Bob Dylan’s celebrates his 80th birthday tomorrow. When he snagged the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years ago, I pulled out all the stops by posting a big set of my favorite covers of his songs. I don’t have any stops left to pull, but I’m adding a few covers this morning in honor of his milestone birthday tomorrow.
In my estimation Dylan is first and foremost a songwriter. See, for example, Raymond Foye’s interview with Clinton Heylin about his deep dive into the Dylan archive. He somehow absorbed the folk, rock, country, and blues traditions as a precocious young man growing up in Hibbing and then recapitulated them in his own voice many times over while adding a twist of modernist poetry to the mix. I want to take the liberty of posting notable cover versions of some of my favorite Dylan songs that you may not have heard before, at least in these versions.
I first tuned in to Bob with Freewheelin‘ (1963). I went for him in a big way with “Like a Rolling Stone” and Highway 61 Revisited in 1965. I saw Bob perform live with the Band in a three-hour half acoustic, half electric show on a Friday night at the old Minneapolis Auditorium in November 1965 (thanks, Dad). The show was sold out, but Bob had just released some first-row tickets that we bought at the box office.
As it turned out, we had better seats than Bob’s mother, Beatty Rutman, who was sitting with our friends the Applebaums about two-thirds of the way back in the auditorium. I wondered what she was thinking when Bob played “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” that night.
I later got a chance to chat with Mrs. Rutman at a party the Applebaums threw at St. Paul’s old Hillcrest Country Club in the mid-1970’s. Beaming with a mother’s pride, she gladly talked about Bob. She brought up Bob’s divorce, the subject of Bob’s great Blood On the Tracks in 1975. She told me Bob had outgrown his wife.
This is only to say I’ve been a fan for a long time, but I have drifted away from his music for long periods. Hearing many of these covers had the effect of bringing me back to him with renewed respect and gratitude. The covers also demonstrate the incredible breadth and depth of his impact over the past 60 years. He holds down his own constellation in the Cosmic American Music.
Except in the case of Dion’s cover (recorded in 1965, released in 2017), I hope to have posted these recordings in order of their date of release. The chronological order of release is the only discipline I imposed on myself in assembling this selection. I note that 1968 was a big year for Dylan covers. It may have been the best thing about that otherwise horrible year. I also note my surprise at how many covers by Rod Stewart I have fastened on. That’s just the way it is.
All in all, we haven’t even scratched the surface and I’m badly dating myself with this selection. However, 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. Omissions reflect the limitations of my knowledge and taste as well as my memory. 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.”
When Judy Collins met Dylan after her set at Gerde’s in 1961, she introduced herself to him, so she thought. However, Bob reminded her that he had sat at her feet when she first sang in Central City, Colorado. He said he had been singing at a little bar up the highway in Cripple Creek, when he was still Bob Zimmerman. She wasn’t necessarily buying the story, but he seems to have played at a bar in Central City or Cripple Creek in the summer of 1960. In her (terrific) memoir Sweet Judy Blue Eyes (pages 167-168), she pointedly observes of Dylan at the time she connected with him at Gerde’s: “The songs were incubating.”
Judy was present at the creation of a great one when it hatched. As Judy tells it, both Bob and Judy were staying with Dylan manager Albert Grossman in Woodstock in October 1964. She was awakened at about 3:00 a.m. by Dylan’s singing in his room at the bottom of the stairs. She put on a bathrobe and crept down the stairs to listen outside his room as Dylan finished his work on “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “sang, over and over, the lyrics and newly found melody[.]” She recalled: “When he came down at noon, rubbing sleep from his eyes and running his hands through his rumpled hair, I told him I wanted to sing the song I had heard on the stair.” Those lyrics, she writes, “struck my heart.” Back in New York, she recorded the song along with two other Dylan covers for her Fifth Album (1965). Dylan had performed the song as we know it at the Newport Folk Festival the previous summer, so I’m not sure Judy has the facts down right, but her love of the song comes through on her cover.
The Byrds launched Dylan into the top 10 with their brilliant version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” that summer. 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 — they begin with 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 incredible “lost album” of 1965 (released in 2017). I think Columbia Records ended up putting it on Dion’s Wonder Where I’m Bound. Van Morrison’s cover of the song with Them is also worthy, but this is my favorite of the covers with which I’m familiar.
In 1966 Judy Collins plucked “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” from Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited for In My Life. The striking instrumentation was arranged and conducted by Joshua Rifkin, to whom Judy devotes a few pages in her memoir. She writes that Rifkin’s orchestration “would have knocked the socks off Dylan had he been wearing any.” 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 that year.
The Byrds covered “My Back Pages” on 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday. For some reason, I keep telling myself, “I’m younger than that now.”
In 1968 the Band gave us our initial glimpse of the songs Dylan had been working on in Woodstock after his motorcycle accident. He wrote “Tears of Rage” with The Band’s Richard Manuel.
In his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan himself testifies that he thinks more highly of the Johnny Rivers cover of “Positively 4th Street” than he does of his own hit version. Indeed, he goes so far as to say (pages 60-61): “Of all the versions of my recorded songs, the Johnny Rivers one was my favorite.”
I’m afraid Bob wouldn’t appreciate my compilation of covers here. He writes in his praise of Rivers: “Most of the cover versions of my songs seemed to take them out into left field somewhere…” Coming from Bob, this seems a strange criticism. He frequently renders his own most popular songs unrecognizable in live performance. The “left-field” critique seems more apt in his own case. Preeminent Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin warns us to treat Chronicles as fiction. I don’t want to apply the warning to this passage, but I wonder.
In the passage Bob credits Rivers with having “the mandate down–the attitude and melodic sense to complete and surpass the feeling I had put into it.” And finally: “When I heard Johnny sing my song, it was obvious that life had the same external grip on him as it did on me.” That sounds like the truth to me. His “Positively 4th Street” cover comes from the excellent Realization (1968).
The Byrds returned to Dylan in a big way for Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Lloyd Green contributed the signature pedal steel part on “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” It’s a love song complicated only by the humor.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded a monumental cover of “All Along the Watchtower” for 1968’s Electric Ladyland. Jimi garbled the lyrics, but he nailed this timeless admonition: “Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.” All the rest is allegory.
Joan Baez looms large in Dylan’s career. We have to go to her all-Dylan double album Any Day Now for “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word.” Forgive the cliché, but “she owns the song.” When Baez came through Minneapolis to play the State Theater on her farewell tour in 2016, she opened the show with this song.
I think Baez’s a capella reading of “Tears of Rage” from the same album is stunning.
Dylan inspired the Brits to explore the riches of their folk tradition. Fairport Convention repaid their debt to Dylan on a cover of “Percy’s Song.” It comes from their 1969 album Unhalfbricking. That’s Sandy Denny on the lead vocal.
Rod Stewart began his career in music as a folk singer, but he made a name for himself as the vocalist extraordaire with the Jeff Beck Group. In 1970, on his second solo album, 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” that year on his first album with Faces (once he joined, they were no longer Small). They give it a menacing arrangement that brings out an essential element of the song.
Rod covered “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” on his third solo album the following year.
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 last year. 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.
Rod Stewart revisited Dylan yet again on the 1972 album Never a Dull Moment. Below is his cover of “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind.”
Dave Mason had played the acoustic guitar parts on Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower.” In 1974 Mason covered it under his own name. Hendrix’s cover is a tough act to follow, but I think Mason holds his own.
Bruce Springsteen’s cover of Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” turns it into an anthem that rings my chimes, as in the live version below with the E Street Band in 1988.
I first heard Nanci Griffith’s cover of “Boots of Spanish Leather” playing as background music in a small store on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. I wondered who was singing. I reflected that I’d never heard anyone cover the song before. I realized I love the song. Bob himself plays harmonica on it and gets in the last lick. Everything about Griffith’s cover brought me up short. I tracked it down on her fantastic Other Voices, Other Rooms album of 1993. She’s holding Truman Capote’s 1948 novel with that title on the cover.
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” on her 1994 Cover Girl collection. I was thrilled to see Shawn perform this live during her four-night run at the Dakota in 2018.
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 in 2019, 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.
Tim recruited the bluegrass great Del McCoury to sing high harmony on his cover of “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” Dylan drew on his life on the road to convey his artistic ambition by indirection. I love the acoustic accompaniment O’Brien and the O’Boys give it.
Dylan recorded “Ring Them Bells” for the celebrated 1989 album Oh Mercy, produced by Daniel Lanois. The song seems to me to hark back to “Chimes of Freedom.” The Irish artist Mary Black joined Joan Baez on the live version below for Joan’s live double album of the same name on 1995.
Younger artists continue to appreciate the artistry of Dylan’s work. Nickel Creek covered “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” on 2005’s Why Should the Fire Die?
Sarah Jarosz is a younger artist who also appreciates Dylan. She performed “Ring Them Bells” live in a Nashville studio for the 2013 Sugar Hill Records compilation The Americana Sessions. Jarosz beautifully conveys the spiritual yearning in the song. I don’t want this one to stop and I want to hear it again as soon as it’s over.
“Not Dark Yet” and “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” are counterparts on Dylan’s Time Out of Mind (1997). Jimmy LaFave was a wonderful interpreter of Dylan who covered “Not Dark Yet” in his characteristically emotional style on 2007’s Cimarron Manifesto. LaFave died four years ago at the age of 61, way too young. “I was born here and I’ll die here, against my will…”
Lucinda Williams covered “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” on a 2011 compilation. It is one poignant song.
Joan Osborne also covered “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” on her 2017 collection Songs of Bob Dylan. When we saw her at the Dakota in 2019, the song was on her setlist.
Emma Swift released her Dylan tribute album Blonde on the Tracks in August last year. Swift is an Aussie who moved to Nashville to pursue her career. The disc features British singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock and Wilco’s Patrick Sansone on guitars. Sansone also produced.
The disc compiles a loving set of Dylan covers with a retro sound. Swift devoted herself to covering Dylan to climb out of the Slough of Despond. You can almost hear her pulling herself together in “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later),” from the Dylan double album Blonde on Blonde.
Swift also covers “You’re a Big Girl Now,” from Dylan’s Blood On the Tracks. Infrequently covered, it’s one of my favorite Dylan songs. The artwork in the video below is inspired by Milton Glaser’s classic portrait of Dylan commissioned by CBS Records. I still have the postcard with Glaser’s portrait that I picked up somewhere along the way many years ago.
Bob, thanks and happy birthday.