Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Bob Dylan scholars have determined that “To Ramona” is a song about Joan Baez; Dylan’s warning her that the folk protest movement will draw her in deep, but he recognizes that she doesn’t necessarily have a problem with that, and much as he loves and wants her, he has to let her think for herself, both for her sake and for his. That’s a pretty specific interpretation, yet the song resounds in the hearts of thousands, millions, as a love song they can relate to their own lives, in their own ways. It speaks to Dylan’s genius that he can draw the universal from the singular instead of the other way around.
“To Ramona,” as the album it comes from promises, showed another side of Bob Dylan, his moving from the political to the personal, offering a gentle hand instead of a pointing finger. Dylan would later admit that he considered it one of his particularly good songs, and to this day he’s not averse to playing it live. It’s just as vital to many musicians, who have been more than happy to add it to their catalog. Consider what follows just one ladleful from the River Ramona.
The Flying Burrito Brothers – To Ramona (Bob Dylan cover)
Recorded after the semi-acrimonious departure of Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers’ self-titled third album saw them stepping once more unto the breach between rock and country. Even without any Parsons magic, they came up with a very solid album; at a time when the Eagles were still just an ever-brightening twinkle in its founders’ eyes (Bernie Leadon left FBB after this album to be one of those founders), they showed that the talent was there for country rock songs, even if the audience hadn’t quite yet arrived. “To Ramona” is one example of a non-genre song that thrived under this treatment.
Sinead Lohan – To Ramona (Bob Dylan cover)
Ireland’s Sinead Lohan released two albums; her second, 1998’s No Mermaid, was an adult-alternative classic that seemed to herald a rising talent. But Lohan vanished from the music scene; apparently, raising a family was more important to her than staying on the tour-album-tour treadmill. At least she left us with her cover of “To Ramona” before she stepped away, a version so good that avowed fan Joan Baez herself invited Lohan to perform it with her as a duet, now available on Baez’s Gone from Danger album.
Lissie – To Ramona (Bob Dylan cover)
Lissie’s cover of “To Ramona” may be a quiet version from a female singer, but it’s no clone of Lohan’s. Her backing track is less flowing water, more dusky tundra, and her voice sounds more burdened with the hardship of knowledge of what she speaks, carrying that burden because she has to and not because she wants to.
Wilko Johnson – To Ramona (Bob Dylan cover)
These days Wilko Johnson may be best known in America as the executioner with the dagger stare in the first couple seasons of Game of Thrones, but in the UK he’s a legend for playing guitar in the pub rock band Dr. Feelgood and on his own. This zydeco-y cover of “To Ramona” comes from his 2005 album Red Hot Rocking Blues, which also features a cover of Dylan’s “From a Buick 6.”
These United States – To Ramona (Bob Dylan cover)
Spin described These United States as a band that “brilliantly captures the overwhelming joy of simply being alive.” That’s evident in their cover of “To Ramona,” which does away with waltz-time in favor of a little Bo Diddley beat and a joyful alt-country noise that sounds like it’s coming closer and closer and might just explode any second. The effect this makes is one of exhilarating elation.
Jazzyspoon – To Ramona (Bob Dylan cover)
From Jazzyspoon’s web page: “He is best known for continually experimenting in his studio to find the perfect hybrid of IDM, downtempo, glitch, trip hop, rock, shoegaze, industrial, ambient, electro, dubstep, breaks, jazz, club, and so on.” The word “folk” may not show up in that list, but Jazzyspoon, a.k.a. Denver musician Jason Pottorff, brings most of that list to “Ramona,” turning it into an otherworldly creation that still retains the Dylan magic.
The Dylan original is better than no one’s, and no one’s is better than his. Pick it up at Amazon.