Robert Zimmerman aka Bob Dylan is universally recognized as one of the greatest songwriters of all time, and certainly one of the greatest since the advent of rock and roll. He's often credited for singlehandedly rejuvenating folk music in the 1960s, he's deeply appreciated for bringing storytelling and political motives to the forefront of popular music, and is acknowledged as a major influence by a countless number of musicians and non-musical artists who have lived in the wake of his brilliance.

Direct evidence of the influence of his music and of his songwriting in particular is reflected in how often his incredibly deep catalog of songs is covered by literally hundreds (possibly thousands) of artists across many different styles and genres. Most people with any sense or taste of "older" music can appreciate Dylan's poetic talent, but not everyone enjoys his squeaky, nasally tenor vocals or the constant dips and swells and, shall we say, "unique" intonations of his vocal style. Other people don't appreciate how sparse and simplified his arrangements often tend to be, especially in his earlier work. But a lot of people who don't enjoy Dylan's music much can still appreciate Bob Dylan cover songs, partially because there have been so many of them, with several of the covered versions becoming more successful than the originals.

There's such a myriad of Dylan covers out there that I decided to do some research. I've read a few lists, done a good deal of listening, and combined with pre-existing knowledge I've pieced together a list of Dylan covers which I've found particularly notable and, of course, very listenable. This is a personal list, almost entirely arbitrary, and I haven't purposefully excluded anything. If there are any Dylan covers which you love or find interesting, and you don't see them included here, feel free to reply to this writeup and I'd be more than happy to do some further listening for this little project of mine.

I was tempted to make this into an ordered list, a qualitative list if you will, but I am not a professional music journalist, nor am I writing for a snobbish music magazine or for a snobbish musical audience. So I'll be keeping this as objective as possible. The songs will be listed in alphabetical order, with a separate section devoted to the soundtrack for the movie "I'm Not There," which occupies several songs on this list.  Without any further ado:

 

All Along the Watchtower - The Jimi Hendrix Experience

It just so happens that the first entry of this alphabetical list is probably the best known and most widely celebrated of all the Dylan covers ever made. The Jimi Hendrix Experience released Electric Ladyland less than 10 months after Dylan's John Wesley Harding, and their version of Watchtower quickly overshadowed the original. It's become one of Jimi's most famous and recognizable tunes, as well as one of Dylan's, who has performed the song constantly over the years.

It's also one of the most frequently covered of all the Dylan songs. At least 37 other artists have performed it (usually in concert) including U2, Dave Matthews Band, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Pearl Jam, Widespread Panic, Supertramp, and The Grateful Dead. The song doesn't really need description. Let's be honest, either you know this song, or you don't know any of these songs.

Changing of the Guard(s) - Chris Whitley and Jeff Lang

The opening song to Dylan's Street-Legal from 1978 was yet another in a seemingly enless series of "unexpected" Dylan albums, reinventing himself once again. This was one of his finest lyrical songs, with thick and stirring images of accepting mortality, authority, and constant change.

If I were to make this an ordered list, theoretically, this song would almost definitely be #1. Dislocation Blues by Chris Whitley and Jeff Lang was released in 2007, posthumously to Whitley's death in 2005 of lung cancer. This version gives a masterful delivery of Dylan's melancholy picture of highest poetry, with masterful yet humble guitar work to go along with it, and with generously sparse accompaniment. The same album also features another Dylan cover When I Paint my Masterpiece, which is definitely decent, but doesn't contain anywhere near the emotion or beauty of this performance by one of my favorite artists ever.

It Ain't Me, Babe - Johnny Cash and June Carter

Cash and Dylan had a long-standing mutual admiration for one another, not just as musicians and performers, but as men, as characters, as counter-cultural figures deeply embedded in the mainstream. Cash picked up this tune shortly after Dylan released it in 1964 from Another Side of Bob Dylan, and recorded it with his partner June Carter. Johnny's comparatively simple and commanding voice shined a new light on Dylan's tongue-in-cheek performance of the song, and with Carter's harmony created a harsh, bittersweet song with a warm and easy background that spawned a hit. Like many songs on this list, it's more frequently associated with Cash than with Dylan.

It's All Over Now, Baby Blue - Them

Baby Blue is a perfectly beautiful and bleak ending to Dylan's upbeat yet cynical Bringing it All Back Home, and the original is almost definitely my favorite Dylan song. It's yet another song that deals with death and acceptance, although it does so subtly, almost plaintitively. It's given so soft-handedly that it's practically a lullabye.

Van Morrison saw this tenderness and preserved it, while giving it a new musical direction and intensity that only he could bring. Brilliantly gentle and mesmerising organ and guitar work with perfectly produced echo effects guide you through this truly heartfelt performance. It was an arrangement that was so spellbinding that Beck and the Dust Brothers decided to sample its loop on one of the best songs from Odelay, Jack-Ass.

Just Like a Woman - Jeff Buckley

Another one of my favorite Dylan songs, Just Like a Woman from 1966's Blonde on Blonde paints an achingly real portrait of a former lover who (paraphrased) "takes just like a woman, makes love just like a woman, aches just like a woman, and breaks just like a little girl." What more needs to be said?

Jeff Buckley's intimate performance from Live at Sin-e is just quiet enough that the sound quality comes through uninterrupted, and catches all the peaks and valleys of Buckley's one-of-a-kind voice and uncanny understanding of dynamic contrast as a solo performer. He takes his time to embody the pitiful truth of the song, but without falling into the pitfalls of Dylan's personal venom and blatant sexism that's carried in the original performance.

Buckley's version is best, but Richie Havens deserves a hell of a lot of credit for his version of the song from his 1967 Mixed Bag album. The full band accompaniment, particularly the piano, rings beautifully, and his voice in this song is honestly as good as Buckley's or anyone's, but there's just not quite the same level of magic here that Jeff managed to cultivate in his performance. Havens will get another nod for another cover later in the list.

Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat - Beck

Speaking of Beck, his contribution to the 2009 charity album War Child presents Heroes is one blistering bastard of a performance. This is as distorted and messy of a 12-bar blues as you'll ever hear. With plenty of interesting fills and sound effects, this is Beck at his most convincing self--jarring, unfocused, and impossible to ignore. A foot-stomper, for sure.

Lord Protect My Child - Susan Tedeschi

Dylan recorded this song in the wake of his Gospel music obsession and religious awakening (or whatever you want to call it) in 1983. Dylan did not choose to include it on his Infidels album, and it existed as an outtake later released on his Bootleg series. It's clearly a song about Dylan's concern for his son Jacob, and is one of a very small handful of Dylan songs which directly concerns his family.

Tedeschi's 2005 cover album Hope and Desire, the title of which is taken from this song, revitalized the tune and took Dylan's gospel influence and direction a step further. It's a beautiful, rousing drone, which falls into line with many gospel conventions. She lets Dylan's writing act as the tender point of the song, letting her own contribution to the song be the natural strength of her voice. A simple, peaceful, and soulful song.

Maggie's Farm - Rage Against the Machine

In many ways, this was the song that first alienated Dylan from much of his fanbase. It saw his transition from simple acoustic music to noisy electric music, from quiet protestor to outspoken rebel, from folk hero to rock star. But lyrically, it keeps in line with Dylan's political frustrations and his distaste of fascism and the corparate order.

Leave it to Rage Against the Machine then to take Dylan's rebellion and turn it into anger, as they managed to do with so many songs from their 2000 cover album, and final official album, Renegades. I think it's safe to say that Dylan never thought his song would be reimagined quite like this, but the heaviness, desperation, and anger lends itself very well to the characters of the song's story and the narrator's perception of them. The slowed, extended outro adds another layer of tasteful crunch, to those who can tolerate Rage's polarizing style in the first place.

One More Cup of Coffee - The White Stripes

"One more cup of coffee before I go" is the refrain, a song about abandonment and unrequited love or at least unrequited affection. Dylan originally sang this with Emmylou Harris on background vocals for the 1976 Desire album. It perfectly captures that moment of lingering before a long journey, shrouded in a subtle darkness.

The White Stripes were certainly willing to bring out that subtlety in their distorted rendition from their 2000 eponymous album. Jack White strikes a perfect balance between hysteria and lament in his voice, and creates an inimitable musical backdrop which is typical of his experimental-perfectionist-chemist style of music making. I was first made aware of this cover on the Nights with Alice Cooper radio show, and it's been one of my favorites ever since.

Robert Plant also made a notable cover of One More Cup of Coffee on his Dreamland album. It's not a bad performance, I actually like the arrangement on his version slightly better than the Stripes', but it was a 2002 Robert Plant singing the song, and you can hear so much age and strain in his voice that it takes away from the performance.

Tangled Up in Blue - Indigo Girls

One of Dylan's most famous and complicated love songs from one of his most famous and complicated albums, 1974's Blood on the Tracks, tells a winding (tangled, if you will) tale from past to present to future and back again. It's more sweet than bitter, but only slightly. It's definitely one of the most full and crazy songs Dylan ever wrote, but at the same time it's absolutely delicious. "We always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view...tangled up in blue."

The Indigo Girls are the perfect suitors to tackle and untangle such a convoluted piece. The live album 1200 Curfews featured several other excellent arrangements and backing musicians to some of their original songs, and a few other covers as well. Their version of Tangled from the album features some excellent string work, and the strong but precise vocal performances and harmonies one comes to expect from Emily and Amy.

Tomorrow is a Long Time - Nickel Creek

Tomorrow is a Long Time was originally released on the Columbia Records compilation Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. II. It stands as one of Dylan's more tender love songs, practically a feel good song, but with a requisite level of longing and inability to connect the pieces of love.

Nickel Creek's fast picking, freewheeling cover is the brightest rendition of the song, making an atmosphere that just shines in true Nickel Creek fashion. Nick Drake also did a version of the song which was released on the Family Tree compilation. I love Nick Drake, and his guitar picking on this song is more than competent, but the quality of the recording is not ideal, especially the vocals. Elvis Presley also covered the song, which I was not personally impressed with, but apparently Dylan himself treasures Presley's version of the song, saying in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine that it was his favorite of any of the covers of his songs.

Wanted Man - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Wanted Man is a traveler's song, and yet another song which is more frequently associated with Johnny Cash than with Bob Dylan. But in this case the association makes more sense, because Cash was the one who made the original recording of the song. Cash's version seemed a little too tame to make it onto my personal list, but Nick Cave's version did not. It starts with a low rumble, and becomes more blistering and nasty as it goes along until it evolves into a full tumble. One of the more fun, as well as one of the more jolting selections to have made this list.

Wicked Messenger - Patti Smith

The John Wesley Harding album contained lots of biblical references throughout, and The Wicked Messenger is one of the best examples of such. It centers arround the narrator, supposedly Dylan himself, sent by Eli to bring the harsh word of truth to the world.

The so-called "Godmother of punk" Patti Smith brings her clarity of voice with a fearlessly strong compound rhythm rock arrangement to her version of the song. Her version is straightforward but hard, almost as if she's singing a Black Sabbath song, but without compromising the integrity or the delivery of Dylan's lyrical wit.

Faces' version of the song also deserves praise for being another good driving rock song, but the vocals and subsequently the lyrics get a little lost in the noise compared to the Smith and Dylan versions of the song.

You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go - Shawn Colvin

Here Dylan is showing off his masterful balance between beauty and pain in romance on yet another brilliant Blood on the Tracks song. On the one hand, it might be the album's easiest song to listen to, fast-paced and sweet. But on the other hand it might be the hardest to digest, for its inevitability, its hopeless surrender to the impossible nature of union and divide. Everyone who has ever loved has felt this song.

Shawn Colvin knows this song and this feeling as well as anyone, and before her commercial breakthrough A Few Small Repairs was released, she included a live cover of Lonesome on her 1994 cover album, cleverly titled Cover Girl. Here Colvin shows her truest strength and deepest reverence as a performer--that of a singer-songwriter who loves poetry and performance. Nothing complicated here, just a strong and capable guitarist with a casual, yet instantly recognizable voice. A la Dylan.

 

I'm Not There

I'm Not There is a 2007 film directed by Todd Haynes featuring 6 different portrayals of Bob Dylan in a non-linear depiction of his life and music. Along with the film came the soundtrack--over 2 1/2 hours of some of the best (and also some of the most uninspiring) Bob Dylan covers ever made. This playlist necessarily includes several songs from this particular release:

 

Ballad of a Thin Man - Stephen Malkmus and The Million Dollar Bashers

Originally from the epic 1965 Highway 61 Revisited, Ballad of a Thin Man is about inquisition, paranoia, and the bizzare transition from the warmth of the stage to the pressure of the national spotlight, told in only the way that Dylan's perspective could tell.

Malkmus' cover stays fairly faithful to the original, with all the spooky keyboard work, the dry and yet theatrical performance, even with many of the same inflections of voice. It's surprising to see Malkmus of all people be so respectful but it translates well from the original dirge to this more clean yet heavy strong yet spooky modern version.

Dark Eyes - Iron and Wine and Calexico

Dark Eyes is the last song on Dylan's wildly unpopular 1985 Empire Burlesque album, and stands out as the best song on the album. It's confusing, but it's beautiful, and it's definitely Dylan. Evidently he wrote it after passing a prostitute in the hallway on his way back to his hotel room. This is one that should probably be left to speak for itself. "I live in another world where life and death are memorized, Where the earth is strung with lover's pearls and all I see are dark eyes."

In 2007 Sam Beam, under the performing name Iron and Wine, was in the midst of writing and recording one of his finest albums, The Shepherd's Dog. The calm, even-toned singing nature and technical, nuanced drone and keyboard/mallet instrument arrangements that littered that album was a style that was very much present on this cover, and stands as one of the best songs he's ever recorded. I only wish he'd decided to collaborate with Calexico again, because there's clearly some chemistry here.

Fourth Time Around - Yo La Tengo

Speaking of a calm and balanced vocal delivery with delicious keyboard work, Yo La Tengo twirls out a beautifuly gentle waltz with this rendition of Dylan's Blonde on Blonde song about two young lovers in dialogue in a playfully crumbling relationship. Yo La Tengo stays with the explicit Beatles connection that Dylan was going for in the original, but expands on it and takes out much of the cheekiness of the original and leaves a warm and sweet carnival-sounding tune.

Goin' to Acapulco - Jim James and Calexico

One of the more famous and more memorable covers from the I'm Not There project, Goin to Acapulco was originally recorded with The Band from The Basement Tapes. There's a lot of very thinly veiled sexual references here, and the original version is as bombastic and and as tongue-in-cheek as Dylan and The Band ever dared to be.

Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Calexico add a lot of weight to the song, making it a poignant march of a tune, almost a dirge. But the arrangement is just right to lend itself to the beauty and strength of James' voice. And if there's anyone on the planet who can comfortably tackle any Dylan song, it's someone with the range, uniquity, and upper range of Jim James. The horns, the xylophone, the snare drum, and the vocals make a perfect parade of one of the better Dylan covers made in the 21st century.

Highway 61 Revisited - Karen O and The Million Dollar Bashers

Talk about making light of a serious situation. Karen O of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs has really made a name for herself as a collaborator and guest artist, and this is one of the finer points of her resume. Her rendition of the title track from Dylan's 1965 album is just downright fun, but still serious enough to keep the sardonic nature of the lyrics. It seems nobody alive could deprive Karen O of having her fun.

P J Harvey also does a very credible version of the song on her 1993 sophomore album Rid of Me, but her version is...difficult, to say the least, and wouldn't really fit well within this collection of songs.

Knockin' on Heaven's Door - Antony and the Johnsons

Knockin' on Heaven's Door was originally from Dylan's mostly instrumental soundtrack Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. The song is exactly what it purports to be--a song about feeling close to death, solemnly questioning one's own mortality and worldly presence.

If you don't know much about Antony and the Johnsons, or Anohni as she is known these days, she has quite a story to tell. Her calm tremor in the midst of a deep piano gives such a gentle urgency to Dylan's lyrics. It's one of the more powerful performances of any kind I've ever heard, I mean the type of stuff that would put Johnny Cash's Hurt to shame. This perfectly illustrates the depth of simplicity, the simplicity of depth. Please listen.

Ring Them Bells - Sufjan Stevens

Ring Them Bells is taken from what many view as a comback album of Dylan's, 1989's Oh Mercy. It's a deeply religious song, though not exactly one of Dylan's gospel songs. It seems to be largely about celebration, and about cherishing the presence of God.

It's unsurprising that Sufjan would gravitate towards one of Dylan's more religious songs. It's equally unsurprising that Sufjan would reimagine the song with his own boisterous, ornate, and unapologetically complicated arrangement. And yet still, it's unsurprising that Sufjan would create something perplexingly beautiful when he put his mind to it. Such is Sufjan. What an outro.

Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again - Cat Power

This song is typically colorful, rambling, unmistakably inventive Dylan from Blonde on Blonde. I think if you're deep enough into Dylan to be listening to this, you'll probably understand what I mean, and you'll further understand why it's so hard to explain despite it being so easy to feel.

Cat Power's version adds some nice horns, and a nice swell at the chorus, but for the most part doesn't deviate much from the original version. That being said, I still like her voice, and I appreciate the fact that she doesn't try to condense or compromise the song in any way. It's upbeat enough to keep one's attention, but mellow enough for one to follow. I don't know if I can say this is much better than the original, but it's not much worse either.

Tombstone Blues - Richie Havens

Tombstone Blues is most truly a blues song, perhaps the bluesiest Dylan ever got. The second song from Highway 61 Revisited, it sticks to the Dylan themes we've come to know and love: biblical references, colorful and tangible metaphors combined with plaintative phrases, and a scathing reprimanding of authority, struggle, and indifference.

And Richie Havens' cover is most truly a blues cover. Fast-paced, exciting, deep, rumbling, and even a little bit twangy. And while his 1967 vocals on Just Like a Woman sounded great, they still sound very appropriate for different reasons 40 years later on this recording. They got the right man for the job on this one.

Bob Dylan cover songs that I acknowledge, but have not included:
Blowin' In the Wind (Sam Cook; Stevie Wonder; Peter, Paul, and Mary)
None of these interpretations are terrible, but I feel that they all pale in comparison to the original
A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall (Bill Frisell; Bryan Ferry; Edie Brickell, others)
I actually love the Bill Frisell version but it's a long and complicated instrumental that deviates heavily from the original, and didn't feel appropriate here. Frankly, Bryan Ferry just turned it into another Roxy Music song.
Mr. Tambourine Man (The Byrds)
A popular cover that I personally find nauseating, it doesn't come close to the impact of the original. Watch Dylan perform this at Newport, 1964 if you want a great non-album version of this song.
Masters of War (Pearl Jam; Lucinda Williams)
I understand the political urgency and relevance of this song both as an original and as a cover, and it just barely missed the cut for this list, but it just comes on too strong and too bleak for me.
I'll Keep it With Mine (Nico; Marriane Faithfull)
This is a very good song, but it's not precisely a cover, as it was written specifically for Nico to use.

Feedback (updated 2017/12/02):
Nemosyn says you should listen to Me First and the Gimme Gimmes' cover of Blowin' in the Wind.
Auduster says you should listen to George Harrison's cover of Mama You've Been On My Mind.
Borgo says you should listen to The Grateful Dead's live cover album of Dylan songs Postcards of the Hanging.


I've arranged these songs into two different playlists. One is an abbreviated list, the other includes all of the above. I've included links to a spotify playlist and a youtube playlist for each. I would recommend the Spotify playlist for consistent audio quality, but if you're not a paying member you might have to put up with advertisements. Of course, Youtube will probably have you suffer through some ads as well.

Father Dylan, Kitchen Playlist (condensed) :

All Along the Watchtower - The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Tombstone Blues - Richie Havens
Tomorrow is a Long Time - Nickel Creek
Highway 61 Revisited - Karen O and the Million Dollar Bashers
It Ain't Me, Babe - Johnny Cash and June Carter
Knockin' on Heaven's Door - Antony and the Johnsons
Goin' to Acapulco - Jim James and Calexico
Tangled Up in Blue - Indigo Girls
Wanted Man - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
It's All Over Now, Baby Blue - Them
Changing of the Guard - Chris Whitley and Jeff Lang
You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go - Shawn Colvin

~57 minutes
links: Spotify | Youtube

Father Dylan, Road Trip Playlist (complete) :

Ballad of a Thin Man - Stephen Malkmus and the Million Dollar Bashers
Highway 61 Revisited - Karen O and the Million Dollar Bashers
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat - Beck
Tombstone Blues - Richie Havens
Fourth Time Around - Yo La Tengo
Wicked Messenger - Patti Smith
All Along the Watchtower - The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Just Like a Woman - Jeff Buckley
Dark Eyes - Iron and Wine and Calexico
One More Cup of Coffee - The White Stripes
Wanted Man - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again - Cat Power
Maggie's Farm - Rage Against the Machine
Ring Them Bells - Sufjan Stevens
You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go - Shawn Colvin
It Ain't Me, Babe - Johnny Cash and June Carter
It's All Over Now, Baby Blue - Them
Changing of the Guard - Chris Whitley and Jeff Lang
Knockin' on Heaven's Door - Antony and the Johnsons
Goin' to Acapulco - Jim James and Calexico
Lord Protect My Child - Susan Tedeschi
Tangled Up in Blue - Indigo Girls
Tomorrow is a Long Time - Nickel Creek

~115 minutes
links: Spotify | Youtube

The order as well as the content of these playlists are subject to change as I learn things, fiddle with things, and change my mind, as I'm liable to do.

I don't *think* this writeup contains any copyrighted material, but no infringement was intended. I used wikipedia for some basic dates and references, but not for original content. Here are some links to some online articles of Dylan covers I used to research this project:

Relevant Magazine
Paste Magazine
Rolling Stone
The Wrap

This has been a labor of love, brought to you by the music nerd inside of me.

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