Ranking Bob Dylan Songs, #108: See That My Grave Is Kept Clean

Why is a 20-year-old kid singing about keeping his grave clean? This, in a nutshell, is the problem with Dylan’s first album: His songs don’t feel honest; they sound as if he is trying to duplicate the emotions of other singers instead of translating his own feelings.

There has been some discussion recently, thanks to Joni Mitchell, of Bob Dylan’s honesty. Mitchell told the LA Times that, “Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.” This is not an entirely new complaint about Dylan. People have often accused him of being phony or deceptive, both in his songs and with the media.

The problem with Mitchell’s complaint (other than the fact that it was a completely uncalled for and unprovoked ad hominem attack), and this line of criticism in general, is that it confuses “authenticity” with “honesty.” It’s true that Dylan’s voice is often “fake” (although this raises a question of what someone’s “true” singing voice is; don’t all singers manipulate and modify their voice for different songs, at least to some degree?), and that many of his songs about historical events and figures play fast and loose with the facts. In this, Dylan is, I suppose, “dishonest.”

But, as Pablo Picasso said, “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” Dylan’s songs may not always be “honest,” in that they manipulate facts or obscure his own personal feelings, but they are almost always authentic. Dylan’s songs get closer to the visceral truth of the world than 1,000 more “honest” songs—by Joni Mitchell or anyone else—do.

The problem with Bob Dylan as an album, though, and “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” in particular, is that Dylan seems to be neither singing with personal honesty nor authenticity. He sounds like he is singing this song more out of reverence to its writer, Blind Lemon Jefferson, than out of any particular emotional resonance. There is still a dark poetry to the song, from the foreboding imagery evoked by the sights and sounds of a funeral and death, to the feeling of a final, resigned wish to merely keep your grave clean. The problem, though, is that Dylan doesn’t seem to put his own spin on the poetry of the song (as, say, Lou Reed did).

Luckily, though, as the final song on his first album, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” would spell the death of this version of Dylan—this version that was too in awe of predecessors like Jefferson and Woody Guthrie to embark on his own emotional journey. Just over a year later, though, Dylan would release The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which should really put to rest any doubts about his ability to be authentic and personal.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Douglas on May 1, 2010 at 2:46 AM

    “…don’t all singers manipulate and modify their voice for different songs, at least to some degree?”

    I don’t think this is fair. Of course it’s hard to know what Joni Mitchell meant by “fake”, but I interpreted her complaint to be that Bob Dylan employs an excessive affect. If this is the case, then it’s not really comparable to the modifications of most other singers. You would probably speak one way while giving a toast and another while telling a secret, but that type of variation wouldn’t equate to someone else using, say, a fake British accent.

    However, I do agree that to describe such a voice as “inauthentic” is troublesome because of the old “hey man, it’s art” loophole. The accusation of plagiarism is an understandable basis for criticizing lyrics, but why does someone’s singing with a “fake” voice undermine their art? Mitchell doesn’t really provide an explanation for that. Interesting, too, that the focus of that interview was on a Joni Mitchell drag impersonator…a far more authentic specimen than Dylan, to be sure.

    Reply

  2. Posted by anonymous on May 1, 2010 at 8:50 AM

    all singing voices…including a “perfect, most beautiful voice” like Streisand….are an emoting for affect….some may be true artists….but still have to put on a voice….Dylan, obviously does it better/best…does not take much thought to realize it is an “act”…like Dustin Hoffman delivering lines….this is show biz….while the distinction between the true artist and simply a performer are in the sophistication of both performance and the audience.

    Listen to Dylan’s live “Moonshiner” from 1962…thru studio version of “If You See Her, Say Hello, ” all the way to his current live version of “Forgetful Heart.” That is true art….is his voice authentic?…well that, my friends, is a discussion involving semantics and what each of us mean when we say the word – authentic…in the end it would not matter….it is art…there can be no denying of that in any conversation or debate.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Jackie Hayden on May 1, 2010 at 12:57 PM

    There’s nothing remotely new about Joni Mitchell’s observations about Dylan. We all know that his name is not his birth name (nor is Mitchell’s! She was born Roberta Anderson). Dylan has used countless voices in different styles and periods, a proof of his versatility and his wiliingness to explore new avenues. As for plagiarism, if this were even remotely true, the copyright owners would have been only too happy to sue him.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Shawn on August 24, 2010 at 12:25 AM

    If i could “fake” my voice like Dylan, well, I’d do it in a second. If someone wants to hear the sound of America in the future, look no further than Bob Dylan. He is the best of the past, extremely original and anyone who is considered great in the future will have studied him extensively. There is no way around Dylan, you can only get over him.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Rich O'Neil on February 12, 2012 at 6:50 PM

    Joni is a giant pain in the ass! And loves herself a lil too much now,don’t she!

    Reply

  6. Posted by Dr. Sung on January 19, 2013 at 4:38 AM

    “Why is a 20-year-old kid singing about keeping his grave clean? This, in a nutshell, is the problem with Dylan’s first album: His songs don’t feel honest; they sound as if he is trying to duplicate the emotions of other singers instead of translating his own feelings.”

    It’s because he is. Dylan’s first album is entirely covers, with the exception of “Song to Woody”. And even that is based off the melody of a Woody Guthrie song.

    I didn’t bother to read the rest of your article.

    Reply

  7. Joni Mitchell herself has made questionable musical decisions, the most egregious among them being her decision to pass herself as someone with some experimental jazz and classical credentials. The results of that period, “Hejira”, “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter” and “Mingus” did, of course, have momentary pleasures, but the modal, jazz and minimalist classical elements she put used were affectations rather than compositions and lyrics that had direction .

    She seemed a dilettante, utterly pretentious , foresaken her strongest talents as songwriter for a phony form of respectability. To be fare, she is not the only one who has been seduced by the promise of high-culture approval ; Paul McCartney wrote and released his horribly thin production “Liverpool Oratorio” that was, in essence, an overdressed rendering of what would be McCartney’s best virtue, his superb tunefulness. Elvis Costello, a man possessed with true genius from time to time, was like wise seduced by the need to be a master of all genres, from pop, country, classical, jazz, great american songbook, and so forth, with the culminating result being a string of albums by a talented artists doing half assed work.

    That Dylan stole melodies and affected voices is common knowledge to anyone who has followed his career and the reviews that have attended it, but they key point is what he’s done with he’s taken. An old saying applies here, the amatuer borrows, the professional steals. Dylan is the professional in as much as he makes what he’s taken and takes ownership of the style, the influence, and changes it to suit is needs as an artist; the results speak for themselves, decades of brilliant songs, recorded performances that still rivet, enthrall, engage, spark debate, words and music both.Trust the tale, not the teller. Dylan himself may be a pretender of sorts as he took the stage to perform his own songs, eager to equal the music of heroes and create a name for himself. Ambitious people are generally had to be around,hard to take seriously, easy to dislike. But Dylan changed the game forever, as did his heroes. Mitchell, magnificent as she has been in her time, is in Dylan’s shadow for all time.

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