I’ve always been fascinated by cover songs. The vast majority of them just make you long for the original. But every once in a while, someone does one that brings the song a whole new and different life. So I’m doing a series on covers.
This week we’ll take a look at one of the most covered of all modern songwriters, Nobel Prizewinner Mr. Bob Dylan. Part of what makes Dylan so perfect to cover is not only is he an extraordinary songwriter, he’s also –how shall we say it –an “idiosyncratic” performer. His voice and diction are an acquired taste, and his performances, while they have their own style, aren’t so definitive that they foreclose all notion of (dare we say) improving on the original.
With that in mind, here’s my own personal countdown of the best Dylan covers:
7. Mavis Staples – Gotta Serve Somebody
Shirley Caesar’s version of one of the best songs of Dylan’s religious period brings out the gospel in it, and Etta James’ version favors the devil, but Dylan’s one time flame Mavis Staples captures the experiences of being suspended between the two.
6. Peter, Paul & Mary – Blowing in the Wind
The song that made Dylan famous, in a version that was a worldwide hit before anyone even knew Dylan’s name, this archetypal 60’s pop-folk anthem matched Dylan’s socially conscious poetry with the patented PP&M harmonies.
5. Guns N Roses – Knocking on Heaven’s Door
The tortured, heartfelt vocals and 80’s hard rock guitars make this song a classic.
4. Siouxie and the Banshees – This Wheel’s on Fire
Taking inspiration from a bluesy earlier cover by Julie Driscoll, Siouxie and company bring out the inherent weirdness and alienation in this bizarre Dylan parable (perhaps best remembered as the theme song to Absolutely Fabulous).
3. The Soweto Gospel Choir – I’ll Remember You
It’s impossible to not get chills when this amazing South African gospel ensemble does an acapella breakdown of this lesser known song from Dylan’s 80’s release Empire Burlesque.
2. The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man
What makes this iconic folk rock megahit so amazing is that it sounds so different from Dylan’s original, and yet, if you listen closely enough, the melody and harmonies are all hidden under the rough surface of Dylan’s voice. Slowed down, with jangly electric guitars, and beautiful vocal harmonies, the song is both elevated and transformed.
1. Jimi Hendrix – All Along the Watchtower
One of the 20th century’s greatest songwriters meets one of its greatest performers –what could be better?