Exclusive Excerpt: Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs
Summer’s almost over, but that doesn’t mean you can’t add to your list of beach reads. We recommend Counting Down Bob Dylan, a new book written by Jim Beviglia (American Songwriter) that examines 100 songs penned by one of American music’s most influential songwriters. Jim was kind enough to send over a couple excerpts from the book; you’ll get to read the second one tomorrow.
65. “I Shall Be Released” (from The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1–3: Rare & Unreleased 1961–1991, 1991)
When it comes to Bob Dylan songs chosen to be performed at funerals, “I Shall Be Released” is probably the one selected most often, although “Every Grain of Sand” gives it a legitimate run for its money. You can’t go wrong with either one, although the notion of life being a prison from which someone who just passed away has escaped probably is easier to grasp for mourners than the more complex ideas of faith and doubt espoused in “Every Grain of Sand.”
If it is chosen to be a funeral song, the bereaved have to sift through several competing versions of “I Shall Be Released.” The notion of a song being written, recorded, and released in that order has always been a quaint one to Bob, and even some of his very best tracks, like this moving plaint, have taken a roundabout journey to the public’s ears.
Dylan wrote the song during the Big Pink sessions in 1967 and recorded a version with The Band that was not included on The Basement Tapes album released in 1975. Perhaps that’s because by that time, The Band had released their own seminal version of the song to close out their wonderful 1968 debut album, Music from Big Pink. As for Bob, he took a more casual crack at the song to help fill out his Greatest Hits Volume II package in 1971.
Eventually, the version recorded with The Band in Big Pink made it onto the first Bootleg Series collection in 1991. And that’s before all of the different live takes are considered, most notably the all-star version that closed out The Last Waltz, the 1976 San Francisco concert that served as The Band’s swan song.
When a song is this great, it can withstand as many renderings of it as possible. This ranking is based on the tender take in ’67, which wins out over the Greatest Hits version because its sonority is more suited to the tone of the song. The ’71 version, tossed off by Dylan and Happy Traum, is OK, but it’s so jaunty that it feels like the narrator doesn’t care whether he is released or not.
In that original take back in ’67, Richard Manuel adds ethereal high harmonies in the chorus, which really play into the song’s hymnal qualities. Indeed, someone who was completely unaware of the song might confuse it for a spiritual along the lines of “Amazing Grace.” Writing the song, Dylan clearly channeled something powerful, something that transcends any specific religious belief yet is undeniably spiritual.
Manuel’s assistance aside, it’s Dylan who does the bulk of the singing and gives a poignant yet understated reading of the material. And what wondrous material it is. It’s easy to get lost sometimes in the gospel-like refrain and miss the more prickly parts of the lyrics. Consider that the narrator, trapped in a metaphorical prison, shoots down the wisdom he has been offered that might put his suffering in perspective and hints at revenge: “So I remember ev’ry face / Of ev’ry man who put me here.”
Notice also how the final verse takes into consideration those who might not be as fortunate as the narrator to get free of the surly bonds. In that way, the song harkens back to “Chimes of Freedom,” Bob’s 1964 paean to all those who yearn for deliverance from bondage, be it literal or figurative.
Eventually, the protagonist’s resiliency and faith win out over these dark thoughts: “Yet I swear I see my reflection / Some place so high above this wall.” That leads directly into that refrain for the ages: “Any day now, any day now / I shall be released.” No matter who sings it, no matter what the context, it’s hard to hear those lines and not receive some sort of comfort from the unwavering certainty of the lyrics.
For all of the myriad cover versions of Dylan material that exist, it is rare to find any that truly outdo Bob’s own performances. As great as The Bootleg Series version is, however, “I Shall Be Released” truly belongs to Manuel and his spine-chilling vocal of the song on The Band’s version; the loneliness of it is as heartbreaking as it is reassuring. Dylan’s words and Manuel’s voice: That’s a combination that can’t ever be topped, reverent enough to send the dead on their way, inspiring enough to uplift those left behind.
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