Chimes Of Freedom: The dos and don’ts of covering Bob Dylan

Chimes Of Freedom: The dos and don’ts of covering Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is a thief. This is not an indictment. Read even a little about Dylan’s early years in the New York folk scene—or watch Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home—and you’ll find a good number of grumbling contemporaries with stories to tell about how the man formerly known as Robert Zimmerman stole from them. He swiped vintage record collections, and arrangements of old folk songs (which on the hootenanny circuit was tantamount to taking someone else’s act). Even his stage name was stolen, from Dylan Thomas. But that’s showbiz. Performers build on what other performers have done. They pay homage. They reinterpret. They personalize. They steal. And if they’re masterful enough, they become artists distinctive enough to be duplicated themselves.

Dylan’s legacy was secured not just by his recordings and his live shows, but by all the people who covered his songs, starting in the early ’60s. Many of those covers weren’t faithful in the slightest. Motown acts cast Dylan’s songs as pop R&B, establishing their flexibility and timelessness, while West Coast rock acts like The Byrds were so successful at making Dylan’s songs sound fresh and contemporary that they may have hastened his decision to “go electric.” Later, as youth culture cycled through new generations of upstart musicians, covering Dylan became a legitimizing act. One of the best Dylan covers busted out in 1983, via Nashville’s proto-alt-country band Jason And The Scorchers, who absolutely smoked “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” and landed on the radar of the big-time New York rock critics

The new budget-priced, four-CD set Chimes Of Freedom: The Songs Of Bob Dylan was put together to raise money for Amnesty International, so even if the music on it were absolutely terrible, it would deserve a nod of appreciation. But the music is not terrible—at least not top-to-bottom. More than 70 acts cover Dylan for Chimes Of Freedom, and while some are, in fact, fairly lousy, the worst crime most commit is being uninspired. And a few musicians come up with something special, transforming Dylan in the way that others have in the past—and the way that Dylan transformed his source material.

After spending a few weeks immersing myself in the Chimes Of Freedom set, I think I’ve identified the eight main ways that artists approach Dylan’s work—sometimes beneficially, sometimes mistakenly. They are as follows:

1. Keep it simple.
Dylan became an internationally known star while many of his contemporaries were still playing the Cafe Wha?, and not just because he skillfully recombined old folk elements into memorable new songs. He was also a commanding live performer, even when standing alone on a stage with his acoustic guitar and his harmonica. No surprise, then, that some of the best songs on Chimes Of Freedom are stripped-down to their essence—though what is surprising is who’s doing the stripping. Joan Baez and Marianne Faithfull do what most would expect with their respective covers of “Seven Curses” and “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.” (Baez is crisp and crystalline; Faithful is raspy and plunking.) But Pete Townshend and Sting also come off remarkably well while working with minimal frills, with Townshend’s low-key, jazzy “Corrina, Corrina” and Sting’s “Girl From The North Country” relying primarily on the two rock veterans’ delicate guitar-playing and soft, soulful voices. And though rock and folk traditionalists won’t believe it, Miley Cyrus’ take on “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” is genuinely warm and heartfelt, with a gently twangy arrangement supporting a rich, un-showy vocal.

2. Be reverent.
Those who treat Dylan’s songs as some kind of sacred text to be soberly recited can produce covers that are either respectable or dire, depending on who’s doing the reciting. On Chimes Of Freedom, Patti Smith’s straightforward country-rock take on the John Wesley Harding cut “Drifter’s Escape” is at first oddly un-Patti-Smith-like, though by relinquishing her artier impulses, Smith serves the song’s tense courtroom narrative well. And while Steve Earle and Lucia Micarelli probably didn’t need to be so faithful to Desire’s “One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below)” that they copied the original’s mournful violin, the song’s such a powerhouse—and Earle’s such a strong vocalist—that the familiar approach works just fine. On the flip side, Darren Criss is so earnest doing his calculatedly scruffy coffeehouse croon on “New Morning” that he renders a moving song insipid, and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry drags out Infidels’ “Man Of Peace” into a thudding arena-rock version of roadhouse blues, stunting its power.

3. Be somber.
Maybe this is Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash’s fault, but too many musicians these days approach anything even vaguely Americana-esque as though they’re already picturing the grim, sepia-toned Mark Romanek video in their heads. That would certainly explain Daniel Bedingfield’s goth-flavored, acid-folk version of “Man In The Long Black Coat,” and Tom Morello’s excessively echo-y, haunted-house take on “Blind Willie McTell.” The artist on Chimes Of Freedom who does Cash best is Cash himself, whose old 1969 duet with Dylan on “One Too Many Mornings” makes an appearance on this set, only to be marred by the addition of The Avett Brothers, digitally inserted for a verse or two. Nothing against the Avetts, but these sort of posthumous collaborations are nearly always ghoulish and creepy, and the “One Too Many Mornings” splicing is no different. 

4. Be playful.
In the push to canonize Dylan as some kind of untouchable poet-saint, people sometimes forget that his songs can be quite funny, or at least gleefully weird. So God bless K’naan for taking Dylan’s sardonic “With God On Our Side” and turning it into a freewheeling mix of symphonic sweep, spoken-word, and trip-hop. And God especially bless Raphael Saadiq for his lithe, single-amp pop-blues version of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” which is both swaggering and silly, a little like Prince channeling John Lee Hooker.

5. Be raucous.
As Jason And The Scorchers’ “Absolutely Sweet Marie” proved (and Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower” before it), Dylan’s songs adapt well to raging rock and country stomp. The best songs on Chimes Of Freedom tend to be rawer and more uptempo, from Fistful Of Mercy’s appealingly rootsy “Buckets Of Rain” to Rise Against’s ferocious “Ballad Of Hollis Brown.” The tricky part of cranking up Dylan is fitting his folky cadences to punk or thrash. Silverstein’s soaring, pop-punk “Song To Woody” and My Chemical Romance’s fiery “Desolation Row” both work well. Bad Religion’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” sounds like a great band fighting with an even better song, and losing. Queens Of The Stone Age’s “Outlaw Blues” and The Gaslight Anthem’s “Changing Of The Guards” are a mixed bag, as Queens Of The Stone Age come off a little tame compared to Dylan at his rowdiest (from back when he was willing to risk being too loud and too shrill, just to push his audience), and The Gaslight Anthem struggles to fit Dylan’s lines into Brian Fallon’s usual vocal patterns. In the end, though, both “Outlaw Blues” and “Changing Of The Guards” make it through sheer force of will and the quality of the source material. (Then again, I could easily imagine someone hearing the Bad Religion and Gaslight Anthem songs back-to-back and thinking that Bad Religion triumphed and Gaslight Anthem flubbed it, for exactly the same reasons I cite above. There are some fine distinctions there, I’ll grant.)

6. Be tedious.
Consider this category the bastard offspring of reverence and sobriety. Too many acts on Chimes Of Freedom seem to have treated this Dylan assignment as the equivalent of English Lit homework, and grabbed the easiest book in the library. Whether it’s Jack’s Mannequin with “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Maroon 5 with “I Shall Be Released,” RedOne and Nabil Khayat with “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” or Seal and Jeff Beck with “Like A Rolling Stone,” there’s absolutely nothing surprising about some of the choices on Chimes, either in terms of song or presentation. These people aren’t covering the Bob Dylan who scandalized fans by plugging in, or the one who played mind games with reporters by refusing to give straight answers to dumb questions; they’re covering “Bob Dylan,” that guy on the cover of all those special anniversary issues of Rolling Stone. Even some of the more unconventional song choices—such as Natasha Bedingfield doing Oh Mercy’s “Ring Them Bells” or Sugarland doing Nashville Skyline’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”—get ground into bland adult-contemporary sausage by artists more interested in their own unchallenging personae than in truly tackling what Dylan is all about. Which brings us to….

7. Make the song suit your needs.
Sugarland’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” cover is both dull and annoyingly “belt”-y, as Jennifer Nettles uses the song as an excuse to do some vocal pyrotechnics, whether they suits the lyrics or not. (Contrast that with Miley Cyrus, who does sing “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” but doesn’t overdo it.) Similarly, while Dave Matthews Band has been covering “All Along The Watchtower” for years—decades, even—its connection to the song has gotten pretty loose. The live version of “Watchtower” on Chimes Of Freedom is all growling and vamping and yelping and jamming, and not at all like Dylan (or Hendrix, for that matter). And I have no idea what the hell Cage The Elephant is doing with “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll,” which the band drains of all its angry energy by reducing it to a hush and padding it out with all manner of electric clank.

Which isn’t to say that using Dylan as a jumping-off point for a more personal sound is inherently bad. Quite the contrary. The Byrds’ early Dylan covers defined that band’s sound, and other acts since have followed suit. So when Elvis Costello here turns the Infidels obscurity “License To Kill” into another of his arty torch songs, or when Bryan Ferry does the same with “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” they’re just adhering to a different kind of tradition. Ditto when Kronos Quartet turns “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” into an avant-garde mini-symphony, or when Evan Rachel Wood turns the Bob Dylan/George Harrison collaboration “I’d Have You Anytime” into a piece of smoky cabaret that doesn’t sound much like Dylan or Harrison. Better this kind of adventurous approach to Dylan—a man who’s been known to reinterpret his own material from tour to tour—than yet another dry, rote rendition of “Blowin’ In The Wind.” So long as the song maintains enough of its integrity through the process, artists should feel free to transmute like crazy.

8. Finish what Dylan started.
My three favorite tracks on Chimes Of Freedom are such a perfect match of artist, song, and performance that they almost seem like they’re what Dylan intended in the first place. My Morning Jacket’s “You’re A Big Girl Now” extends the cavernous ’70s singer-songwriter vibe of Blood On The Tracks, making it at once more intimate and more spacious. Adele’s live, piano-scored version of Time Out Of Mind’s “Make You Feel My Love” is softly soulful and persuasive. And Bettye LaVette’s reverberating R&B take on Oh Mercy’s “Most Of The Time” borrows back from Dylan what he borrowed from the blues, completing the circuit.

What made Dylan special wasn’t just that he appropriated freely—and ruthlessly—from other sources, but that he immediately understood what those sources had to offer him, and knew how to add what he already had in ample supply, be it stage presence or (to put it mildly) a knack for stringing together a few memorable phrases. The best Chimes Of Freedom songs grasp that about Dylan. They’re performed by artists who sing like these words and tunes just popped into their heads.


The best and worst of the Chimes Of Freedom covers (strictly in my opinion, of course) can be found at these two Spotify playlists: here and here. I also encourage you to share your favorite Dylan covers—and why—in the comments below.

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