In 1970, Bob Dylan released Self Portrait, a unique compilation of old folk songs, pop songs, country songs, and instrumentals, that received the ire of fans and critics alike. Sometimes I would find myself defending the album thinking I was the only person in the world who actually liked it, or played it more than once.
Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus wrote a review that began, “What is this shit?”
Now, forty-three years later, we have been blessed with a new collection, Another Self Portrait. Throw-a-ways, if you will, from the sessions that brought us the first double album back in 1970, and everyone is singing its praises – as they should be. It is a fine piece of workmanship. Pared down from the first record with its string and chorus accompanied recordings, it is a delightful sampling of the recordings Dylan was doing in 1969-1971.
But I would argue that the first Self Portrait deserves another listen.
Maybe it’s me. I loved Dylan’s covers of country music in his honey-mellow voice. (Yes, I said honey-mellow.) Cecil A. Null’s I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know is a beautiful, haunting song of love lost. Wanda Jackson, the enigmatic Rockabilly singer does my favorite version of this song. If you’ve never heard or heard of Wanda Jackson, and you’ve never listen to anything else I link on my blog, please check her out. (I have to add Hard Headed Woman here.) Dylan also covered Take Me As I Am or Let Me Go written by Boudleaux Bryant and most famously covered by Don Gibson and later, (after Dylan’s Self Portrait) Ray Price and Bobby Bare.
True, I had to trick my mother into listening to these country classics by Dylan. But until she knew who was singing, she loved them. (She still loved them after I told her Dylan was singing, but I had played his early stuff so much, she had built up an aversion to anything Dylan.) So to answer the critics who said this recording failed mostly because no one was listening – some were. And now that we’ve come round to it again, I hope people will give it another listen.
Other notables on the first Self Portrait were the ode to moonshiners Copper Kettle (which even in 1970 everyone loved) and Dylan’s rendition of It Hurts Me Too a standard blues song based on The Mississippi Sheiks’ Sitting on Top of the World and first recorded as It Hurts Me Too by Tampa Red in 1940. It’s one of my favorites from the 1970’s recording, but those of you who read my blog, know I’m partial to the Blues.
I suppose since this blog is titled, Dylan’s Another Self-Portrait, I should also write about this new/old release. It is divine.
Here’s what the critics (and I) like — it is pure unadulterated Dylan. No big strings, no big choir accompaniment, just Dylan with that voice singing old ballads, country, and some rock and roll. Songs which, had they been on the first Self-Portrait, would have garnered much more favorable reviews. Read the Paste Magazine review of Another Self Portrait here.
But then had he done that, we wouldn’t be talking about why he left these songs in the vault, why he chose to put out the 1970 record that some believed was his way of saying, “Please, don’t like me. Leave me alone.” (Read the Rolling Stone article on Dylan’s “lost years” here.)
Now for some highlights from Another Self Portrait. The record begins with the Traditional Ballad Pretty Saro. (This video was pre-released before the record and is worth sitting through the VEVO commercial.) Pretty Saro is one of those re-discovered English Ballads found in the Appalachians by Cecil Sharp in the early 20th Century. I learned this song while shelling peas and butter beans at my grandmother’s knee on the front porch in southeast Alabama. Here is the moving Doc Watson interpretation.
Other notable songs: Working on a Guru with George Harrison on guitar and the scaled-down When I Paint My Masterpiece with just Dylan and his piano. Went to See the Gypsy and Only a Hobo complete my personal favorites list.
So now we have come full circle. We’ve been given another glimpse into Dylan’s so-called “lost years” and discovered what fell by the wayside during those days in the studio. Much is being written about why he chose not to release these recordings back in 1970, but let’s just be happy he’s released them now.
The one thing we can all agree on is Dylan has always followed his own path. This is one worth taking a walk on. I would suggest a stroll through his first Self Portrait, also.
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