I’m going to work through the whole album, Whistle Down The Wind, week by week, saving “The President Sang Amazing Grace” for last (for obvious reasons :)).
Why? Well why not! I went into the music store and bough a physical CD for the first time in quite a while. I can’t easily play it, but I held it. Why not examine it track by track.
I’m particularly interested in understanding Joe Henry’s production and the arrangements.
So, first up is the title track, by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan and released by Waits on his 1992 album Bone Machine. Here’s his version:
Good god, that’s taking me quite a bit of effort to listen to his voice. “Gravelly” doesn’t really cover it! I can see coming to feel it, but my first reaction was “Turn it off!!! Why are you hurting me!”
(Which is weird, because I often like that type of vocal performance.)
Reading some of the discussion of Bone Machine it seems that the brutality of the performance serve the theme well (meditations on death). But that comes out a particular way. Harsh. Grasping and gasping.
Baez’s is very different:
One of the repeated themes in interviews with Baez is that her voice is very different from what made her a star. That voice wasn’t my favorite! I quite like her current voice. The little bit of rasp and generally lower register is very congenial, esp for this album. Of course, next to Waits’, her voice is smooth as glass.
On to the lyrics:
I grew up here all of my life
But I dreamed someday I’d go
Where the blue eyed girls and red guitars
And the naked rivers flow
I’m not all I thought I’d be
I’ve always stayed around
And I’ve been as far as Mercy and Grand
Frozen to the ground
I can’t stay here and I’m scared to leave
So kiss me once and then
I’ll go to hell
I might as well
Be whistlin’ down the wind
I find this more optimistic in Baez’s version maybe because it sounds prettier which makes the first version carry a stronger impression. The contrast between the bright, metallic, almost sprightly guitar opening Baez’s vs. the the more subdued piano in Waits’ is almost as great as the difference between their voices. The guitar is also more precise and deliberate, whereas the piano is loser both dynamically and on time and note placement.
In the B part, Henry introduces a bit of rat-at-tat-tat on the snare. This, with the swelling pump organ keeps the whole thing brighter.
And then there’s the glorious band saw! I love it! The touch of eerieness fits in interestingly with the more grounded (but bright!) rest of the arrangement. It’s almost as if the ghost of Baez’s former voice swung by for a visit.
I’m not convinced by the cymbal, but I’m, in general, a such cymbal skeptic. I don’t hate it there, but it feels a bit superfluous. I get that we’re thickening the sound, but I think the pump organ is sufficient.
It’s worth attending to the transition before the first “So I will take the Marley Bone Coach” in the final verse. The first two lines are subdued, but then we get the snare and a very prominent finger picking that pushes us into the end. I think a change to the vocal might have boosted things there. A modulation maybe. That transition promises something but then seems to be the thing promised.
The transition from the last word into the saw is seamless and glorious.
My favorite verse, lyrically is:
The sky is red, and the world is on fire
And the corn is taller than me
And the dog is tied to a wagon of rain
And the road as wet as the sea
That’s just some cool imagery, well delivered.
My overall impression, having listened to Baez’s on a loop and Waits’ enough that I can bear it, is that Baez’s is interpretatively freer (in spite of being musically tighter). It’s reflective rather than anguished so you can hear it as more or less melancholy. The last verse can be resigned or transcending. Which is pretty cool!
The two versions are very different and don’t step on each other’s toes. I’m not sure I’ll ever be comfortable with Waits’ version but I can see the value of such a version.
I found another version, from 2015, by Valerie Carter:
This seems closer to what one might have expected from a Baez with her old voice (though Carter is very breathy). Its tempo and feel are closer to Waits (though with a pretty patina due to the vocal difference). Lots of sonorous swelling (e.g., the strings). Doesn’t do a lot for me.
There’s a Weber musical of the same name with a same named song. No idea what to do with that!
One final note: I literally have no idea what “Whistle Down the Wind”, as a phrase, is supposed to mean! I…guess…it means doing something futile? Or magic (summoning)? Or defiant (whistle louder than the wind and it’ll give up?) It’s just sound to me!
UPDATE! My Uncle Frank pointed me to this explanation:
The phrase is in fact much older and derives from the earlier ‘whistle away’, which meant ‘dismiss or cast off’. This usage dates from at least the 16th century…
The ‘down the wind’ part of the phrase comes from the sport of falconry. When hawks are released to hunt they are sent upwind and when turned loose for recreation they are sent downwind. Thus, to ‘whistle someone/thing down the wind’ is to cast it off to its own fate. Shakespeare alluded to this in Othello, 1604:
If I do prove her haggard, Though that her jesses [leather straps] were my dear heartstrings, I’ld whistle her off and let her down the wind, To pray at fortune.
I’m not sure it makes sense in this context, but at least I have a definition!