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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Thursday, May 13, 2010


First, there's an interesting list of covers of Dylan songs posted by "Paul" as a Comment under the Allmans' 'Blind Willie McTell' item. It's a weird topic, covers, I always think. Essentially, granted that Dylan is such a tremendous songwriter, why is it that more than 90% of the covers of his songs are so unsatisfying? And is there any consensus among Dylan afficionados as to which are the exceptions, the really good covers?

Second, I thank all the people who have ordered copies of my Index to Chronicles Volume One. This is still available to anyone who's interested. Just send a Comment giving your e-mail address; this won't be published, but it will used to request the £6 price payable for the Index and then to send it as a PDF file. It runs to 31 pages, and contains 1,384 entries: in total 6,517 words and page-numbers. It applies to all US and UK editions, and presumably to any other English-language editions.

Third, a couple of anniversaries of people with musical connections to Dylan: today is the 60th birthday of Stevie Wonder, and the 35th anniversary of the death of Bob Wills (of & His Texas Playboys). Stevie was born in Saginaw, Michigan; Bob died in Fort Worth, Texas.


Anonymous Aziz said...

Hello! Please i,ve a question about the technique employed by dylan in a lot of his songs. How we called this technique thats dylan make the same sentence at the end of each paragraph , for exemple in the song "only a pawn in their game" ?
and escuse me for my english...i'm french lol

1:17 pm  
Blogger Wolford said...

Greetings Mr. Gray - I'm looking to purchase the Chronicles index. Please send me details on how I can obtain.


Mark Hall

1:26 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Dear Mark Hall
Actually my posting did specify exactly how to order the index. I wrote:

"Just send a Comment giving your e-mail address; this won't be published, but it will used to request the £6 price payable for the Index and then to send it as a PDF file."

I have had to publish this first Comment of yours because you didn't give an e-mail address, so that this public forum is the only way of answering your query.

I hope this is clear now and I look forward to hearing back from you with an e-mail address.

1:57 pm  
Blogger jeffen said...

If 90% of Dylan covers are 'unsatisfying' then of the 27 covers* of “The Man in Me” I just posted, 2.7 of them should be satisfying.

*To be fair one is a live Dylan version from your much-beloved 1978 tour.

3:00 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Very interesting compilation: thank you. I could wish that just sometimes you weren't quite so confident of being able to sum up each one so knowingly and reductively, but a terrific list all the same.

7:02 pm  
Blogger jumprightin said...

Aziz: One or more phrases or lines repeated at the close of every stanza are the "burden" or the "refrain."

7:30 pm  
Anonymous McHenry Boatride said...

To me the definitive cover of a Dylan song has got to be Jimi Hendrix with All Along the Watchtower. So good that last time I saw Dylan it seemed that he was doing a cover of Jimi's version.

Jimi did a pretty nifty version of Like a Rolling Stone too.

7:45 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I entirely agree that 90% of the covers of Dylan songs are forgetable. Maybe this is further evidence of Dylan's brilliance as a singer, musician and bandleader/arranger(just listen to his version of, say, We Just Disagree and how he transforms a song ).Perhaps it is unfair to expect anyone to reach the heights that Dylan can achieve and achieved over a very long haul.

There must be truly thousands of Dylan covers and it is impossible to hear most of them. The really good covers which spring to mind are Watchtower/ Hendrix, Baby Blue/ Van Morrison, Released/ The Band,Love is Just A Four Letter Word/Baez. IMO the very poor ones include the very successful Blowin' in the Wind/ PP&M and Mr Tambourine Man/ The Byrds. I have a soft spot for Rita May/ Jerry Lee Lewis especially the rollicking live version and hats off to Lou Reed for tackling the great song Foot of Pride.


9:35 pm  
Anonymous Rainer said...

Though I do not agree with the percentage (I'd say only 75% are unsatisfying), I too find covers a very interesting subject that reaches way beyond Dylan. Are some songs easier to cover, i.e. do they more likely produce a satisfying cover? Is this so because they are great songs themselves and do not need Dylan's art of singing/phrasing? Does it work out better if artists/singers change or intensify the 'mood' of the song? Are there songs that cannot be changed/arranged differently? Etc, etc ...

10:41 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My pick for the greatest Dylan cover...Van Morrison's live version of Just Like a Woman.

1:31 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reason the cover versions don't work for me, is I've heard Dylan's version(s) first.
Dylan in my view is an even better singer than he is a song writer, as a result nothing compares very favorably. Not to say there aren't good versions by other artists.
Which Dylan songs would you like to hear covered by:
Robert Johnson: Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat.
Jimmie Rodgers: You're a Big Girl Now
Charlie Patton: Highway 61 Revisited
Pat Ford

2:16 am  
Blogger jeffen said...

I do try to give a little context and a little criticism in each one sentence review, which, in all fairness, may well come off as a bit glib sometimes.

That said, I'm glad you enjoyed the list and took the time to offer me a bit of feedback. Thank you.

3:33 am  
Anonymous Rainer said...

I think it's not a question of doing the songs better - good covers are those which are as good but different AND - and that's very important - sounding as if they could have been written by the artist covering them. This of course applies to every cover not just of Dylan songs. Hendrix made Watchtower completely his own as The Stones made Little Queenie (on Get Yer YaYa's Out) theirs. Havind said this I have to confess that I always loved the Byrds' Tambourine Man. Though it has nothing to do with Dylan it's a great popsong ;-)

12:59 pm  
Anonymous wee tommy said...

Maybe the assumption that we should expect great cover versions of Dylan songs is a category error. Historically, the phrase ‘great songwriter’ was used to describe somebody who produced great songs for others to sing. All the big names of the pre-rock’n’roll era fall into that category – Gershwin, Berlin, Rodgers etc, and then the likes of Leiber & Stoller, Willie Dixon, Bacharach etc in the post-war years. Whether you like their work or not, these guys were manifestly good at their job. But, being a songwriter who writes great songs for him or herself to sing (mostly a construct of the 1960s onwards) – maybe that’s essentially a different job. A songwriter like Gershwin etc composes a song then presents it to the world. Others will compose a song and present it to a particular singer. By contrast, Dylan’s way of presenting a song is usually by recording what is already the definitive version. Which isn’t to say that successful cover versions are impossible, just that they will always be cover versions. You don’t get cover versions of Irving Berlin songs.

4:06 pm  
Anonymous thecook:hiswife,hislover said...

Almost regarded as "our song" is one of the best Dylan covers ever - Jason and the Scorchers' Absolutely Sweet Marie. Just the most wonderful, energetic, truly glad to be alive version of the song.

6:58 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Thanks to everyone who wrote in about cover versions.

Yes, McHenry, Jimi's 'Like A Rolling Stone' is pretty good. He did a version live at York University when we were both there: in February 1967... I spent about 20 minutes talking to him that night - mostly about Bob Dylan! We were agreed about him.

Paul, I didn't know there was a live Jerry Lee Lewis 'Rita May', nor a live 'Just Like A Woman' by Van Morrison. Where can I find them?

Not sure how fully I agree with Wee Tommy's suggestion that Dylan covers don't work because of the crucial difference between songwriters (eg Gershwin) and singer-songwriters like Bob - and how does someone like Hoagy Carmichael fit into this divide? - but it's interesting.

The questions Rainer raises about cover versions seem very much to the point, but hard to answer quickly.

And as for Pat's invention of the Dream Retrospective Cover, I think that's really brilliant - and I love his examples. I hope other people might add more.

My own first suggestions would be these:

It Takes A Train To Laugh: McTell
Bye and Bye: Fred Astaire
Buckets of Rain: Blind Willie Johnson
I Threw It All Away: Roy Orbison
Pledging My Time: Memphis Minnie.

2:22 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


The Jerry Lee Lewis live version is from Berlin in 1985 and is on you/tube.

The consensus seems to be that the ability of the performer determines the success of a cover song. Any such theory seems to fail when tested. I suppose like all covers it depends on individual taste...Dylan though seems to have a genuine love of Hendrix and his sublime version of Wathtower. I would agree that this is the definitive cover.


2:48 pm  
Anonymous Dave Meinzer said...

Context is important. I've played in bands for over 30 years and we always seem to find a way to throw in a Dylan cover (along with original songs and other covers). His songs are fun to play and usually get a good audience response - sometimes a great one. They're not always strictly "faithful" covers either; we usually attempt to add a rhythm twist or harmonies that wouldn't be found on the original version to make the arrangement our own. His songs seem to invite that more than, say, a Beatles or Rolling Stones cover. But recording a Bob Dylan song and trying to get people to buy it and listen to it repeatedly IS another story.

3:45 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would add Elvis' version of 'Tomorrow is a Long Time' to the list of great Dylan covers - there is also a good version of the same song by Dion.
My feeling is that Dylan's phrasing is such a major part of his talent that it makes it very difficult for other people to sing his songs. I think also he interprets them so well - his version of "All along the Watchtower' still seems to me to have an urgency that the Hendrix version lacks.
I think of Hendrix's version as a brilliant instrumental performance rather than as being the BEST interpretation of the song.
On an unrelated point, don't know if you have seen this:

9:55 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Should have mentioned Van Morrison's excellent cover of "Is All Over now, Baby Blue' with them. Have heard him sing it in concert also & it was outstanding...

Also Mark Lanegan's fine version of 'Man in the Long Black Coat' on the 'I'm not there' soundtrack

7:11 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can find a good liver version of 'Its All Over Now, Baby Blue' by Morrison at

Dont tell Van you watched it though

7:30 am  

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