In his Nobel Prize acceptance lecture Bob Dylan discussed how he first began learning old folk songs, eventually internalising them into his own songwriting. ‘You hear all the finer points, and you learn the details,’ he explained. By singing these songs he discovered ‘the devices, the techniques, the secrets, the mysteries’, concluding that ‘songs are alive in the land of the living’. Old songs are meant not just to be heard, but to be sung anew by the next generations.
Emma Swift began ‘Blonde on the Tracks‘, her project of Dylan covers, as a way to recover her artistic inspiration after experiencing depression. Mainly recorded in 2017 these versions were not even intended to be an album but when the pandemic destroyed Swift’s plans for touring she decided to release the recordings.
The pandemic means artists at every level have had to adapt to the most challenging circumstances of their careers. Many have had to reset their expectations for the year, others are just scrambling to earn a living. Swift herself is a strong voice against the rise of streaming platforms, believing that giving your music away for free is akin to ‘career suicide’. In light of that view this album seems like a savvy move since by releasing an album of familiar cover songs her fans can at least know a little of what to expect before purchasing, not to mention the fact that Dylan fans may also be intrigued enough to buy into the project.
Swift begins with Queen Jane Approximately singing herself an invitation to find answers in Dylan’s music, to seek comfort when things are falling apart. Her voice is divine and the production is equally as gorgeous, evoking Laurel Canyon, The Byrds and Emmylou throughout.
The most recent addition to this project was actually recorded this year, after Swift heard Dylan’s new song I Contain Multitudes. A stunning ode to a lifetime lived, it weaves wisdom about culture, being an artist, a dreamer, a survivor, a human through its dense poetic textures. Swift’s version sounds as infinitely wise and quietly intimate as the original.
Swift’s song choices avoid the obvious Dylan cliches and are mainly his personal, emotive numbers rather than the protest songs from his oeuvre. Her version of One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later) just swoons with regret and moving melancholia. Simple Twist of Fate’s doomed love story is brusingly beautiful in her hands and you really do appreciate hearing a voice as lovely as Swift’s sing these songs.
Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands is the central beating heart of this project and its epic romantic sprawl sounds suitably stunning. She plays with gender roles on The Man In Me, creating a light hearted tone that sometimes Dylan’s music lacks. Her self-referential humour is also reflected in the punny album title too.
On Going Going Gone she sings of escaping her past, sounding wistful and wise. To sing these songs is to walk away from the ledge and follow your heart towards freedom. Fittingly then the album finishes with You’re a Big Girl Now – she’s made it to ‘dry land’ somehow. Swift sings ‘I can make it through / You can make it too’ passing on Dylan’s words and songs for anyone else who may need them.
The art of interpretation is where it began for Dylan, deep in those old folk songs, bringing the melodies of the past back to life. Emma Swift walks the same tracks revelling in Dylan’s light, never darkened by his shadow.
As Phil Ochs once said, in such ugly times the only true protest is beauty and this record, and these songs, are truly a joy.
Please consider purchasing a copy and supporting the artist during this difficult time: https://emmaswift.bandcamp.com/album/blonde-on-the-tracks