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, and I’m dating myself with this selection, but these covers have all struck a deep chord with me over the years. As I have continued to think about it, the list has become an expanding universe. I regret the necessary omissions. Without further ado, we gratefully present…
From the first notable album of all-Dylan covers, Odetta’s version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”
The Byrds launched Dylan into the top 10 with their brilliant version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” in 1965. The Byrds originally introduced “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” on Turn Turn Turn at the end of the year. You can hear Roger McGuinn’s ringing 12-string and the Byrds’ beautiful harmony parts in the chorus. Pick a part and join in.
Dion DiMucci included “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” on Kickin’ Child. It was one of three Dylan covers on this “lost album” of 1965 (released in 2017). I think Columbia Records put it on Dion’s Wonder Where I’m Bound. Van Morrison’s cover with Them is terrific, but this is my favorite of the covers with which I’m familiar.
Judy Collins picked up “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” from Dylan’s great Highway 61 Revisited album for her arty In My Life. The song lacks a chorus. The tale of woe keeps a-rollin’ in Judy’s deadpan delivery.
Richie Havens made me hear the beauty in “Just Like a Woman” on his debut album.
Joan Baez looms large in Dylan’s career. We have to go to her album of all-Dylan covers for “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word.”
The Byrds returned to Dylan in a big way for Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Lloyd Green contributed the striking pedal steel part to “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” It’s a love song complicated only by the humor.
I believe that Rod Stewart began his career in music as a folk artist. By 1970 he had made a name for himself with the Jeff Beck Group. On his first solo album that year Rod grabbed me by the ear and brought me back in awe to Dylan with his tender version of “Only a Hobo.”
Rod also covered Dylan’s “Wicked Messenger” on his first album with Faces. This too is from 1970. They give it a menacing arrangement that brings out an essential element of the song.
The Flying Burrito Brothers covered “To Ramona” on their self-titled album of 1971. WUMB’s Albert O declared it a favorite on his annual Bobfest yesterday. Unlike “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” this is a complicated love song, or a love/hate song. Ex-Byrd Chris Hillman turns in the fine vocal.
Dylan can be funny and touching at the same time. Shawn Colvin brilliantly brings out 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.” Seeing Tim at the Dakota last year, I found that the song has made its way into his live show. The song cuts so close to the bone of Dylan’s minstrelsy that it merits a replay in this lineup.
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 and 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 all-Dylan album and includes it in her 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 three 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.