Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Absolutely Sweet Marie by Jason and the Scorchers

Absolutely Sweet Marie

Performed by Jason and The Scorchers and written by Bob Dylan. You can hear/see the video for the song here. You can see the lyrics here. You can see/hear a video of a live performance here. You can buy the song form iTunes here. The song appears on at least two albums, Lost and Found, and the live Midnight Roads and Stages Seen. Check out the Jason and the Scorcher’s website.

To live outside the law, you must be honest

A great version of a great song, Jason and the Scorchers demonstrate how to do a cover song. I want to talk about this song first, then riff for a bit on cover songs and list some great covers.

Jason and the Scorchers burn through this song with a frenzy that completely remakes the Dylan original. They do what great cover versions require: They make the song their own with no regard to the original. They re-envision the song so we see it anew again, see it in ways not imaginable before, yet obvious once we hear the new version. Where Dylan’s version played coy and danced around the swirl of images, Jason and the Scorchers roar through the verses, turning gentle references into dangerous shards and making clear the sexual longing and thwarted lust. Whipping guitar, pounding drums and bass and Jason’s snarl remove any doubt about the meaning of the song:

I’m just sitting here beating on my trumpet
With all these promises you left for me
But where are you tonight, sweet Marie?

This is not a mere broken heart; it’s more basic, more primal.

Absolutely Sweet Marie is another Dylan song full of longing for a love that just won’t happen, another failed attempt at finding his Beatrice to lead him out of Hell, and the loss comes out as anger at the woman of his dreams. Jason Ringenberg, lead singer and caption of the band, shouts, scratches, pleads and lashes out, conveying both his longing and anger while the band thrashes away behind him in what sounds more like speed country that cow punk.

The song plays out in a metaphor of a man stuck in jail for reasons that have something to do with Sweet Marie and she’s promised to help spring him. Actual jail, the prison of unrequited love, the lock up of sexual frustration, it’s all there. The song includes some of Dylan’s more famous lines, though Jason and the band refuse to genuflect before them. They’re riding this train for different reasons. In a moment of self-pity and acerbic wit, the song swears:

Well, anybody can be just like me, obviously
But then, now again, not too many can be like you, fortunately

Sitting in prison and waiting for an escape, Sweet Marie instead delivers six white horses to the penitentiary, a long time blues symbol of death. Take that sucker. (“See that My Grave is Kept Clean,” a song sung by Blind Lemon Jefferson and covered by Dylan on his first album has the lines, “Six white horses in a line/Taking me to that burying ground.”) In response, we hear the lines:

But to live outside the law, you must be honest
I know you always say that you agree

He may hate her now, but the singer is still jonesing for what Sweet Marie has to offer. He can’t help himself:

Well, I waited for you when I was half sick
Yes, I waited for you when you hated me

The wailing of the guitar and Jason blowing his demonic harmonica perfectly match the lyrics. Hate her, love her, this song gives voice to the full fury of that clash of hormones and ego.

Making a Great Cover Song

Jason and the Scorchers skip several verses from the song as Dylan wrote it. Sacrilege? They decided they didn’t need those verse to do what they wanted to do. And that’s the point of a great cover: use what you want to make it your song and skip the rest. There’s no better example than what comes of Dylan covers. Some have been wonderful re-imaginings of his original – is there any better cover than Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” – but there have been more terrible covers of Dylan songs than perhaps any other artist. Too often, the cover artist treats the song as sacred material, so earnest, so faithful that they miss the point. You can never do it the way Dylan does, so don’t bother. And please no more museum pieces, versions handled with white gloves, that treat the lines as if so fragile that exposure to air and light will break them.

Here’s a list of some covers that work because the artists made the song their own (in no particular order and with no claim to completeness). Please add your favorite covers:

Song Cover Artist Original Artist
All Along the Watchtower Jimi Hendrix Bob Dylan
Hurt Johnny Cash Nine Inch Nails
I Need Love Luka Bloom L.L. Cool J
Gloria Patti Smith Them (with Van Morrison)
Damn Your Eyes Bettye LaVette Etta James
Baby, It’s You Smith The Shirelles
House of the Rising Sun The Animals Traditional – Covered by Dylan, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk among others
You Don’t Even Call Me by My Name David Allen Coe Steve Goodman
Crazy Mary Pearl Jam Victoria Williams
Yo La Tengo Blitzkrieg Bop The Ramones
Crossroads Cream Robert Johnson
Good Morning Little School Girl An Morrison/John Lee Hooker Sonny Boy Williamson
Hound Dog Elvis Presley Big Mama Thornton
Live and Let Die Guns and Roses Paul McCartney and Wings
Mustang Sally Wilson Pickett Sir Mack Rice
Me and Bobby McGee Janis Joplin Kris Kristofferson
Proud Mary Ike and Tina Turner Creedence
Nothing Compares to U Sinead O’Connor Prince
Take Me to the River Talking Heads Al Green
Jersey Girl Bruce Springsteen Tom Waits
Because the Night Patti Smith Bruce Springsteen
Respect Aretha Franklin Otis Redding
Personal Jesus Johnny Cash Depeche Mode (and Marilyn Manson)
Louie, Louie The Kingsmen Richard Berry
Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar) The Doors Brecht/Weill
Wonderwall Ryan Adams Oasis
My Way Sid Vicious Frank Sinatra
Superstar Sonic Youth The Carpenters
I Fought the Law The Clash Bobby Fuller
Hallelujah John Cale Leonard Cohen
Sweet Jane Cowboy Junkies Velvet Underground
Walk this Way RUN DMC & Aerosmith Aerosmith
Jolene White Stripes Dolly Parton
Maybe I’m Amazed The Faces Paul McCartney
Woodstock CSN&Y Joni Mitchell
Goin’ to Acapulco Jim James and Calexico Dylan and The Band

 Jason and The Scorchers were a forerunner of what became Alt-Country, mixing genres as the spirit moved them. You can check out their website and find more recordings on line:

No Depression, as usual, has some good pieces on Jason and the Scorchers, including a good posting by Don McLeese that explores how Jason and the Scorchers link the Flying Burrito Brothers to today’s Alt-Country. Ben Greeman reviews the Scorchers latest album, Halcyon Days, in the New Yorker.  Jason Ringenberg has his own website here.


6 Responses to “Absolutely Sweet Marie by Jason and the Scorchers”

  1. How about Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, written by Bob Dylan and covered by Nina Simone, which is my personal favorite Dylan cover? As a follow-up, how about some thoughts on Bob Dylan as a cover artist? How about Nirvana’s and the Louvin Brothers covers of the traditional In the Pines? Willie Nelson’s essential cover of Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain? Also, I’m not sure that Because the Night as performed by Patti Smith should qualify, as I think (I could be wrong) that she wrote it with Springsteen. And some more personal favorites — Johnny Cash’s covers of I’m a Drifter (Dolly Parton), The Running Kind (Merle Haggard), and Southern Accents (Tom Petty). A young Bob Marley’s and the original Wailers’ cover of Like a Rolling Stone, in which he jettisons most of the song. And of course, the great Townes van Zandt’s cover of Dead Flowers (Jagger/Richards).

    • Also, Dylan covered See That My Grave is Kept Clean again on the “real” Basement Tapes, in a kind of early Nashville Skyline voice with Robbie Robertson strumming along on autoharp. An uncanny and beautiful version that’s one of my favorite things he’s ever done.

      • We could do a list of great Dylan covers. Paste Magazine compiled their fifty favorites. I might add Bill Kirchen’s version of “Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Does The Band count with “When I Paint My Masterpiece”? How about the Replacements “Like a Rolling Pin”? The Coal Porters do a neat take on “Idiot Wind.” Then there’s Patti Smith doing “Dark Eyes,” Black 47 with “Like a Rolling Stone,” Madeline Peyreaux with “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and all those Byrd covers. Sam Cooke does interesting work with “Blowin’ in the Wind” and I always liked Sinead O’Connor’s take on “I Believe in You,” which was released as a Christmas song. What do you think of Roger McGuinn’s version of ”Up to Me” (the only version I knew for years)? Ronnie Woods tears up “Seven Days” and I like Dough Sahm’s take on “Wallflower,” though Dylan never released versions of those songs. Sometimes I like Cassandra Wilson’s version of “hleter form the Storm,” though sometimes I think it’s overdone.

        You’re right about the ton of great covers that Dylan does. And do all his reinterpretations of his own songs count as covers?

    • Thanks for the additions; I’ll have to check out the Nina Simone version. You have an argument on the Patti Smith cover of Springsteen. As I understand the sequence of events, they were both recording at different studios at the same location. Patti Smith heard Springsteen’s version, liked it, took or asked (there is some debate here) a copy of the song, improvised some lyrics and recorded her own version. Springsteen has released his version and played it live plenty of times.

      Springsteen does an good cover of Warrren Zevon’s, “My Rides Here.” Johnny Cash provides a treasure trove of great covers, especially in his work with Rick Rubin. Another good source of covers is Yo La Tengo. Dave Alvin does a good version of Merle Haggard’s “Kern River” (on the tribute album Tulare Dust). I left off a favorite: Bil Morrissey and Greg Brown’s duet on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” maybe Elvis Costello’s version of “What’s So Funny ’bout Peace, Love and Understanding”?Keep at this, and we could be here all day.

  2. I’ll have to think on some other favorite cover songs, but one I absolutely

  3. If not for you George Harrison

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