Largely credited with transforming the very nature of songwriting, Bob Dylan has also been a reliable source of material for artists looking to interpret songs penned by the very best. Whereas certain Dylan covers tend to rate high with fans and critics, gathering the most outstanding Dylan covers onto one 80-minute CD-R is impossible due to the sheer number of choices available. No individual songwriter in the rock ‘n’ roll era has been covered nearly as much as Dylan.
Created to commemorate his 75th birthday on May 24, If Not for Bob offers a multi-genre overview of prime Dylan covers. Yet while Dylan is noted for the verbose nature of his lengthiest compositions, a goal in putting this compilation together was concision. Of the 22 tracks included, just two are longer than five minutes while most of the others are inside four minutes (five clock in at less than 3:00). This playlist will hopefully serve as a reminder of Dylan’s wide-ranging influence. If not for Bob, songs and songwriting just wouldn’t be the same.
#1. You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go – Madeline Peyroux (2004)
Its acrimonious take on heartache makes Blood on the Tracks captivating to singers of sad songs. Billie Holiday likely would have been mesmerized, reveling in every last drop of anguish and hostility. Peyroux channels Lady Day’s spirit on the album’s most unassuming song, sashaying her way through the lyrics while sharing poignant morsels of romantic agony along the way.
#2. You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere – The Byrds (1968)
This carefree track is frequently cited as the best of The Byrds’ numerous Dylan covers. Bob himself might disagree, as he has expressed contempt for Roger McGuinn’s slight alteration of the lyrics. Its presence as the opener on Sweetheart of the Rodeo nevertheless adds to Dylan’s legacy by making him a seminal figure in the development of country rock (the album closes with his “Nothing was Delivered”).
#3. Masters of War – Tim O’Brien (1996)
O’Brien’s Red on Blonde is comprised of 13 acoustic renditions of Dylan tunes. With sparse instrumentation featuring just O’Brien’s fiddle and Charlie Cushman’s banjo, the scathing “Masters of War” is restyled as a sorrowful Appalachian lament. The timeworn feel is appropriate given the song’s foreboding message, suggesting that war is handed down from one generation to the next.
#4. If Not for You – George Harrison (1970)
Insignificant in the grand scheme of Dylan songs, the opening track of New Morning is best heard by its composer via a Bootleg Series version on which Harrison plays slide guitar. The Quiet Beatle applied glistening production to his own version, demonstrating how an ordinary song can be made memorable with some tender loving care.
#5. On a Night Like This – Buckwheat Zydeco (1987)
Considered atypical for Dylan, the feisty romp that opens Planet Waves was maligned for not being suitably profound in its lyrics. The song finds its ideal interpreter in Stanley Dural, Jr. (Buckwheat Zydeco), who bathes its infectious melody in a vat of Louisiana Hot Sauce. Dural later performed it on the final telecast of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
Photo: Barry Feinstein (Bob Dylan 1966 tour, Aust Ferry Terminal, Bristol–used as the cover image for the No Direction Home DVD and soundtrack)