Covers Political Songs

Bob Dylan Pandemic Project Part II

“It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” from Highway 61 Revisited, 1965.

(Bob Dylan, 60 Minutes Interview with Ed Bradley, 2004.)

BD: It just came. It came from… was like a… right out of that wellspring of creativity, I would think, you know.
EB: Do you ever look back at the music that you’ve written and look back at it and say “Wow! That surprises me!”?
BD: I used to. I don’t do that anymore. I don’t know how I got to write those songs.
EB: What do you mean you don’t know how?
BD: All those early songs were almost magically written. Ah… “Darkness at the break of noon, shadows even the silver spoon, a handmade blade, the child’s balloon…”
(This is from Dylan’s classic, “It’s Alright, Ma,” written in 1964).
BD: Well, try to sit down and write something like that. There’s a magic to that, and it’s not Siegfried and Roy kind of magic, you know? It’s a different kind of a penetrating magic.

The amount of writing and lore that has surrounded Bob Dylan—part of it created by Dylan himself—has become overwhelming.  The writing focuses on Dylan as an ego and commodity and all the words develop a fictional character named Bob Dylan.  For example, there is an encyclopedia of all things Bob Dylan.  It’s easy to discover the background of this song with a title that is way too long—a song that for some random reason, I played one night during the pandemic.  The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia says:

“This sexy shuffle was still a hopped-up blues called “Phantom Engineer” when Dylan debuted it at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.  Later it was the first song he attempted during the sessions for Highway 61 Revisited (p. 113).

Thus the song becomes defined and recognized as a commodity.  The night I played “It Takes a lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” I felt connected to the song not as a commodity but as “a different kind of penetrating magic.”  I did not know it was connected to two pivotal moments in music history.  Jeremy Corey-Gruenes develops the twin themes of the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and Highway 61 Revisited in his attached video. 

Through the magic of music and poetry, I randomly and metaphorically related this song to these strange pandemic times.  Strumming the blues one night, looking out my window at the winter moon, the title of this song came to me and I played it.  At some point in the two plague years, it seemed that it was an effort to laugh and quite easy to find occasions to cry.  Another line that resonated: “Baby, can’t buy a thrill/ I been up all night / leanin’ on the window sill.” That seemed to fit mood of the times—lonesome, sleepless nights.  And, chillingly, “wintertime is coming/ the windows are filled with frost.” 

I had not yet done any research into Dylan’s song and did not plan to record a “sexy shuffle.” I thought of the song a dark blues riff—appropriate commentary on a pandemic.  But listening now, after going through the recording process, maybe it is a “sexy shuffle” too?   For some non-linear reason, while singing the song alone in my room in the midst of Covid, I made a metaphor with W. B. Yeats’ line “Although I know when looks meet/ I tremble to the bone.” from “Crazy Jane and Jack the Journeyman.”  Montage thinking took hold.  I’m not sure why I wanted to graft lines from Yeats’ 1935 poem to Dylan’s song.  But the chill came through the pandemic.  “It took a lot to laugh.”  I’m sure “The Phantom Engineer” had not planned to comment on a plague.   But that was then and “the world is turning.”


“She Belongs to Me” from Bringin’ it all Back Home, 1965.  Video and song cover by Jeremy Corey-Gruenes, former member of The One Drop.

When we asked people to send in Dylan songs for the second part of this project, Jeremy Corey-Gruenes sent this song from Dylan’s half acoustic and half electric album, Bringin’ it all Back Home.  Jeremy is the former singer and guitarist for the One Drop reggae band.  In analyzing the album cover photo, Jeremy notes that Dylan wanted to send a message to those who decried his use of electric instruments and rock music:  “The world is turning and so am I.” Here Jeremy does an acoustic version of “She Belongs to Me.”

This project has involved Kathleen Downes, Jeremy Corey-Gruenes, Tom Daddesio and Mike Opitz—all former members of the first incarnation of the local college reggae band, The One Drop (1991-1999).  Evolved!  Somewhere in the mists of time, Jeremy did a killer version of “All Along the Watchtower” with The One Drop.  It was late in our set–December of 1998—Christmas lights glowed outside of Brother Willie’s Pub.  Our drummer, Gary Neyers, can be heard shouting “Why do we do this one.” It was a good question.  This version captures the feeling of a college band on a Saturday night and something of our punky attitude of the time. 

But now, as pandemic commentary, the line “There must be some way out of here” resonates more powerfully than ever, and the song that has traveled through time and cultures continues.  I still play this song whenever I pick up my guitar, and I still ask that same question. 


“Bob Dylan’s Dream” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963 with lines from Gary Snyder’s “Finding the Space in the Heart.”

Dedicated to the memory of my friend, Dan Hollenhorst (1948-2022).

Dan Hollenhorst in Arcadia National Park Rockefeller Pathway

When I found out my friend had died, my mind flashed back to our younger days—the days of our closest friendship.  Though we usually did not hang out around an “old wooden stove,” we did frequent the Rajkowski cabin on Little Rock Lake.  Or we hung out at Dan’s SJU dorm room—freshman year.  Or in a tent on Lake of the Woods or on a trail on Mt. Ranier.  My memories of these scenes of youthful friendship suggested Dylan’s line, “With half-damp eyes I stared to the room/ where my friends and I spent many an afternoon.”  We often talked, joked and tried to figure out what to do with our lives—like the song says.  One day, Dan asked if I wanted to come with him to hear a poet read.  That poet was Gary Snyder. It changed me.    

The song says “Many a year has come and gone.” In that time, I found myself teaching at the same school where I had visited Dan on Saturday mornings so many years ago.  I taught English classes at CSBSJU for 45 years and Gary Snyder’s work—especially Turtle Island—was almost always included in my reading lists.  It seemed natural to juxtapose my memories of Dan with Gary Snyder’s poetic philosophy.  Dan was a backpacker and canoer with a deep appreciation of natural processes.  He could have been the character in “Finding the Space in the Heart” who, while on a hike “discovered a path/ of carved stone inscriptions tucked into the sagebrush.”  The poem says the inscriptions read “Stamp out greed/ The best things in life are not things.”  Dan lived that way.  

I put the song and the poem together because of my memories of Dan.  I hope it is a fitting memorial.

This recording also marked a reunion with Norb Jost, who was one of the first accomplished musicians we played with. Norb was an excellent mentor and has always been supportive of our efforts. He is one of those musicians who tries to make the entire group sound better. Norb often sat in with the One Drop, but on this song he plays harmonica and really evokes the early Dylan vibe.

Norb Jost recording in the Malt Shop

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