Bob Dylan may be the most covered artist in rock & roll history. While his own style and delivery has always been grounded in roots based music such as folk, blues, country, and gospel, the artists that have covered him over the years have found numerous ways to connect his songwriting innovations with their own style. A playlist compiling all of the great Dylan covers recorded since the release of his debut album in 1962 could potentially play for days, so we’ve taken a small scoop containing a handful or two of our favorite songs played by some of our favorite artists as a tip of the hat to the legend on his 71st birthday.
Note: The Jimi Hendrix Experience cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” which may indeed be the best Dylan cover of all time, has been left of this mix to leave room for some lesser known covers. The Byrds’ extensive Dylan coverage has also been excised for likewise reasoning.
The White Stripes — “One More Cup of Coffee”
The White Stripes used to cover Dylan regularly in concert. In their live DVDs alone, you can see the duo doing bitchin’ renditions of deep cuts like “Outlaw Blues” and “Isis,” but early on in their career they cut this “Desire” highlight to tape for their debut album in 1999.
PJ Harvey — “Highway 61 Revisited”
On this brutally awesome cover, PJ Harvey (back when they were a band and not just Polly Jean Harvey’s moniker) take on “Highway 61 Revisited,” giving it a rumbling crunch. This performance is from “120 Minutes” when the band were promoting their landmark second album, “Rid of Me.”
Nico — “I’ll Keep It With Mine”
Upon its October 1967 release, Nico was very unhappy with her solo debut. Under the production of Tom Wilson, the record got a baroque pop finish rather than the more rock sound she would had preferred. Upset or not over the finished product, “Chelsea Girl” is an art-pop classic and her cover of this “Blonde On Blonde” outtake is one of the record’s warmest sentiments.
Andrew Bird — “Oh Sister”
Andrew Bird‘s unique style of plucky violin and whistling has made him a valuable asset in the indie community. His cover of Dylan’s “Oh Sister” has a haunting quality common with all his work which simultaneously stays true to the original while providing an enlightening touch of his own.
Cat Power — “Moonshiner”
Chan Marshall has been a Bob Dylan fanatic since she was a young girl, chronicled in detail on “Song For Bobby”which is featured on her (mostly) covers record “Juke Box.” “Moonshiner” is not written by Bob Dylan, but it’s a song that is well known for his interpretation, which appeared on the first installation of his “Bootleg Series.” This creepy, dragging Cat Power cover is a standout from her dark fourth record “Moon Pix.”
George Harrison — “If Not For You”
When Dylan recorded “If Not For You” for “New Morning” in 1970, it was an uptempo little ditty, bright and filled with spring time giddiness. However, nothing captures the song’s breadth and grandeur like George Harrison‘s cover that appeared on his triple LP “All Things Must Pass” later that year. Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound opens every flower budding in Dylan’s original for a mesmerizing dream pop classic before there ever was such a phrase.
Queens of the Stone Age — “Outlaw Blues”
“Outlaw Blues” has been covered by many bands since its first appearance on “Bringing It All Back Home,” a record legendary for its embrace of rock which buried Dylan as far as folk enthusiasts were concerned. Both The White Stripes and Crocodiles have given it a stab, but this Queens of the Stone Age rendition is pretty choice. From “Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan — Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International.”
Them — “It’s All Over Know Baby Blue”
A folk tune when recorded by Dylan, Them outfitted the song with Van Morrision’s signature growl and a billowy interplay between the guitar lead and piano parts. This version was later sampled on Beck’s 1997 single “Jack-Ass.”
Jeff Buckley — “If You See Her, Say Hello”
Jeff Buckley was not a prolific artist which is probably why his originals were so good — rather than knocking them out, he would take his songs and hone them to perfection. Because of this shortage of original material, he turned to covers quite often which he luckily gave just as much care crafting as he would his own songs. This calming cover of “If You See Her, Say Hello” is one of many Dylan covers he performed in his lifetime. From the Legacy Edition of “Live at Sin-é.”
The Dead Weather — “New Pony”
Jack White has a real affinity for mid to late-70s Dylan, exemplified by this choice for Dead Weather coverage. “New Pony” is from “Street-Legal,” the last record before Dylan’s “Born Again” trilogy. In the spirit of PJ Harvey’s “Highway 61″ cover, this rendition exorcises the song’s inner demons and brings it out for bare knuckled punch-out. This live version is taken from the French show “L’album de la semaine.” Their performance begins at 0:35.
Antony and the Johnsons — “Knocking on Heaven’s Door
There are tons of covers of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” most notably by Eric Clapton and Guns N’ Roses. Likewise there are a ton of Dylan covers on the soundtrack to the film “I’m Nor There,” the surrealist vision of Dylan’s multiple personas. Over its two discs, there are definitely some throwaways, some needless run-throughs, and some truly amazing reinterpretations. This tender cover of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is surely the latter of the three. Antony Hegarty’s quivering voice and simple piano phrasing are all this song needs, but a little flourishing with acoustic guitar and cello certainly doesn’t hurt it either. To anyone who has sat through the soundtrack’s somewhat grueling length, this track is a sweet cherry waiting at its final lap.
Though this only scratches the surface, it’s at least a push in the right direction for great reinterpretations of some of the finest songwriting to emerge out of the 20th century. Happy Birthday, Bob!