Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
Similar to Superman’s periodic retreats to his Fortress of Solitude, Bob Dylan occasionally turns to the music of the past to gather strength for challenges ahead. Most of the great comebacks of Bob’s career – including the one we’re seeing right now – have been proceeded by intense periods of covering old songs. In 1992, after a decade of butting heads with producers and wrestling with 1980s recording technology, Dylan decided to strip things back – all the way back. No producer, no band; just Bob Dylan, his guitar, and a bucketload of folk and blues songs.
The idea had probably been taking shape in Dylan’s mind since the summer of 1988, when he began what would soon become known as the Never Ending Tour (or NET to its friends). While the earliest NET shows were largely devoted to Bob and his band tearing through his back catalogue punk rock-style, the highlight for many fans were the mid-show acoustic sets, where Bob often unearthed traditional songs from the western world’s distant past. “Trail of the Buffalo,” “The Lakes of Pontchartrain,” “Barbara Allen,” “The Wagoner’s Lad,” and many others made regular appearances. Bob didn’t just perform these songs: he inhabited them.
Curiously, when Dylan came to record his acoustic album four years later – after abandoning a different covers album recorded with David Bromberg – he did not include any of the folk tunes from his Never Ending Tour repertoire. The only songs on Good As I Been To You that he had performed before were “Blackjack Davey” (Woody Guthrie’s “Gypsy Davy” variation, all the way back in 1961) and “Little Maggie,” a signature song for Ralph Stanley that had received a lone full-band outing at Dylan’s first show of 1992.
Two things become immediately apparent when listening to Good As I Been To You. One is Bob’s considerable skill on the guitar, as we hear him merrily running up and down the fretboard with a finesse he hadn’t displayed since his debut album 30 years earlier. The other is that four years of continuous touring had taken a heavy toll on Bob’s voice. That’s not a complaint; the gravelly vocals add to the atmosphere, as if you’re sitting around a campfire listening to an old sage tell you what’s what. When Dylan sings from the perspective of a British convict transported to Botany Bay on “Jim Jones,” (adapted from Australian band The Bushwackers, possibly via John Kirkpatrick) you believe that he’s lived every second of it.
A lot of this album features Bob in storyteller mode. “Frankie & Albert” – derived from Mississippi John Hurt’s version – is the tale of a woman shooting her lover dead after finding out that he has been fooling around. “Blackjack Davey,” which Bob may have picked up from The Carter Family, concerns a gentleman returning home to find that his wife has been spirited away and seduced by the mysterious title character. The beautiful “Canadee-I-O,” apparently discovered by Bob on Nic Jones’ 1980 album Pengiun Eggs, is a seafaring story about a young woman who disguises herself as a sailor to follow her lover to sea. The warmth in Bob’s voice, combined with his dexterous guitar playing and what sounds like his chair creaking in the background, makes this track a standout.
Dylan delivers more story songs in the form of Paul Brady’s arrangement of the anti-recruiting song “Arthur McBride,” and the buffalo skinner tale “Diamond Joe,” a close relative of “Trail of the Buffalo” first recorded by Cisco Houston. Bob also reminds listeners of his blues credentials with gritty takes on “Sittin’ On Top of The World” (The Mississippi Sheiks), “Step it Up and Go” (Blind Boy Fuller), and “You’re Gonna Quit Me” (Blind Blake), as well as previewing the crooner style he would later adopt for his Great American Songbook albums with Lonnie Johnson’s “Tomorrow Night.”
The centerpiece of the album, however, is a song that is particularly appropriate for the times we now find ourselves in: a moving performance of “Hard Times,” published by Stephen Foster in 1854.
The album closes with Bob in a fatherly mood, happily singing “Froggie Went A-Courtin'” (a rendition that bears a marked resemblance to Blind Willie McTell’s “Hillbilly Willie’s Blues“) as if soothing a young child. It’s a lovely end to a record that feels endearingly like Bob singing to himself, blissfully unaware that he’s being recorded. Some critics at the time expressed frustration that Dylan was not singing his own songs – “It’s pretty damn perverse,” said David Wild in Rolling Stone, “that the greatest songwriter of the rock era has chosen to record an entire album of other people’s songs” – but, as is usually the case with Bob, something else was going on beneath the surface. In hindsight, Good As I Been To You emerges as both a quality return-to-roots album and a crucial stepping stone to Dylan’s triumphant comeback in the late 1990s.
Read more about Bob Dylan’s underappreciated covers albums in our In Defense feature on his 1973 album Dylan.