Before Dylan became famous as a singer-songwriter, he was known as a songwriter – Peter, Paul and Mary had a hit with “Blowin’ in the Wind” before he did. By 1965, in fact, Columbia Records was so concerned that Dylan’s own recordings were getting eclipsed by covers that it launched a “Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan” marketing campaign.
You know the rest of the story: Dylan went electric, “Like A Rolling Stone” became a hit, and he became better known as an artist. But he’s still one of the most prominent songwriters in rock – executives who understand Dylan’s publishing still say it’s dominated by covers of his songs – and one of the few songwriters with a catalog that’s sizable and important enough that artists can devote entire albums to it. Over the years, there have been plenty – some great, some silly and many just plain gimmicky. Here are 10(ish) of the best.
Odetta, Odetta Sings Dylan (1965)
Dylan has credited Odetta with turning him on to folk music – he has said he heard her album Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues and “went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar.” Here, on one of the first albums of Dylan covers, she makes some of his early political songs sound like they’re old folk tunes and brings a frank earthiness to “Baby, I’m In the Mood for You.” It sounds like this version influenced Miley Cyrus’ 2017 performance of the song on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Really.
The Hollies, Words and Music By Bob Dylan (1969)
When Graham Nash left the Hollies to join Crosby, Stills & Nash, his former band recorded what he regarded as a relatively tame album of Dylan songs. By the standards of 1969, it sounds innocent, old-fashioned and wonderful.
The Brothers & Sisters of L.A., Dylan’s Gospel (1969)
A Jewish producer (Lou Adler) gathers a group of star African-American studio musicians to sing gospel versions of tunes by a Jewish singer-songwriter – who would later be born again and then re-connect with his Jewish heritage. Only in America. And it works: “I Shall Be Released” and “Chimes of Freedom” have a revival feeling, and Merry Clayton’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” sounds beautiful and apocalyptic all at once.
The Byrds, The Byrds Play Dylan (1979)
In their original mid-sixties folk-rock incarnation, the Byrds were some of Dylan’s most inventive interpreters, bringing his songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “My Back Pages” a psychedelic jangle. Highlight: The Byrds’ version of “Lay Down Your Weary Tune,” a Dylan song that Dylan didn’t release a performance of until 1985. This is the Dylan covers album that was so good they released it twice – first in 1979, and then in an expanded version in 2002.
Robyn Hitchcock, Beautiful Queen, Royal Queen Albert & Beautiful Homer (1997)
Is Robyn Hitchcock such a Dylan fan that he essentially covered parts of Dylan’s notorious 1966 show at the Royal Albert Hall (which really took place at the Manchester Free Trade Hall – it’s complicated)? Yes, he did. It’s too much of a tribute to the original show to surpass it, but it sure is interesting. Only available as a promo – but worth searching out for fans.
The Paragons, The Paragons Sing the Beatles and Bob Dylan (1998);
Various artists, Is it Rolling Bob? A Reggae Tribute to Bob Dylan (2004)
Reggae has always loved Dylan: Bob Marley & the Wailers covered “Like A Rolling Stone” (not as well as you might hope) and both Jacob Miller and the Heptones recorded “I Shall Be Released” (both are worth hearing). The Paragons brought sweet harmonies to both songs, and others, on their album of Beatles and Dylan covers. Is it Rolling Bob? is more of a mixed bag, but it shows the range and power of Dylan’s songs.
Jerry Garcia, Garcia Plays Dylan (2005)
Garcia covered Dylan songs for his entire career, both in the Grateful Dead and as a solo artist. This album includes 15 tracks from four bands (with different lineups), recorded over the course of more than two decades, so your mileage may vary. But your trip will be interesting.
Various artists, I’m Not There original soundtrack (2007)
Dylan goes indie! Well, sort of. At two discs and 34 tracks, this soundtrack has something for everyone – and something to piss everyone off – but indie rockers dominate with Yo La Tengo’s furious take on “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” The Hold Steady’s organ-fueled “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” and the five songs with backing from the ad-hoc supergroup The Million Dollar Bashers, which includes Tom Verlaine and two members of Sonic Youth.
The Charlie Daniels Band, Off the Grid: Doin’ It Dylan (2014)
Daniels played on some of the sessions for Nashville Skyline and New Morning, so he has more sympathy for Dylan’s songs than you’d expect. Songs like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” are a bit wordy for country renditions, but “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)” go down like a cold beer on a summer day.
Various artists, A Tree With Roots: Fairport Convention and the Songs of Bob Dylan (2018)
Early in its career, Fairport Convention was a reliably inventive interpreter of Dylan’s songs, and the band’s version of “Percy’s Song” is definitive – partly because Dylan didn’t release his own version until 1985. (Fairport recorded it on Unhalfbricking, but the live version here is just as good.) Fairport Convention did for British folk music what The Band did for America’s, and most the songs here have a loose, chaotic energy.
Wolfgang Ambros, Wie Im Schlaf (1978)
Dylan songs in German? Actually, in Austrian German. It’s weird. But Ambros feels it.