Here we are again with “VERSIONS” – our look at the songs, the performers and the interpretations by performers of the songs. This time around Martin Johnson casts his eye over over ‘Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)’. Anything that you didn’t know about this tune is cleared up here:
Bob Dylan (1978) 1978 was a troubling time for Bob Dylan. He was going through a bitter separation from his wife Sara, Elvis Presley’s death had forced him to review his own life, he still had to finish editing his film ‘Renaldo and Clara’ and he had a major tour of Japan scheduled for the early part of the year. Also, he wanted a new sound for his music, something that was akin to big band pop, not dissimilar to Elvis’s sound at the time of his death. His band for his new sound was based on the musicians who formed the core for Rolling Thunder but with changes to enhance the horn sound and background vocals. Finally, a drummer whose sound and approach Dylan was happy with proved difficult to find. Howie Wyeth from Rolling Thunder excluded himself due to personal problems, ex Wings drummer Denny Sewell bashed the skins for a short time until his drugs conviction proved problematic in obtaining a visa for the impending tour of Japan. Dylan finally settled on ex-King Crimson tub thumper Ian Wallace. While Wallace was technically an excellent drummer he hit the drums hard and didn’t really swing, which was great when he worked with David Lindley in El Radio-X, but it didn’t really fit with the orchestrated pop sound Dylan was imagining.
It was against this backdrop that he went into the studio for 5 days at the end of April 1978 to record what became the ‘Street Legal’ album which was comprised of largely newly written songs with his new sound. The album was recorded on a 24-track mobile to try and capture the richness of the new sound and while Don DeVito was nominally in charge of production Dylan himself had a major influence on the sound. When it was released the album got very mixed reviews, with American critics disliking the sound and production of the album while European critics being more positive about it. The album was particularly successful in the UK reaching no 2 in the charts and achieving platinum sales. While in the US it was the first Dylan album since 1964 to miss the Top 10. The album is still divisive among Dylan fans and critics with the sound being recognised as an ongoing problem despite a remix by Don DeVito in 1999. This is a pity, as the actual songs that Dylan recorded were very good and while not of the standard set by ‘Blood On The Tracks’ in 1975, they more than hold their own against those on 1976’s ‘Desire’.
‘Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)’ is one of the hidden gems on the album. The song deals with the history of the many conflicts between Mexico and the United States and references not only New Mexico, with memories of ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid‘ but God, foreshadowing his Born Again Christian conversion. The basic idea for the song was suggested by a train journey Dylan made from Mexico to San Diego where an old man was in the same carriage as Dylan. The track is basically a country-rock tune with a rich arrangement featuring background singers and Dylan’s vocals are very forceful. Like the album it comes from, the track is capable of dividing opinion which explains why it only made 100 on the “100 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs Of All Time” in Rolling Stone but 13 on The Telegraph’s “Bob Dylan: 30 greatest songs”. While the story contained in the lyrics is complex and varied the lyrics are pure Dylan with some exquisite imagery and couplets. Again, the lyrics proved to be contentious, with some taking the view that overall, they were too complex and too archetypal Dylan, while others argued they were some of the best lyrics he wrote in the ’70s. From my point of view, the lyrics and tune are a perfect fit making this one of his best songs of the ‘70s and one of the best of his career. It was also a transitional song that hinted at the personal turmoil he was experiencing at the time making it very real and poignant.
Due to copyright issues the Bob Dylan version of ‘Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)’ listed below is a live version from the “Never Ending Tour” and not the ‘Street Legal’ original.
Jerry Garcia Band (1991) The Jerry Garcia Band was the second outlet for Jerry Garcia’s musical talents after the Grateful Dead. Their history goes back as far as 1975 and centres on the relationship between Garcia and bassist John Khan. The unit was primarily a live vehicle for Garcia and they played mainly covers rather than Garcia originals. The covers came from a select group of songs across multiple genres and allowed Garcia to develop and demonstrate his formidable ability to interpret a song. The commercial success of the Grateful Dead’s ‘In The Dark’ in 1987 increased the demand for the Jerry Garcia Band which then consisted of Garcia and Kahn, with Melvin Seals organ, David Kemper drums and background vocalists Jacklyn LeBranch and Gloria Jones. Melvin Seals came from the gospel tradition in San Francisco and played with Garcia from 1980 to Garcia’s death in 1995, David Kemper was Garcia’s drummer from 1983 until 1994 and he then played with Dylan for five years, Jacklyn LaBranch joined in 1982 and Gloria Jones in 1984 and both remained until 1995 and brought a distinct gospel sound to the Jerry Garcia Band. By the time of Garcia’s death the Jerry Garcia Band were such a popular draw in their own right they were playing and selling out the smaller areas.
Jerry Garcia had a long friendship with Bob Dylan and it was this friendship that helped Dylan rebuild his confidence and re-engage with his roots at the end of ‘80s leading to his ‘90s renaissance . Garcia played ‘Senor’ with Bob Dylan in 1980 and it was played regularly by the Jerry Garcia Band in the ‘90s. The version from ‘The Jerry Garcia Band’ was recorded in 1990 and captures exactly the dark undertones of the song with restrained but emotional guitar accompaniment from Garcia and the gospel backing vocals echoing Dylan’s original version. This version was also included on the soundtrack for the film ‘Masked and Anonymous’. The band play as a unit and let the song breath making this a very strong version.
Tim O’Brien (1996) Tim O’Brien’s ‘Red On Blonde’ from 1996 is his tribute album to Bob Dylan and is a highlight of his own impressive back catalogue. His work with newgrass founders Hot Rize, western swing stars Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, his solo career and work on ‘The Transatlantic Sessions’ show the breadth of O’Brien’s influences and the apparent ease at which he can move between genres. ‘Red On Blonde’ is a play on Dylan’s ‘Blonde On Blonde’ and O’Brien’s Red Knuckles alias, not to mention his hair colour, and is largely an acoustic album recorded superbly in Nashville. O’Brien covered songs from the whole of Dylan’s then career mixing classics with some of his more challenging works. The backing ranged from Appalachian to slick Nashville and everything in between giving the full flavour of O’Brien’s eclecticism. Not only is this a great Tim O’Brien album it is also one of the best albums of Dylan covers ever recorded. If you come across someone who struggles to get Dylan because of his performances of his own songs this is an album that shines new light on Dylan’s compositions.
O’Brien brings a bluegrass feel to his version of ‘Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)’, with the support of fine pickers such as Jerry Douglas dobro, Mark Schatz banjo and bass, Scott Nygaard guitar among others. This arrangement, with his own fiddle, mandolin and bouzouki contributions brings a different perspective to the song, particularly with his clear high lonesome vocals and we are shown what a very good song this is to take such a different arrangement that manages to retain the underlying poignancy of the original.
Willie Nelson and Calexico (2007) Willie and Dylan have had a mutual appreciation society going for many years. Dylan issued numerous Willie songs in the ‘80s as B-sides, live tracks or rehearsal out-takes. It was Dylan’s comments at ”Live Aid” about American farmers that prompted Willie, Neil Young and John Mellencamp to form “Farm Aid”. Dylan performed at the inaugural “Farm Aid” concert. The Dylan and Willie co-write ‘Heartland’ appeared on Willie’s ‘Across The Borderline’ album in 1992. The pair continue to sing the odd duet and cover each other’s tunes to the present day.
Everyone knows that Willie is a serial collaborator and when he chose to record a version of ‘Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)’ with Calexico not much was expected. However, the resulting track is a highlight in both artist’s catalogues. Willie keeps his sometimes erratic timing in check and delivers one of the classic covers of a Dylan song and Calexico enhanced their growing mainstream reputation with their work on the whole of the ‘I’m Not There’ soundtrack where they acted as the second houseband for the collection.
Don’t know if you wrote this piece before it was released, Paul, but you left out Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ version, on their new “All The Good Times” album.
You are absolutely right Pat, the article was written before ‘All The Good Times’ was released. It just shows you can’t keep a great song down.
Another version worth investigating is the English folk band SHOW OF HANDS take on it from their 2009 album “Arrogance , ignorance and greed ” . The band cover a lot of Dylan , both live and on album.
Another version worth investigating is by English folk band SHOW OF HANDS from their 2009 album “Ignorance , arrogance and greed” . They cover a lot of Dylan both on album and live .
Thanks Andy. I am always amazed by the breadth of influence The Albion Band and its members over the years have had on UK folk.
You are right Martin . Phil Beer often mentions that to progress in the Folk idiom you must do an apprenticeship in the Albion Band !
Statistically impossible to argue with Andy
I saw the Jerry Garcia Band do some really beautiful live versions of this song in the early 90’s. It was always a real highlight and you describe it perfectly in your article. Thanks.
A great song, a great performance and a great artist. You can’t ask for much more than that.Ian.
I came here because I have become obsessed (OBSESSED) with a bluegrass cover of this song by a Norwegian (!) Bluegrass band called Hayde. Look it up on YouTube – there are two performances on there but I haven’t found it anywhere else. I had never heard the song before hearing their version, they have an absolutely incredible plaintive-style singer which is what sells it for me. Of course I am desperate to find a meaning for the story in the song, although I am fully aware that it’s a fools errand to try as the ambiguity is what makes it fascinating. Currently listening to every version of the song available on Spotify… The Jerry Garcia and Tim O’Brien ones are for me the next best.
Try Steve Knightley’s (of the English folk/roots band SHOW OF HANDS) version . But of course don’t stray too far from Dylan’s origional take . The meaning ? America’s involvement in South America is for me a fair assesment .
I’m glad you enjoyed the list Jay. I’m also sure you will enjoy your listening journey.
Thanks for covering this inspiring song! I suspect it is so powerful because it (like many Dylan tunes) touches the soul directly, while the mind tries to make sense of it …
To me, it describes an inner process of a seeker. He tries to connect to his soul, which he manages in the course of the song. There is a tension between his old life and the new impulses he is trying to follow. In the end, a radical transformation is required, leaving the old life and old ways of thinking behind.