Good As I Been To You

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When it came out in 1992 I think I listened to Good As I Been To You, Bob Dylan’s twenty-eighth album once or twice. I was twenty-three and it had absolutely nothing of interest to me and I quickly and decisively disposed of it.

In retrospect, this is a very interesting Dylan project, if not necessarily a really good one. Dylan’s first all acoustic album since Another Side of Bob Dylan way back in 1964, it is also only his second to contain no songs that he himself wrote (and the other, Dylan, was a collection of warm-up pieces released by Columbia out of spite, rather than by Dylan’s choice). Coming as it did almost immediately on the heels of the Thirtieth Anniversary Concert Celebration, it probably should have been a bigger hit than it was.

I think that if this album were released today the music press would have a way to deal with it. A songwriter like Dylan returning to classic country songs and folk tunes from the past would have an obvious hook – a return to the roots – that would be a much more obvious selling point. Think of the reaction to Springsteen’s album of Pete Seeger covers, for example (both that album and this one include “Froggie Went a-Courtin’”, not that that is a good thing). This Dylan album was a disappointment both commercially and critically (it peaked at #51 in the US and spawned no singles). It seems like an album that few people even bother to have an opinion about.

One thing is certain: Dylan went in this direction deliberately. In May and June 1992 he recorded a number of tracks in Chicago with David Bromberg. Some (though apparently not all) of these circulate among collectors, and two were included on Bootleg Series 8 (the traditional song “Duncan and Brady” and the Jimmie Rodgers song “Miss the Mississippi and You”). Here Dylan was doing standards, but with a full band. To my ears it didn’t sound like much.

All of Good As I Been To You was recorded by Dylan in his garage studio in July 1992. He originally intended to add a few solo songs to the full band covers that he recorded with Bromberg, but the project morphed in a new direction. This was the most minimal Dylan in almost three decades. There is no accompaniment other than his own guitar playing and harmonica, and there are nothing really in the way of effects. It is stripped down, spare, and intimate.

I do have to say, after having criticized Dylan’s recent guitar playing in a few posts, that he is quite good here. Often on Dylan albums and at live shows you can’t tell what Dylan is doing on guitar – he frequently delegates the guitar to Mark Knopfler or Mick Taylor or GE Smith or whomever. On this album you can really pay attention to what it is that he’s doing. There is a lot of very lovely playing on this album. So, sorry for suggesting you were losing it! (though I still don’t get that Kinky Friedman thing….)

As for the album itself, well, I’m a lot more sympathetic to it now than I was two decades ago. Since taking up the banjo myself I find that I listen to almost nothing but this kind of music – so this is right in my contemporary wheelhouse. If anything, the album falters for me when the songs are ones that I now know far too well (“Blackjack Davey”, or “Sittin’ On Top of the World”) because I hear other, often better, versions in the back of my mind.

I think that my judgment on this one is that there is not a single song on that I dislike – which is a first for me since, I don’t know, probably Desire. By the same token, however, there is no song on here that I actually love. Nothing that I will rush back to listen to again in the future. The whole thing is sort of beige noise. The songs have a samey feeling to them and there is not much variety in terms of key or pace. A slow, bluesy, folksy finger-picking style. It’s nice, but you don’t need to go back for any of it. There is nothing memorable here at all. It’s elevator music, essentially.

Of all the Dylan albums so far, this is the one that I sort of wanted to will myself into liking. It so closely aligns with my current musical tastes that I hoped it would be a revelation. As it turns out, however, it just reminds me that I have a dozen versions of “Blackjack Davey” on my phone, and I like almost all of them better than this one. Heck, I can play that song myself, and I like that better too…

Here’s a version I have on my phone, by Almeda Riddle. Now this is a great version of this song:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ubSUG4qR5SY

One thought on “Good As I Been To You

  1. Rusty

    This (along with the next one) is one of my favorite Bob Dylan albums ever, certainly my favorite since Blood on the Tracks. So we can just stipulate a vigorous red pencil through the extensive portions of your post where you are so egregiously (and characteristically) wrong, wrong, wrong.

    Part of the album’s appeal is as a testament to my own mind-expanded prescience—I distinctly recall sitting, pleasantly mellowed, at an evening concert at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in the mid-1970s, listening no doubt to some earnest songbird trilling a Pre-Raphaelite-ish love ballad or a stolid neo-rustic crooning a heartfelt paean to his woodpile, all brought to you courtesy of the Philo Records label, when I had a sudden random epiphany: “Someday Bob Dylan will go back to his folk roots and sing traditional songs with just his voice and guitar.” So when my unlooked-for insight took concrete form less than two decades later, I could hardly help but approve.

    More importantly, as Dylan expert bart beaty says, “It is stripped down, spare, and intimate.” And, for what seemed to me to be the first time in a very long time, Bob Dylan sounds like he knows what he wants to do and is doing it. (It sounds nothing like elevator music to me.)

    Maybe since traditional folk has been central to my musical taste since very close to the beginning of me even having a taste in music, the criticism that better versions of a song exist doesn’t really matter a whole lot to me. My favorite song on the album is “Jim Jones.” I think that Nic Jones actually does a much stronger version—his vocals are more sophisticated, the arrangement is more dynamic, and the song is just more musically interesting overall. That said, I really love Dylan’s version, and stick it on playlists all the time. Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick just kill “Arthur McBride,” but I always enjoy hearing Dylan’s version too. In a comparison with those others, I like it that Dylan obviously hasn’t been playing these songs as part of his professional act forever.

    So when you want to say things like, “It’s nice, but you don’t need to go back for any of it,” try to avoid the aesthetically imperialist/colonialist second-person construction. *You* may not need any more of it, but I cry out along with my old buddy King Lear, “O reason not the need!”

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