Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
In accepting his Nobel Prize for Literature, Bob Dylan spoke of how a single song, “Cottonfields” by Leadbelly, changed his life and transported him into a world he had never known. He likened that transformation to a sudden illumination after a long walk in darkness.
At the time of this writing, the world is in the midst of COVID-19, a viral pandemic that has both literally and figuratively changed the way we live our lives, transporting us into a world we’ve never known. Our transformation, however, has been the opposite of Dylan’s: we’ve been plunged from light into darkness. The severity of the illness and its extreme communicability has led to the imposition and enforcement of mandated quarantine and physical distancing. Common themes expressed through news reports, social media, and even entertainment is confinement and isolation, even to the degree of people feeling imprisoned in their homes. How appropriate is it, then, to turn to our Nobel Laureate for hope?
Written by Bob Dylan in 1967, “I Shall Be Released” made its first official appearance on record courtesy of The Band’s seminal debut LP, Music from Big Pink. The version Dylan recorded with these same musicians made an initial appearance on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 some 24 years later. (Alternate Dylan versions exist as well.) With its themes of pending physical, emotional and spiritual freedom, the song speaks equally well literally, as a narrative for a long-term inmate in an actual prison, and metaphorically, for those of us in the “lonely crowd,” imprisoned figuratively by circumstance. May we all find some degree of comfort in Dylan’s words as we listen to them in five different interpretations, and begin to believe in our hearts that, any day now, any day now, we shall be released.