Friday, May 20, 2016

Top Seven Dylan Covers

How can anyone choose seven Dylan covers and say "These are the top seven" or "the top ten." I'm not talking about Dylan songs covered by others... Wednesday's L.A. Times featured a story called Bob Dylan, interpreter: seven of the artist's greatst covers. No doubt the Times is doing what all of us are doing, falling all over ourselves to find original ways to write about Dylan's newest album, an assortment of covers called Fallen Angels, released today on the eve of his 75th birthday.

Though he established his name and fame as a singer/songwriter, the Times is accurate in noting Dylan's masterful manner of interpreting the work of others. His first album was primarily all covers (with the exception of his Song To Woody) but I'm hard-pressed to select only one or two favorites. Heck, after a hundred listens I can't say there's even one lunker.

It's well-known that more musicians have covered Dylan than any songwriter in recorded history, but the Times has reversed the equation and brought Dylan's covers to the foreground.

And naturally when one sees such a list, it stirs you up inside to make a list of your own. Or rather, that's my initial response. So where does one begin? One might begin anywhere, but let's begin at the beginning.  That's where Randy began with See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, Dylan's rendition of the Blind Lemon Jefferson classic found on his first solo album at age 20. Here's a list from my corner of space and time.

Fixin' To Die
It's a Mississippi Delta blues song originally performed by Bukka White. Dylan modified the original and showed from the start how he would take something and put his fingerprints all over it. Skeletal remains of the Delta gave it birth while Dylan gave it life.

Freight Train Blues
I have a friend who called her small section of Carlton, Mn. Hobo Junction, home of Carlton Bike Rental. When she opened several years ago I made a CD of railroad songs. Because of the railroad lines that ran through there, Carlton famously had three hobo camps in the thirties. The CD included two versions of Freight Train Blues, this one and another by Doc Watson. The Red Foley song has a hundred variations, and Dylan's is exceptional. Like a runaway train, wild and free, Dylan is joyous and smashing.

Lily of the West
Folk music has always been a storytelling medium. In the sales and marketing today there are two essential concepts that companies have work at, Brand and Story. Getting brand recognition is half the battle. Defining and differentiating the brand, and establishing it in the mind of consumers is what you see every time you turn on a TV. But what's your story?

Storytelling is as old as the hills. Storytelling preceded the written word, and probably began with the beginning of human speech. It's in our DNA. Add a Y and and L to that and you've got Dylan, a master storyteller, born out of the folk storytelling tradition. "Lily of the West" has Irish folk roots and bears a clear resemblance in structure to a story of his own, "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts."

Big Yellow Taxi
When Dylan's 1973 album of covers came out the critics were surprisingly harsh. They wanted their old Dylan back, Dylan the songwriter. Opening with "Lily of the West" it just carried you in. Joni Mitchell, the singer/songwriter who has at this point established herself with numerous songs that were now being recorded by others (e.g. "Woodstock" by CSN&Y) was here recorded by Dylan.

Mr. Bojangles
The song was written in 1968 by country artist Jeff Walker, but it was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band that carried it up the ladder to number one. Dylan was but one of dozens of performers who liked the song enough to cover it themselves. The name Bojangles probably came from the jazzy dance number from the film Swing Time that featured Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Barbara Allen
This traditional folk  song is a Scottish ballad first written about in Samuel Pepys's 1666 diary, and recorded many times over once the technology for recording came into fashion, right up through Joan Baez in 1961.

This version begins, "In Scarlet Town where I was born..." and was recorded live between 1988 and 1991. What's very interesting is that just this week I heard someone suggesting Dylan's song "Scarlet Town" from the album Tempest was autobiographical to some extent, and that "scarlet town" referred to Hibbing, whose red ore saturated even the dirt there. Interesting to hear the echo of that phrase back here in "Barbara Allen."

This live recording in 1962 at the Gaslight Cafe shows why the young 20-year-old captured so many hearts and found himself so warmly welcomed in those first frost-filled days in the Big Apple.

Pretty Boy Floyd
Woody Guthrie was Dylan idol/hero/inspiration for a time, and the only song that wasn't a cover on his first album was "Song to Woody." Dylan performed a number of songs by Woody, including one of my favorites, "I Ain't Got No Home." Pretty Boy Floyd may have been an outlaw but Woody, and Dylan, give the story a whole different spin. Whatever the truth may be, it's a story in song, and I enjoy the way Bob tells it.

I'm out of time here, but I'm going to add a bonus track for you, one of my favorite Dylan covers from his 2009 Christmas In The Heart CD, "Must Be Santa." It's a romp.

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Sunday evening is the kickoff for Duluth Dylan Fest, with the start of the film contest at 7 and Trivia at Carmody's at 9. There are a couple tie-breaker questions for the trivia players, should it come to that. The answer to one of these is found in yesterday's stories at
Two art events of note for tonight: Art in the Plaza in Superior is having a CD release party for Similar Dogs from 3-6 p.m. and The Red Herring is hosting an opening reception for Shawna Gilmore's Mischief, Memory & Wonder exhibition.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. And music. Dig it!

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EdNote: Picking seven "top" Dylan covers is impossible. I just happened to share these because I have liked them. Much more can be said, but it's time to embrace the day.

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