"The radio makes hideous sounds." - Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan is immensely coverable, one of the most covered-artists ever, in part due to his prolific catalog but also due to the nature of his songs, which are easily melded into a new arrangement (even by Dylan himself). Though I am ceaselessly faithful, approaching Weberman-like levels, in my loyalty to Dylan’s original work (because even sometimes the President of the United States must have to stand naked) I also think there is room for more voices in a way that only adds to his initial creation (because he not busy being born- and reborn- is busy dying). Some of his covers have become more well-known than the originals, like Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” or The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
This was a difficult list to compile and is by no means definitive; almost everyone has covered Dylan at one point or another, creating a huge database of covers both good, bad, and mediocre. But because there are fewer really stellar covers than bad ones, in honor of the 15th installment of Take Cover I give you below my Favorite 15 Dylan Covers of All Time. Let us know your favorites in the comments (I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours).
15. Shirley Caesar – Gotta Serve Somebody
One traditional Gospel legend covers another, lesser-known—but certainly gospel—artist.
14. White Antelope - It Ain't Me Babe
Everyone likes Johnny and June's version, but it's a bit hokey for my tastes; The Turtles did a great rock 'n' roll one (and clearly were the hottest thing going amid hordes of screaming girls). But, hello, everyone? Are you missing something? This has got to be one of the saddest most lovelorn songs ever written. That's why White Antelope (Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold's solo project) outdoes other versions, because he pays enough tribute to the song's actual meaning.
13. Mick Taylor - Blind Wilie McTell
This is mostly here for the blues guitar that Dylan never really mastered, himself, and the fact that it's a cover of a tribute song, which is all kinds of complex and layered as a concept. And, Mick Taylor can sing (though no one sings the blues like Blind Willie McTell).
12. Norah Jones - I'll Be Your Baby Tonight
Jones could have written this; it suits her voice really well, and she manages to change the message of the song from urgent to comforting and calm, while still not at all boring (like I found Bobby Darin's version).
11. The Ramones - My Back Pages
The Ramones rock this song to a new level, adding their typical dizzying power-chord changes and rebellious edge to change it from a ballad to a rock song. You can't understand any of the words (maybe because it's live, but probably because that's how they sing) BUT what stands out is the most important line anyway, which sounds even stronger here: "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."
10. Levon Helm – “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”
This is far and away my favorite Dylan blues song. Al Kooper, Matt Bloomfield and Steven Stills do a wonderful supergroup-style pop cover replete with shimmery vocal harmonies, and Taj Mahal retains the pure blues attitude and was a close runner-up with his comfortable ad-libbing and harmonica riffs. But then I saw a live recording of old Levon Helm, former drummer of The Band, absolutely KILLING it at age 68 (but playing like he’s 22). While every instrument in this set is on point, Levon’s the clear leader and star of the show, a well deserved place for a drummer quite familiar with Dylan's work.
9. Ben Gibbard & Jay Farrar - Absolutely Sweet Marie
Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and Jay Farrar of Son Volt/Uncle Tupelo do a live version of this that is, well, asbolutely sweet, with just enough country licks and yearning tribute to do justice to this gorgeous number.
8. Elliott Smith - Ballad of a Thin Man
He sings it like he means it. Both Smith and Dylan felt professionally that ostracization, that sense of frustration with both the public and the press-- and it comes through in this most biting cover. "Oh my God, am I here all alone?"
7. The Hold Steady - Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window
Sure, Craig Finn's dead-on Springsteen vocals suit this number perfectly, and the band's ability to rock a New York bar like they grew up on Mississippi blues bodes well for the rollicking horn-heavy chorus, but the real kicker comes in at the end when Finn drops in a repeated line from the scathing "Positively Fourth Street": "You got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend, if you won't crawl out your window."
6. Nina Simone - I Shall Be Released
Simone has done many covers, among them some of the best Dylan covers out there, but short of Richard Manuel's emotive falsetto on The Band's version (which I excluded since they did it so many times WITH Dylan), nothing moves with as much gravity and power as the woman behind "Sinnerman."
5. Sonic Youth - I'm Not There
This has to be one of the hardest songs to cover, given that it was discovered from an old unfinished recording for The Basement Tapes and resurrected despite incomplete lyrics and music for the biopic I'm Not There soundtrack.
4. Jeff Buckley - Mama You Been On My Mind
Nothing sounds so lovely and gentle as Buckley's voice over simple fingerstyle guitar and some of the most plaintive and straightforward lyrics Dylan ever wrote (outside of "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.")
3. Sufjan Stevens, Ring Them Bells
Stevens sticks to his own style here, avoiding mimicking Dylan's own voice and arrangement, which lends this cover a grace and a power all its own. The music is appropriately complex, especially during the building bridge, and highlights the Biblical lines that make this song truly shine.
2. Dirty Projectors – Dark Eyes
You may have heard the more popular and also impressive “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.” But this one is just stunning-- I could listen to this all day (and do). Longstreth & co. take on a difficult number with typical grace and ease, retaining the essentials of the DP sound while giving this ballad a new gravity. It's simple and beautiful, Longstreth's distinctive voice peaking over the phrases while the girls hum angelically in the background: They tell me revenge is sweet and from where they stand, I’m sure it is / But I feel nothing for their game where beauty goes unrecognized / All I feel is heat and flame and all I see are dark eyes.
1. Joan Baez, “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”
Musically, Joan Baez doesn’t do much for me, but I respect her history with Dylan and think she probably has the best grasp on the man’s psychoses and philosophies, which lends her covers something special. Also, all of the above numbers were chosen because they avoid the common trap that artists fall in, of unconsciously imitating Dylan’s signature whine when they cover him (YouTube users, I’m looking at you.) This one, on the other hand, receives top honors precisely FOR the hilarious, derisive, and perfect imitation of Dylan during the final and best verse. Baez absolutely nails his intonation, as she alone probably can, and the result is both loving and chiding; it’s the most comprehensive cover.
-- Caroline Klibanoff