Rewriting songs, LGBT/gender and Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan has contributed on numerous occasions to collective albums, especially of the tribute variety, but he breaks new ground with his participation in a new collective mini-album (consisting of six tracks, three performed by women and three by men, and available on-line and on vinyl), entitled Universal Love – Wedding Songs Reimagined, and consisting of jazz and pop standards with their lyrics rewritten for gender in LGBT-friendly fashion. The songs are offered by the issuing company, MGM Resorts International, as suitable for same-sex wedding ceremonies.

Dylan performs, in the retro mode familiar from his recent albums of vintage material, a rewrite of She’s Funny That Way, a song written by Neil Moret and Richard Whiting in 1929 and recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1938, now rebaptised He’s Funny That Way. The other performances are: Benjamin Gibbard, And I Love Him (original: the Beatles, And I Love Her); Keke Okereke, My Guy (original: the Temptations, My Girl); Kesha, I Need a Woman to Love (original: Janis Joplin, I Need a Man to Love); St Vincent, And Then She Kissed Me (original: The Crystals, And Then He Kissed Me); and Valerie June, Mad about the Girl (original composed by Noel Coward as Mad about the Boy; best-known version by Dinah Washington).

In the past song lyrics have often been rewritten when the song is covered by a person of opposite sex to the author or original performer. Dylan’s own Mama, You’ve Been on my Mind was covered by both Judy Collins and Joan Baez as Daddy, You’ve Been on my Mind; Leonard  Cohen’s Ballad of the Absent Mare was recorded by Emmylou Harris as Ballad of a Runaway Horse, even though the song is in is third person and about a steed. The intention, conscious or otherwise, behind such transformations was no doubt to avoid any suspicions that either the performer or the song’s author might have gay or lesbian tendencies.

On this album the rewritings work in the opposite direction, to open up the songs’ emotional potential and permit their adaptation to a possible LGBT context. A Beatles classic like And I Love Her is thus no longer a hymn exclusively to heterosexual love, and comes over as just as moving converted into And I Love Him. The performance of He’s Funny That Way fully partakes in the atmosphere of the project, and it is gratifying to see Bob Dylan, after a long absence from direct social intervention, allying himself once more with a progressive cause.

For more, see:

Jim Farber, ‘Bob Dylan Sings about Gay Love’, New York Times, 5 April 2018


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