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.
There are so many outstanding interpretations of this song (over 150, according to SecondHandSongs), including versions by Nina Simone, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joe Cocker, Chrissie Hynde, and Jeff Buckley. With all those great choices, there’s a good chance that your favorite version of “I Shall Be Released” isn’t listed below. But at this moment in history, that’s not what’s important. What’s important today is the song’s message – that we all hold out hope for the catharsis we all need.
Rising Appalachia – I Shall Be Released (The Band/Bob Dylan cover)
Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, sisters Leah and Chloe Smith are the founders and driving forces of Rising Appalachia, a folk music band that uses their musicianship as a tool to advocate for causes important to them, such as social justice and indigenous rights, as well as for showcasing their artistry and talent. Both Chloe and Leah sing beautifully and play multiple instruments, and as the band has matured, they’ve invited additional musicians to join them, broadening both their style and their worldview. Rising Appalachia’s version of “I Shall Be Released” is simple–just stand-up bass and percussion accompanying the sisters’ harmonies. With the simplicity of this arrangement, there are no instrumental breaks; we as listeners have to digest all three verses in succession, with no chance to digest the first two before, which might be the only thing that would make this version just a tiny bit better.
Judy Mowatt – I Shall Be Released (The Band/Bob Dylan cover)
Jamaican songstress Judy Mowatt has an amazing reggae resume. Originally a member of a teenage dance troupe that toured the Caribbean Islands, she later wrote songs for and sang with Neville Livingston (better known as Bunny Wailer), became one of Bob Marley’s backup singers, the I-Threes, and released her own critically-acclaimed solo album a few years later. Her contributions to the Jamaican music scene were so important, she was made an Officer of the Order of Distinction, an award granted by the Jamaican government for rendering outstanding and important services to the country. The reggae version of “I Shall Be Released” she presents here is more uptempo, giving the song a brighter, more hopeful feel than most other versions, even the other reggae version by the Heptones.
Jerry Garcia Band – I Shall Be Released (The Band/Bob Dylan cover)
Jerry Garcia was no stranger to Bob Dylan covers. The Grateful Dead covered about 15 Dylan tunes, although apparently not this one. The incarnation of the Jerry Garcia band in the clip above provides a masterful take on the song, stretching it out to almost nine minutes. Two amazing instrumental breaks account for most of the extra time, with organist Melvin Seals first providing a pad for a beautifully-played solo by Jerry, then taking us to church with a breathtaking solo of his own. The vocals are world-weary, but strong, and really convey the song’s emotion. Garcia makes one lyrical substitution in the first line, singing “They say every man can be replaced,” an ironic sentiment with which no fan, Deadhead to casual, could agree.
Aaron Neville – I Shall Be Released (The Band/Bob Dylan cover)
Aaron Neville gives us a smooth-as-silk, keyboard-forward R&B version of “I Shall Be Released,” complete with melodic piano lines, organ swells, and Neville’s signature vibrato vocals leading to an amazing falsetto finish. Having done some prison time during his younger days, he adds a special kind of gravitas to the song that comes from knowing life on both sides, and the reality of making the best of a new start.
Grace Potter – I Shall Be Released (The Band/Bob Dylan cover)
Grace Potter has made a name for herself in many fields: actress, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, festival impresario and, primarily, performer. She sings equally well in a number of different styles: Grace can rock out with the best of them, and earned her first Grammy nomination for Best Country Duo/Group Performance for a duet with Kenny Chesney. On this version of “I Shall Be Released,” she delivers a powerful, soulful rendition laden with emotion. She’s performing here at a tribute concert dedicated to the life of The Band’s lead vocalist and drummer Levon Helm. (Helm sings harmony with Rick Danko on the chorus of the original.) You can see how much the song affects her as she brings it to a close.