by Sandra Chatterley
With the arrival of ‘ The Philosophy of Modern Song ‘ it is an appropriate time to look at Dylan’s history of performing cover songs. For the fact that the world’s greatest singer/songwriter (with an incomparable body of self-penned songs ) has performed so many cover songs throughout his career is quite remarkable.
Bob Dylan has released 39 studio albums and 10 of these albums are comprised of cover songs: Bob Dylan, Self Portrait, Dylan (A Fool Such As I), Down in the Groove, Good As I Been To You, World Gone Wrong, Christmas in the Heart, Shadows in the Night, Fallen Angels, Triplicate. A considerable proportion of his back catalogue.
It is also important to note that some of his finest albums of his own songs have included cover songs including the wonderful ‘ Corina, Corina’ on the Freewheelin’ album and the riveting ‘ A Satisfied Mind’ on the Saved album. The under-rated ‘Knocked out Loaded’ album contained mostly co-written songs such as the peerless ‘Brownsville Girl’ but also a few cover songs such as the beautiful version of ‘Precious Memories’.
The marvelous Basement Tapes Complete containing 6 discs includes a selection of delightful cover songs such as ‘Four Strong Winds’ and these covers enhance the quality of this historic record.
Then we have the lost Bromberg album from 1992 where he recorded nearly 30 cover songs and based on the evidence of the released songs, starting with the magnificent ‘Polly Vaughan’, this could have been a great album. Surely, a strong contender for an official Bootleg Series release.
The Supper Club concerts from 1993 should also be included in the lost gems category because in addition to great performances of his own songs ( ‘Ring Them Bells’ and ‘ Has Anybody Seen My Love ‘ are personal favourites) he also performed a surprisingly high number of cover songs but not surprisingly performed them differently than the versions on his superb, then current, traditional cover songs albums. Who else would release a new album (Infidels) then perform on primetime tv and begin their performance with a never performed version of Sonny Boy Williamson’s ‘Don’t Start Me Talking’?
This significant body of studio cover songs is matched by his career-spanning live cover song performances. There is an incredible bootleg Genuine NET Covers 1988 -2000 collection released in 2001 which comprises 9 disc’s of cover songs which have titles such as ‘Contemporary Competition illustrating the type of songs contained within, for example the gorgeous ‘Lady Came from Baltimore’ and curiously ‘Nowhere Man’. Many of these live cover songs are spontaneous one off’s but a large number are regular additions to his setlist.
Some of his greatest tours have included these additions such as ‘ Baby Let Me Follow You Down’ in 1966, ‘Deportee’s’ in 1976 and ‘ We Just Disagree ‘ in 1981. The magnificent 1986 tour with Tom Petty would not have scaled the heights it did without the terrific covers performed consistently including ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ , ‘Across The Borderline’, ‘Unchain My Heart’ and, a jaw dropping , ‘ House of the Rising Sun ‘. It is interesting to note that ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ was called up again for the great Sinatra-inspired Shadows in the Night album released in 2015.
Why does Dylan perform and record so many cover songs? The simple answer is because he can. This is what singers and musicians do. Another answer is that he may see himself as an artist keeping alive music traditions and demonstrating the relevance of such songs.
The Theme Time radio shows certainly demonstrated his love of songs in general together with his encyclopedic knowledge of music. It is worth mentioning that with both ‘Good As I Been To You’ and ‘Shadows in the Night’ he produced follow-up albums. This is important because this clearly proves how important these songs are to him and how intense his relationship with these songs has become. These are far from best-selling albums but that is not his primary focus, the most important consideration is the performance of these songs or as he explained ” uncovering them”.
This can be seen in the setlist of his current Rough and Rowdy Ways tour and his inclusion of ‘Melancholy Mood’ in the USA and ‘Old Black Magic’ in Europe. The fact that he produced five albums of Sinatra-inspired songs and lavished such love and care in interpreting these songs (arguably his finest vocals in 20 years) is testamony to this fact.
Bob Dylan has always done things his own way (” the audience find me”). Some of his fans dislike his decisions with the music he releases such as the Sinitra inspired cover albums. On the other hand I love his voice and I believe he is a great singer. I also believe he is a great interpreter of other’s songs. I feel that he saved the best album Triplicate for last.
Many of the songs he covers when performed by the original artist are ordinary, and such is his ability to transform a song that he makes the song come alive. The Mississippi Sheiks song ‘Blood in my Eye’ is one example where he turns a type of sea shanty into a powerful stand out song.
G E Smith tells a lovely story about his audition for the first NET band. He said that the main thing that Dylan needed to hear was that the band could perform ‘Pretty Peggy o’ , not ‘Shelter From The Storm’ or ‘Gates of Eden’ but an electrified ‘Pretty Peggy o’. This song, of course, became a great highlight of the NET.
As indicated above, Dylan often performs spontaneous, one-off covers to celebrate a fellow musician associated with the city or town he is performing in. I was most fortunate in being in the audience at several such performances; a lovely ‘One Irish Rover’ in which he was joined mid-performance by Van Morrison, a delicate ‘Something’ in Liverpool which brought the house down (it was reported that he went on the public Beatles tour during his visit) and ‘London Calling’ in London. Sometimes a cover song will be chosen to signify an event,etc.
The 1987 Temples in Flames tour unveiled a splendid ‘ Go Down Moses ( Let My People Go ) ‘ in Israel and finished with a tremendous, spontaneous performance of the same song as the last song of the tour in London. Most people will probably be surprised at just how many cover songs from a wide range of genres have been performed on a stage somewhere in the world throughout his musical history. I know I was when I browsed the brilliant Still On The Road website.
A couple of weeks ago I was applauding his performance at the London Palladium and trying my best to encourage an encore, other fans were leaving and one fan said to me ” he does not do encores” ( despite the evidence that he performed encores at the begining of the USA tour). A few nights later in Nottingham he performed an encore ‘I Cant’t Seem To Say Goodbye ‘ as a tribute to Jerry Lee Lewis.