Any Major Bob Dylan Covers Vol. 2
Only a few weeks after I posted the Any Major Dylan Covers Vol. 1 Mix, the Nobel committee announced the Bobster as this year’s literature laureate. Coincidence? I doubt it. The only logical conclusion we can draw is that the folks at Nobel HQ is Stockholm are keen readers of Any Major Dude With Half A Heart, and that my mix persuaded them to give Dylan the gong. Bob, it seems, does not really want the award, and he is unlikely to thank me for my part in his Nobel Prize award. If only I could please everybody…
Anyhow, the first mix attracted a fair number of comments. Some of them addressed one of the great debates in pop history: is Bob Dylan’s voice an instrument of art or is it a punishing aural assault? It’s the kind of question that provokes internecine warfare even between Dylan fans.
My view? I think Dylan’s voice is, in itself, quite unpleasant. In most other artists, that nasal whine might be considered objectively offensive — even Trump supporters, who enthusiastically embrace the objectively offensive, would find it offensive. His lower register on the country-flavoured albums — on songs like Lay Lady Lay and Just Like A Woman — is more tolerable, but you’d be hard-pressed call it beautiful.
But the tone of his voice, however you perceive it, is not really important. Indeed, one can acquire a taste for it, just as people acquire a taste for things as revolting as tequila, broccoli or mayonnaise. What is important is how Bob Dylan uses that voice. At his best, Dylan doesn’t so much sing his songs as he inhabits them — and that is the mark of a great singer. In so many of his songs, his vocals not only drive the narrative, but they are a character in it.
That works best when Dylan has a stake in the songs he sings. There are very few singers who can spit venom quite as Dylan. In Hurricane, that anger is on the verge of boiling over; but this is not just anger. With his delivery, with the encunciation of single syllables, he also communicates an utter contempt for the system which he is singing about. The effect is devastating; no other singer could do Hurricane to such great effect as Dylan does it. What does it matter that his voice isn’t lovely? Likewise, the menacing derision for the subjects of his contempt which he conveys in his vocals on mean-spirited songs like Positively 4th Street, Ballad of A Thin Man or Like A Rolling Stone hits you in the gut. Not many singers can do that.
Dylan might have an ugly voice, but he has an extraordinary way of delivery — especially, as I’ve said, when he is invested in the words he is singing (which might explain why few of his covers of other people’s music are particularly outstanding). To be sure, there are also many Dylan songs which are immeasurably improved by cover versions.
One such song is All I Really Want To Do, from Dylan’s 1964 LP Another Side of Bob Dylan. I really like Dylan’s version, especially the idea of a songwriter laughing at his own lyrics. But in The Byrds’ version, a comprehensive reinvention, the song becomes a thing of special beauty. As does the lovely Every Grain Of Sand, which is okay when sung by Dylan, but sublime in Emmylou Harris’ treatment.
And this is the genius of Bob Dylan’s music: as it is with Beatles songs, they can be interpreted and reinvented them to good effect in so many ways. This second collection of Dylan covers testifies to this.
Incidentally, in the first post of Dylan covers I promised three mixes. Clearly, that is not enough. I’m up to five mixes now.
As always, the mix is timed to fit on a standard CD-R and includes home-strummed covers. PW in comments.
1. The Band – When I Paint My Masterpiece (1971)
2. The Byrds – All I Really Want To Do (1965)
3. Simon & Garfunkel – The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964)
4. Nina Simone – Ballad of Hollis Brown (1965)
5. Sam Cooke – Blowin’ In The Wind (1964)
6. Solomon Burke – Maggie’s Farm (1965)
7. Billy Preston – She Belongs To Me (1969)
8. The Flying Burrito Brothers – To Ramona (1971)
9. The Hollies – I Want You (1969)
10. The Piccadilly Line – Visions Of Johanna (1967)
11. Arlo Guthrie – When The Ship Comes In (1972)
12. New Riders Of The Purple Sage – You Angel You (1974)
13. Merle Haggard & Willie Nelson – Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright (2015)
14. John Mellencamp – Farewell, Angelina (1999)
15. Steve Earle & Lucia Micarelli – One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below) (2012)
16. Everly Brothers – Abandoned Love (1985)
17. Thea Gilmore – I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine (2003)
18. Jennifer Warnes – Sign On The Window (1979)
19. Leon Russell – It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry (1971)
20. Joan Baez – One Too Many Mornings (1968)
21. Caravelli Orchestra – Wigwam (1977)