The Best at Doing Dylan
Updated: Apr 6, 2022
I’ve always been of the opinion that if you’re going to cover a song that you’ve got to make it your own, whether that be if your Eric Clapton doing “Crossroad Blues” or Israel Kamakawiwoʻole doing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, it’s about the style it’s presented in that makes a cover unique and thus special. Bob Dylan is possibly the most covered artist of all time, and, in reality, some of the covers are better than the originals. Now, I’ll argue to the death that Dylan’s musical capabilities extend far beyond his lyrical legend because I know that the musicality of his songwriting is really what sets him apart but there is no need to waste any time explaining that when Jimi Hendrix does it just as well with his guitar. It is how artists are able to see Dylan’s music and expand on it in completely innovative ways that shows why his songs are musically complex because they can be completely transformed, and leave the listener with a song that takes on a whole new meaning.
The first person that comes to mind when I think of a Dylan cover is Jimi Hendrix, and if you believe he’s the best to ever cover Dylan, well you’re in good company because urban myth has it that Dylan himself told Hendrix the same thing the one time they met randomly on a sidewalk in NYC. Maybe a story too good to be true, but an article from Beat International in 1969 has a quote from Hendrix that is dead on point. “Sometimes I do a Dylan song and it seems to fit me so right that I figure maybe I wrote it. Dylan didn’t always do it for me as a singer, not in the early days, but then I started listening to the lyrics. That sold me (alldylan.com).” I’ve often wondered if it wouldn’t have been a perfect marriage if Hendrix had just rerecorded different versions of Dylan’s songs, and surely the five on record make the case for it. The clear example of what Hendrix could do with a Dylan song is “All Along the Watchtower”. With Dylan’s lyrics and structure to create a base for the song, Hendrix exploded the original narrative with the heavy and complex guitar layers. It’s a raw song even for Dylan, but Hendrix exposes the true gritty nature of the song. A somewhat more realistic example of what Hendrix could do to a Dylan song is the Monterey Pop Festival version of “Like a Rolling Stone.” A masterpiece when it comes to performance, Hendrix takes a song that was already so meaningful and, once again, gives us this completely new rendition that exposes the song in a completely different light. If Hendrix isn’t the best Dylan cover artist, then he damn well is the most transformative. And isn’t that part of the point of covering a song, to make it yours?
Out of sheer effort, the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia must be mentioned because I cannot think of anyone who has covered Dylan more. To start, they toured with him for a brief time in the late 80s and Dylan and the Dead, a compilation of live performances of the paired artists, is a strong implication of what Dylan’s songs can do with the proper musical setting. Almost all of the Dead’s covers of Dylan are live performances, but that is the way the band should be remembered anyways, so it’s only natural. There was a release in 2005 of Jerry Plays Dylan that gave us a sweet taste of some alternative versions of some classic Dylan songs and I’m always interested to see the way people are able to put their own spin on Dylan’s songs, especially Garcia, but I think what made the Dead doing Dylan such a common recurrence is the fact the Dylan songs are jam songs. They are these long winding narratives, often with repetitive driving chords that make for sections in between the verses where a band can allow the other members to take off on solos while still having a simple base to come back to. Songs like “Visions of Johanna” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” are two that come to mind where song structures give the band great spaces to play around with, and when the Dead cover these songs they are really able to feed off one another, taking sections to add their own style while still having the structure of the song to come back to, holding it all together.
If there is one thing that Dylan has had to fight his whole career, it’s that he’s not a good singer. Rolling fucking Stone can rank him number 7 all time for singers and he still gets no respect because he just didn’t have the typical natural talent. Now, I’m not here to get into this discussion because I am one of those people who thinks he really did learn how to use his voice, and also how to write songs that were able to be sung in a certain way. Though Dylan was able to master it very well himself, I think Jim James is the best at singing in that style. Sorry Bob. The My Morning Jacket front man can bring such a tenderness to Dylan’s lyrics on songs like “You’re a Big Girl Now” where the strain in his voice gives the song the pain it was meant to show. He’s also been a part of some notable Dylan folklore, playing the band lead in the Dylan Biopic I’m Not There where he performs the song “Goin’ to Acapulco” with his face painted white, as Dylan did for the Rolling Thunder Tour. Additionally, he recorded an album with Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith and Rhiannon Giddens where they took some old lyrics of Dylan’s from the Big Pink days and each wrote music to accompany the lyrics (a documentary was made about the recording process). Though Costello and Mumford make a tough case, I’m still left feeling like the best songs from the album are the ones with Jim James on lead vocals, songs like “Down On The Bottom” and “Quick Like A Flash” where his signature vocal style just seems to fit the style of the song so perfectly.
While I’m happy to listen to Dylan play himself most any day of the week, I’ve come to cherish some of the covers people do of his songs because they are able to add elements to them that Dylan never would have been able to add himself. Covers by Hendrix, the Dead and Jim James have all come into my listening stratosphere on various occasions, and I’ve started to wonder if heaven isn’t just a festival where the Dead are doing Dylan covers with Hendrix on lead guitar and Jim as front man because on some level, that would be heaven to me.
Jim James photo by Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images
Hallgeir. “Jimi Hendrix plays Bob Dylan and Beatles.” https://alldylan.com/jimi-hendrix-plays-bob-dylan-beatles/. November 27, 2015.