Under the Covers with Bob Dylan

by | Apr 9, 2020 | Off the Wall, Song of the Day

There exist people whose lives were transformed the first time they heard Bob Dylan. Full disclosure: I am not one of those people. I eased into Bob Dylan — adding a track here, an album there — through a process of aggregation that’s been ongoing for (cough cough) years, and which left each song seemingly stuck in a specific place and time.

‘I Want You’ floated down the hallway from my older brother’s bedroom. ‘If Not for You’ is that summer in the converted garage with the leaky roof when I learned to drive a fork lift. ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’ is the Hardy Tollroad, the stereo balance cranked over to the front left speaker where the guitar fills dwell. The entirety of Oh Mercy is — for reasons long forgotten — Farm-to-Market Road 1488.

Fast-forward to the Holocene Epoch and ‘Brownsville Girl’ is on my short list for Best Song of All Time by Any Artist. I’ve listened to Self Portrait more than any other Dylan album, an accomplishment that surely qualifies me for some sort of Lifetime Achieve Award. The sedimentary process continues: recently I added ‘Every Grain of Sand’ to the substrate.

But the verified Bob Dylan recordings are only the pit of the peach. The fuzzy peel is the infinitely expanding cloud of covers that surrounds the Dylan discography. Some covers are individually iconic: Jimi Hendrix’s ‘All Along the Watchtower.’ The Byrds’ ‘Mister Tambourine Man.’ Guns and Roses’ ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.’ Peter, Paul, and Mary’s ‘Blowing in the Wind.’ So to celebrate everyone who’s ever picked up an acoustic guitar and worked out ‘Girl from the North Country,’ let’s cast our nets upon the Bandcamp waters and become fishers of Bob Dylan covers.

‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ lives in the little basement apartment with the steep flight of concrete steps that I tumbled down while trying to simultaneously walk and read a magazine. Search for it ain’t me and Bandcamp returns an even 100 results. Which, I suppose, reflects our collective quest for plausible deniability.  BRIDEY has created a gently wistful version of ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe.’ The second verse opens the door to the harmonies that add an extra layer of elegance.

‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ summons the specter of my friend Steve, who maintained that the song was about Bob Dylan’s front lawn. Jessica Rhaye associates ‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ with Van Gogh’s The Starry Night and lying in the back of my parents’ old station wagon driving to early morning Judo class. Listen for the beautiful lead guitar by Chris Braydon.

‘Oh, Sister’ is another older brother song, a track that I first heard from a distance and to which I later listened surreptitiously, liberating Desire for a quick spin when my brother wasn’t around (BTW: I still have your Badfinger album). The sign of a great song is its ability to cross genres. Black Hay takes the vaguely Mediterranean original and transforms it into a slow-burning buzzsaw. Anthemically overdriven guitars alternate with delicate vocals to create a minor melodic masterpiece. And for those of you keeping score at home, Gideon K’s rhythm guitar is in the right channel, facing JB Newman’s on the left.

‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ is one of two Dylan tracks — along with ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’ — that virtually everyone has heard (including many who would be surprised to learn that they were listening to Dylan). I have no idea why I associate the song with the den of the house where Dad and I planted the pine trees that now tower over the two-story structure. The version by Him Horrison is even more melancholy than the original, an appropriate theme song for these Lockdown Days when we regularly check the CNN ticker to learn how many people died today.

And now, to balance out the preceding somberness, a jangly, spacey romp through ‘El Hombre del Tambor’ by J.M. Baule. Though the arrangement is courtesy of the Byrds, the vocal is totally latter-stage Dylan. J.M. Baule’s new album, Pinturas sobre Bob Dylan features twenty Dylan covers with original Spanish translations of the lyrics. I love the album’s energy. Even soft standards like ‘Blowing in the Wind’ take on a sense of urgency: Esto, mi amigo, el viento ha de saber. Escucha, y el, te va a responder…

And there we are, folks: five Bob Dylan covers that may help us recall Better Times, or at least Different Times. These are Strange Times, weeks spent separated from friends and family. But as the days get longer and the money gets shorter, we can gain some comfort by revisiting old acquaintances, musical missionaries that have returned from the World Outside with new tales and altered appearances but without bearing potential pathogens. All of the tracks featured here are available for virus-free download on Bandcamp. Stay safe, stay healthy, and keep watching the skies!

Charles Norman is a writer and historian. Email: reverb.raccoon@gmail.com. Or follow on Instagram and Facebook.

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