Nina Simone had a special way of conveying emotion, a skill that made her the master of cover renditions. No matter which song was presented to Simone, she could effortlessly translate the material with her delectable tones to create something truly commanding.
Bob Dylan was an artist Simone found herself continuously returning to throughout her career, putting her own spin on his work. Dylan’s catalogue made up a third of her critically acclaimed 1969 cover’s album, To Love Somebody, which included her takes on ‘I Shall Be Released’, ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’, and her soulful version on ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’. The latter is Dylan at his most captivating as he flexes his expert storytelling muscles, but Simone approaches the track from a different angle, reinvigorating the effort in the process.
Explaining the song, Dylan once told his crowd in Australia: “This is, this is called Tom Thumb. This story takes place outside of Mexico City. It begins in Mexico City and it ends really in Des Moines, Iowa, but it’s all about this painter, he’s a quite older fellow, he comes from Juarez, Juarez is down cross of Texas border, some few feets, and he’s a painter.”
Dylan added: “He’s very very well-known painter in the area there and we all call him Tom Thumb and when Tom Thumb was going through his blue period, this is one of the most important times of his whole life and he’s going to sell many many paintings now taken from his blue period and this is all about Tom Thumb and his early days and so we name this ‘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.”
Take a listen to Simone’s version of ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ below and understand why it touched Dylan so profoundly.