Nina Simone is quite possibly the greatest song interpreter of all time. She is so good at applying her awe-inspiring talents to other people’s work that it prompted Nick Cave to say that he thinks she sings other artist’s tracks better than her own. That may be so, and she was no stranger to unleashing her talents over the top of a Bob Dylan song.
Her take on Dylan’s ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ is a tour de force of powerfully pretty beauty. It’s dainty and measured but always profoundly poignant, like the proverbial sonic equivalent of moving like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. Her version of ‘I Shall Be Released’ is much the same.
With crooning backing singers and a band that swings as easy as cutting butter, Simone sings the song with Hammond Organ perfection. In the process, she illuminates the utter class of Bob Dylan’s melodic songwriting and introspective lyricism.
The song itself has been tackled by everyone from Dylan associates The Band, to Deftones and Wilco. However, you’d be hard pushed to say that any come close to Simone’s 1969 version from her near-perfect covers album To Love Somebody.
For the record she takes on many more of your favourites, including; a superb version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’, the Bee Gee’s epic ode ‘To Love Somebody’ and The Byrds classic counterculture anthem ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’.
Throughout her career, she would continue to throw love on one of her favourite songwriters cover many more of his tracks including ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’, ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’ and ‘Just Like A Woman’ to name but a few.
“What I was interested in was conveying an emotional message, which means using everything you’ve got inside you sometimes to barely make a note, or if you have to strain to sing, you sing,” she once said, and it is a sentiment which rings true when Simone takes on a new number.
Dylan’s song of societal reflection is no different and it first perfectly into Simone’s view on the purpose of creativity: “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.”
Take a listen to the rousing effort below.