Dylan Does Sinatra

Yesterday, Bob Dylan put his rendition of “Stay With Me” on the internet. It’s the second track (after “Full Moon and Empty Arms”) from his forthcoming Shadows in the Night that the singer’s people have made available. Sounds to me like it was recorded on Dylan’s recent tour, where he used the song as an encore.

The lineup of Shadows in the Night, consisting entirely of songs originally recorded by Frank SInatra, is passing strange, and I wrote a piece about it for Slate, to be published tomorrow. In the meantime, a couple of thoughts about “Stay With Me,” a truly obscure number. The melody is Jerome Moross’s theme from the 1963 film The Cardinal. Presumably on Sinatra’s request, Carolyn Leigh–cowriter of his previous hits “Young at Heart,” “Witchcraft,” and “The Best Is Yet to Come”–put lyrics to it:

Should my heart not be humble, should my eyes fail to see,
Should my feet sometimes stumble on the way, stay with me.
Like the lamb that in springtime wanders far from fold,
Comes the darkness and the frost, I get lost, I grow cold.
I grow cold, I grow weary, and I know I have sinned,
And I go seeking shelter and I cry in the wind,
And though I grope and I blunder and I kneel and I’m wrong,
Though the rose buckles under where I walk, walk along
Till I find to my wonder every task least to see,
Or that I can do it, pray, stay with me.
Stay with me.

The pious and (to me) moving simplicity of those words are one of the strange things about the song, as Leigh (born Carolyn Rosenthal) was known for her tricky rhyme schemes and eminently secular concerns. In any case, Sinatra’s recording, with the trademark strings of arranger Gordon Jenkins, peaked at number 81 on the charts.

Dylan probably heard it on the Sinatra ’65! album, whose title, echoing Beatles ’65, was a recognition that in terms of being in the pop mainstream, Sinatra was about to leave the building. The Dylan version, replacing strings with pedal steel guitar, calls to mind the singer’s gospel fling in the ’80s, but is of a piece with his recent explorations of vulnerability in its many forms. He sounds weary and just a little cold; when he sings about the rose, buckling, his voice buckles, too. At all events, a touching and completely unexpected performance.

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