Bob Dylan is first and foremost a songwriter. He somehow absorbed the folk, rock, country and blues traditions as a precocious young man and then recapitulated them in his own voice many times over while adding a twist of modernist poetry to the mix. On his birthday, I want to take the liberty of reposting some notable cover versions of great songs you may not have heard before, at least in these versions. We can only scratch the surface here, but these covers have all struck a deep chord with me over the years. Without further ado, we gratefully present…
From the first album of all-Dylan covers, Odetta’s version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”
Joan Baez looms large in Dylan’s career, and you have to go to Baez for this one, from her album of all-Dylan covers: “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word.”
Richie Havens made me hear the beauty in “Just Like a Woman” on his debut album.
By 1970 some of us had moved on from Dylan. Then Rod Stewart grabbed me by the ear and brought me back in awe with his tender version of “Only a Hobo.”
Dylan can be funny and touching at the same time. Shawn Colvin brings out both the humor and the pathos in “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.”
Tim O’Brien came out with his set of all-Dylan covers titled Red On Blonde in 1996. He concluded the set with “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.” When I saw him at the Dakota last month, I found that the song has made its way into his live show.
The Byrds first placed Dylan in the top 10 with their brilliant version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” in 1965. The Byrds originally brought “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” to our attention on Turn Turn Turn at the end of the year. You can hear Roger McGuinn’s ringing 12-string and the Byrds’ breathtaking harmony parts in the chorus. Pick a part and join in.
Dylan recorded “Ring Them Bells” for the celebrated 1989 album Oh Mercy, produced by Daniel Lanois. Sarah Jarosz performed it live in a Nashville studio for the Sugar Hill Records compilation The Americana Sessions. Jarosz beautifully conveys the spiritual yearning in the song. It seems to me to hark back to “Chimes of Freedom.” I don’t want this one to stop or I want to hear it again as soon as it’s over.
Lucinda Williams plucked Dylan’s “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” from 1997’s Time Out of Mind. It is one poignant song. Joan Osborne also covers it on her new all-Dylan album and includes it in her current live show featuring Dylan songs.
The counterpart to “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” on Time Out of Mind is “Not Dark Yet.” Jimmy Lafave was a wonderful interpreter of Dylan who covered the song in his characteristically emotional style. Lafave died two years ago at the age of 61, way too young. “I was born here and I’ll die here, against my will…”
Bob, thanks and happy birthday.