"It happened by chance. I needed a short time to record these songs; these songs are really important to me, followed me during all these years so I treated them as if they were my songs, not like covers. It took a short time, you know these are folk songs and do not need too many ornaments."
Bob Dylan 1993
"Good As I Been To You" released in early November 1992 took a lot of people by surprise, but in retrospect it was the logical move for Dylan to make. His first fully acoustic album since 1964's "Another Side Of Bob Dylan" this stripped to the bone collection of folk and blues standards came about almost by accident. Dylan's touring schedule had taken him to Australia in early 1992 where he had been experimenting more than usual with traditional folk tunes, notably "Little Moses" and "Female Rambling Sailor" among others. The next leg of the tour took him to Hawaii and the US west coast, where this trend continued. He took a break from the road in order to fulfil his contractual obligation, and went into Chicago's Acme Studios to record with guitarist David Bromberg and his band. The tracks recorded at these sessions (see above) were left with Bromberg while Dylan resumed touring; Europe this time, where he debuted his version of Paul Simon's "Hazy Shade Of Winter" in France. He returned to the States that summer and took the tapes into his home studio with the apparent intention of recording a few acoustic tracks to fill out what would be his next album. It may well be that the technophobe in him kicked in, and he found that the acoustic numbers were coming easily and quickly "Those songs worked their way into my own songs, I guess, but never in a conscious way...It's like nobody really wrote those songs. They just get passed down." he said in 1993. Of the tracks to make the final cut of "Good As I Been To You" only one, "Little Maggie" survives from Dylan's concerts of the first half of that year, and none of the Acme tracks have ever surfaced. No reason for this has been given, and the pity is that we may never hear Dylan's version of Tim Hardin's beautiful "The Lady Came From Baltimore" but "Duncan And Brady" became a concert standard in the late nineties. All but one of the songs recorded at Point Dume were included, the only omission being "You Belong To Me" which would get its debut as part of the soundtrack to Oliver Stone's 1994 movie, "Natural Born Killers." As to the album, most were quick to focus on the sad decline of Dylan's voice, but ironically it suits the material perfectly, although a few eyebrows were raised at the claim of trad. arr. Dylan on all the tracks when several were patently not. To his credit, Dylan would attempt to rectify this on the follow-up "World Gone Wrong" where his allocation of credits is meticulous, if a tad wordy.
"Frankie And Albert" or its better known namesake, "Frankie And Johnny" has been in the public domain for some considerable time, and over the years has been recorded in too many different versions and by too many people to list here. Dylan tells the classic tale of the wronged lover who takes the ultimate revenge, in something approaching a monotone accompanying himself on a lively acoustic guitar. "Frankie was a good girl" he tells us, adding almost as an afterthought "Everybody knows" and goes on to relate the tale of her betrayal by Albert, who was "...her man but he done her wrong." Frankie shoots Albert, fatally wounding him, for his philandering ways, but is immediately contrite, she "Took Albert into her lap/Started to hug and kiss him/But there was no bringin' him back." She is of course hanged, but as she goes to the gallows singing "Nearer my God, to Thee" her remorse is stronger than her fear.
"Jim Jones" is the simple yet sinister tale of deportation to Botany Bay. We never know what Jim's crime was, and it is difficult, two hundred years on to imagine the fear that being deported must have struck into the hearts of those unfortunate enough to experience it. Fear so great in fact that either of the two perils that the convict ship faces, (pirates and raging storms) seem preferable to landing in New South Wales, "...I'd rather have joined that pirate ship/Than gone to Botany Bay" and "I'd rather have drowned in misery/Than gone to New South Wales." But go to New South Wales he does, and describes the privation of working in a chain gang, from which even death offers no hope "...and when we die/We must fill dishonoured graves" Not a man easily tamed, Jim dreams of escaping, and the night that he will "...shoot those tyrants one and all" and he leaves us with a stark and menacing warning "...I'll give the land a little shock/Remember what I say/And they'll yet regret they've sent Jim Jones/In chains to Botany Bay."
"Blackjack Davey" is the archetypal rogue of romantic fiction. The capriciousness of the maid who falls for Davey's obvious charms is also typical of this genre (there is a lovely touch of the old roué in Dylan's pronunciation of honey in the line "How old are you, my honey?") as is the response of the wronged husband. The thing that strikes me about this song is the attention to detail concerning the clothing, there is much pulling on and off of boots and gloves before she is returned to her feather bed, and when she thinks "Tonight I lay on the river banks/In the arms of Black Jack Davey" is she only dreaming? Not so with the heroine of "Canadee-i-o" who uses her feminine wiles to deceive the captain and crew of a sailing ship into thinking that she is a man, a plot device that has been used from Shakespeare to Hollywood. Discovering her subterfuge, the crew decides to get rid of her "...We'll tie her hands and feet, my boys/And overboard we'll throw her" presumably because of the bad luck that women were supposed to bring to ships. The captain who at first agrees with the crew, later relents and allows her to stay on board in order to see the seaport town of Canadee-i-o that she has such a passion for. After a six month voyage her fortunes have turned around to the extent that she has "...married this bold captain/Who called her his dear" and one can only speculate on the reasons for his change of heart. An unlikely tale even for a folk song, particularly in light of the contradictory last verse where she exhorts all "...fair and tender girls" to follow their own true love to sea, because "...if the sailors prove false to you/Well, the captain, he might prove true."
Dylan was no stranger to "Sittin' On Top Of The World" it is a song that he played harmonica on for Big Joe Williams back in 1962 during his Victoria Spivey sessions, and it is here that we hear his harmonica for the first time on this album. His performance of this song is not as fluid as some of the others, and there is a feeling that he has not quite got on top of it (no pun intended). The old blues lament of "An' I don't worry/Lord, I'm sittin' on top of the world" is one that Dylan has often paraphrased over the years. "Little Maggie" is another song that has a lengthy pedigree with Dylan, and as mentioned earlier it is the only one on the album that he was performing regularly at this time. That may well be the problem with this song, he is too close to it, and it is showing signs of fatigue. The triteness of both the lyric and the sentiment combine to reduce "Little Maggie" to insignificance, and it may only be because of its association with the Stanley Brothers, a bluegrass duo Dylan was particularly fond of, that he includes it.
If there is one song that Dylan really nails in this collection, it is Stephen Foster's "Hard Times." The weariness and emotion that he imparts to Foster's lyrics is quite astonishing, "...while we all sup sorrow with the poor" is particularly descriptive, as is the equally graphic, if melodramatic "While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay/There are frail forms fainting at the door." Many of Foster's songs would be unacceptable today (he wrote, among others, "Oh, Susannah" and "Swanee River") but "Hard Times" in three short verses captures the essence of an economic divide in mid nineteenth century American society like an aural snapshot. "Many days you have lingered all around my cabin door/Oh, hard times, come no more" is a plaintive and poignant refrain.
"Step It Up And Go" is a pretty unremarkable song that brings little to the album. In fairness to Dylan, his version of it is competent but the speed at which he performs it suggests that he would like to get it over with quickly, a case of the title being very pertinent. On the other hand, "Tomorrow Night" is one of the better performances on the album. Simplicity is the keyword here, in this, one of only two tracks to feature Dylan's harmonica, "Tomorrow night/Will you remember what you said tonight?" he asks in the age old lovers plea. "Will you be with me when the moon is bright?" and "Will you say those lovely things you said tonight?" echo many of the insecurities and doubts found in much of Dylan's own writing. A lovely little song.
Another excellent though totally different song is "Arthur McBride" a song that Dylan seems to take great pleasure in singing, ultra violent lyrics notwithstanding. The chance meeting of the narrator and his cousin, Arthur McBride with the recruiting sergeant begins with much pleasantry, "Good morning, Good morning, the sergeant he cried/And the same to you gentlemen, we did reply" as the sergeant lays out the attractive terms of enlistment, which include, along with "...ten guineas in gold," clean and pleasant living conditions and a "...charming young wife." Not to be taken in by these unlikely promises, the pair decide to refuse the offer of enlistment, and the ensuing verbal altercation becomes physical, involving a shillelagh and "...old rusty rapiers." The contempt that these recruiting sergeants were obviously held in is apparent by the description of the violent beating he, his corporal and his drummer boy receive at the hands of Arthur McBride and his cousin, the relevant verse ending with the blunt "And we left them for dead in the morning." With the tables having been suitably turned, and with the warning that "...we were the lads that would give them hard clouts" the pair continue "...a'walkin' down by the seaside." This is one of the best vocals on the album, and Dylan's performance is very close to that of Paul Brady, an Irish folk singer that he professed on the "Biograph" notes was one of his "...secret heroes."
"You're Gonna Quit Me" is a simple blues number that provides little more than filler for the album, but it also provides us with the title, "Good as I been to you, Lawd, Lawd/Good as I been to you." Again, Dylan's performance is adequate, but the album would not have suffered from its exclusion. Not so with "Diamond Joe," one of the real delights of this album. There is much grim humour to be found in this story of the Texas rancher who "...carries all his money/In a diamond-studded jar" and who gives the poor unfortunate who works for him "...a string of horses/So old they could not stand." Joe's entire character is summed up with the wonderfully succinct "He never took much trouble/With the process of the law" and his attitude to those in his employ "...his bread it was corn dodger/And his meat you couldn't chaw." A liar and a cheat then, but the final insulting ignominy comes from his worker, whose instructions on his death are "Give my blankets to my buddies/Give the fleas to Diamond Joe."
But the real highlight of the album is surprisingly, the last track "Froggie Went A'Courtin'" in which Dylan shows again his strength in the nursery rhyme/fairy tale genre. He performs the whole song in a sort of dead-pan monotone and the juvenile humour and childlike descriptions of the disastrous wedding feast work really well. This is the "Desolation Row" of the animal kingdom with its bizarre characters and ludicrous situations "What should the wedding supper be?/Fried mosquito in a black-eyed pea, Uh-Huh." Food is central to the story, whether it be the feast itself, or the minor animals, most of which are reduced to little more than links in an increasingly grotesque food chain. Even the central character does not escape this undignified end "Mr. Frog went a-hoppin' up over the brook/A lily-white duck came and swallowed him up" and the song (and the album) is neatly tied up with the final line "If you want any more you can sing it yourself, Uh-Huh."
Both "Good As I Been To You" and its successor "World Gone Wrong" were critical if not commercial successes, and in defence of his decision to record an album of cover versions Dylan was pragmatic "Maybe a person gets to the point where they have written enough songs. Let someone else write them" he said, and praise came from all quarters. David Wild writing in Rolling Stone said "Good As I Been To You shows that sometimes one can look back and find something that's both timeless and relevant. It also proves once again that Dylan can still be every bit as good as he's been to us in the past. Which is, of course, as good as it gets." Across the Atlantic, David Sexton in the UK's Sunday Telegraph was equally complimentary "Dylan sounds now, in comparison to his younger self, like one of those ghosts. But a powerful ghost. The effect is not so much nostalgia...as deeply inward." At the same time he was criticised for not recognising his sources, "...why has the rich old has-been copywrited every damn track as Traditional Arranged Dylan?" asked Ian Andersen, editor of Folk Roots with some justification. The feeling among most reviewers, whether favourable or not, was that Dylan as a writer was a spent force, and the release of "World Gone Wrong" a year later would only strengthen this belief. It would only be with "Time Out Of mind" in 1997 that he would once again be recognised as the foremost lyricist of the rock era.