Chrissie Hynde. Standing in the Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan. BMG Rights Management (UK), May 2021.
Emma Swift. Blonde on the Tracks. Patrick Sansone, Tiny Ghost Records, August 2020.
REVIEW BY Christine Hand Jones, Dallas Baptist University
Big Girls Contain Multitudes
The women who have covered the songs of Bob Dylan have left an indelible mark on his career and his compositions. Joan Baez’s sincere soprano helped make Dylan famous in the early 60s, and Adele’s soulful alto helped keep him relevant in the early 2000s. Judy Collins, Mary Travers, Odetta, Nina Simone, and many others brought Dylan’s work to a broader listening public by putting their own spin on his songs. In the deft hands of these skilled singers and interpreters, Dylan’s lyrics and melodies take center stage, and his songs develop in surprising ways. Two new collections of Dylan covers, Standing in the Doorway by Chrissie Hynde and Blonde on the Tracks by Emma Swift, add valuable contributions to the collected works of Dylan’s female interpreters. As with the best interpretations, these albums not only highlight the depth and beauty already inherent in Dylan’s work, they also add new layers of meaning that neither Dylan nor any male interpreters could hope to achieve. When Hynde and Swift cover Dylan, they also uncover a range of feminist interpretations that shine uniquely in the female voice.
Chrissie Hynde released Standing in the Doorway in May 2021. The raw, folk-rock recordings represent Hynde’s pandemic lockdown work, with nine rich, intimate renditions of Dylan classics (Grow). At seventy, the Pretenders lead singer is just a decade behind Dylan, and her band’s hit song “I’ll Stand by You” is a classic. So, Standing in the Doorway feels less like a tribute to a songwriting hero than a cozy jam session with a friend. Her choice of material spans Dylan’s career, though she lingers on 80s-era Dylan, with stripped-down versions of several songs from Infidels and Shot of Love. Hynde’s raspy alto and contemplative arrangements evoke the best of Johnny Cash’s American series of recordings. Even without bass or drums, Hynde’s recordings sound full and rich with doubled-acoustic guitars and simple add-ons like piano, mandolin, and the occasional whirring organ or harmonium. Every now and then Hynde counts the songs off or clears her throat, and wind and birdsong contribute to the album’s organic sensibility. Taken together, these sonic details serve as the perfect frame for Hynde’s dark, velvety voice.
Hynde’s warm, emotionally-honest delivery brings listeners up close and personal with classic Dylan tunes “Tomorrow is a Long Time” and “Love Minus Zero (No Limit).” The title track, “Standing in the Doorway” seems practically written for Hynde’s raw, expressive vocal tone. But where she really shines is on her acoustic revisions of the early 80s songs that have suffered from the ravages of poorly aging production trends. Standing in the Doorway opens and closes with songs from the third of Dylan’s “gospel” albums, Shot of Love. She starts with “In the Summertime,” a great tune that Hynde elevates with gentle backing vocals, a pleasantly ringing tambourine, and a droning organ. The song ends with laughter, fading guitars, and sounds from nature that allow the listener to linger in a summer garden. She closes her album with “Every Grain of Sand,” a gospel song of grace and maturity. But where Dylan strains after an impassioned but elusive gospel fervor in his Shot of Love performance, Hynde takes the listener to church in a different way, evoking Dylan’s version from The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3. When she sings the phrase “In the time of my confession” in her crackling contralto, we see the candle-lit chapel instead of the blazing Pentecostal revival tent. Such intimacy is exactly what the song needs to put the listener’s focus on its contemplative philosophical musings.
The stand-out track from Hynde’s covers of 80s-era Dylan is “Blind Willie McTell.” Recorded for Infidels, “Blind Willie McTell” never made it to the actual record. Multiple bootleg versions reveal the song’s stunning potential, with Dylan never landing on a definitive interpretation. Still, Jonathan Lethem calls the song a “masterwork,” “a vision of the original sins of human history through the lens of a memorial blues, a casual epic totally unified in terms of tone, imagery, and narrative implications” (162). Chrissie Hynde’s spooky, folk version of “Blind Willie McTell” fulfills the song’s vision with a recording that stays true both to the folk-blues roots of Dylan’s youth and the bluesman to whom the song pays homage.
In keeping with the style of the rest of the album, Hynde begins “Blind Willie McTell” with simple piano and acoustic guitar. On the second verse, a low drone fades in beneath it all, elevating the tension, as every crack in Hynde’s voice contributes to the song’s chilling images. In verse three, a high, keening organ demonstrates the “tribes a-moanin’” on the slave ships. Ghostly mandolin and percussive bass pulses create the sounds of the song’s “chain gang” and yelling “rebels.” Then the song bursts into a glorious organ and mandolin duet before the denouement in the final verse. As we gaze with Hynde out of “the window of the St. James Hotel” and ponder the corruption of mankind, she returns to simple piano and guitar, only to build the whole thing back up again, ending with the wails of eerie mandolin. If the album’s title, Standing in the Doorway, is meant to be a metaphor for Hynde as she looks into the room of the incomparable Dylan, I’d say she underestimates her abilities. Hynde’s rendition of “Blind Willie McTell” is a revelation. She’s not just lingering in the doorway of someone else’s genius; she’s taking her own part in the retelling and interpretation and rewriting these songs in the process.
Bringing a worthy interpretive offering of her own, Nashville-based Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift released Blonde on the Tracks, her alt-Americana collection of Dylan covers, in August of 2020. Generally, Swift’s recordings are sunnier than Hynde’s, with her lilting soprano alternating between ethereal leaps and gospel growls. Vintage reverb on her vocals and bright, droning pedal steel lend her recordings the nostalgic glow of Dylan’s Nashville Skyline days. Meanwhile, the warm, overdriven tones of Robyn Hitchcock’s brilliant electric guitar work bring a touch of nineties grunge into the mix. Swift is a millennial— barely—born in 1981, and her cover choices run the gamut of Dylan’s career, from the 60s to the present day with her cover of 2020’s “I Contain Multitudes.” This year Rolling Stone called her “Queen Jane Approximately” #18 in the 80 Best Dylan Covers (Emma Swift). Swift’s gentle, Americana version of the song sparkles with her fine vocals and Robyn Hitchcock’s Beatles-inspired guitar riffs. When Dylan sings “Queen Jane,” it sounds as if he is offering mutual help and support to someone named Jane, and critics love to argue about whether or not there is a real-life Queen Jane who inspired Dylan. By contrast, Emma Swift transforms the song into something approaching the mystical. Her “Queen Jane” invokes the aid of a sister or friend, and this shift stems equally from the implications of a narrator gender-swap as from Swift’s otherworldly vocal style.
This reinvigoration takes place with other 60s classics that Swift recasts. On “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” Swift’s voice toes just the right line between pretty and gritty, as if splitting the difference between Dylan’s original and Joan Baez’s cover. Amazingly, she takes the tempo a bit slower than Dylan, pushing the eleven-and-a-half minute song to almost a full twelve minutes. But Emma Swift makes those twelve minutes fly. Swift’s crisp enunciation highlights each surreal image as it hits our consciousness, and her flawless vocal delivery reinforces the song’s gorgeous melody. The slow-build of her arrangement sets up the climactic arc of the choruses so that by the time we arrive at the dramatic descent of “my warehouse eyes” we are emotionally primed for what follows. As each chorus closes with that ambiguous question, “sad-eyed lady, should I wait?” we are prepared to wait right alongside the narrator, especially if that narrator happens to be Emma Swift.
Even if we only consider the musical beauty of Chrissie Hynde’s and Emma Swift’s interpretations, we find two strong albums, worthy to stand alongside the many collections of other female artists who have covered Dylan’s work. Both women have created enjoyable renditions of Dylan classics that bear each woman’s distinctive mark, while putting Dylan’s superb writing in the spotlight. But these musical contributions are only a starting point. These covers are at their most powerful when they reveal new ways of understanding Dylan’s work from a female perspective. Such a perspective comes into focus with the one song that appears on both records: “You’re a Big Girl Now.”
Dylan’s “You’re a Big Girl Now” is a tender, personal exploration of love and heartbreak. Its revealing style and subject matter make it everything a singer-songwriter is “supposed” to write. Hynde’s version, like Dylan’s, is intimate and acoustic; her voice cracks in all the right places. And yet, the gender shift inevitably changes the song’s emphasis and message. Where the repeated phrase “you’re a big girl” sounds more than a little bitter coming from Dylan to the lover who has grown away from him, in the mouths of both women, the phrase sounds like a piece of motivational self-talk, or at least a pep talk to another woman. When Dylan sings, “You were on dry land, you made it there somehow,” the listener understands that he has been left out in the rain. But when Hynde sings it, it sounds like an affirmation to the girl in question—a celebration that she has made it after all. Dylan’s bird metaphor, in which he sings a lonely song for the girl who has left him, sounds like personal empowerment when Hynde and Swift say it. As bright female harmonies join Swift on the line “I’m just like that bird,” we hear Emily Dickinson’s “thing with feathers” that keeps on singing of hope despite the circumstances. And even a line that might read as deeply fragmented in a self-talk framework, like “I’m going out of my mind . . . ever since we’ve been apart” becomes a powerful argument for internal integration. From Hynde, this positive self-talk is confessional and self-forgiving; for Swift, it’s light and airy, even sexually empowering, as more bright voices join her in the lines, “I know where I can find you, in somebody’s room.” Coming from Dylan, that moment is a bitter admission that his girl is stepping out on him. For Swift, it comes across as joyful, buoyed up by bouncy, 70s-inspired bass lines, reverberating drums, and a juicy guitar solo. Bob Dylan wrote a sardonic song of love and loss. Hynde and Swift have created an empowering celebration of womanhood.
An interpretation like the one I have offered brings up an important question: how do we read Dylan’s songs from a female perspective? Should we? In truth, my first instinct is to take the songs as they are and to view the singers as storytellers—as vehicles for the story, no more. But the singer-songwriter genre practically begs for the more “confessional” element. Perhaps “confessional” is a term used to write-off important female work like that of Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and others; a way to pin the work of female singer-songwriters in the corner of womens’ writing. Nevertheless, the entire singer-songwriter genre invites the listener to hear biography or at least emotional honesty in the songs. Critics can hardly help asking biographical questions of Dylan’s work. So, it is only fitting to discover new layers of meaning in Dylan’s songs when told through the female or queer voice. One of the most stunning examples of this phenomenon is Nina Simone’s 1971 version of “Just Like a Woman.” In it, she recasts Dylan’s sneering tirade against an immature lover as a deeply personal confession of inner turmoil. Barbara O’Dair explains the “Just Like a Woman” feminist controversy:
It’s hard to recall just what was offensive in “Just Like a Woman” . . . unless it was the combination of its potency and its ambiguity. Am I being insulted here, or what? It’s a catchy sentiment, or maybe just another put-down in the guise of wise. Women have objected to lines like “you fake just like a woman,” a charge that claims Dylan has swept all women into the category of devious manipulator. But then comes the line that reveals shame and vulnerability: “Please don’t let on that you knew me when / I was hungry and it was your world.” (85)
It is precisely that ambiguity, shame, and vulnerability that Simone explores, as she changes the lyrics of the last chorus from third to first-person to make this connection explicit. In this song about a woman, Simone speaks to herself; she is both the elegant woman and the traumatized girl.
Several of the songs on these two records follow in Simone’s footsteps. Chrissie Hynde’s version of “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” is a great example of a song that works just as well in the context of a hurting relationship as it does from the perspective of a woman singing to her own lost self. Of course, the song could be addressed to anyone, but Hynde’s vulnerable delivery, with its echoes of Nina Simone’s earlier self-addressed performance, supports the theory of a split self. After all, if Bob Dylan can split himself in two in “I and I,” why can’t Hynde? Swift, too, seems to split herself along blatantly gendered lines in her cover of “The Man in Me,” from New Morning. The aesthetic of New Morning comes closest to Swift’s general aesthetic, but this is no karaoke version of Dylan. Swift keeps Dylan’s gospel-inflected fervor, adding even more church organ, though her background vocals are layered and ethereal rather than choral and soulful. The obvious difference between the two arrangements is Swift’s gender. “The Man in Me” is a joyous declaration of love, which finds the narrator basking in the glow of being near the beloved. In her presence, he serves with gladness, is relieved of his personal storm clouds, and can be his true self, and it is all because of the feminine power of the woman who brings out the man in him. It doesn’t take a great imagination to hear queer and feminist implications when this song is recast in Swift’s voice. In addressing the song to “a woman like you,” Swift takes on a queer perspective as she speaks to a woman from a romantic point of view. With such lines as “it takes a woman like you to get through to the man in me,” and “the man in me will hide sometimes to keep from being seen,” she explores a broader spectrum of gender expression and identity. In this song, Swift unabashedly takes on the male role while singing to a woman and is therefore able to embody both simultaneously. But even without considering the possibilities for gender fluidity in Swift’s “The Man in Me,” the singer’s confident assumption of the male voice allows her to step boldly into traditionally “masculine” roles, taking on its associated power and authority in the process.
The empowerment available to women who try on a male perspective shines on Emma Swift’s rendering of “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” from Blonde on Blonde. Dylan’s version feels flippant; he comes across as a boy begging to get off the hook for his bad behavior when he sings, “I didn’t mean to treat you so bad / you shouldn’t take it so personal.” Emma Swift reclaims that playboy narrative for herself. Swift’s version of the song is slower and more deliberate than Dylan’s, with plenty of sustained guitar and a heartbeat kick drum. The first verse builds consistently into an almost exuberant chorus, as if Swift is systematically building a case for the end of the relationship to which the only possible response must be, “sooner or later, one of us must know.” Plenty of lines that seem bitter and accusatory from Dylan, like “I didn’t realize how young you were,” and “you just did what you were supposed to do,” sound earnest coming from Swift. And when she adds high piano and a trill of bells on the line, “When it started snowing,” the listener might almost think they have wandered into a Christmas song, albeit a rather violent one that includes angry eye-clawing. But even that line is empowering; a woman clawing out a man’s eyes is a crazy-lady trope; a man doing the same is either a sign of abuse or of an over-the-top emotional display. Either way, Swift’s clear, matter-of-fact delivery rings with equal parts self-confidence and compassion, bringing her out of the fray unscathed.
Because of its condescending elements, “One of Us Must Know” finds company in a long line of Dylan songs that Barbara O’Dair calls “put-down songs about women,” all of which contain material that have been interpreted as misogynistic, and many of which have been embraced by female Dylan fans. O’Dair says of this phenomenon that “Dylan uses macho stereotypes for a good story” (85). She asserts that women adopt these “macho” stories in order to tell their own, and she writes, “If machismo can have rebellious radiance . . . girls, too, can use this transgressive energy to assert themselves” (85). In this regard, Chrissie Hynde’s version of “Sweetheart like You” from Infidels is even more compelling than Swift’s “One of Us Must Know.” Jonathan Lethem says that “Sweetheart Like You” is “mainly remembered as an affront to feminists, for the title phrase, a seemingly obnoxious and banal seducer’s line . . . and for the verse couplet” about a woman’s place being in the home (164). Lethem goes on to brush this criticism under the rug, saying that “for most listeners the lines will be redeemed by both context and presentation” (164). If only those two lines were the least of the song’s offenses, Lethem might be right. After all, the controversial words, “a woman like you should be at home / That’s where you belong” can at least be read as the well-intentioned statement of a man of chivalry who wishes to take care of a woman. That notion may be dated or even sexist, but it is understandable. But even if we justify the good-natured sexism of those lines, many of the song’s lyrics move beyond corny to creepy. The title phrase isn’t the song’s only horrible pick-up line; he follows up with the gem, “I once knew a woman who looked like you / She wanted a whole man, not just half / She used to call me sweet daddy when I was only a child.” Then there are the interpretive complications brought by the song’s Biblical references. The narrator speaks of the woman’s father, who “has a house with many mansions, each one of them” with a “fireproof floor.” Here, Dylan puts his own spin on John 14:2, in which Jesus says, “My father’s house has many rooms” (New International Version). With this reference to Jesus and a heavenly home, the song’s sweetheart becomes a kind of Christ figure, or at least a martyr, subject to those who “hiss” and gossip behind her back. Perhaps these references are meant as compliments to the song’s sweetheart, but when the narrator tells her to “snap out of it, baby, people are jealous of you,” it is hard to tell whether such a comment is meant to be helpful or is yet another dubious pickup line.
All of these lines hit differently when imagined as a woman speaking to another woman or a woman speaking to herself. They sound understanding, accepting, even helpful. As with other lines that sound condescending when coming from a man to a woman, “Snap out of it, baby,” takes on a different tone when self-directed, for who among us has not needed to give ourselves a wakeup call? What is this good girl doing in a place where she knows she should not be? It is a question many have asked themselves when their choices have led them to dark places. In this context, a potentially disturbing line like “Just how much abuse will you be able to take? / Well, there’s no way to tell by that first kiss,” takes on a wry, self-knowing tone. And when Hynde sings of “making the queen disappear with a flick of the wrist” we can almost imagine a woman playing that card trick on herself as she trades out her good girl image of a “queen” for a different, more scandalous one. At least, in this scenario, the choice is hers alone; no one is playing this sweetheart for a fool. With Hynde at the helm, “Sweetheart Like You” explores new territory. Although the song slides away from clear, unified interpretation no matter who sings it, having a female narrator sing the song to herself suddenly makes us suspect that a woman, too, may embody multitudes: Sweetheart, Scoundrel, Queen, Messiah? She contains them all.
Emma Swift’s cover of Dylan’s 2020 release, “I Contain Multitudes” explores the wide range of identities and attitudes available to women who are bold enough to claim them. In “I Contain Multitudes,” Dylan connects himself to a broad poetic and cultural tradition—mostly male and Western—as he claims kinship with Walt Whitman, William Blake, and Edgar Allen Poe, among others. In addition to proclaiming his belonging in this Hall of Fame, the song reasserts Dylan’s complexity and his ever-shifting status as an unpindownable artist. O’Dair writes that Dylan’s “shape-shifting offers him greater aesthetic freedom” (85). In her cover of “I Contain Multitudes,” Emma Swift steps boldly into that freedom, claiming inner multitudes for herself and for all women. For anyone but Dylan it might sound overly boastful to rank himself among the litany of literary greats that litter his lyrics. For Swift, it is downright disruptive. When Dylan-as-narrator sings of flashing the “rings on [his] fingers,” driving “fast cars,” eating “fast foods,” and hanging out with rough young men, the listener may read it as a sign that the aging rock star hasn’t lost his edge, regardless of Dylan’s intentions in these lines. Swift’s declarations of the same connote the confidence of the cool girl who does what she wants. She keeps company with “Indiana Jones and those British Bad Boys, the Rolling Stones,” but she is no groupie. In taking on the songs of Bob Dylan, she has already established her rightful place on stage as a rock star herself. Indeed, she claims that place boldly with a fresh performance that almost rewrites the tune of “I Contain Multitudes,” unearthing melodic nuances from Dylan’s recording and adding her own ornamentation with grace notes and appoggiaturas that enliven the music and support the poetry.
Swift’s “I Contain Multitudes” feels revolutionary in the female voice; this claim of multiplicity is not just big in the way that Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman” is big, which, despite its empowering vocal gyrations, still boils down to the woman’s ability to please a lover through the many versions of herself. Instead, “I Contain Multitudes” makes a powerful statement about artistry and personality in a space previously only available to men. A line like “I’m a man of contradictions and a man of many moods,” is fine for a man to say, but for a woman to admit to such “hysterical female” tropes is practically subversive. It’s all right, though; like Dylan, Swift has “no apologies to make.” Chrissie Hynde and Emma Swift are big girls now, and their tough, tender takes on these Dylan classics leave the listener in no doubt of their maturity.
Chrissie Hynde. Standing in the Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan. BMG Rights Management (UK), May 2021.
Emma Swift, 2021, https://www.emmaswift.com/.
Emma Swift. Blonde on the Tracks. Patrick Sansone, Tiny Ghost Records, August 2020.
Grow, Kory. “Chrissie Hynde Brings It All Back Home on Her Dylan Covers LP ‘Standing in the Doorway’.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 21 May 2021, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/chrissie-hynde-standing-in-the-doorway-bob-dylan-review-1170654/.
New International Version. Bible Gateway. http://www.biblegateway.com Accessed 21 Dec. 2021.
Lethem, Jonathan. “Infidels (1983).” The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, edited by Kevin Dettmar, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009, pp. 160–166.
O’ Dair, Barbara. “Bob Dylan and Gender Politics.” The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, edited by Kevin Dettmar, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009, pp. 80–86.