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Back to the Future for Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris found working with Bob Dylan challenged the perfectionist side of her

It may have taken almost 50 years, but Emmylou Harris has finally re-recorded a song she first did with Bob Dylan on Desire - one of his most debated and certainly most popular albums. And the circumstances of her latest release are as fascinating as the events surrounding the actual recording of the 1976 classic.

In the final months before his death on September 1 this year, legendary singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett was busy compiling a new album, featuring both original and covers, and was particularly keen on putting his unique Calypso spin on “Mozambique,” probably the most jaunty and bubbly song on Desire. And to add real value to the interpretation, he convinced Harris to re-enact her role as backing singer on the original.

The result will be among the tracks on Buffett’s posthumous album Equal Strain on All Parts, due out on November 3. As a preview, a behind-the-scenes video has been released showing Buffett, Harris and the band recording in the studio – intercut with scenic shots of “sunny Mozambique.”

The Buffett-Harris version of “Mozambique” stays true to the carefree, rollicking treatment given to it by Dylan and, like the original, it is a full duet. But there is a very defining difference. The distinctive violin accompaniment by Scarlet Rivera on Desire is substituted by a steelpan drum on the latest interpretation, with a little steel-guitar adornment to end.

Desire – a fast follow-up to his much-lauded Blood on the Tracks – was released in early 1976 following a somewhat collaborative project by Dylan. Unusually, all but two of the nine songs were co-writes - with Jacques Levy, a playwright who had previously written songs with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. And to add to the collaboration, Dylan had more than 20 musicians on call for the actual recording sessions in New York, among them, one Eric Clapton. Most of the session artists – though not Clapton - would soon join him on the upcoming Rolling Thunder Revue tour.

The two main recording sessions, over the nights of July 30 & 31, 1975, were later described as “very haphazard” and even “somewhat chaotic.” And a key player in all this was Harris, recruited as the principal backing singer. Her career as a solo artist had just taken off after a brief attachment with country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons. And, indeed, her transcendent vocals with Dylan would fast-track her international profile.

Emmylou’s version of events was nicely detailed by English author Clinton Heylin in his 1991 book Beyond the Shades, considered by many of the most definitive biography of Dylan.

He quotes Harris on the Desire recording sessions: “I’d never heard the songs before and we did most of them in one or two takes. There were no tapes, we sang live. His phrasing changes a lot, but Gram did that a lot too. Gram and I had the same feel for phrasing, but I watched him all the time, so I did just the same thing with Dylan. I just watched his mouth and watched what he was saying. That’s where all the humming comes from. You can hear me humming on some of those tracks.”

She added: “It does take me a while to work out harmony parts and Dylan works very fast. I’m more of a perfectionist. I would have liked more time. There were times when I didn’t even know I was supposed to come in and had to jump fast. But I later realized that you just don’t overdub on a Dylan album. He’s not that kind of artist. I asked to come in and fix my parts and he said, sure! But I didn’t have time, and really didn’t think he’d use any of it.”

“Mozambique” was regarded as a rather frolicking romantic sidebar on an album dominating by long real-life ballads which were to become somewhat controversial.

The opening track “Hurricane” tells the story of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter who was convicted of triple murder in 1966. Dylan and Levy pulled no punches, so to speak, in their lyrics, decrying: Here’s the story of the Hurricane/The man the authorities came to blame/For something that he never done. In fact, the original recording, featuring Harris, never made it to the album. Lawyers for Columbia Records decided the lyrics were potentially libellous and asked Dylan to re-write. The final cut featured backing singer Ronee Blakley, substituting for Harris.

There was also intensive controversy surrounding another ballad, “Joey,” the 11-minute homage to gangster Joey Gallo. The lyrics, largely written by Levy, depict Gallo as a bad guy with morals, whereas he was regarded by many, and portrayed in the media, as an abusive, brutal Mafioso. From a musical perspective, the song is stunning for Emmylou’s high-note refrains where she screeches: Joey, Joey, what made them want to come and blow you away.

There was more intrigue than controversy over Dylan’s self-composed “Sara,” a passionate, lament to his estranged wife Sara. For Dylan, mostly an intensely private person, this was as open about his personal life as he ever got in song. The intrigue was compelled by the fact that Sara was actually in the studio when the song - without any backing vocals - was recorded. Sara would watch as her husband delivered one of his most immortal lines: Staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel/Writing “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for you. The couple would divorce two years later.

Dylan’s portrayal of Mozambique as an idyllic paradise also added to the general discourse about the album’s content. Only a month before the song was recorded, Mozambique had gained independence from Portugal after a ten-year war of independence against the European occupiers. Though Levy and Dylan’s lyrics make a fleeting reference to the loving people living free, it is more in context to a time for good romance than one in the shadow of a bloody war.

In fact, the story goes that Dylan and Levy started writing “Mozambique” as a lyrical game, trying to find words that rhymed with “ique.” They obviously triumphed, as they considered the end result – an effervescent, sing-along ditty – good enough to release as a single, which was to reach #54 on the Billboard Hot 100.

By the time Buffett and Harris got to do their version the people of Mozambique had been “living free” for almost half a century. So, the over-laid scenic shots of white surf lapping golden sands and sail boats cruising peaceful shores are obviously fully in context to what Dylan originally had in mind. The only thing slightly incongruous about the music video is the fact that in the studio Buffett is wearing a scarf and Harris is adorned in a heavy jacket with her hands in thick gloves.

Perhaps it was just a cool day in paradise.

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation


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