Chances are, if you were a kid interested in music and growing up on the East Coast of America in the sixties and seventies, you were a big fan of Bob Dylan. That can certainly be said of New Jersey’s favourite son, Bruce Springsteen. The Boss has been a big supporter of the freewheelin’ Bob Dylan since he first heard the iconic troubadour and has always paid tribute to the songwriter the only way he knew how — by covering his songs.
Springsteen has taken on Dylan’s songs throughout his career and, below, we’ve collected ten of the best. They rank from the cool, calm and collected deliveries of his early years, where he tried to play the performance off as one artist performing the song of another, all the way through to a fanboy special as he shared the stage with his icon.
Before Springsteen became The Boss, in fact, before he’d even won employee of the month, Springsteen was a huge Bob Dylan fan. The ‘Born To Run’ singer once recalled, when inducting Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, that the first time he heard a Bob Dylan album (Highway 61 Revisited, in 1965), Dylan’s performance “thrilled and scared me.”
The singer continued: “It made me feel kind of irresponsibly innocent. And it still does. But it reached down and touched what little worldliness I think a 15-year-old kid, in high school, in New Jersey had in him at the time.” It’s the kind of feeling Dylan gave to millions of people across the globe as he connected with an audience through highly personal and expressive folk-pop songs. It would be a style that becomes a charged piece of Springsteen’s own iconography.
Later in the speech, he proclaimed that Bob Dylan “was the brother that I never had,” quoting from the man’s own song ‘Lenny Bruce’. It was a moment of gratitude from one rock star to the other, one currently dominating the charts and one gravitating towards his legendary status. But the real connection the pain felt was shared within the music.
It has meant that whenever Springsteen gets up in front of that microphone to sing one of Dylan’s songs they are once again singing from the same hymn sheet.
Bruce Springsteen’s best Bob Dylan covers:
‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ (1972)
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 homage to the great man. It also sees Springsteen delivering the song with an almost casual nonchalance.
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.
‘I Want You’ (1975)
It’s fitting that right near the beginning of Springsteen’s ascendancy to the top table of US rock and rollers, The Boss pays homage to Dylan with a stunning cover of one of his most cherished songs. Channelling the folk singer’s observant and expressive lyric style through his American motor made the perfect companion for Springsteen’s signature style.
It makes for one of the better Bob Dylan covers you’ll ever hear, we’re guessing that’s because Springsteen is not only a gifted performer capable of emoting another’s voice but because, as a fan, Springsteen knew that voice all too well.
‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (1988)
While The Boss has covered quite a few of Dylan’s songs none are quite as powerful as this one. Featuring on Dylan’s sophomore album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the track remains as one of the most poignant and potent protest songs ever written.
Somehow, Springsteen not only encapsulates the feeling of the time it was written in but he also takes the track by the scruff of the neck and almost makes it his own. Performed at Chateau de Vincennes in Paris on June 18th, 1988, the rendition is utterly moving.
‘Chimes of Freedom’ (1988)
One of the songs that Springsteen chose to perform for Copenhagen in 1988 was one of Dylan’s lesser-known songs, ‘Chimes of Freedom’. The below performance was in front of a crowd but Springsteen also used this tour to tune up his busking.
Springsteen takes the 1964 track to a more polished place but the sentiment of the track isn’t lost because of it. In fact, it’s enhanced.
‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ (1995)
One of the sadder songs in Bob Dylan’s arsenal is often overlooked as one of his best because of its undoubted popularity—as is often the way. But when Springsteen performs the song with Wolfgang Niedecken and his band at Cafe Eckstein in Berlin back in 1995 it becomes so much more.
A song so often butchered in karaoke bars can often leave one feeling bored at even the first notes. But whether it’s because we know how much he adores Dylan or because he’s an excellent performer.
Bruce Springsteen gives an unfathomably brilliant rendition of the track, that’s worth revisiting whenever you possibly can.
‘Forever Young’ (1995)
Of course, we couldn’t have a list like this without mention the moment Springsteen not only inducted his idol into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, as mentioned above, but also got to perform with him, taking on ‘Forever Young’ alongside Dylan. It would provide Springsteen with the opportunity to share the spotlight with his idol.
It’s one of the few later-Dylan songs that Springsteen has in his repertoire but you wouldn’t know it from this powerful performance. As much as it’s great to hear Springsteen sing with his idol it’s the looks he gives him that let you know he’s a real fan.
It’s cuteness personified.
‘The Times They Are A-Changin” (1997)
When Bruce Springsteen was invited to perform at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts to pay tribute Dylan who was receiving Kennedy Centre Honours, there was only one song he had in mind—the archetypal protest song ‘The Times They Are A-Changin”.
While the song may act as a unifying moment whenever it’s heard, Springsteen’s solo performance of the track feels all the more poignant. His introduction to the track where Springsteen describes Dylan as standing in the fire of the civil rights explosion to capture the sound of the moment is all the proof you need of his adoration.
Springsteen would also be an outspoken political voice, something we imagine Dylan helped him to personally achieve.
‘All Along The Watchtower’ (2004)
Now, we’re not here to tell you that Springsteen’s cover of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ is anywhere near as good as Jimi Hendrix’s. Hell, even Bob Dylan’s isn’t as good as that. But the rendition The Boss gives is another testament to his ability to not only sing but capture the emotion of Dylan’s work.
Amply helped by the E Street Band and none other than Neil Young, The Boss takes to the stage at the Vote for Change concert with his all-star band and delivers a powerful moment for all involved.
It’s a big bruising rendition of the track that only comes with a supremely confident band.
‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ (2008)
Of course, no list would be complete without the original Bob Dylan cover track ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’. A song made famous by The Byrds before Bob ever could, Springsteen jumps on this track with a renewed verve and vigour. Although we’re sure The Boss has covered the song countless times, our favourite is the one below.
It sees Springsteen and Roger McGuinn joined by the E Street Band at the Amway Arena in Orlando back in 2008. More importantly, it sees Springsteen on the form of his life and commanding the stage. It’s archetypal Springsteen stuff as he pushes himself to the edge.
‘Like A Rolling Stone’ (2009)
Naturally, this song has likely been in Bruce’s back catalogue for a very long time. Usually one of the first songs that people think of when they assess Dylan’s career, Springsteen shows that he’s not only a fan of the track but a true musician as he takes it to subtle new places.
The clip below shows Springsteen performing at the Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh back in 2009 and The Boss rightfully sealing his spot at the top of his game.
It’s a shuddering performance that proves that age is only a number and when you’re Bruce Springsteen, it’s not worth remembering.