Other people’s songs. How Dylan covers the work of other composers

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

Aaron: The idea for this series is to take a listen to the tracks Bob has covered on record over the years and compare his versions with those of other artists versions and decide: Who did it best?

I’ll provide the song and the different versions whilst Tony provides the commentary, with the normal rule that we have (just to stop Tony from rambling on for too long) that he has to write the commentary while listening to the track, and then stop.

First up, let’s reacquaint ourselves with Bob’s version of Shenandoah from Down in the Groove.

Tony: When I write my reviews of cover versions of Dylan’s work I often find myself asking what the cover does to enhance my enjoyment of and indeed understanding of the original.  So I don’t go much for covers that perform large amounts of the song exactly the same as has been done before.  Or those which use some utterly obvious musical device to make the arrangement sound different.

So changing the rhythm, accompaniment, chords and indeed the whole feel of the song, but still keeping enough of the song to refer us back to the original takes a lot of musical ability and insight.

And my goodness doesn’t Bob show that here!   Much of the melody has gone, and the rhythm has been modified all over the place, but this is still  “Shenandoah” – and just as I think I’ve got the hang of where Bob is going he does something like re-work the final line totally.

In fact, the way he rearranges the lines

We're bound away
'Cross the wide Missouri

is utterly remarkable.  I don’t know other versions of the song well enough to say this is a totally original version, but whether it is or not, it is superb.   The rhythm is hypnotic and completely unexpected as the instrumentation plays against the vocals, and the Dylan vocal cuts across the chorus.  I absolutely need to play this again.

Aaron:   Now here are some versions I found in my own collection. Over to you Tony…are any of these better than Bob?

Bruce Springsteen 

Tony: Now this is more in keeping with how I am used to hearing Shenandoah, and because of this perhaps I became a little impatient to see where it was going.   And once the vocals started I knew.   That is not to say I am a better orchestrator than those involved here, of course not, but they have laid out their cards on the table and we know exactly what will happen.  And unlike Bob’s version where it is going is completely obvious – everything can be understood and anticipated from the off.

By the instrumental break I’m ready for it to end – so that I can go back to Bob’s version again.

Aaron: Tom Waits (Feat Keith Richards)

Tony: I love the cover artwork and I love the gruff lead vocal which they manage to fit perfectly with the chorus.  This is one of those recordings that I can enjoy, and I’m glad I’ve heard it, but I’m not sure I’ll want to play it again.  It’s one of those versions that it is fun and enjoyable once, but there’s not enough there to make me want to play it again and again.

And I am not sure the arrangement works with the second voice joining in the verse before the instrumental break.   By this stage I am thinking, this is a piece where the arranger has had one idea, but then the producer says “we need something else” and it all gets a bit artificial.

But in case, like me, you had lost touch with Bob’s version, I want to play that again so I can see if I have anything else to say

Tony: It is the energy throughout, and that final line of each verse that really does it for me.  It is impossible to catch it in my head so I can sing it back to myself because of the way the rhythm extends itself into the extra bar.

Surely I must have heard this and recognised its brilliance before now.  But seemingly not.  Not for the first time I owe you Aaron.



  1. Opinion is opinion, but Dylan’s rendition, except for it being a bit uptempo, and so less plaintive, follows the tradional lyrics and music of Shenandoah very closely….singing ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ is hardly new ….perhaps you didn’t have a chance to read
    ~Untold: Paradise Regained.

  2. On his very popular show in the 60’s, in US and Canada, I remember Tennessee Ernie Ford singing the song…not likely seen in UK?

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