This is the 101st post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
In the summer of 1962, Bob Dylan was living out his last few months of relative obscurity, finding the voice that would soon be known around the world. Although he was a modern folk darling in the New York folk scene by this point, his self-titled debut had barely garnered notice upon release that Spring. And while it displayed Dylan’s talents as a performer, it hadn’t done much more than showcase a typical young Guthrie-loving Greenwich Village folk singer. Only two of its tracks were original compositions, and even those served as an homage to traditional American folk more than they signaled the America-defining songwriter that would soon be.
Yet, these influences were converging into something entirely different as the year wore on. Dylan’s songwriting output and fluency was increasing at a frenzied pace, and his dedication to crafting a new form of folk — one both more personal and far-reaching than his idols — gained new focus. “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” Dylan’s storied second record, took a year and at least eight different studio sessions to record, a surprising fact given its spare folk production. But much of this time was spent whittling down the songwriter’s quickly growing catalog to the 13 pointed tracks that would become Dylan’s definitive statement.
Of the of the singer’s great sources of inspiration during this period, perhaps none was more significant than his girlfriend Suze Rotolo, who shares the famous “Freewheelin’” album cover with Dylan. Her family’s activism — both of her parents were members of the American Communist Party — shaped Dylan’s worldview and the politics of his songs, but a still more significant influence on much of his writing at the time was her absence. Rotolo spent most of 1962 studying art in Italy, much to Dylan’s disdain. Many songs that made the final album, such as “Down the Highway” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” are bittersweet tales of this rift.
As Dylan wrote in his 2004 memoir, “Chronicles, Volume 1”:
“Right from the start I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was the most erotic thing I’d ever seen. She was fair skinned and golden haired, full-blood Italian. The air was suddenly filled with banana leaves. We started talking and my head started to spin. Cupid’s arrow had whistled past my ears before, but this time it hit me in the heart and the weight of it dragged me overboard.”
The truth is, Dylan the romantic is at his best when he’s tangled up in blue over a lover. This was true even at this early stage of his career. Another Rotolo-inspired track, arguably as poignant in poetry as some album cuts, wouldn’t be widely known to those outside of Dylan’s performance circuit — at least not as a Dylan composition — for nearly another decade. That track, which was picked up and recorded by no fewer than 24 others before Dylan finally released his own take, was “Tomorrow is a Long Time.”
The lyric, which chronicles Dylan’s emotional unrest during Rotolo’s exile, captures The Bard at his most elegant and elegiac:
If today was not an endless highway
If tonight was not a crooked trail
If tomorrow wasn’t such a long time,
Then lonesome would mean nothing to you at all
Yes, and only if my own true love was waitin’
Yes, and if I could hear her heart a-softly poundin’
Only if she was lyin’ by me
Then I’d lie in my bed once again.
It is one of the earliest — and arguably one of the best — examples of Dylan’s ability to convey intense emotion with simple but vivid imagery. The metaphors seem perfectly chosen, and the rugged style of the language adds depth and humanity to the longing he expresses. “Tomorrow is a Long Time” is quintessential Dylan, yet it remained seemingly uncelebrated by the singer himself for years.
For the better part of a decade, the best known version was captured by none other than Elvis Presley, and it serves as a standout during his career lull in the mid-‘60s. The King’s take on “Tomorrow is a Long Time” was recorded on May 26, 1966, and was originally released as a bonus track on the soundtrack album for his movie “Spinout” that year.
Presley’s version stresses the blues of the subject, and it garnered praise from Dylan himself, who called it “the one recording I treasure most.” It’s notable for the lyrical slip in the first verse, where Presley repeated “endless” instead of “crooked” on the second line, and either no one noticed or no one cared enough to cut it again. It’s good to be king.
Though Elvis’ rendition of “Tomorrow is a Long Time” was more widely known, its clear source of inspiration is the 1965 performance by Odetta Holmes, which injects the blues-tinged spirit of the song with more raw Mississippi Delta authenticity. Elvis was in fact moved to cover the song after hearing Holmes’ 1965 record, “Odetta Sings Dylan,” on which her version appears.
Throughout the ‘60s, recordings of the track ranged from the bluesy depths heard in those versions to more traditional folk interpretations befitting the style of folk groups of the era. Many likely draw their inspiration from the approach heard in Dylan’s original demo recording of the song, which is included on “The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos:1962-64” but was left unreleased until 2010. Note the original, markedly less poetic, lyrics in the first verse.
Joan Baez, known for both her professional and personal relationship with Dylan during this time, included “Tomorrow is a Long Time” in her live repertoire, and her technique is very close to his demo — including the original lyrics — though still unmistakably her own.
Ian & Sylvia were among the earliest to release a recording of the song, on their July 1963 album “Four Strong Winds.” It exemplifies the era’s folk duet style with its gentle, plaintive harmonies.
Others, such as The Brothers Four’s version, veered closer to the blues chord voicings of Dylan’s original while still following the tightly harmonized singing style of groups of the day such as Peter, Paul and Mary and The Everly Brothers.
Hamilton Camp performed “Tomorrow is a Long Time” in a similar vein, but livened it with his Buddy Holly-inspired vocal style. Camp’s is worth nothing as one of several to clean up Dylan’s grammar by bringing in the subjunctive mood of “were” instead of “was,” though strangely only on the choruses. If only Dylan had paid attention in English class…
Still others stayed closer to a true folk interpretation, like these similar versions from The Kingston Trio…
…and The Pozo-Seco Singers, which introduced minor-chord voicings.
You get the idea. Folk acts were a dime a dozen at the time, and few could match Dylan’s originality and freshness. Judy Collins did release a standout version on her 1965 record, “Fifth Album,” though. Hers feels more free to explore the nuances of emotion represented in the lyrics, and it captivates with subtle beauty.
But leave it to the experimentation of the late ’60s to bring a fresh take on “Tomorrow is a Long Time.” This psychedelic pop-infused 1966 performance by The Aquamen somehow doesn’t quite hit the mark, though.
Then there were the crooners. Glenn Yarbrough’s slightly schmaltzed-up version from his 1967 folk covers record “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her,” came first.
Dion achieved something similar, but with better overall effect, on his 1968 rendition, blended with another song, “Everybody’s Talkin’.”
Harry Belafonte took this approach about as far as it could go in 1969. I suppose it works, and Belafonte is certainly a talented singer. But it’s perhaps debatable how well it captures the heart of the “Tomorrow is a Long Time.”
When the crooners could do no more to revive the track, along came We Five in 1970 with a completely fresh take, featured on their 1970 album “Catch the Wind.” Theirs is the first and most soulful version of the song, and it’s got killer horns.
Dylan himself apparently played with a new, blues-inflected arrangement during the sessions for his 1970 record, “New Morning,” which has yet to find its way onto an official bootleg.
But it was Rod Stewart who would offer the definitive take on “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” with his version rounding out side one of his platinum-selling 1971 record, “Every Picture Tells a Story.” This take finally gave the track a proper home in the context of an album, and one that topped the charts in the US and the UK no less. The Dylan cover holds its own alongside other classics such as “Maggie May” and “Mandolin Wind.” As AllMusic critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine, put it:
“Every song on the album, whether it’s a cover or original, is a gem, combining to form a romantic, earthy portrait of a young man joyously celebrating his young life.”
Within the track list of the album and its country-rock and Americana palette, Stewart’s take — originally mis-titled “Tomorrow is Such a Long Time” — takes on a uniquely uplifting and hopeful tone. Dylan’s blues are replaced by a joyous certainty that the singer will reunite with his love.
As a fun bit of history: if you’d have happened to find yourself at a certain local coffeehouse in Columbia, Missouri, on one certain open mic night circa 2005, you might have heard a certain young writer and aspiring musician harmonizing in duet to his best rendition of this version. I can’t remember the sound of his name, though.
The success of Stewart’s rendition prompted Dylan to finally put out a version of his own, nearly 10 years after the original demo, on his late-1972 compilation, “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Vol. II.” The record spent 36 weeks on the Billboard charts, peaking at 14, and one of its four sides boasted only previously unreleased tracks, including “Tomorrow is a Long Time.” Interestingly, rather than give the song a fresh take, Dylan hearkened back to an early live performance, from his April 12, 1963, Town Hall performance in New York. This would be the version Dylan’s fans would come to know and love, and showcases The Bard favoring forlorn folk over the blues. It’s since become known for closing out the first season of “The Walking Dead,” which changed the impact of the lyrics just a tad.
After Rod Stewart’s version, a few more country takes were released, such as this full-twang version from matron of British folk, Sandy Denny, in 1972.
…or this from legendary Byrds alum Chris Hillman in 1982.
For the rest of the ’70s and ’80s, the best covers of this song were done by…well, Dylan. And while Patrick has often argued that an artist cannot cover his or her own work, in this case, that may be an assumption worth challenging. Dylan, situated as he is in the long tradition of folk singer-songwriters, illustrates the ongoing dialog that folk music has with itself. At its heart, folk is less a genre than it is a particular voice — the voice of the people, specifically. And the best folk songwriters know that the moment they release their song into the world, it becomes a part of that populist voice, and thus is subject to any number of reinterpretations, which then may inspire reinterpretations by even the writers themselves, who no longer have sole ownership over the song.
In any case, Dylan always — well, most of the time — was his own best cover act. Try this one from the Rundown Rehearsal sessions.
If you don’t like “Street-Legal,” that might not be up your alley. But then there’s always Dylan and the Dead.
Think he sounded a little drunk? Ok, well, Dylan and Petty were always a more polished act.
Otherwise, “Tomorrow is a Long Time” fell out of fashion as a cover song for the better part of two decades, but the ’80s and ’90s did include the two strangest renditions by far. French post-punk act Passion Fodder took a stab at it in 1986, giving it a bit of menace.
Later, after years of quiet for the track, English rockers Dream City Film Club made this attempt in 1999.
I’m not sure I would want to return to that lover…
Thankfully, that wasn’t the end of the story for “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” as it has gone on to experience a resurgence of interest in the 21st century. And what better way to kick it off than on Robert Zimmerman’s 60th birthday? Long-time folk singer Rosalie Sorrels lent her heartfelt interpretation to the birthday tribute “A Nod to Bob” in 2001.
Perhaps the best all-around performance of this century goes to bluegrass genre-bending heroes Nickel Creek, from their heart-wrenching 2005 record, “Why Should the Fire Die?” The album, which topped the bluegrass charts and peaked at 17 overall, is likely responsible for bringing this elegant track back to the forefront of the musical landscape. Their interpretation of “Tomorrow is a Long Time” is — as is so often the case with Nickel Creek — somehow perfectly faithful yet entirely new. As AllMusic critic James Christopher Monger put it, their rendition “proves once and for all that Bob Dylan songs were placed on this earth to be interpreted by others.”
Another tribute album, “Mostly Dylan,” followed with a record’s worth of fresh takes from country producer Tom Corwin and “America’s Got Talent” alum Tim Hockenberry that same year, with this interesting version.
For a true Appalachian take, it’s hard to beat this 2007 version by long-time bluegrass act The Seldom Scene.
That same year, though, a little-known gem from the ’60s was uncovered: an early demo recording of Nick Drake covering “Tomorrow is a Long Time.” The version, which was included on the compilation “Family Tree,” displays Drake’s acoustic and vocal inventiveness, particularly in contrast to the other folks artists of his era. The track was chosen for Paste Magazine’s 50 Best Bob Dylan Covers of All Time in 2009.
Oklahoma folk legend Jimmy LaFave infused the song with a southern rock flair on this 2009 live rendition, complete with a soaring guitar solo.
Then there was this unexpected take on the 2012 compilation record, “The Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International.” Singer Zee Avi chose a sparse arrangement, singing with only a sitar and light synth.
For the most part, more recent versions of “Tomorrow is a Long Time” stay closer to the original’s plaintive simplicity, but they’re no worse for it. This version from Cowboy Junkies front-woman Margo Timmins shines with depth and soul.
Others accentuate the fragile beauty of the melody, like this one from alt-country singer-songwriter Justin Rutledge.
…or this atmospheric take from Phospherescent…
…or this bluesy 2015 performance from four-time grammy winner Keb’ Mo’ for the T-Bone Burnett-produced concert album “Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis.'”
The latest cover on record for “Tomorrow is a Long Time” goes to this 2016 version from country star Chely Wright, featuring The Milk Carton Kids. With its gentle acoustic arrangement and simple folk harmonies, it stands as a fitting final tribute.
There is simply no way to overstate the impact Bob Dylan has had on popular music since that summer in 1962, that long half-century ago. He has given us a catalog so vast, so diverse and so iconic, and his influence extends into every genre and generation since. As the reluctant “voice of a generation,” his lyrics were considered to carry enough weight to garner him the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, often it was his most straightforward statements that proved most enduring. “Tomorrow is a Long Time” is a deceptively simple piece of poetry, laid over an uncomplicated, yet ceaselessly captivating melody. Its sense of time and place is as fluid as its emotional boundaries.
In the final verse of the track, Dylan expands the view of his canvas:
There’s beauty in the silver, singin’ river
There’s beauty in the sunrise in the sky
But none of these and nothing else can touch the beauty
That I remember in my true love’s eyes
Yes, and only if my own true love was waitin’
Yes, and if I could hear her heart a-softly poundin’
Only if she was lyin’ by me
Then I’d lie in my bed once again
In the eloquent expression of these tender and universally-relatable sentiments, Dylan shows his enduring power to touch humanity. It is a power he possessed even this early in his career, and he revealed on a song he never properly put to record. It is a power that allowed everyone in the world to own his songs — even, at times, to own them before he did — just as so many musicians owned this one. It is that power that has made “Tomorrow is a Long Time” truly timeless.
You can listen to these songs and previously discussed cover songs in a Spotify playlist.
Sign up for the weekly newsletter here.
Damn fine work. Thank you.