From David Bowie to Jimi Hendrix: The 20 greatest Bob Dylan covers of all time
Few artists have influenced as many bands or singers as Bob Dylan has. During his near-six decade career, the freewheelin’ Bob Dylan has given credence, poetry and strength to countless musicians and their art. It has left Dylan as one of the everlasting figures of popular music and makes him an undoubted legend.
Lyrically one of the most impressive artists of all time, Dylan was more than capable of intriguing and captivating melodies as well as some notably poignant performances. His influence has never been more clear than when you see the below list, full of the greatest musicians of modern times, all paying tribute to the legend with their own cover.
The collection is jam-packed with incredible artists. From David Bowie and all his Starman genius to Jimi Hendrix’s mercurial power—all of them owe a debt of gratitude to Bob Dylan. Unlike any other artist, Dylan carved out a career based on artistic authenticity and morale-driven merit.
Acting as the poster boy for the counter-culture movement that spawned on the East Coast before San Francisco took over, Dylan soon became known all over the globe for his poetic imagery and deliberate message of new-age revolution. It was a freeing moment that allowed a host of artists to begin their own dreams.
The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were pop music incarnate—flashy, fast and full of chart-topping hops. Dylan put his heart, soul and most importantly, his mind, into every song he wrote and it shines in these covers. Each one expressed and tempted in a slightly different way, with each artist finding their own truth in the work.
If there was a clearer sign of a truly inspirational artist, then we haven’t found it.
The 20 best Bob Dylan covers ever:
20. ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ – David Bowie & Mick Ronson
As part of Mick Ronson’s final solo record, Heaven and Hull, Bowie jumped on to the cover of Bob Dylan’s iconic 1965 classic. Never shy to show his admiration for Dylan, Bowie famously wrote a song in tribute to the great man where he would sing: “Now hear this Robert Zimmerman, though I don’t suppose we’ll meet.”
“I think he hates me,” Bowie once said in an interview after their first meeting. However, the years would go by and mutual respect would develop between the two. While it may not reside high on some of Bowie’s best vocal work, it’s made the list for the gravity of the song.
19. ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ – Peter, Paul and Mary
Depending on your viewpoint Peter, Paul and Mary are either incredibly cool or incredibly square. We’re not sure we care to separate the two as with this rendition of Dylan’s classic they straddle the line perfectly.
Their effortless harmonies transform Dylan’s protest anthem into something so twee we expect Wes Anderson to be filming it in a pastel pastry shop as we speak.
18. ‘Maggie’s Farm’ – Rage Against The Machine
Dylan, remarkably, only needed one take to record ‘Maggie’s Farm’ on January 1th 1965, it then appeared on the album Bringing It All Back Home. Like many other Dylan songs from that era, it is originally an electric blues number.
The track is Dylan kicking out his frustration at being a servant to his record label, material in which he vents his gripes at the music industry and firing back at the commodification of himself that his label has created. What better vehicle for such a message than the agitator extraordinaire, Rage Against The Machine.
17. ‘Forever Young’ – Pattie LaBelle
Live Aid probably remains one of the larger mistakes in Bob Dylan’s career. But while his performance alongside Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood was an atrocity, Patti LaBelle at least saved his bacon.
LaBelle’s performance at the global event in 1985 was about as gigantic as a vocalist can be. Performing the kind of vocal gymnastics that would make a Shaolin Monk embarrassed, LaBelle lets it rip.
16. ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ – Waxahatchee & Kevin Morby
The most modern cover in our list is equally as beautiful as any other. It was 2018, a time when Waxahatchee and Morby collaborated for a joint tour across Australia and New Zealand, that their cover of Dylan was shared. Armed with a camera crew, the duo decided to put together a perfect rendition of the classic a few hours before they took to the stage in Sydney.
Their relationship off-stage makes this performance all the more special as they offer up a modern image of the love shared between Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter. More on that later.
15. ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ – Spirit
One of the most difficult songs of Dylan’s to really put your own mark on is ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. The anthemic track has become so iconic that attempting to take it on is always dangerous—that hasn’t stopped people trying, though.
Without doubt, the finest attempt to capture the magic of the song is Spirit and their 1975 effort. The band take the density of lyrical content and somehow match it with musical arrangement befitting a trip to bluesy heaven. A graceful moment of joy.
14. ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ – PJ Harvey
What does one expect when an artist as unique as PJ Harvey tries to cover a song? Explosive blues-punk energy? Industrial tones and a deep surge of emotion? or just a primal sense of beauty? Luckily, Polly Jean brings it all in bucket loads on this cover.
On 1993’s Rid of Me Harvey kicks the track into overdrive and drags it into the mire of the 1990s. Alt-rock renditions don’t come better than this.
13. ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ – Sam Cooke
Bob Dylan is undoubtedly one of the most covered artists in history, beginning almost from the very moment he began to release music. There are plenty of renditions of this track, Peter, Paul & Mary being the most widely favoured, but for us, Sam Cooke’s is the definitive version.
It’s our favourite because Cooke turns the song into an unbridled bop. Using his perfect soul vocal, Cooke selects the jazziest moments and toe-tapping lines to eventuate. Perfect listening.
12. ‘If Not For You’ – George Harrison
This one may be a tough call for a ‘cover’ considering George Harrison sat in on a session that fleshed out the early song from Dylan. But semantics aside, the track went on to be a defining moment on Harrison’s 1970.
The former Beatle took the song down a new melodious route and turned his spiritual nose toward elevating the track. It reminds us that not only was Harrison deeply emboldened by Dylan to write his own material but sometimes it still wasn’t as good as Dylan.
11. ‘Wanted Man’ – Nick Cave
Bob Dylan originally wrote ‘Wanted Man‘ with Johnny Cash, who went on to have great success with the track which was debuted on his 1969 live album, At San Quentin, and would later release a studio version which he remarkably had only learnt a week beforehand.
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds did their own murderous rendition of the song to add another darker edge to proceedings. With Cave and the band such fans of Dylan it was only fitting that they did an impeccable job.
10. ‘Masters of War’ – Eddie Vedder
Easily the youngest members of the guestlist for the Bob Dylan tribute concert in 1992, Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam bandmate Mike McCready delivered a stunning rendition of ‘Masters of War’.
It was so good that it outshone the likes of Neil Young, Eric Clapton and George Harrison and became one of the lasting impressions of such an illustrious night. It remained in Pearl Jam’s set between 2003 and 2008.
9. ‘Isis’ – The White Stripes
The White Stripes certainly did ‘Isis’ justice in their cover and to turn Dylan into a fan of their work in the following years is testament to their version which was a regular number in their set for the whole 2001 tour.
This was a bold move for the group as is one of the singer’s more obscure tracks which their crowd were unlikely to know but it is the sort of thing Dylan himself would be proud of, as they followed his maxim of playing for yourself first and foremost. It’s high on our list for that very reasoning—they embodied Dylan’s spirit.
8. ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ – Bruce Springsteen
A pre-E Street band Bruce Springsteen is a rare thing to hear in itself but this audio from 1972 is a trip back in time to see The Boss at the very start of his journey to the top. It was captured at a bar in Richmond in ’72 and sees Springsteen’s first homages of many to the great man.
With a seemingly empty bar to play to, Springsteen rallies himself for a haunting and splintered rendition of Dylan’s 1965 classic. The sparse 11-minute number shows how vitally important Springsteen believed Dylan to be. The crowd rouse themselves to join in with the appreciation and it makes for one of the more curious covers because of it.
7. ‘All Along The Watchtower’ – XTC
When the new wave icons XTC were piecing together their debut album White Music together they were set on picking at least one cover. The idea for a cover was a toss-up between the Dylan song and The Rolling Stones song ‘Citadel’.
Frontman Andy Partridge explained: “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to cover one of these songs, because they’re both from people who represent the Old Guard,” he remembered.
“I think it would be mischievous to do either of these songs in a radically different way, and to show that we’re not in awe of the Old Guard, and that we can take something that they’ve done, smash it all up, and put it back together in our way.”
As well as being fronted by Van Morrison, Them’s, the 1960s garage rock band, other claims to fame were their stompin’ song ‘Gloria’ and this perfect cover of ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’.
Morrison was a big fan of Dylan from the very beginning, adoring his album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The pair would eventually join forces in 1984 to share another version of the track.
5. ‘I Shall Be Released’ – The Band
Featuring on The Band’s seminal album Music From Big Pink as the final number, ‘I Shall Be Released’ has had many renditions over the years. However, The Band’s effort lands as one of the very few that are better than the original.
With keyboardist Richard Manuel on vocals, the track transforms into a new piece. Written by Dylan alongside the group during the Basement Tapes sessions in 1967, the song’s best moment came with an all-star rendition at The Band’s record Last Waltz in 1976.
4. ‘Just Like A Woman’ – Jeff Buckley
Jeff Buckley was hugely inspired by Bob Dylan. He wasn’t just influenced by the singer he was an unadulterated fan, it even led Buckley to write a letter to the singer to apologise to Dylan following a miscommunication—but the clearest indication of his fandom is this touching cover.
Buckley was performing the track in his live solo sets before he was signed to Columbia and his command of the track is sensational. Previously only available as a live bootleg the studio version landed on You and I and immediately shone. Buckley’s version is definitive.
3. ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ – The Byrds
If there’s one moment which signifies Dylan ascendancy from folk act to international star, it was when he “went electric” and plugged in his acoustic guitar. It was a moment undoubtedly buoyed by The Byrds cover of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’.
Dylan had put the song down in 1965 as part of his Bringing It All Back Home session and the Byrds had managed to grab a hold of an early copy. Listening to the acetate, the group were convinced it was perfect for their debut album and, of course, it was.
The Byrds’ version of the song is nothing short of magnificent and arguably one of the most important releases of Dylan’s career. It’s success put The Byrds on the map, enlivened a folk scene on the West Coast and encouraged Dylan to plug into the amps that summer at the Newport Folk Festival.
2. ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ – Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash
Perhaps one of Johnny Cash’s most well-known cover songs is the track he and June Carter performed as a homage to their new friend and growing folk legend Bob Dylan. With Cash and Carter as the main protagonists in the song, Dylan’s story is given an extra texture and a more loving dynamic.
As part of his Orange Blossom Special LP, Cash confirmed his love for the folk icon and covered three of his songs. Taking on ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’, ‘Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind’ and ‘It Aint Me Babe’, Cash was making his feelings for Dylan very clear. The latter song would go on to seal Cash and Carter’s first hit duet, breaking the Hot 100.
There’s something about Cash’s tone in the performance below, the shared smiles and winks aside, that lets us know that despite his protestations he certainly was the one for June Carter. It’s the definitive version of the song and is only enriched by their gorgeous performance.
1. ‘All Along The Watchtower’ – Jimi Hendrix
It simply had to be. When Bob Dylan claims your version of his song is the ultimate on, the definitive rendition of the number, then you know you did something right.
Dylan said of Hendrix’s version: “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”
Written in 1967, the song has had a fair few renditions from famous faces over the years. Whether it’s from Eddie Vedder’s Pearl Jam, the smoother than smooth tones of Bryan Ferry, the salt of the earth Neil Young, or even the Irish pop-rock poster boys U2, but none hold a candle to Jimi’s.
While those bands all tried to match Dylan’s effort from ’67, Jimi ingested the track, digested it, and threw it up and walked away only a true stoner can.
It’s quite literally perfect. If you think otherwise then we suggest you take it up with Bob.