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Nina sings Bob: Five of Nina Simone's best Bob Dylan covers

“That she was recording my songs validated everything that I was about. Nina Simone was the kind of artist that I loved and admired.” — Bob Dylan.

Some artists are destined to be forever entwined. Usually, such entanglement can be traced back to a mutual kinship or a shared musical passage to greatness. Sometimes the way two artists become connected can be simple and, frankly, a little boring. But if there was ever a word that represented the antithesis of Bob Dylan and Nina Simone, boring would be a solid front runner. The two giants of America’s surging 1960s, Dylan and Simone, represent the heart and mind of the counter-culture revolution.

Undoubtedly one of the iconic figures of pop culture from the 20th century, Bob Dylan represents one of the keenest lyrical minds the world has ever known. Noted as such in his claiming of the 2016 Nobel prize for Literature, Dylan’s songwriting skills have been used outside of his own remit by countless impressive artists. From Jimi Hendrix to David Bowie, the world of the freewheelin’ troubadour rarely hit the ear without evoking the mind’s eye. One such lover of Dylan’s work was Nina Simone.

Sincere advocates for the Civil Rights Movement, both artists can be seen as pivotal members of the arts division of the general push for racial equality. While Bob Dylan would appear at the critical MLK March, Simone would devote much of her life in the limelight to sharing the spotlight with the myriad of issues she saw imposed on regular folks. It’s a kinship that would unite the two artists and see one another’s greatness. Another thread of connection would be their love of music.

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Bob Dylan hasn’t offered many covers in his time, instead preferring to pen his own work for his audiences. Nina Simone, however, would have happily held her hands up to being much more a performer or singer than a songwriter and so used the work of others to express herself. One of her most favoured songwriters, and one man she covered more than most, was Bob Dylan.

As mentioned, there have been some significant artists to lend their talents to Bob Dylan songs. Of course, the most famous of those is the brilliant mind-bending rendition of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ by Jimi Hendrix. Equally brilliant is The Byrds version of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, with Jeff Buckley’s ‘Just Like A Woman’ another beautiful reminder of how great a cover can be. However, nobody has covered Dylan as effectively as Nina Simone, aside from possibly Bruce Springsteen.

Below, we’re picking out our five favourites of Nina Simone’s impeccable covers of Bob Dylan as Nina sings Bob.

Nina Simone’s best Bob Dylan covers:

‘Just Like A Woman’

Nina Simone was never afraid to show her love for a singer or an artist. Her presence was so giant that it didn’t feel threatened by the talent that surrounded her. It means that more often than not, when Simone finds an artist she likes, she will provide several covers of their songs. The same can be said for the freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, for whom Simone held a deep affection.

While her cover of ‘I Shall Be Released’ is a barnstormer, there’s something perhaps a little more pertinent on this cover of ‘Just Like A Woman’. The track itself is more akin to Simone’s style, and she delivers in bucketloads on this rendition from her 1974 covers album. It’s just about as perfect a cover as you’re ever likely to find from one of the best ever to do it.

‘I Shall Be Released’

A breathtaking track from Simone’s 1969 To Love Somebody, the cover of Dylan’s song ‘I Shall Be Released’ is perhaps the definitive version of the track. And that’s saying something. The song has been taken on by many of Dylan’s folk contemporaries and many artists since.

Nobody has come close to hitting the same highs as Nina Simone does on her rendition of the track. Lulled into a false sense of security with Simone’s jazz piano tones, she soon let’s rip with her imposing vocals. While Simone is comfortable whenever she’s at the piano, on this recording, she gives a particularly natural performance.

‘The Times They Are A Changin”

Taken from her startlingly brilliant To Love Somebody, Nina Simone takes on perhaps Dyan’s most famous song with the consummate ease of a true professional and the guile of a sincere artist. While Dylan’s version rests on the folksy twang of his guitar, Simone transcends the simple potency of the track and elevates it to national anthem levels of impressiveness.

It may not be her finest cover of Dylan. Still, to take on a song of such magnitude, even such a short time after its release, with such authentic magnanimity, truly showcases what a perfect performer and supreme singer Simone really was. The track sounds far removed from Dylan’s early scratchings and lands on terra firms as if dropped from the clouded gates of heaven itself.

‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’

The track has been taken on by everyone from Neil Young to Judy Collins, but something is especially entrancing about Simone’s version on ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’. Attempting to rework any material by Dylan is a difficult task, but not for Simone, and her scintillating take on his efforts impressed the man himself.

In his 2015 speech at the MusiCares Awards, Dylan took the time to speak about his appreciation for Simone: “Nina Simone, I used to cross paths with her in New York City in the Village Gate nightclub,” he said. “She was an artist I definitely looked up to,” he told the audience. “She recorded some of my songs that she learned directly from me, sitting in a dressing room. She was an overwhelming artist, piano player and singer.

“Very strong woman, very outspoken and dynamite to see perform. That she was recording my songs validated everything that I was about. Nina was the kind of artist that I loved and admired.”

‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’

One of Dylan’s famous story-songs, ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’, is one of Dylan’s most nuanced tracks, even if it rarely breaks into such lists. Sharps, sincere and as powerful as a dagger to the temple, there is something wholly gripping by Dylan’s original telling of the story. But with Simone’s unique delivery on her 1965 record Let It All Out, the song becomes something new.

Simone’s retelling of the tale felt far more barbed than ever before. Simone leaned heavily o the civil rights movement with her emotion in the song, drawing needed parallels between the persecution of the protagonists. Such is her command of the song that it is now noted as the definitive version of the track.