There are no shortage of cover albums – call them tribute albums – of Bob Dylan songs. Over the last 20 years or so, in particular, there have been a slew of them. These have included both well-known artists paying homage with a complete album of Dylan songs, and a number of compilation albums of various artists performing Dylan songs. Three of these I particularly like are the 1993 The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, 2001’s A Nod to Bob and 2003’s Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan.
But it’s the single artist albums we want to highlight here, and in particular those done by women artists, which, in my view, are particularly good. Interesting that that should be the case, given the accusations from time to time that some of Dylan’s lyrics are sexist (Just Like A Woman comes to mind). The man is, of course, now over 80 and his early songs stretch back to another age, about 60 years ago, and might be expected to share the broad values of society. Anyway, that hasn’t stopped women enjoying, performing and recording Dylan songs, and we’re thankful for that, listening to the following albums. Here is Down at the Crossroads list of the 12 best.
Odetta, Odetta Sings Dylan (1965)
It was Odetta who set Bob Dylan on his path as a folk singer. After hearing one of her records, Dylan said, “Right there and then I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for a flat-top Gibson.” In 1961, he performed for Odetta, who told him she thought he had a chance to make it in folk music. As big a star as Odetta was at the time, she was eventually eclipsed by Dylan and in 1965 she recorded what was the first major album of Dylan covers. It included some of Dylan’s famed protest songs like Masters of War and Blowin’ In the Wind, as well as some tracks that are now quite obscure, like Long Ago, Far Away and Paths of Victory.
Judy Collins, Judy Collins Sings Dylan (1993)
Collin’s soaring vocals work surprisingly well in this set of mostly early Dylan songs. Collins sang with Dylan on a number of occasions in the ‘60s, and Dylan wrote a song for her, I’ll Keep it with Mine. Here she includes I Believe in You, which seems to lose the force of Dylan’s passionate confession of faith and Like a Rolling Stone, which takes the sting out of the resentment in the song, but nevertheless sounds pretty well. And yes, she does Just Like a Woman, which is quite beautiful.
Barb Jungr, Every Grain of Sand (2002)
In this and her 2011 Man in the Long Black Coat, Barb Jungr gives Dylan a throughgoing jazz treatment. This may be the most unusual of the covers’ albums, with Jungr’s well-phrased vocals, the cabaret piano accompaniments and the jazzy arrangements. She includes some classic songs like Blowin’ in the Wind and Masters of War as well as some lesser known songs from the canon. Perhaps the most unusual one served up is You Gotta Serve Somebody.
Mary Lee’s Corvette, Blood on the Tracks, 2002
This album by Mary-Lee Kortes’ band focuses on just one album of Dylan songs. At first glance, Blood on the Tracks, arguably Dylan’s greatest album would appear to be a brave one to cover. Mary Lee is a cross between a country and rock singer and has more than enough vocal chops to pull off these songs. It’s enjoyable stuff, although I found Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts jarring – seemingly not knowing what to do with the song, the band chose to send it up with mocking imitations of Dylan’s singing inflections.
Maria Muldaur, Heart of Mine: The Love Songs of Bob Dylan, 2006
Fine collection of Dylan love songs like You Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight and Make You Feel My Love are given some delicious blues-soaked vocal treatment from the ever-entertaining Ms. Muldaur. Muldaur, who played with Dylan in the ’60s, said, ““It occurred to me that while Dylan is mostly known for his scathing, perceptive, brutally honest and insightful songs of social consciousness, he has in fact, over the years, written many deeply passionate, poignant and moving love songs.” She brings her usual passion and heartfelt approach in an album well worth checking out.
Janet Planet, Sings The Bob Dylan Songbook Vol. 1, 2010
Janet Planet is a successful Australian jazz singer and her 13 Dylan songs are given the full late-night jazz treatment. She restricts herself to the classics from Dylan’s early years, all songs that can stand the sort of drastic rearrangements she gives them. Planet is a first-class singer and her performance on Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat is top notch.
Thea Gilmore, John Wesley Harding, 2011
English artist Gilmore has taken a rather different approach to covering Dylan songs, here focusing on a single album, Dylan’s 1967 John Wesley Harding. Although Dylan’s album was well received at the time, it flew in the face of what other major rock artist were doing. Said Jon Landau, “Dylan seems to feel no need to respond to the predominate [sic] trends in pop music at all. And he is the only major pop artist about whom this can be said.” The songs lend themselves to the more acoustic approach of the original album and to the Gilmore singer-songwriter take on them. The songs are timeless and Thea Gilmore’s reflective take on them works extremely well. Her I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine is simply brilliant and the stripped back I Am A Lonesome Hobo gives you an opportunity to appreciate the quality of her voice.
Joan Osborne, Songs of Bob Dylan, 2017
Joan Osborne famously and quite beautifully covered Dylan’s Man in the Long Black Coat in her acclaimed and Grammy-nominated album Relish in 1995. Ten of the thirteen songs from Dylan’s early period sit alongside Ring Them Bells, High Water, Dark Eyes and Tryin’ to Get to Heaven. Osborne’s distinctive, world-weary voice gives a wholly enjoyable and fresh interpretation to some classic songs.
Betty LaVette, Things Have Changed, 2018
Betty LaVette brings her lifetime of experience as a soul and blues singer to bear on a judiciously chosen set of Dylan songs. As soon as you hear her launch into Things Have Changed, singing “tha-ings” with two syllables, you know this is going to be a big treat. She includes a couple of songs from 1989’s Oh Mercy – Political World is performed as a slow, funky blues and features the guitar of Keith Richards, and What Was It You Wanted becomes a laid-back jazzy number with the help from Trombone Shorty. This is a stellar album, with LaVette pulling more emotion out of Emotionally Yours than ever Dylan did.
Emma Swift, Blonde on the Tracks, 2020
Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift pulls off her covers album with considerable aplomb. Most of the songs are from Dylan’s early period, but interestingly, she includes I Contain Multitudes, from Dylan’s 2020 Rough and Rowdy Ways. Nice to her do Queen Jane Approximately and Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. At 57 minutes, the deluxe version of the album, which includes some live versions of the songs gives good value.
Chrissie Hynde, Standing in the Doorway, 2021
Lead vocalist of The Pretenders gives us a terrific selection of songs from throughout Dylan’s career from 1965’s Love Minus Zero/No Limit to 1997’s Standing in the Doorway. It kicks off with Shot of Love’s In the Summertime, just Hynde and a 12-string guitar and you know this is gonna work. Her strung-out vocals on Blind Willie McTell are masterful.
Lucinda Williams, Lu’s Jukebox: Bob’s Back Pages, 2021
Lucinda Williams’ world-weary, at times croaky voice, with the slurred lyrics is perfect for Dylan songs. Her Everything is Broken, with just a hint of menace, is just about perfect. She includes a few dark Dylan songs – Not Dark Yet, Political World, Man of Peace and Trying to Get to Heaven – all performed with a full band and yet sounding suitably sparce. Williams can do tender as well though – Make You Feel My Love is all that, in a decidedly Lucinda Williams kind of way. Her Blind Willie McTell is maybe the stand-out track.