his “cowboy band” honky-tonk that’s been standard in his live arrangements in past years).

Let me say something first, and loudly: these are nobody’s covers. Stop calling “Shadows In The Night” a “record of Sinatra covers.” There’s no assumption of a pose, a hat, swanky Frankie, swaggery cool. Dylan has not even chosen ten songs that are particularly associated with Sinatra. You won’t find “Fly Me To The Moon,” “Come Fly With Me,” “New York, New York,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Strangers In The Night,” “It Was A Very Good Year,” “The Lady Is A Tramp,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “I Get A Kick Out of You”….I could go on, and at length, too, but you get the idea. Dylan is doing these songs his way.

“Shadows In The Night” starts with the longest song on the record, as if to say, in for a penny, in for a pound. These are old-time popular songs, though, and none but “I’m A Fool To Want You” are much over three minutes. They’re not ballads. They’re not “Desolation Row.” There is no time for fancy riffs and instrumental strolling, though Tony Garnier’s playing needs to be spoken of early. The most constant melody, along with Dylan’s voice, is the rich, resonant bow and stand-up bass. The two sound like friends, star and sideman, making their way together on almost every track. As to the other members of the band, Donnie Herron’s dizzy, reeling lap steel makes you feel on songs like “Autumn Leaves” as if you’ve wandered into a midnight carnival, or come upon a hurdy-gurdy man on a forgotten street corner in an ancient city. Charlie Sexton is a superb rock and roll guitarist, but listening to him here shows how subtle and suggestive he can be, sometimes with a single note. George Recile’s drums have been turned up very loud in many of Dylan’s recent tours – until this last, of 2014, when, miraculously, the bass pounding receded and Recile’s art could come through. The percussion on this record is soft – a tap of the big bass, a swish of a brush. Dylan’s voice, and not the drums, set the beat and pace.


The plaints come first: “I’m A Fool to Want You,” a song about being unable to stay away from a blighted love and lover; “The Night We Called It A Day,” a kinder and gentler breakup you can dance to; “Stay With Me,” a prayer that the hearer do just that; and “Autumn Leaves,” in which the singer laments, seasonally, the passage of life and times, the loss of sunburned summer love and its decline into bare, ruined choirs of leafless fall.

“Why Try To Change Me Now” is the fifth song on “Shadows In The Night,” and, coming midway through, it marks a tonal break in terms of both theme and sound. Up until here, the instrumentals have tagged along comfortably, following His Master’s Voice fashion. Here, Dylan’s voice stands strongly by itself much of the time, with barely a swirl of steel and swipe on the drums. You can hear his intake of breath before every new verse, and, near the end and the last “why try to change mes,” a sniff, as if he has a touch of a cold (indeed, the last “change me” comes out more as a “chadge be,” just as they do when one’s nose is stuffy). This song is no plaint. It’s a humorous, self-deprecating but also independent assertion that, even if you want to change the singer, you can’t. He’s going to take sentimental walks in the rain, drop those cigarette ashes on the floor, daydream. Why can’t he be more conventional? He wouldn’t be him. “So let people wonder, let ‘em laugh, let ‘em frown” – reactions Dylan has gotten throughout his career, at every stage. As he reminds you one last time “Don’t you remember, I was always your clown,” my mind sprang to two things: the ragged clown of “Mr. Tambourine Man” – and the whiteface, eyelined, behatted and bedecked frontman of the Rolling Thunder Revue. Whatever Dylan’s going to do, from going electric to Christmas albums to singing songs he’s grown up with and lived with for sixty years, no one’s going to change him. Forget your preconceptions and ideas of what-should-be, and enjoy the ride.

Sure enough, the next song is a full-on Broadway show tune, one of the best known in all musical theater. I had no song list the first time I heard “Shadows In The Night,” and was broadsided by “Some Enchanted Evening,” a song I’ve loved since I was a child. South Pacific is a love story, yes, but its “enchanted evenings” are problematic, to say the least. It’s a story of war and death, survival and imperialism, and, most strongly, racism. “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” sung bitterly and sorrowfully by the mainline Philadelphia boy who can’t marry the Tonkinese girl he loves from Bali Ha’i, contains truths too powerful for the musical’s postwar world (and indeed, Lt. Cable dies, never returning to his world of wealth and prejudice). In the context of the show, Emile, a French plantation owner who’s lived in the south Pacific for years, sings “Some Enchanted Evening” twice – once with Nellie, the American nurse, as they celebrate their love, and in a reprise after she finds out that the two adorable children at his beautiful home are his own – born to his partner, a Polynesian woman, now dead – and leaves him. On “Shadows In The Night” the song begins unrecognizably, until Dylan sings the title first line. Recile backs him with a gentle one-two shuffle as the familiar words reel out. Dylan makes some small changes in the melody to fit his voice; for instance, on the “and make her your own” Dylan ends by descending, rather than ascending, to the last word. On the “Never let her go” he sings the last two words on the same note, rather than reaching far out of his range into a strain at the end of the song. The result is a truly beautiful version of the first song on this record (along with “Autumn Leaves”) that I know by heart.

Unhappily, there were no tissues in the room, for I began to cry during “Some Enchanted Evening” – partly for my own nostalgic associations with the song, and partly because of the words. The rest of “Shadows In The Night” is full of songs that are, thematically, sad – but that take such positive turns, like the “never let her go” of “Some Enchanted Evening,” that, in the end, that you wind up joining in all the wishing on moons and stars and suns.

“Full Moon and Empty Arms” may start out with the latter, but a month later, wishing on that full moon will, maybe, provide that “my empty arms will be filled with you.” “Where Are You” teaches you that saying goodbye gains nothing; that the only happy ending is to undo that goodbye and make it into a hello.

Dylan sighs, then launches gently into “What’ll I Do.” It’s a hypothetical song: “What’ll I do when you are far away /​ And I am blue, what’ll I do.” The loved one is not gone; it’s a singer’s device, to create a song reveling in prospective, as-yet-unrealized sadness, having only a photograph to talk to. Dylan breathes reflectively through the instrumental, keeping the other musicians’ instruments company as surely as he has long been wont to do pouring that breath through a harmonica. It’s grand to hear it without the intermediary of the harmonica – just the singer, inhaling and exhaling, like you’d hear him at a supper club with excellent seats right by the stage or in the curve of a big grand piano.

“Lucky Old Sun” is a song Dylan sang during concerts in the 1990s and in 2000. It is the one song on this record that, somehow, sounds like a Dylan song – that is, one he might have written himself. He’s recorded many songs featuring suns and rivers, by himself and by others. The concepts of constant toil and work have always been – unsurprisingly for a man who has spent the past half century in the public eye; the past thirty years performing on the road; and who has released nearly as many albums, including the Bootleg Series, as he’s lived years – in Dylan’s music. In his early days in the Village, he sang the old songs of John Henry and his hammer, of thirsty slaves longing for water in the cotton fields, of hardworking men of constant sorrow. Dylan has always written blues of his own, from spicing up old freight-train blues to, youthfully and assertively, “Bob Dylan’s Blues,” to one he has recently favored in concert, “Workingman’s Blues #2.” Recently, at the Beacon Theater in New York, he stood front and center and seemed to enjoy challenging his audiences with the lines “Some people never worked a day in their life /​ Don’t know what work even means.”

Composer Beasley Smith of Nashville and old Tin Pan Alley veteran songwriter Haven Gillespie (whose biggest hit was “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”) wrote “Lucky Old Sun” in 1949, when Bobby Zimmerman was eight years old. The lyrics, as Dylan sings them after a show-tuney intro complete with a touch of horns, are thus:

Up in the mornin’
Out on the job
Work like the devil for my pay
But that lucky ol’ sun has nothin’ to do
But roll ‘round heaven all day.

Fuss with my woman
Toil for my kids
Sweat till I’m wrinkled and gray
While that lucky ol’ sun has nothin’ to do
But roll ‘round heaven all day.

Good Lord above, can’t ya see I’m pinin’
Tears in my eyes
Send down that cloud with the silver linin’
Lift me to Paradise

Show me that river, take me across
And wash all my troubles away
Like that lucky old sun, give me nothin’ to do
But roll ‘round heaven all day.

Ah Lord above, can’t ya know I’m pinin’
Tears in my eyes
Send down that cloud with the silver linin’
Lift me to Paradise

Show me that river, take me across,
And wash all my troubles away
Like that lucky old sun
Gimme nothin’ to do
But roll ‘round heaven all day.


Dylan’s voice is loud and strong throughout the song. He’s a lover of the long line, as one knows from so many songs of his own, and he clearly relishes rolling out these rhymes. On the first set of two verses repeated at the end, the “Good Lord above” comes out like a prayer, and the “lift me to Paradise” is simply delivered, similarly. The “Show me that river” is low and slow. When Dylan comes to the second time around, everything changes. The “Ah, Lord above” is forceful, insistent, and he draws out the “tears.” In the petition “Lift me to Paradise,” he pauses after the “me” to emphasize the ringing rise on Paradise. The “Show me that river” verse rises and falls in a real crossing-over-Jordan; “And wash all my troubles away” sounds suddenly tuneful and young, as if that’s just what’s happened to the singer, and the song ends in celebration. Dylan holds that last “day” through the fadeout, wavering into an “ah” only as he cuts off the note to let angelic trumpets carry us home. On “Shadows In The Night,” though, home is where we’ve been all along, and there’s no place like it.

My picks:
“Why Try To Change Me Now”
“Some Enchanted Evening”
“Lucky Old Sun”

© Hot Press January 2015