Bob Dylan, “Melancholy Mood”

Bob Dylan "Melancholy Mood"

Bob Dylan "Melancholy Mood"
It is (in the sense of those things these days) Bob Dylan’s hot new single: “Melancholy Mood.” The song is best known from its recording by Harry James and his Orchestra, with brand new boy singer Frank Sinatra, in 1939. It was the B-side of “From the Bottom of My Heart.” Neither side charted, though both are masterful and lovely records and show the promise of the Sinatra to come. Bob Dylan’s version is embedded below here via YouTube, with a little more on the song and his own quite lovely take on it coming under that.

Comparing Dylan’s to the Harry James/Frank Sinatra side (also on YouTube at the moment) reveals that it is the very same arrangement, as adapted by his five piece guitar-based band. You would think that someone like Dylan would do it as a song, rather than in the style of a big band, where the singer comes in only after the band has gone through the tune already—but you would think wrong. Where Harry James played his trumpet, we have beautiful solo guitar, and on it goes to about the one minute and seven second mark (just as on the James side) and then Bob Dylan steps to the microphone—the most grizzled boy singer you’d ever want to see—and caresses the lyric the rest of the way.

That has been the modus operandi of Dylan on these “Sinatra covers;” that is, to take one of Sinatra’s original recordings (in a lot of cases there were multiple Sinatra versions to pick from) and to simply try to recreate the arrangement with the five piece combo (and occasional extra). In so doing, and in each case, they come up with something beautiful of their own. Dylan’s singing, of-course, is always his own.

And as with his previous interpretations of these old popular songs, Dylan brings resonances to “Melancholy Mood” beyond the boy/girl love theme that would have been the given way of hearing it before. This song, from a lonely soul, even has something to say along those lines, which sounds so right in Dylan’s gentle and aged voice:

But love is a whimsy
And as flimsy as lace
And my arms embrace an empty space

The singer’s soul is “stranded high and dry”—all he can see is “grief and gloom / till the crack of doom.” Still, he prays for release from his melancholy mood, and in Bob’s voice it seems to me this has less the sense of a boy praying for his girl to come back and more the sense of the creature praying to his Creator for an infinitely greater kind of release.

Dylan’s gift to these songs is to show just how deep they can go, without changing a note or a word.

“Melancholy Mood” was written by Vick Knight and Walter Schumann.



Bob Dylan’s forthcoming album, from which “Melancholy Mood” is taken, is titled Fallen Angels, and is to be released on May 20th. The full track listing is as follows:

1. Young At Heart
2. Maybe You’ll Be There
3. Polka Dots and Moonbeams
4. All The Way
5. Skylark
6. Nevertheless
7. All Or Nothing At All
8. On A Little Street In Singapore
9. It Had To Be You
10. Melancholy Mood
11. That Old Black Magic
12. Come Rain Or Come Shine

And to all that I can only say: Golly! It’s a great time to be alive.

A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra

A Jolly Christmas Frank Sinatra

Review of A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra

There’s a communal feeling about most Christmas music. Maybe this is because we generally hear the songs in the company of others, whether it’s as we’re elbowing our way down the aisles of the department store or perhaps singing along with them in church. I think that the most special thing about Frank Sinatra’s A Jolly Christmas (Capitol Records, 1957) may well be how a very particular mood is created, quite different to that of the run-of-the-mill Christmas album. It is not so much a mood of lonesomeness (although Sinatra was well-skilled with evocation in that area) but a more nuanced and less inherently-sad sense of simply being alone at Christmas. Not miserable, and not necessarily overjoyed either, but simply contemplating and appreciating the season apart from the crowds and the relatives.

In the course of his long career Sinatra recorded plenty of Christmas music, from the sides with Axel Stordahl in the 1940s on Columbia (some very lovely stuff) to The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas on Reprise in 1968 (predictably kind of cheesy). And these Christmas tracks get repackaged and resold over and over again. However, A Jolly Christmas is, to my mind, quite distinct. In 1957 when he went in to record it (during July in Los Angeles), Sinatra was truly at the peak of his artistic powers. Not only was his vocal ability (both the quality of his voice and his sense of how to use it) the best it had ever been or would ever be, but he was also at a peak of good taste. My theory is that Sinatra always personally had good taste, but later in his career he came to believe that his potential audience did not, and he dumbed things down at times in an effort to woo them. At this time, however, in the mid-1950s, Sinatra had a clear idea of what he wanted to do, musically-speaking, and what he was capable of, and he was able to work with arrangers and musicians of great excellence and taste themselves, and together they were able to put out records of a very high standard that in turn reached an appreciative and welcoming audience. All of these factors would never come together simultaneously again, and this is why Sinatra’s albums for Capitol Records in the 1950s stand as his greatest, and indeed as some of the most perfect examples of refined popular music that exist.

To put it in context, A Jolly Christmas was bookended by A Swingin’ Affair! (a sterling Nelson Riddle set) and Come Fly With Me (a masterpiece with Billy May). And released in exactly the same month (September of 1957) was Where Are You?, one of Sinatra’s great sets of lovelorn ballads, this one arranged by Gordon Jenkins, who likewise is the arranger for A Jolly Christmas. Jenkins had his strengths and weaknesses as an arranger, but there’s no doubting that his particular style is crucial in making A Jolly Christmas the unique kind of Christmas record that it is. Continue readingA Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra”

Frank Sinatra Sings at the White House (1973 – Complete Film)

Frank Sinatra White House

Frank Sinatra White House

It would always be a great time to rediscover this wonderful treasure, but it’s especially apt now, in this, Frank Sinatra’s centenary year. On April 17th, 1973, Frank Sinatra performed at the White House, on the occasion of a state dinner in honor of Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti of Italy, with President Nixon, First Lady Pat and assorted dignitaries as his audience. It was a sterling show, and it was recorded, but never officially released. For my part I didn’t even know that a complete film of the evening even existed, although the audio has been released over the years in bootlegged form. (My first encounter with the concert was hearing the great Jonathan Schwartz play some extracts of it on New York’s old WQEW in the early 1990s, when I also happened to be in the first full flush of Sinatra fan-dom.)

Frank Sinatra had famously announced his retirement in March of 1971, so this 1973 show was a special exception to that status … and also turned out to be effectively the end of it. His orchestra on the night was the United States Marine Band, with the great Nelson Riddle conducting (including on some of his own classic arrangements), with Al Viola sitting in on guitar and naturally Bill Miller on piano. Continue reading “Frank Sinatra Sings at the White House (1973 – Complete Film)”

Frank Sinatra – “Send in the Clowns”

Frank Sinatra Send in the Clowns

Frank Sinatra Send in the Clowns

“Send in the Clowns”: It’s an odd song, isn’t it? A bit queer, you could even say. It’s not so easy to get a handle on what it’s about. But undeniably it’s also rather rich, in terms of its musical dynamics and lyrical drama, and I do think that’s why so many singers have been drawn to taking it up and seeing what they can make of it. It’s been sung by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Grace Jones to Roger Whittaker to Van Morrison to … well, maybe that’s quite enough range right there for any song to claim. Continue reading “Frank Sinatra – “Send in the Clowns””

Billie Holiday and What a Little Moonlight Can Do

Billie Holiday centenary

Billie Holiday centenary
Today’s the centenary of the great Billie Holiday’s birth, on April 7th, 1915. She died far too soon, only 44 years on the earth. Although she packed a good deal of wonderful music into her career, imagine what she’d have accomplished given another couple of decades; with her light, unstrained but supremely articulate way of singing (and given good health) she could have gone on to make masterpieces and electrify audiences well into her old age. Looking back from the perspective of 2015 it seems like hers was one of the first of the celebrated premature deaths of great musical talents that became a long tragic string.

But perhaps that itself is a false perspective; perhaps people have always had this tendency to glamorize the tortured artist or poet who dies too young, too sensitive for this world. Whatever the case, I say screw all that. It’s never a good thing for that talent and that life to come to such an abrupt stop. Imagine Bob Dylan dead in 1966 from the excess and pace of his life then; what a waste to an extent we’d never even have appreciated. Imagine Sinatra in his gloom of 1952, swallowing something lethal or slitting his wrists: what an unspeakable tragedy that we’d never have heard his greatest work still then to come.



None of this is to blame Billie Holiday in the slightest way. She had to fight multiple real demons, and seems hardly to have gotten a break from birth to the grave, from A through Z. What’s amazing is that she managed to record so much great music during the time she had, and stay so true to her talent, and have such a transformational impact on popular singing (most notably on Frank Sinatra, who himself then impacted so many others, and whose centenary is also celebrated this year).

Using that talent, singing as only she could do, surrounded by other hip, gifted musicians, and in her element, she communicated a joy of being alive that soared in spite of the broken world through which she tripped.

“What A Little Moonlight Can Do.” (Below via YouTube, from 1935)