We think it’s probably fair to say that Bob Dylan isn’t an icon because of his singing. The mercurial troubadour instead made his name on songwriting, using his expert command of lyrics to not only tell the tales of those around him but offer insight and intrigue that prior to his explosion in the 1960s didn’t seem possible. In comparison to his contemporaries, Dylan really doesn’t have a good singing voice, it is what has made some of his songs so resolutely covered by other artists.
In consideration, does Kate Bush have to suffer from many covers? Are many people trying to match Barry White? No. Musicians avoid big vocalists because they know that to cover a song made famous by a pure singer would be career suicide. Bob Dylan, however, with his rich songs and comparatively lower-middle class singing voice, has made himself the prime target for a cover during his career, some of which are even better than the originals.
It’s a statement which will always gather Bob Dylan fans into an angry mob and, it has to be said, with good reason. The idea that anyone can perform a song better than the person who first conceived it is a rattling one—but it happens and it happens regularly. From Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ to Joe Cocker’s ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ some artists can see a new path for a song that the original writer would never have taken it.
Dylan made himself ripe for the picking in this regard for two reasons. Firstly, the volume of songs he was writing was unprecedented at the time and essentially gave some of the more established acts a free shot at some new material as Dylan was trying to ‘make it’. Secondly, Dylan’s a fantastic songwriter who made music that everyone wanted to connect with meaning his songs found homes in the hearts of his contemporaries.
As such, we’re bringing you seven songs which Bob Dylan wrote but other artists made their own. Seven times people covered Bob Dylan and made it better than the original.
7 Bob Dylan covers that are better than the original:
‘A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall’ – Bryan Ferry
A contentious pick to get us started and Bryan Ferry’s cover of ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’. Contentious not because Bryan Ferry doesn’t handle it with the grace, poise and style that he does all his covers but because the original is so damn good. However, if you’re looking for a groove and for a cover to take a brand new route, then Ferry’s should be right up there.
Debuted in the smoky Gaslight Cafe in New York, Village performer Peter Blankfield, who was there, recalled: “He put out these pieces of loose-leaf paper ripped out of a spiral notebook. And he starts singing [‘Hard Rain’] … He finished singing it, and no one could say anything. The length of it, the episodic sense of it. Every line kept building and bursting.”
Reading through like a prophetic novel, Dylan’s imagery is perhaps never more vivid than here. In fact, they were so vivid that the track was often misaligned to the Nuclear Disarmament effort, suggesting the ‘hard rain’ in question was atomic. “No, it’s not atomic rain, it’s just a hard rain. It isn’t the fallout rain,” reflected Dylan with Studs Terkel at the time. “I mean some sort of end that’s just gotta happen… In the last verse, when I say, ‘the pellets of poison are flooding the waters’, that means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers.”
If it was about the forthcoming end of the world, judging by Ferry’s cover, it would arrive with the four horns-men of the apocalypse as he delivers a simply searing performance of the timeless song. During the performance below, which comes complete with false endings and band introductions like any crooning bop should, Ferry is every bit the icon.
‘Mr Tambourine Man’ – The Byrds
Perhaps one of his most famous songs, Dylan’s iconic track found little traction when he first released it. It would take The Byrds’ perfect cover to really put it on the map. 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.
‘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 and because of it has seen Dylan happily heap praise on their version.
With keyboardist Richard Manuel on vocals, the track transforms into a new piece and a brand new spectacle. 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.
‘Just Like A Woman’ – Jeff Buckley
A dab hand at creating music better than the original (see his cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah’ as proof) Jeff Buckley’s version of Dylan’s song ‘Just like A Woman’ is simply sublime. It, like many of the covers on this list, came from a place of admiration.
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.
‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ – Johnny Cash & June Carter
Now, this one will ruffle some feathers. Not because anyone would dare doubt that Johnny Cash and June Carter’s version of Dylan’s classic song ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ is a brilliant cover, but because the original is so widely loved by all. However, for our money, this song always deserved to be a duet. 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.
‘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 alongside Dylan. But semantics aside, the track went on to be a defining moment on Harrison’s 1970 album All Things Must Pass and has become a key piece of his iconography ever since.
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 was still better to pinch one of Bobby’s songs instead.
The reason it’s better than the original is that Dylan treated the song as a bit of a throwaway. On reflection, it’s not really in his lane. But for Harrison, the track became a mainstay of his work and highlighted that as well as being a fantastic songwriter, he also employed a beautiful singing voice whenever he could.
‘All Along the Watchtower’ – Jimi Hendrix
When Bob Dylan himself claims your version of his song is the ultimate one, the definitive rendition of the number, then you know you did something right. Hendrix did absolutely everything right on this one.
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 in a Technicolor dream.
It’s quite literally perfect. If you think otherwise then we suggest you take it up with Bob.