It took some kind of courage to pay homage to this particular period of Bob Dylan's career, a period that still can evoke a scoff or dismissive chuckle from even the most diehard fan. Because this project had humble beginnings and likely had its fair share of painful moments, it must have given executive producer Jeff Gaskill tremendous joy when it was birthed...and an outside world could finally see it and feel it and think it and breathe it.
Although Shirley Caesar kicks off the CD with a pre-song rap which includes these words--"I wanna share Bob Dylan's song with you"--it may well be the case that she's done to "Gotta Serve Somebody" what Jimi Hendrix did to "All Along the Watchtower." Like Hendrix, she wasted no time in making it her own (she recorded the song in 1980); Dylan even said, way back in 1985, that he liked her version better than his. Caesar, in this take, makes heartfelt and emotional declarations that seem anything but weak, alludes to the Hebrew scriptures at the beginning of the song (Joshua) and at the end (Chronicles) while her backup singers--with their occasional "Serve my Jesus!"--serve as an antidote to phony baloney revisionist history, i.e., Dylan really wasn't/isn't singing about Jesus, or if he was/is, that somehow he cannot claim his Jewish heritage.
When Dylan recently sang "I Believe in You" in concert, one observer noted how it still retains the original passion and power of its '79-'80 airings. Dottie People's version on this CD makes a valiant run at the original, with a strong, convincing voice. The Fairfield Four's stab at "Are You Ready?" easily works since the medicine of Dylan's words--words like "heaven or hell," "destruction," "judgment," "swift sword," and "Armageddon"--go down smoother through the conduit of a legendary gospel group (instead of, say, a "spokesman" for the 1960s). Dylan friend Aaron Neville gives "Saving Grace," a song Dylan has recently sung, wonderful treatment. Its line, "Wherever I am welcome is where I will be" may apply not only to Dylan's destiny in eternity, but also to the earthy locations of his gigs in recent years (before U.S. presidents, rabbis, and the Pope, in gambling casinos and at outdoor fairs in the mud...wherever he is welcome).
Regina McCrary's handling of "Pressing On," with the able support of the Chicago Mass Choir, must have sent shivers up the spines of those who heard her open Dylan's concerts back in 1979-1980 (what may have seemed like a chore at the time--an obstacle to Dylan taking the stage--turned out to be a privilege). As has been said, Dylan's performance with Mavis Staples on the final track, "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking," must be experienced. One reviewer has noted its blues orientation (very true), but also said the song is "only vaguely religious." Although we know how Dylan would react to a label like "religious," this is still wonderfully ironic. In this final track, I distinctly hear Dylan growling out lines--that he penned in 2002--that relate to, why, daily prayer ("Every day you got to pray for guidance / Every day you got to give yourself a chance"); a personal relationship with God ("Oh, Lord, you know I have no friend without you"); and the Second Coming ("Jesus is coming / He's coming back to gather His jewels"). You get the feeling that Dylan wasn't just whistling Dixie during those infamous stage raps in 1979-1980. We also get the corny humor at the beginning of this rewritten song too, so it's alright, we can also smile.
"When he was doing the previous album, Slow Train Coming, in Muscle Shoals, he'd had this vision of Jesus, of the hand coming down and these hands reaching up. And he said at the same time he had this vision, he saw the whole album too--all the songs, everything, the whole thing was there. And he said, 'What you've drawn here was exactly what I saw'." These were the words that the late John Bauldie heard from Tony Wright, the artist who Dylan hired to paint the original cover to the Saved album. Now, over two decades later, this personal vision of Dylan's has been interpreted--through Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan--with passion and respect by a formidable group of artists. The results are pleasing to the ear and soul.
Do yourself a favor in this New Year of 2004...spend ten or fifteen dollars and get this collection of songs. It has recently been recognized by the Grammy folks in two categories: nominated for "Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album" and "Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals" (the Dylan/Staples duet). So there you have it, "traditional," "soul," "gospel," and "pop," a few labels one could arguably apply to Dylan without even uttering the ubiquitous "folk" or "rock"; or the "blues" that were instilled into the revamped version of "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking" on this CD. Incidentally, this same song is a surefire home remedy for the blues, insomnia, and/or reading SnoozeWeek (inside chatter for those who've heard it).
author of "Bob Dylan's Unshakeable Monotheism" located at http://www.jewsweek.com (2003-2004)
author of Restless Pilgrim: The Spiritual Journey of Bob Dylan (2002, with Marcia Ford)