The accepted wisdom goes as such: Bob Dylan songs are better when sung by someone other than Bob Dylan. Now, I don’t think this is true, like, at all, but enough people have said it to me that I can no longer ignore all of you at once – social gatherings are becoming difficult as a result.
That said, part of what makes Dylan so unique is how cross-cultural and cross-musical his songs can be. I’ve heard old beardy hippies at folk clubs bash out finger-in-the-ear versions of Blowin’ In The Wind and I’ve heard Silverchair and My Chemical Romance turn their amps up to 11 on Maggie’s Farm and Desolation Row (granted the latter two were shit, but how many other “folk” singers would be touched by “metal” bands?).
The reason for this is simple: behind all the myths, the politics, the cries of Judas, the turning-electric, behind the overarching narrative that has been created around him, Dylan was, is, the best songwriter of the 20th century, and these are the best covers of his work.
Jeff Buckley – Mama, You Been On My Mind
Bob’s version of this tune actually kinda bugs me. Well, Joan Baez bugs me on it, just because she insists on switching the pronoun in the chorus, which ok yeah, I get, because she’s a woman, but also it sounds rubbish. Jeff thankfully doesn’t have a hanger-on warbling on his version, and lets his vocal soar beautifully.
Madeleine Peyroux –You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go
He’s a romantic sap is Bob, this along with Love Minus Zero / No Limit probably my favourite love songs of his (Not Make You Feel My Love thank you very much, which I’m sure is Dylan taking the piss and counting the money). The warm, soft jazz production and Madeleine’s Billie Holiday voice suit this down to the ground, maybe even surpassing the original. That guitar riff is just like rum being poured over ice and lime in the summer.
The Hold Steady – Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window
The best thing about Todd Haynes interesting if ultimately flawedDylan portrait I’m Not There was the who’s-who of musicians he assembled for the soundtrack, each taking on a Dylan tune. Iron & Wine’s version of Dark Eyes is worth a mention, but The Hold Steady’s barnstorming, rollicking, saxophone-infused version of this underrated Dylan song fucking rocks.
Nickel Creek – If Tomorrow Wasn’t Such A Long Time
If you don’t like slickly produced, syrupy bluegrass-tinged country then I suggest you skip this one, although it is beautiful. Chris Thile, now of the superb Punch Brothers, is a peerless mandolin player, and by this record has improved so much as a musician – his playing on this, and the harmonies he and Sara Watkins on fiddle produce, just magic.
Martin Simpson – Boots Of Spanish Leather
Speaking of virtuoso musicians, Martin Simpson on guitar ladies and gents. A stalwart of the English folk scene, he’s made this song very much his own, arranging it for his signature open C tuning with more trills and lilts than you could shake a tin-whistle at. A great vocal performance too.
Martin Carthy – The Lonesome Ballad of Hattie Carroll
If push came to shove, Hattie Carroll is probably my favourite Dylan song – melodically beautiful, pointedly political – without being didactic, an incredible narrative with rich, fully formed characters and a devastating final line, the whole thing is like a movie. I’m not Carthy’s biggest fan, but love his arrangement of this.
Guy Davis – Sweetheart Like You
The Red House Records label in the States is worth exploring if you like narrative songwriters. They have a great bunch they work with on a regular basis, and a few years ago they assembled a few for a Dylan tribute album, A Nod To Bob, which featured this gorgeous version of Sweetheart Like You from Infidels. Now, this song does contain a line about how a woman’s place is in the home, but it also contains the line “Y’know news of you has come down the line, even before you came in the door / in your father’s house there’s many mansions, each one’s got a fireproof floor.” Genius.
Richie Havens – Just Like A Woman
A music legend was lost this year when Richie Havens passed. A rib-shaking voice and a big, thick guitar sound that could silence any room. Part of my growing up this song, replete with a vinyl crackle, the smell of breakfast and Saturday mornings. Rest easy, Richie.
The Specials – Maggie’s Farm
On Bringing It All Back Home Maggie’s Farm jams out on the opening electric half of the record. The Specials’ released it during Thatcher’s era, as direct a criticism of her Government as you could ask for, and really spun the song their own way, psychedelic and delirious, almost chaotic. It’s fantastic.
Jimi Hendrix – All Along The Watchtower
...oh, what, you thought I wasn’t gonna? Needs no more words said about it.
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