And now it’s Bob Dylan’s turn to try singing the standards, fulfilling what is practically a rite of obligation for veteran singers of the rock era. For his thirty-sixth studio album since 1962, Dylan has released Shadows in the Night, a collection of ten songs associated with Frank Sinatra and other interpretive vocalists of the pre-rock period. With this project, Dylan joins the company of not only Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and their contemporaries, but also James Brown, Sam Cooke, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Harry Nilsson, Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart, Chaka Khan, Cyndi Lauper, Gloria Estefan and Annie Lennox, among other singers who turned to the Great American Songbook after making their reputations in rock, country, soul, funk, folk and contemporary pop.
The fact that so many artists successful in other styles of music have taken up the standards tells us something about the songs. But what it says is not simply that the standards are better, because they’re not. They’re different. Of course, the words and music crafted by Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart (and Hammerstein), Harold Arlen, and their peers are musically sophisticated, melodic and lyrically subtle and meticulous. But those aren’t the only values that make songs great. As James Brown knew well, rhythmic intricacy and dynamic energy are also qualities of greatness. As Merle Haggard understood, there can be art in plain speaking and the minute variations possible within one key and three chords. And as Bob Dylan certainly knows better than most songwriters, there are wonders to be found in free allusiveness, ambiguity, unpredictability, unabashed weirdness and other aesthetic attributes that the master craftspeople of Tin Pan Alley rejected as unprofessional.
The standards are indisputably brilliant, and I love them. Their brilliance doesn’t wholly explain their durability, however. They endure largely because they’re adaptable, singable by singers of any orientation in any era, and they’re adaptable because they were crafted specifically for that purpose—designed to communicate sentiments anyone could relate to, in words and music that anyone could grasp. Singers like Bob Dylan are still performing songs like “Some Enchanted Evening” not because they’re better than the songs Dylan himself has written, but because they’re more communicable. To say that “Some Enchanted Evening” is superior to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” because more people have recorded it and more people can sing it or relate to it would be like saying that a schooner is better than an SUV because it floats. No—it floats, like a standard speaks clearly and potently to people of every sort in every era, because that’s what it was built to do. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was made to do different things: to baffle and thrill on its own wholly individualistic, idiosyncratic terms.
Dylan’s route to the standards was, like the best of his original songs, indirect. In the early 1960s, when he was leading a radical transformation of American popular music, he distanced himself from Tin Pan Alley by diminishing traditional pop as trite and pandering. As he explained his approach to songwriting in an interview with Sing Out! magazine, “I don’t have to B.S. anybody like those guys up on Broadway that’re always writin’ about ‘I’m hot for you and you’re hot for me, ooka dooka dicka dee.’”