January 23, 2011

Song: "Mama, You've Been On My Mind"

Mr Quill is sometimes a little psychic. He didn't know, but about six months ago I proposed singing this song with Minnie Molly Mary, inspired by the amazing version Bob Dylan sings with Joan Baez in the 1964 concert recording. I thought it would be a pretty love song, & it even occurred to me back then that it would be good to do at someone's wedding. However, once we started singing it, I soon realized that it was more of a breakup song, with hints of infidelity... Cut to yesterday, when Mr Quill texted me suggesting I could sing this song at his wedding "a la live 1964" (in reference to the same version I was inspired by). I was like, wow, he had no idea that we sing this song all the time. We then got into a text message argument about the appropriateness of this song as a wedding song, barely agreeing to disagree: "You're right about that lyric... but I'm right that's it's a breakup song w hints of infidelity." "Pretty sure I'm right, but we cool." We both suggested we could change the lyrics for wedding-appropriateness. M.M.M & I youtubed the song on the roof this morning:

Last night, after our text message argument about the darker lyrics in "Mama, You've Been On My Mind," M.M.M. & I went to a gala which included musical entertainment by Laurie Lewis, a local Berkeley favorite bluegrass singer/songwriter. She sang her song "The Oak & the Laurel" & then told an eerily relevant story. She said she was approached on tour by someone who said they had sung the song at their wedding. Lewis was like, "um, did you pay attention to the last verse?" (which doesn't turn out so well for the romantic trees.) The fan replied "Oh, we changed the lyrics." Then she said on the next stop of her tour, someone else told her the same thing, & it turned out to be a completely different wedding, but the conversation was deja vu: "We changed the lyrics." Anyway, this anecdote was perfectly prescient to the conversation Mr Quill & I had just been texting. Lewis seemed mildly annoyed that they would emasculate her sad song to make a pretty wedding song, but also complimented that her song would be sung at weddings.

It reminds me of the famous story of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The original Judy Garland version from the 1944 musical Meet Me In St Louis is deliciously dark:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last,
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, pop that champagne cork,
Next year we will all be living in New York.

No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us no more.

It wallowed in obscurity until Frank Sinatra released a white-christmas-washed version a decade later. Here's the dilemma: By cleaning it up, he gave pleasure to millions more people, but erased some of the song's power. The songwriters Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane are nowhere near the American icons Bob Dylan is. I have no problem changing, rewriting, expurgating or butchering classics - (It's not like Swan Lake was at all affected by Black Swan, & Huck Finn still exists in all manner of versions.) As long as I'm not the Sinatra who rescues a great song that few people know & makes it into a watered-down, annoying overplayed song. If Laurie Lewis's song turned into a ubiquitous wedding favorite, that would be a bit sad - but I don't think I have the power to permanently emasculate a Dylan song.

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