Self Portrait (Traditional Songs)

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For many, Self Portrait was the beginning of the end of Bob Dylan. A self-indulgent mess of a double-album (which is packaged as a single CD in the Complete Album Collection, which I mention for no real reason other than to note that Blonde on Blonde was two discs), apparently it has been ranked as one of the worst albums of all time.

So, first, that seems nuts to me. I’ve been listening to it for a couple of days now and I still like the four live tracks from Isle of Wight (my affection for “Minstrel Boy” is starting to fade…), and I’m not sure how any album could be a “worst of all kind” contender if it has at least four good songs on it. So that’s four of twenty-four – let’s see what we can add to the total.

The album also includes seven covers of “traditional” songs or “folk songs”. Dylan hadn’t been doing covers since his very first album and the home recorded tapes that appeared around the same time. This was a harkening back to his roots from the twenty-nine year old songwriter, and not necessarily what people expected from him or wanted from him. Ironically, covers of traditional songs is one of the hallmarks of the basement tapes as they appear on A Tree With Roots (though not on the material from those sessions that was circulating in 1969 and 1970), and also on GWW. The bootlegs proved that there was still a strong demand for Dylan covering traditional music. Funnily, the same Rolling Stone critics who adored GWW were the ones who also crapped all over Self Portrait.

The fact is that not all of these covers are good, but, in all honesty, they’re at least as good as the material on A Tree With Roots, and generally better than that on GWW. And, yes, that doesn’t make them good in an absolute sense.

One of the real oddities of Self Portrait is that Dylan included two songs twice. “Alberta #1” and “Alberta #2” are different takes on the same song originally made famous by Lead Belly. The second one is the stronger version, with better guitar and harmonica, although the back-up vocals don’t really add that much to it. There is an “Alberta #3” on Another Self Portrait that also has a nice harmonica opening, and which is much more spare. It’s probably the best of the three versions, because it is the least produced. It’s no Lead Belly, but it’s listenable.

Similarly, “Little Sadie” shows up twice on the album (once as “In the Search of Little Sadie”). This is one of my favourite banjo tunes – I have more than thirty different recordings of this currently on my phone, most featuring only banjo and fiddle. It’s a song that I can play this pretty passably. When we would play this as a class at my banjo class we would always annoy our instructor by singing it the way Dylan does, which is, frankly, insane. The first version of the song on the album is fine, but “In the Search of” version is just quite terrible. There is a stripped down cut of the latter on Another Self Portrait – it doesn’t improve it much at all. This is pretty close to everything that annoyed me about the worst parts of A Tree With Roots. So no points for these two.

Of the others, “Days of 49” is actually pretty good. This version sounds like it comes from later in his career by about a decade – if this had been on one of the Christian albums it would have seemed more at home. It trails off somewhat bizarrely at the end, but I’d have to count this as a pretty good version of this.

“Belle Isle” doesn’t have very much to recommend it – it is literally “fine”. “It Hurts Me Too” is another dud.

Hmm. That doesn’t strike me as a very good record of quality. I’d keep “Alberta #2” (#3 if I can take tracks from the Bootleg Series) and “Days of 49” and probably jettison the rest. What is interesting, though, is that pretty much of all this (well, maybe not “In the Search of”) is just as good, if not better, than the basement material that people were scrambling to get. It has been suggested that Dylan saw Self Portrait as his authorized bootleg – like A Tree With Roots it combines traditional covers, covers of pop hits, and some new compositions. I’m not sure if that’s correct, but the traditional songs on this are pretty akin to the others he was doing at the time, and all are better produced.

Now the pop covers, that’s an entirely different matter….

Try Clarence Ashley on “Little Sadie” – this is near perfection (seriously, this could not be improved one little bit):

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