Recovering Bob

Back in 2017 I produced a post, Covering Bob, on cover versions of Bob Dylan’s songs. It was accompanied by a Spotify list that brought together other people’s versions of Dylan’s songs in chronological order of composition, no song appearing more than once though artists could recur. I rather liked the conceit behind it and have kept building up the list thereafter. The purpose of this post is to republish the list and highlight some of the discoveries I’ve made in 2017.

The first thing to note is that it is not a case of including every Dylan song just for the sake of it. Some of them have not generated (to my mind) noteworthy cover versions (‘You Angel You’); some are lousy songs which have been rightfully ignored (‘Ballad in Plain D’, ‘True Love Tends to Forget’); some, despite the excellence of the original, have attracted seemingly no covers, for reasons that baffle me (‘Never Say Goodbye’, ‘Mozambique’). The selections have to meet the criteria that I set in the first post:

The successful cover version must be an arresting interpretation of an established original. It is a different act recording a song that Dylan never got round to recording himself to taking a song for which the artist had set the template through his own recording. The musician attempting a cover of course needs to invest it with their own personality, to do something different with it, but it will always be with the listener’s knowledge of the established idea of the song – the Platonic ideal, if you will. We hear both songs, original and its complement, playing off each other, creating a deeper listening experience. We also sense the other version that may yet be to come, as each new imaginative interpretation sparks off the possibility of another that will take a great song in yet another direction.

Below is a list of twenty-five Dylan songs sung by people who aren’t Dylan, which I have heard and added to the list since 2017. In keeping with the spirit of the thing, they are in chronological order of original composition. Some got picked because their novelty value i.e. songs that don’t normally get covered. That might seem to break the ‘established original’ rule, but I think we should agree that all of Dylan’s output is established, to one degree or another. The full list follows thereafter – all 153 songs or 11 hours 17 minutes of it. If your favourite is not on the full list, do note the rule of only one version per song – which is why gems such as Dion’s ‘Baby I’m in the Mood for You’ (beaten by Odetta), Hugh Masekela’s ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ (beaten by the 13th Floor Elevators) and Barb Jungr’s ‘Buckets of Rain’ (beaten by Bette Midler, but it was close) regretfully did not make the cut.

I’ll keep adding the list – and fingers crossed Bob will keep writing new songs for others to make their own.

Peter, Paul and Mary, ‘Quit Your Low Down Ways’

A pulsating version of one of Dylan’s early songs, written in 1962 but not appearing on any official Dylan release until 1991’s The Bootleg Series, Vol 1-3: Rare & Unreleased 1961-1991. Peter, Paul and Mary bought Dylan to wide attention through their version of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, and here capture not only the sense of Dylan in performance but the excitement his songs brought to listeners yearning for something new.

The Staples Singers, ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’

This is just plain majestic. America’s first family of gospel-soul, led by Pop Staples and featuring Mavis (who came close to becoming the first Mrs Bob Dylan), take on a song that was born iconic and bring out its every shade of feeling. The steady thump of the waltz beat, the jangling guitar (Pops), the call-and-response vocals with Pops and Mavis alternating the lead, the joy and the sadness it reflects at the same time – it’s a testament to the genius of American song.

Marianne Faithfull, ‘Corrine Corrina’

There’s a good case to be made for Marianne Faithfull being the pre-eminent interpreter of Dylan’s songs. Throughout her long career she has returned to Dylan, never failing to arrest the ear with the freshness and conviction of her approach. From her ‘lost’ 1971 set of recordings, not released until 1985 as Rich Kid Blues, this bluesy take on ‘Corrina Corrina’ (strictly speaking a song Dylan adapted, but in doing so he made it is) is heavy with regret, lightly worn.

Bridget St John, ‘Love Minus Zero, No Limit’

Oh, that voice. English singer-songwriter Bridget St John, who recorded for John Peel’s Dandelion Records, has a mellow vocal style that stops the unwary listener in their tracks (listeners already aware of her are ensnared anyway). This is a summery version of one of the Dylan’s finest love songs, a perfect complement to the original.

The Undisputed Truth, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’

The psychedelic soul group with the mightiest name in the history of popular music had a taste for cover versions of songs that some might have said were too sacred to touch (‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’), and how can anyone add anything to ‘Like a Rolling Stone’? Well, they manage it here. It has such a gentle, reflective tone, building up gradually in feeling and urgency. It reminds you that, historical baggage aside, it’s a beautiful song.

Yo La Tengo, ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’

Well naturally the oblique indie band Yo La Tengo aren’t going to do a regular version of a Dylan song. Their version of ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’ revels in being nothing like Dylan imagined, indeed not really having much to do with the song as usually understood. It’s meant to disorient as much as it means to beguile.

Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, ‘Queen Jane Approximately’

Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons had to try extra hard to impress with this one, as it’s one of my favourite Dylan tracks. Top marks to them, therefore – it’s brings out all of the song’s yearning and optimism. It comes from a 1965 album of songs by Dylan, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, a heady combination indeed.

Flatt & Scruggs, ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35″

Bluegrass masters Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs turned regularly to Dylan songs, though they were more to the liking of the progressive Scruggs than the more conservative Flatts. You can well imagine Flatt asking just what on earth this daft number was about, but he might at least have agreed that the results were a whole lot better than Dylan’s self-indulgent original. Fingerpickin’ good.

Eric Clapton, ‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’

This is a 2016 album notably for its clam reflectiveness and assurance. Clapton takes on a seldom-covered song from John Wesley Harding, giving it a gospelly feel, with smart guitar breaks and a general sense of a job well done.

Marion Williams, ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’

Here’s another relatively overlooked song from John Wesley Harding, performed with great feeling by gospel singer Marion Williams. She draws out the strength in every word.

Suzzy and Maggie Roche, ‘Clothes Line Saga’

From A Nod to Bob, a 2001 tribute album from various artists to mark Dylan’s sixtieth birthday, here are two-thirds of the peerless American trio The Roches, applying their characteristically wry delivery to ideal effect for this version of one of Dylan’s funniest, quietly apocalyptic songs.

Happy Traum, ‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You’

Who was Dylan’s greatest musical collaborator? My vote goes to Happy Traum. Maybe the two only recorded a few songs together, but faultlessly so. Traum, one of the finest of American folk guitarists, gives us a wistful rendition of the Dylan song everyone wants as their own.

The Persuasions, ‘Three Angels’

The kings of New York street corners, acapella group The Persuasions over a long career have made a special feature of covers of famous artists (The Beatles, U2, Frank Zappa – who discovered them). Their takes on Dylan are always interesting, but this version of a strange song from New Morning (surely the only cover it has had) is simply phenomenal. It’s how the angels sang.

Steel Pulse, ‘George Jackson’

Birmingham’s finest, reggae group Steel Pulse, supply polish and urgency to Dylan’s lament for African American activist George Jackson, killed during a prison escape (it appears on their 2004 album African Holocaust with their own Jackson-inspired song ‘Uncle George’).

Randy Crawford, ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’

One of the finest of all soul voices, singing with such belief.

Frank Black & The Catholics, ‘Changing of the Guards’

Frank Black uncovers the proto-grunge in Dylan, showing what a rich, imaginative seam of music is to be found in the neglected Street-Legal album. It’s all the more revelatory for not being that different in style to the original.

Antony and the Johnsons, ‘Pressing On’

One of the most interesting trends in Dylan covers is the number of artists visiting the songs from his dismal 1980s period, finding gold where only base metal might seem to exist. A prime example is Antony and the Johnsons’ take on a plodding number from the reviled Saved (the second of Dylan’s Christian ‘trilogy’). This delicate, feverish rendition, distinguished by Anohni/Antony Hegarty’s eerie falsetto, feels like a discovery of a feeling that that the composer missed entirely.

Rod Stewart, ‘The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar’

Rod Stewart merits some salvation for his dedication to Dylan, which has resulted in some astute, memorable covers (‘Only a Hobo’, ‘Mama You’ve Been On Mind’). This is a good rocking number that takes the promise of the original and knocks it into good shape.

Bettye LaVette, ‘Emotionally Yours’

Bettye LaVette is a 60s soul legend (‘Let Me Down Easy’) who has enjoyed acclaim in recent years for a series of albums rich in feeling, songs of experience. Her 2018 album Things Have Changed is entirely devoted to songs by Dylan and every number is a gem. LaVette uncovers that which in the songs takes them out of time and let us know why they will last. Her imaginative choices are mostly songs from Dylan’s later catalogue, with this wrenching number from Empire Burlesque showing such understanding of why Dylan needed to write it.

Robyn Hitchcock, ‘Dignity’

Robyn Hitchcock (ex-Soft Boys) is one of those musicians who so want to be like Bob Dylan and each time they record one of the numbers they get that little bit closer to the dream. But Hitchcock is no mere copyist. He brings such personal charm to his covers you think that maybe Dylan had actually been the leader of a minor British new wave band and has now picked up the acoustic guitar again. The 2002 album this comes from is called Robyn Sings and is all Dylan covers. Dylan sings.

Tom Jones, ‘What Good Am I?’

Like Bettye LaVette, here is a 60s voice looking back on life and find the rueful words and the tone needed in the later Dylan. It’s so pared back, leaving nowhere for the listener to escape to. At the end of things, this is the kind of song you must sing.

Barb Jungr, ‘Born in Time’

Barb Jungr is a British jazz singer and cabaret artist of long standing (I remember the fun trio she formed in the late 70s, the Three Courgettes). She is probably the most dedicated of modern Dylan cover artists, having produced two albums entirely of Dylan songs, one of Dylan and Leonard Cohen songs, another of Dylan and Brel, as well numerous covers on other records. Every time she comes up with an interpretation that makes the listener sit up and think again about how the song can work. I’ve picked ‘Born in Time’, from Dylan’s dismal Under the Red Sky, to show what a cover can do. OK, the original isn’t too bad, and the alternate take on Tell-Tale Songs is better, but Jungr’s interpretation – helped by some sprightly strings – is a revelation. It uplifts.

Deb Callahan, ‘Cold Irons Bound’

A great version of one of Dylan’s rootsiest numbers from US blues singer Deb Callahan. She doesn’t just rely on the groove, but relishes the imaginative spaces the song enables her to explore.

Diana Krall, ‘This Dream of You’

This cover from 2020 already has the feeling of a classic about it. The song is originally from 2009’s somewhat overlooked Together Through Life. Quiet and reflective, it is the perfect complement to Dylan’s swirling, wistful version, two sides of the same battered coin.

Emma Swift, ‘I Contain Multitudes’

Emma Swift is an Australian singer-songwriter, whose 2020 debut album Blonde on the Tracks is, as that title might suggest, an album of Dylan covers (her partner is the above-mentioned Dylan aficionado, Robyn Hitchcock). Every number is a refreshing discovery, as though Dylan were being re-discovered anew – which is exactly as it should be. ‘I Contain Multitudes’ itself comes from 2020 (the opening track on Rough and Rowdy Ways). It’s a song you might think was wholly personal to Dylan yet Swift reveals it to be a song for anyone with the heart to sing it. If you are new to Dylan, here could be the place to start.

And here’s the full list of Dylan covers in compositional chronological order – the Spotify embedding app only gives the first 100, but follow the link and you’ll find all 153.

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