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Dylan's Gospel: Praise Be to the Brothers and Sisters
Reviewing a hidden treasure from 1969
Welcome music lovers to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions’!
This time around, my essay focuses on a hidden treasure of a record: Dylan’s Gospel, a recasting of ten of Bob Dylan’s most well-known songs for a choir of 28 voices and a lean rhythm section. Conceived by Lou Adler and featuring singers like Merry Clayton, Edna Wright and Gloria Jones, the album sank without a trace when it was released in 1969 but was thankfully reissued about a decade ago by Light in the Attic Records and has remained in print ever since (it’s also easily available for streaming).
I have loved the record even since buying it in 2014 and think it makes its point movingly and persuasively that there was a religion strain to Dylan’s songs long before he turned to gospel music for a short period of time starting in the late seventies. If you haven’t heard it before, I hope what I have written encourages you to check out Dylan’s Gospel and after hearing it, to let me know what you think in the comments section.
Up next will be an essay on Donny Hathaway, among my favourite singers, and the live recordings he made in 1971 at the Troubadour in Hollywood and the Bitter End in New York.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all!
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In 1979, Bob Dylan sang that we all, at some point, are “gonna have to serve somebody.” He added: “it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” The release of ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ was the first hint that Dylan had transformed yet again; this time, into a gospel singer. In response, John Lennon wrote his own song. His message: “serve yourself.”
But, 10 years earlier, a Biblical Bob of another order—more secular yet still concerned, in its own way, with divinity—had been released. Until Light in the Attic Records reissued the recording in 2014, it was impossible to find and barely known. The album, Dylan’s Gospel, recorded by a loose assemblage of Los Angeles-based singers known to each through the recording studio and the church choir loft and called the Brothers and the Sisters, stands as one of the most original and astute collections of the Dylan songbook.
It is a catalog that has been interpreted, re-interpreted and interpreted yet again (exhumed may be the most apropos term these days). In the early sixties, it was by design—an entire volume of Dylan’s bootleg series was dedicated to the demos he recorded for his publisher, M. Witmark & Sons, to pound the pavement to get others to record his songs. By the time the Byrds struck gold with ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and launched the folk-rock revolution, it became almost a necessity for any artist to, at some point, find their sweet spot in Dylan’s words and music—he sold the rights to the former in 2020 to Universal Music for over $300 million and the rights to the latter to Sony Music the following year for an amount between $150 and $200 million.
Long before Dylan became explicitly religious in his music, it already held an aura of the sacred. It’s probably not a coincidence that British fans expressed their feeling of betrayal when Dylan would step out with four-fifths of what was to become the Band (Mickey Jones was behind the drumkit in place of Levon Helm, who temporarily abandoned a career in music) in the spring of 1966 in the United Kingdom to blow the roof off of wherever they were playing by labelling him a “Judas.”
Three years prior, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, Dylan’s songs were an intrinsic part of the spiritual force that descended upon the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Peter, Paul and Mary—the first important Dylan popularizers—sang ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ Dylan himself, with Joan Baez, performed ‘When the Ship Comes In.’ Its pronouncement of the old world crumbling and a new, more just one arising in its wake is, at its heart, a vision of apocalypse not unlike John the Apostle’s in the Book of Revelations. Consider this part of the first verse:
“And the seas will split
And the ship will hit
And the sands of the shore line will be shakin’
Then the tide will sound
And the wind will pound
And the morning will be breaking.”
The religious connotation of Dylan’s music became even clearer when, for one example, Pervis Staples convinced family patriarch Roebeck “Pops” to broaden the Staple Singers’ repertoire by recording ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ and ‘Masters of War’ in 1964. The latter, with Pops’ tremolo-heavy guitar—eerie, even scary—and his hushed yet stern vocal elevated the song to that of a prophet promising an inevitable and justified retribution from above.
Odetta Holmes, a folk singer of similar stature and importance to Harry Belafonte, recorded an entire album of Dylan’s music the following year. Revealing their lineage with pre-Great Depression folk and blues, Odetta sang songs that Dylan recorded as well as those pushed by M. Witmark & Sons. One of the latter was ‘Long Ago, Far Away,’ a biting piece of social commentary in which religion is invoked explicitly (“To preach of peace and brotherhood / Oh, what might be the cost! / A man did it long ago / And they hung him on the cross”) and implicitly (“One man had too much money / One man had not enough to eat / One man he lived just like a king / The other man begged on the street”) through her impassioned delivery—a sort of sedate Mahalia Jackson. One person who took notice was Elvis Presley, who used her performance of ‘Tomorrow Is a Long Time’ on the album as the basis for his own. Elvis might have scorned Dylan as a singer, but even he couldn’t avoid the call of his songs.
“To me these songs fit the old gospel. These are the old, like almost a spiritual. Come gather ’round people wherever you roam. Gather around, gather around. That’s the stuff that they did in my folk’s church when I was a little girl. So it just, you know, I just liked it.” - Merry Clayton, NPR, Reliving 'Dylan's Gospel': Bob's Songs Transformed, 2014
Merry Clayton, a singer whose incendiary contribution to the Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ has overshadowed her other work as a singer—both lead and backup—was among the vocalists (28 are credited on the album sleeve, but they may be even more) whom Lou Adler, a record executive and producer who was a driving force of the Laurel Canyon sound of the late sixties, recruited to record Dylan’s Gospel.
In the same NPR story from which the above quote from Clayton appeared, Adler said, “Even the songs that didn’t feel lyrically religious in any way, there was a spiritual feeling to them. And as I’d continued to listen and within my mind’s ear, started to pull together what if this was done by a gospel group, it just fit so perfectly.”
Over two days of recording—June 10 and 11, 1969—the ten tracks of Dylan’s Gospel were laid down. Clayton characterized the atmosphere in the studio as if “we just had a service that day in music.” Adler had benches installed to better approximate how the singers would be seated when they sang in the choir at the Baptist church of their choice. Handling the arrangements was Gene Page, who had a hand in classic recordings like the Righteous Brothers’ ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’’ and Dobie Gray’s ‘The ‘In’ Crown’ as well as was a mentor to Barry White. True to Dylan’s relentless, churning quest for reinvention, Page thoroughly recasts Dylan for the pulpit, reframing each song in often remarkable ways.
Take, for instance, ‘Lay Lady Day,’ in which Edna Wright, sister of Darlene Love and daughter of a preacher, and the eventual lead singer of Honey Cone of ‘Want Ads’ fame, has the spotlight. A delicate song of seduction and the crown jewel of Dylan in 1969, a country crooner, forswearing cigarettes and singing with a honey-rich tone, where the combination of Wright’s sincere voice and the division of female and male voices in the wider choir—hear the lush way the fellows underpin Wright on “why wait any longer for the world to begin?” and “why wait any longer for the one you love?”—makes it possible to ponder whether a new meaning to the song has been revealed, seduction perhaps recast as surrender to something far more powerful than two spending the night together. ‘Lay Lady Lay’ a gospel song? Maybe.
A revelation on a less grand scale attends ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,’ where Gloria Jones, the original singer of ‘Tainted Love’ (to become a shorthand for eighties pop in the hands of Soft Cell) and who was a musical and romantic partner of Marc Bolan in addition to being a member of the original cast of Catch My Soul, a rock-opera recasting of Othello, is on lead vocal. Ginning up the shuffle of Dylan’s version on John Wesley Harding, it attests to the strength of the concept at play on Dylan’s Gospel: almost anything sounds better with a choir behind you backed by a good gospel beat. Joy is soon in abundance.
Jones is also up front for ‘Chimes of Freedom’ and ‘I Shall Be Released.’ The gospel metre on both accentuates themes that already have strong parallels to the Good Book; compassion for the downtrodden on the latter and the pursuit of all to enjoy the full rights of personhood on the former. Jones duets with a male choir member—despite my best efforts, I am unable to determine who is singing here—on ‘Chimes of Freedom,’ conjuring the image of a couple, amid the slow, righteous beat and 26 voices backing them up, struggling, together, to attain what rightly belongs to everyone: freedom.
Indeed, it is Dylan’s Gospel’s uncanny ability to engage the listener’s imagination during each performance that makes it a remarkable album. ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ taken at a walking, soulful pace, is infused with foreboding menace (an emotion that is felt even more strongly than on Jimi Hendrix’s electrifying version from Electric Ladyland). Clayton serves as the listener’s eyewitness with the choir affirming what she is relaying. After they sing “two riders were approaching and then the wind…” the females follow up with “…it began to howl” and the males respond with “all along the watchtower.” It begins a mesmerizing coda in which both lines are repeated over and over again, the musicians building a groove that only finds release when the drummer, Gene Pello, begins a steady beat on the snare as the performance begins to fade with the females and the males continuing to trade their respective lyric line, the unmistakable feeling that something grim is about to go down ever present.
There is a sermon-like quality to ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ in which Clayton preaches and the song’s warning is recast as a message of hope that the walls are soon to come tumbling down. She is also the lead on ‘The Mighty Quinn’’s rush of jubilation (I’ll take it over the more cartoon corn of Manfred Mann’s hit version)—the backing by the male portion of the choir, in which they slyly sing “yeah, yeah” beginning with the second verse is irresistible, an invitation to join in on the celebration.
It is a jubilee that ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ fades in on and then, four minutes later, out on—both times, the choir is caught up in the “jingle-jangle mornin’.” As each verse begins, an organ line is played by Evelyn Freeman, a musical Gloria in excelsis Deo, that is as infectious as the song, one of Dylan’s most electric fantasias.
Clayton has described the atmosphere in the studio as one of fellowship: “we were just so happy to be together, you know, to be singing together.” She added: “and we yipped and we yapped and we talked and we kind of hung out. And Gene Page had a sister named Olivia and she was like holding the reins. When it was time to be quiet and do what you were supposed to do, she’d blow a whistle.”
That spirit comes through on ‘My Back Pages.’ A parade of singers share the lead with everyone joining in on the famous refrain: “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” It precedes the album’s rousing finale, ‘Just Like a Woman,’ where the choir as one collective force—everyone in unison—offering the song as a benediction. In addition to Clayton, Wright and Jones, there’s Clydie King who recorded and toured with Dylan during his gospel period, Ginger Blake who circled around the Beach Boys’ orbit, Patrice Holloway who co-wrote ‘You’ve Made Me So Very Happy’ (her sister, Brenda, first recorded it), Ruby Johnson who recorded on Stax and Sherlie Matthews whose credits read like a pocket history of 20th-century soul and rock music. There are 20 others—many as unknown as Dylan's Gospel was upon release (Adler attributed the album’s zero commercial impact due to its release coinciding with the end of a distribution deal his label, Ode Records, had with Columbia).
Its reemergence almost a decade ago created a momentary stir but if its availability is now likely permanently assured, it still remains in many ways a hidden treasure. That’s unfortunate, especially for an album that persuasively presents the argument that there is a generosity, a radical democracy, an exalted majesty as well as a profound malleability to Bob Dylan’s artistry, and that it is all something to make a joyful noise about.