Bob Dylan’s forthcoming album, Shadows in the Night, will consist of cover versions of Sinatra songs. Which should be… interesting.
But what of cover versions of Dylan’s own songs? Dylan has, of course, an incomparable back catalogue, and few modern songsmiths have been so covered by others. Dylan himself remains the best interpreter of his work: most cover versions are either too reverential or fail to capture the essence of the original. There have, however, been some outstanding reworkings of Dylan classics, and some outstanding re-interpreters of his work. So, here are my favourite covers of Dylan songs. I have tried to limit the list to one version of any song, and one version by any singer.
It was out of the folk scene that Dylan originally emerged, and Woody Guthrie was always his hero. There is, though, not a single folk cover here. Hundreds have been made, of course, from Joan Baez to the Byrds, from Peter Paul and Mary to Fairport Convention. Most tend to be insubstantial, skating on the surface of the song, never grasping what lies beneath. As this collection suggests, the singers that best understand Dylan are those steeped in the blues and in r’n’b. It is in the blues that the real heart of Dylan is to be found.
All Along the Watchtower
This is the cover version against which all others are judged. ‘Sometimes, I play Dylan’s songs and they are so much like me that it seems to me that I wrote them’, Hendrix once observed. ‘I have the feeling that Watchtower is a song I could have come up with, but I’m sure I would never have finished it.’ The admiration was mutual. ‘He played [my songs] the way I would have done them if I was him’, Dylan was later to say of Hendrix. He was, he said, ‘overwhelmed’ listening to Hendrix perform All Along the Watchtower; it transformed the way Dylan himself came to play it, perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to a cover.
Van Morrison & Them
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
Van Morrison was another songsmith in the same mould as Dylan (Dylan once observed of Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey that it had ‘always existed’ and that Morrison ‘merely the vessel and the earthly vehicle for it’). This is a beautiful, soulful version.
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
After Hendrix and Van Morrison, Nina Simone is perhaps the most sympathetic of Dylan’s interpreters. I could have included any number of Simone’s Dylan tracks (check out her version of Just Like a Woman and of I Shall be Released, one of the few reworkings that are as intensely personal as the original). In the end, I settled for Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, Simone’s version just as world-weary as Dylan’s, but in a radically different way.
Blind Willie McTell
Blind Willie McTell is, perhaps, my favourite Dylan song (though Dylan himself initially saw it only as an outtake; the track was left out of his1983 album Infidels and eventually released eight years later in the Bootleg series). No version comes close to Dylan’s original in capturing its intensity, power and haunting grace. Barb Jungr is, though, a fine interpreter of Dylan songs, and this is possibly the best non-Dylan interpretation.
The White Stripes
One More Cup of Coffee
A somewhat hammed-up version, from the Stripes‘ debut album, but also a great homage.
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
There are few better songs to be given Beck’s fuzzed-up, psychedelic blues treatment, but almost unrecognisable from the original.
A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall
One would not image that the foppish feyness of Bryan Ferry is suited to Dylan. But this is a classic version, albeit without the bite of the original.
With God on Our Side
The addition of a new verse on Vietnam feels like a misstep, but Aaron Neville’s voice transforms Dylan’s original, and gives it a true haunting quality.
Rage Against the Machine
Many British bands, especially during the Thatcher years, remade Maggie’s Farm. Most versions were dire. Not so this from Rage Against the Machine.
I Shall Be Released
This is not the best version of I Shall be Released (Nina Simone’s, for one, is far better). But I felt I had to include The Band in this list, as Dylan’s longtime collaborators, and as historically important interpreters of his work.