What makes a beautiful obscurity? A gathering of the best Dylan covers

by Tony Attwood

Dylan songs are different; different because in most cases the first time we know about the song is through a Dylan recording, and the temptation is to hear that first song as the “real” version, the “definitive” version.

But even if that view wasn’t overthrown before, it was certainly challenged by Jimi Hendrix’ “Watchtower” and the fact that Dylan himself adopted the Hendrix version as his own concert ender for a number of years.

And as we have noted, Dylan has occasionally recorded two or more different versions of his own compositions before deciding which is the one he wishes to release.  He has also regularly revisited many other compositions of his own, producing completely new musical versions, and indeed often changing the lyrics.  Surely the point (and indeed the message, from Dylan) is that there is no definitive version of any song.  The songs are there for interpretation.

And surely we should not ever challenge such a thought.  After all, aficionados of the classical romantic tradition of instrumental music will have their favourite renditions of the masterpieces – and there we have all the notes written down, and even the tempo indicated by the composer.

Indeed perhaps we are misled by the phrase “cover version” because that makes it sound as if what is offered to those of us interested, is a mere copy or even a pale rendition of the original masterpiece.

But in fact it can be argued that by giving us different versions of some of his songs Dylan has not only opened the door for those of us who enjoy his work to understand that the songs can be rendered in very different ways, and that in so doing, our understanding and enjoyment can be enhanced.

And with works as complex as some of Dylan’s, that can be very important because there is so much in some of the songs, alternative approaches to the music do indeed give us deeper understandings of what it is that is within the song.

For this is the real point: the songs are living entities bequeathed by Dylan to the world, and I suspect that he if he were ever to express and opinion on the matter he would suggest that the continuing reworkings of the songs enhance their meaning and their value.  Certainly I would argue that it is the fact that so many of his songs invite us to reinterpret them that proclaims their value.

Of course other songwriters have had their songs reworked by other artists, but I am struggling to think of many songs that have evolved so comprehensively as some of Dylan’s work through this re-working.

Let me give but one example.  You would not be here, kindly giving me a few moments of your time, if you did not know the original version, but just in case you haven’t played it for a few years here it is…

Earlier this year, Far Out magazine wrote on this piece, “Arguably one of Bob Dylan’s most beloved songs of all time, the singer was only 21-years-old when he wrote the number. Debuted in the smoky Gaslight Cafe in New York, Village performer Peter Blankfield, who was there, recalled: ‘He put out these pieces of loose-leaf paper ripped out of a spiral notebook. And he starts singing [‘Hard Rain’] … He finished singing it, and no one could say anything. The length of it, the episodic sense of it. Every line kept building and bursting’.”

But now consider the Rolling Thunder version.  Here the song has a bounce and vigour completely missing in the original.  Not that the original needed a bounce, because when we first heard that acoustic version it was utterly new, amazing, shocking and overwhelming.  Simply to be there was enough.

In 1962 nuclear war and the falling of Hard Rain was not only a real threat; what was threatened was the end of civilisation; quite possibly the end of the world as we knew it.  And we have to remember that the song was written in the summer of 1962, before the Cuban missile crisis (16 October 1962 – 28 October 1962), even though in 1965 Bob suggested he had written it after the crisis (he later recanted).

In 1975 he could look at it again, and this time put in a bouncy beat and an almost jaunty rhythm, almost making it a celebration of the fact that the end of the world had not happened.   I hear it now as a way of punching the air as if to say to the world, it doesn’t matter what you do to me, I am still here, so is my blue-eyed son, so is my darling young one.   Remarkably the song which seems so portentous at first, is now bouncing along saying, “You won’t get us, it doesn’t matter what you do.”

But allow me for a moment to jump forward again because I would like to go onto Laura Marling whose version of the song I discovered through having the TV series “Peaky Blinders” play it.

It was not so much that this version of the song related to the series, but rather that it seemed to me to be part three of a song that was with me all through my life (I was alive but rather young when Freewheelin’ came out).  But in my teens I understood the threat of nuclear war, and so just the Rolling Thunder version seemed like a song saying “We’re still here”, hearing the new version in 2017 with its extra pace and additional vitality really did make me stop and think, “my goodness, against all the odds I seem to have survived.”

And indeed I can remember on the evening that I first heard this version thinking, “I have lived through some of the most extraordinary parts of my country’s and this planet’s history.  The threats, the dangers, the poverty, the hypocrisy… they are all still here, but we are still here too.   We haven’t conquered the solar system, nor put an end to war, nor eradicated disease (quite the reverse if 2020 is anything to go by) but we are amazingly still here, and (I’m rather glad to say) so am I.

I can still listen to all three versions that I have selected here, (and of course there are many, many more) with great joy, for they illustrate the power, and the energy, and the pure timelessness within the song.

Earlier today I suggested to Jochen that we might do a new series of articles on Dylan covers, and I wondered if he would be interested in contributing.  In reply he said, “On my external ‘Dylan Hard Drive’ are more than ten thousand covers by now… Lovely, lovely idea. And of course I’d be happy to put forward names & titles for your shortlist.”

We haven’t agreed a format, or an approach, or anything else, although we have looked into this arena before.  Indeed the article “The 100 Greatest Cover Versions of Bob Dylan songs ever” is one that gave me huge pleasure, because through it I discovered all sorts of versions of Dylan songs that I would never have otherwise come across.  Indeed “De swalkers flecht”  is still played from time to time in my house, even if it is never heard anywhere else in England.

What I do want to do is build an even larger index of the best cover versions of Dylan songs, and collect together some articles (with musical illustrations of course) examining why these cover versions are to be cherished.  And as we go, we’ll build an index.  You may know the Alphabetical Index of Dylan songs on this site; I am thinking we could have a second copy of the index to the songs, but just for cover versions.   So the same list of 623 Dylan compositions, and each time we have a review of the cover/s of that song, or indeed a review of the way Dylan himself has changed that song, it would be indexed there.

It’s a big project, but then, so was doing a review of each of the 623 songs.

If you want to take a song and write about the way it has been changed over time, as ever just write it in Word (if at all possible, it really does make life easier) and provide the links to the examples.  And unless I have a real problem with it (which is very rare) I’ll publish it.

And if you just want to say draw our attention to an unusual cover version, without giving us your  thoughts on why you like it, ok, I might still put it up so that others can share your enthusiasm.

If however you feel this is a tedious load of old balderdash (which is to say, nonsense) never mind, I’m sure another idea will be along shortly.

If you have an idea or an article, please do email Tony@schools.co.uk and in the subject line write “Beautiful obscurities.”  And as I say, please do send your article in Word, if at all possible.

And in case you missed the relevant episode of “All Directions at once” this is the sort of extraordinary reworking that I have in mind.

What else?

There are details of some of our more recent articles listed on our home page.  You’ll also find, at the top of the page, and index to some of our series established over the years.

If you have an article or an idea for an article which could be published on Untold Dylan, please do write to Tony@schools.co.uk with the details – or indeed the article itself.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with getting on for 10,000 members. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link    And because we don’t do political debates on our Facebook group there is a separate group for debating Bob Dylan’s politics – Icicles Hanging Down



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