25 Great Americana Dylan Covers
It is generally considered in popular culture (a Google search) that only the Beatles have had more songs covered than Bob Dylan. And, as might be expected, social media is awash with lists of the best Dylan covers. To distinguish itself from the masses, Crossroads has selected 25 Great Americana Dylan Covers, choosing those artists who could genuinely be regarded as Americana artists – a very defining task in itself.
And so the song generally considered the best Dylan cover – Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” – does not qualify, even though Dylan himself maintains that his version of this classic is in fact now based on the Hendrix treatment. He told a Florida newspaper in 1995: “I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”
If this list was indeed open to all artists, it could be argued that the song chosen in the top slot – “Mr Tambourine Man” by The Byrds – would still reign above all-comers. The Byrds have long been regarded as the pioneers of folk/country rock and it all began with “Mr Tambourine Man,” the title track of their debut album in 1965 – the same year as Dylan’s original. Both versions rightfully received Grammy Hall of Fame Awards.
So, to mark the 80th birthday of Bob Dylan on May 24, 2021, here is the Crossroads list of 25 Great Americana Dylan Covers (To spread the joy, each artist is limited to one song):
Mr Tambourine Man
“Wow you can dance to that,” Dylan is famously quoted as saying when he first heard The Byrds electric cover of the song he wrote for acoustic guitar and harmonica. It turned up on the 1965 album “Bringing It All Back Home” and was soon picked up by The Byrds who wanted a hit single to launch the group’s debut with Columbia Records. When two band members, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, first heard “Mr Tambourine Man,” they largely dismissed it because of its 2/4 beat. “It’s never gonna play on radio,” declared Crosby. McGuinn agreed: “I said yeah, what if we cut it down to one verse and put a Beatle-beat to it, and I came up with a little lick for the front.” The rest is history. The single – around half the length of Dylan’s original - reached number one on the Billboard charts in June 1965 and two weeks later it was the title of The Byrds first album. Folk-rock was launched and popular music would never be the same again.
Blowin’ in the Wind
Peter, Paul and Mary
Dylan wrote what would become the global anthem for social justice in 1962. It was included on the album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan which was released in May 1963. By then, Dylan had a manager, Albert Grossman, who also had in his stable a popular folk trio named Peter, Paul and Mary – Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey and Mary Travers. A month after Freewheelin’ appeared in record shops, Peter, Paul and Mary released their version of “Blowin’ in the Wind”. In the first week, it sold an astonishing 300,000 copies and in August it reached No 2 on the Billboard pop chart with sales of more than a million. Dylan soon learnt the real value of songwriting when Yarrow told him he would make more than $5,000 (40-odd thousand in today’s money) from the publishing rights. It remains the song with which Dylan is inextricably linked.
There was no folk-rock interpretation of this Dylan creation – just the beautiful, folksy, super-soprano that was Joan Baez in the 1960’s – and still is! It is long considered her finest Dylan cover and was the title track of a 1965 album littered with his songs, including stunning versions of “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” The album was her first to feature instruments other than her trusty acoustic guitar - coinciding, of course, with Dylan’s crossover to folk-rock. Dylan recorded “Farewell, Angelina” in January 1965 for Bringing It All Back Home, but ended up as an outtake because – it’s generally accepted - he had given it to Joan!
You Ain’t Goin' Nowhere
Nitty Gritty Direct Band feat. Chris Hillman & Roger McGuinn
By the time The Byrds got to release their sixth album Sweetheart of the Rodeo in 1968, there had been some key changes to the band. Dave Crosby and Michael Clarke had gone, but Roger McGuinn was still there. Gram Parsons had joined and this only cemented a more country-rock feel for the band. There was indeed something country(ish) about Dylan’s original of “You Ain’t Goin' Nowhere" - recorded in 1967 but not released until The Basement Tapes in 1975. McGuinn, a close friend of Dylan’s, had a bit of fun twisting some of the original lyrics, but like “Mr Tambourine Man,” he made the song hum when it was released as a single to coincide with its inclusion on Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It remains one of the most recorded and, indeed, played of all Dylan’s songs. The recording listed here was actually released by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on their 1989 Will The Circle Be Unbroken: Vol Two. But at the helm are original Byrds - McGuinn and Chris Hillman - sharing lead vocals.
With God on Our Side
The Neville Brothers
The superlatives used to describe Aaron Neville’s vocals on this extraordinary version could fill a dictionary! It was included in The Neville Brothers 1988 album Yellow Moon, produced by Daniel Lanois. He soon brought it to the attention of Dylan who was quoted in the following year: “It always surprises me to hear a song of mine done by an artist like this who is on such a high level. Over the year, songs might get away from you, but a version like this always brings it closer again.” This cover contains a new verse about the Vietnam War: In the 1960’s came the Vietnam War/Can someone tell me/ What we were fighting for?/So many young men died/So many mothers cried/Now I ask the question/Was God on our side? It is generally accepted it was written by Aaron Neville.
It Ain’t Me Babe
Johnny Cash and June Carter
This is yet another Dylan classic which became a pop hit shortly after the writer’s release. Dylan’s original came out on Another Side of Bob Dylan in 1964 and less than a year later, Johnny Cash made it a hit record with his future wife June Carter. There was always genuine affection between Cash and Dylan, personified by their astonishing 1969 duet of “Girl from the North Country” which became the opening track on Nashville Skyline.
I Shall Be Released
It is no surprise that The Band – Dylan’s principal backing outfit during his acoustic-to-electric crossover in the late 60’s – should release one of his songs before in fact he did!
“I Shall Be Released” was included in The Band’s debut album Music From Big Pink in 1968, with Richard Manuel on lead vocals. This was more than three years before Dylan’s own treatment, with altered lyrics, was included on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol 11. His original recording was actually made with The Band in 1967 during what became known as the Basement Tapes session. It was not released until 1991. The Band’s version got further exposure in in 1976 when they performed it – with Dylan and a host of superstars – towards the end of their farewell Last Waltz concert.
Every Grain of Sand
It is hard to imagine any list of great cover songs without the inclusion of Emmylou Harris. She is universally regarded as one of the greatest interpreters of modern music. And she does Dylan proud with “Every Grain of Sand”, included in her acclaimed 1995 album Wrecking Ball, produced by none other than Danial Lanois – Dylan’s old producer-extraordinaire. Despite their distinctively-different voices, Harris remains true to Dylan’s 1980ish treatment of the song, now regarded as one of his masterpieces. She and Sheryl Crow gave it global exposure when they sang it as duet at the funeral of Johnny Cash.
Red River Shore
This song almost flew under the radar, if that is possible with any Dylan work. It was recorded during the sessions for Time Out of Mind , but first appeared on the 2008 bootleg series compilation Tell Tale Signs, listed as an unreleased track. It quickly attracted the attention of Dylanologists, especially because of the intriguing final verse which refers to the raising of the dead. Texan Jimmy LaFave’s had a long infatuation with Dylan – his first album Austin Skyline was a play on Nashville Skyline - and his recordings were peppered with Dylan covers, from “Girl From North Country” to “Shelter From The Storm.” But his very best has to be his soft melodic treatment of “Red River Shore” included on his 2012 album Depending On The Distance. It only reinforced the true value of the song and despair as to why Dylan never really exploited this endearing lost-love song. Sadly, Jimmy died too young in 2017, aged 61. There was a lot more Dylan left in him.
Boots of Spanish Leather
There is no album more reflective of Americana music than Nanci’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, produced in collaboration with the great Jim Rooney. It is an album of entirely cover songs or in her words: “a full-grown family tree of the songs, voices and writers” whose music gave her the strength to branch out as a writer herself. No such project would be complete without a song by Dylan. And she even had the nerve to ask him to play harmonica on this wonderful cover of “Boots of Spanish Leather.” He, of course, said yes. Both can be very proud of the update to one of his finest love songs!
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
The Staple Singers
This is goose-bump gospel-soul at its absolute finest. The Staple Singers were not the first black artists to stamp their distinctive church-pews musical style on Dylan’s work. But their treatment of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” – first released in 1968 on What the World Needs Now is Love – was certainly the most inspiring. Dylan’s question-and-answer lyrics cry out for thumping soul treatment and this is exactly what “Pops” Staples and his young family deliver. Mavis, the only remaining member of the famous family, was still in her twenties, when this cover was recorded. But by then she and her family had many admirers, including Dylan, who, in a 2015 interview, said: “I’d think about them at my school desk. Mavis looked to be about the same age as me in her picture (on the cover of the classic 1959 album Uncloudy Day) .. her singing just knocked me out.”
Simple Twist Of Fate
Jerry Garcia Band
Few artists can boast three albums featuring only Dylan songs. But the legendary Jerry Garcia certainly can. And, just to showcase his extraordinary talents, every track was recorded live in concert. “Simple Twist Of Fate” is from a performance at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium on February 19, 1978. It is included on the live compilation album Garcia Plays Dylan, released in 2005 - 10 years after his death. This double-disc album features tracks largely performed by the Jerry Garcia Band, though there is a handful from Grateful Dead concerts and some from the odd combinations Jerry performed with over the years. Another Dylan collection – Postcards of the Hanging, released in 2002 – is entirely Grateful Dead covers, with, interestingly enough, Jerry singing lead on only three of 11 tracks. Dylan did a series of concerts with the Grateful Dead in 1987, leading to release in 1989 of Dylan & the Dead, featuring seven tracks Dylan recorded live with backing by the famous San Francisco band.
Gillian Welch & David Rawlings
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings have never been shy in covering Dylan - there are in fact two Dylan songs on their 2020 Grammy-winning album All The Good Times Are Past & Gone. But they hit the jackpot with a live rendition of “Billy” which surfaced in 2002 on their Music From The Revelator Collection - reinforcing their claim to being one of the great live acts in Americana music. The 30-second instrumental introduction by Rawlings is mesmerising!
Billy is among the several songs Dylan wrote and recorded in 1973 for the soundtrack of the Sam Peckinpah movie Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in which he made his acting debut.
Love Minus Zero/No Limit
Tex Mex legend Doug Sahm first met Dylan in London in the mid-sixties when he was touring with the Sir Douglas Quintet. They teamed up in 1973, a year after the Quintet disbanded, when Doug went to New York to record the album Doug Sahm and His Band on which Dylan made a guest appearance. Doug would often talk about the influence Dylan had on his varied career. And when he reformed the Sir Douglas Quintet, with sons Shandon and Shawn, their 1994 release included the Bob Dylan pastiche “Dylan Come Lately.” A year after his sudden death in 1999, the posthumous album The Return to Wayne Douglas was released from recordings made in Texas a few months before his passing. It included a wonderful version of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” - no better legacy for such a genre-setting performer.
Masters of War
“The first thing that turned me on to folk music was Odetta,” Dylan told Playboy magazine in 1978. Odetta was a leader of the folk revival of the 50’s and 60’s, and a civil rights activist, so it is hardly surprising that she herself quickly embraced Dylan’s work. She was indeed among the first artists to devote an album to his songs. Odetta Sings Dylan was released in 1965. And yes it includes songs popular with the protest movement. She reserves her best treatment for “Masters of War” with a haunting melody which fully reinforces Dylan’s biting lyrics. Despite her activism though, she stops short of the infamous final verse starting: And I hope that you die/And your death will come soon/I’ll follow your casket/By the pale afternoon. Judy Collins, another anti-war campaigner, also dropped the last verse in her more popular 1963 version.
Positively 4th Street
Of the countless covers of this 1965 song, Dylan is said to prefer a popish 1968 version by Johnny Rivers. But for any Americana listing, Lucinda Williams’ gutsy, bluesy rendition is a preferred favourite. It first emerged in 2009 on a rather obscure album The Village: A Celebration Of The Music Of Greenwich Village – not too surprising given that 4th Street is located in the centre of Greenwich Village, the home of the folk movement Dylan embraced in the early sixties. There are in fact five Dylan songs, by various artists, and all, in their own distinctive ways, do justice to the Nobel Laureate.
One More Cup of Coffee
Rocker Robert Plant had established himself as a cross-genre artist when he teamed up with Alison Krauss on the Grammy-winning album Raising Sand in 2007. But his vocal inventiveness was quite apparent on his 2002 solo release, the much acclaimed Dreamland. Dreamy would be an appropriate word to describe a particular album track - “ One More Cup of Coffee.” Many artists have stamped their distinctive mark on this marvellous song of Desire, one of Dylan’s greatest albums. But Plant hits the mark with his treatment, bordering somewhere between quirky and stylish!
Dylan wrote “Restless Farewell” in 1963 in it a fit of pique following a scathing article about him in Newsweek magazine - And the dirt of gossip blows into my face/And the dust of rumours covers me. It was the final track on The Times They’re A-changing. But by 1995 when he recorded it for special celebrating Frank Sinatra’s 80th birthday, it had turned into something of a soothing lullaby. And this exactly what Mark Knopfler did with the song when he recorded a stunning version for the 2012 compilation album Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International. It begs the question, why has Knopfler not done more Dylan?
There is something quaintly familiar between the voice of Dylan and Chris Smither. But it is Smither’s well-earned reputation as one of the finest finger-pickers in the business which brings to life his various Dylan covers. The instrumental intro on “Desolation Row” is simply superb. No wonder Bonnie Raitt called Smither “my Eric Clapton.” Dylan’s original – now considered among his classics – is more than 11 minutes. Smither gets it down to just under eight.
Dylan openly acknowledges that the melody of Percy’s Song – an outtake from The Times They Are A-Changing – was influenced by folksinger Paul Clayton’s “The Wind and the Rain.” No surprises there, given the chorus line: Turn, turn to the rain/And the wind. By the time British folk-rock band Fairport Convention produced their second and third albums in 1969, sensational vocalist Sandy Denny had joined the group. Her treatment of Percy’s song – off the third release Unhalfbricking - must rank as one of the best female voices ever to utter a Dylan song … and there have been a few!
Old Crow Medicine Show
There is little in the Dylan collection to match the unique history of this song. The chorus and melody came from a demo recorded for the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid sessions in early 1973. The song was unfinished but it later emerged as a bootleg recording known as “Rock Me Mama”. Some 25 years after the demo, Old Crow Medicine Show co-founder Ketch Secor wrote verses around Dylan’s original chorus, telling the story of someone travelling from New England to Raleigh, North Carolina. The popularity of the song soared after it was released by Old Crow Medicine Show on O.C.M.S in 2004. It is believed Secor and Dylan signed a 50-50 copyright share.
Walls Of Red Wing
Ramblin Jack Elliot, John Prine
There is a category of Dylan songs which had little traction until covered by other artists. “Walls of Red Wing” is one such number. It was recorded in 1963 for Freewheelin’ - Dylan’s second album - but ended up as one of the twenty-more outtakes! It emerged on a Bootleg, but gained little attention until Folk legend Ramblin Jack Elliot included it his enjoyable 1998 Friends of Mine album. As the title suggests, he was joined by some other multi-genre big name musicians! John Prine appears on this - what is now a folk-standard.
Visions of Johanna
The story goes that during one of his mid-60's U.K. tours, Bob Dylan tried - unsuccessfully - to seduce Marianne Faithful. So it is somewhat ironic that there cannot be any Dylan cover more seductive than Marianne's 1985 version of “Visions of Johanna.” Accompanied by an equally-soothing acoustic guitar, she gives the classic Blonde on Blonde track a real talkin’-blues feel. At times she almost meanders to a whispering stop and when she reaches the harmonicas play the skeleton keys in the rain, you are at her mercy! Marianne’s version skips two verses and so is three minutes shorter than Dylan. Pity!
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
The Handsome Family
“I played all the folk songs with a rock ‘n roll attitude,” Dylan is quoted after the release of Highway 61 Revisited. There was no better example than on “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues” which is now considered one of his musical masterpieces. His harmonica is still there, but is countered somewhat by Al Kooper’s electric piano. And there are even maracas to give it a Mex-blues feel. There are many covers of this classic, and Alt-Country is best represented by The Handsome Family on their 2010 eclectic album Scattered. In fact, their version is coolness, personified - with husband and wife duo Brett and Rennie Sparks nicely trading verses to the sound of an accordion!
I Contain Multitudes
If this list is to start in 1965, why not end in 2020? Few were surprised - except obviously the Recording Academy who stubbed him in the Grammy nominations - when Dylan released a wonderful album of inspiring original material in the midst of the 2020 global pandemic. Rough and Rowdy Ways was his 39th studio album and first original in eight years. It won wide-spread acclaim, with one critic proclaiming: “ … this austere gem may be Dylan’s best album in 40 years.” Six months after its release, Emma Swift, a little-known Americana artist, put out her own album dedicated to Dylan. “Blonde On The Tracks” also proved a winner with the critics. This from The Guardian: “Nobody has ever sung Dylan quite like this Nashville-based Australian singer-songwriter, nor with such a rare interpretive gift.” Wisely, Swift included a track from Dylan’s new release. And her treatment of the inventive “I Contain Multitudes” is so good, it serves in itself as an honour to the Great Man!
The dates accompanying each album refer to the year of release.
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