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(Credit: Bent Rej)

Music

The five best covers of Bob Dylan’s ‘Times They Are A’Changin’’

@TomTaylorFO

There aren’t many other artists, if any, for whom it can be said ‘it’s probably one of the most important songs in history, but it isn’t one of his very best’. Bob Dylan’s old tracks, by his own fervent admission, were not protest songs—they were liminal works that contained the whole gambit of life. While songs like ‘Times They Are A’Changin’’ seem to raise an eyebrow to their creators claim, it works heavily in his favour that the anthem remains as timeless and relevant today as it didn’t in the unnamed time he sings about.

Upon release, the single and album that shares its name made it clear that pop culture had to be cognizant of the world it was awaking into. With classic Carnivalesque folk stylings, Dylan places one foot into the past and lunges the other boldly into the future, creating a ditty that seems to have a journey stretching out behind it and a beacon firmly in its grip. Aside from everything else, it is, as strewn in the sentence above, a ditty—this was the birth of pop culture, after all, and if it wasn’t a hit it would’ve faded into futility. 

As it happens, it was somewhat a hit and as such, it genuinely proclaimed a message that was heeded by the masses and may well have brought about some progressive change. As such, the track has entered society at large and a measure of that is just how many artists have tried their hand at it. Below we’ve collated the best of them. 

The best covers of ‘The Times They Are A-Changin”:

The Beach Boys

When the sun-bleached Californians set about recording Party! they took an all-acoustic turn hoping to sound like a beach-party campfire sing-along with friends—they wanted it to sound organic. The record came complete with a tambourine, bongos and acoustic guitar, the band pull off a warm, if not somewhat canned, sense of merriment throughout the record. The highlight came from their cover of Dylan’s pivotal protest song.

The track had quickly become the anthem of the counter-culture movement. The Beach Boys may have been the establishment’s choice of rock act for the masses but the band still appreciated the gravity of Dylan’s arrival and pay homage to the singer with this brilliant cover that showed a societally savvy side to the boys. 

Neil Young

As joint forces of the counterculture movement, Dylan and Neil Young extolled virtues, poetry and harmonica harps like no others. As Young once humbly said: “Bob Dylan, I’ll never be Bob Dylan. He’s the master. If I’d like to be anyone, it’s him. And he’s a great writer, true to his music and done what he feels is the right thing to do for years and years and years.” Nevertheless, he was happy to pay him homage recently.

Young’s cover is a faithful one that doesn’t try to do anything fancy to the original. By keeping it classical, he unearths the inner timelessness of the song. In 2020 the song was clearly as relevant as ever and Young’s cover was a clever nod to this fact, not to mention the ringing vocal he lends it.

Odetta

Odetta was a numen who bridged the gap between folk, blues & soul; as a founding figure of the Greenwich Village scene from its late 50’s outset, she was a prolific actress and such a key component of the Civil Rights Movement that she was dubbed the voice of it. With that in mind, she’s hardly enshrined in history the way that she should be.

One of the finest moments in her career came when Dylan’s former idol turned the tables and offered up a covers album of his songs, Odetta Sings Dylan. Her dignified majesty boldly presides over the anthems with a careworn sense of history. Perhaps best of all, her cover coaxes the imagination towards picturing her graciously plucking a treasured six-string in some subterranean bar and ensuring every single sock in the audience had been blown off by the time she finished the track.

Richie Havens

Anything that Richie Havens touches is tinged with an added sense of spiritualism. His voice wraps around any tune like a blanket and serves up a patch of comforting bliss. When it comes to the ‘Times They Are A’Changin’’ that approach might sound like it would blunt the visceral cutting edge of the tune on paper, but in reality, it is the same paeon for peace that the original was at heart. 

Humble and sweet, this 1987 rendition is both soft enough to accompany the making of the first brew of the day, but stirring enough to serve as a necessary call for change. As another fellow Greenwich Village folk forebearer, Havens and Dylan go way back and there is a sense of the old friendship even within the song.

Judy Collins

Fair enough, the panpipes might offer a smattering of dated 90s production to Judy Collins’ version of the track but her soaring vocal take does more than enough to gloss over that as she hits high notes with the grace and ease of a chirping blackbird and her composure nor power wanes throughout. 

Taken from her 1998 covers album, Collins cast an aged eye back over the counterculture movement and reprised classic tracks with the sense of dust blown sleeve. The result is earthy and wistful and, as ever with Collins, so easy listening that they could even give pause to a blue arsed fly on the wrong side of the window.