Beth Whitney
Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Beth Whitney Takes on Bob Dylan and God on ‘Into the Ground’

Folkie Beth Whitney carefully chooses her opponents as the big and powerful. No wonder she seems flattened Into the Ground, but she’s clearly not beaten yet.

Into the Ground
Beth Whitney
Tone Tree Music
28 May 2021

There was a time during the Great Folk Revival of the early 1960s when singers would put the verses of famous poets to music. Artists such as Joan Baez and Phil Ochs would croon the words of Edgar Allen Poe and Alfred Noyes as if they were song lyrics. Others, most notably Paul Simon, would even change and modernize the contents. Simon’s version of Edward Arlington Robinson’s classic “Richard Cory” had the title character engage in political shenanigans and orgies on his yacht instead of the genteel pleasures of the original. Simon improved the already great work by making it more timely.

That was then; this is now. Bob Dylan, the folk-poet rebel of that generation has become part of the establishment, winning the Nobel Prize for his writing. Artists routinely cover his songs from all genres, and there are many arguments about who does the best Dylan renditions. Because Dylan’s works are songs, this may not seem the same thing as when the singers of the past interpreted the classic poets. But in the larger scheme of literature and the arts, someone putting a verse to melody or a singer offering their take on a Dylan tune are doing the same thing.

This brings us to the case of Beth Whitney, a Northwestern folk-type singer whose latest album Into the Ground takes on Dylan’s masterpiece “Shelter From the Storm” from Blood on the Tracks into something new and unsettling. Dylan’s narrator is a grateful, persecuted innocent rescued by a noblewoman. Whitney changes the ending. Let’s face it, messing with the words of a Nobel Prize-winning author takes chutzpah. But that’s what makes it interesting. Dylan’s merely nostalgic. Whitney wants to go back to the woods to be restored to a pre-rescued life (only to be rescued again?). She follows Dylan’s lyrics most of the way before changing paths.

Whitney has a lovely hushed voice and plays acoustic guitar with a sense of grace. The baker’s dozen tracks here offer a shimmering surface level. Yet it’s the rough edges. Like the character who found comfort but rejects it for the wilderness, that suggests a deeper level of existence. Whitney is best when she lets the sonics get a bit strange. On songs such as “In Another Life” and “Huckleberry”, songs start simply before wandering into uncharted territories that can seem a stretch. One expects more harmonious conclusions. Instead, there are just endings.

If changing Dylan’s words is brave, then Whitney shows even more moxie by taking on the New Testament with her rewriting of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Her “Two Sons” addresses the yearning of the profligate kid to return. Whitney’s theme concerns the loneliness of the child that left more than his reconciliation with the family. It’s unclear whether he finds comfort. Like the protagonist of “Shelter From the Storm”, the prodigal may be better off being on his own. Consolation is not all it’s credited to be. Being independent, despite the distress, might be the better option because one has the autonomy to makes one’s own decisions.

The other songs on Into the Ground fit together well in terms of mood. There’s a general lassitude that disguises what might otherwise seem disturbing. For now, the singer-songwriter seems to be carefully choosing her opponents to be the big and powerful. No wonder she seems flattened Into the Ground, but she’s clearly not beaten yet.

RATING 7 / 10