May 192021
bob dylan comments about cover songs

Bob Dylan has never exactly been a loquacious interviewee. From the ’60s, when he would spend interviews mocking the press, to the ’10s, where he rarely bothers giving interviews at all, comments from Bob on any given subject are usually relatively few and far between. But I was curious, as we prepare to launch our 100 Best Bob Dylan Covers Ever list on Monday, what Dylan covers has the man himself remarked upon?

He’s never been the sort to just hop on Twitter to shout out some YouTuber’s version of “Make You Feel My Love” (god forbid), but, over 60 years of interviews, I found more cover comments than expected. Some are just a word or two. Others he expounds upon at length. And – surprisingly, given his reputation as a curmudgeon – they are just about all positive. With a couple notable exceptions…

So presented below is every instance I could find of Bob talking about covers of his songs. The first section is about specific covers, the second about him talking about artists who covered him many times, and, finally, a few remarks about how he feels about Dylan covers generally.

If you know of any I missed, please let me know in the comments!

Dylan Comments on Specific Covers

Aaron Neville – Shooting Star (Live at MusiCares)

“I could always hear him singing that song. He’s recorded other songs of mine, all great performances, but for some reason I kept thinking about ‘Shooting Star,’ something he’s never recorded but I knew that he could. I could always hear him singing it for some reason, even when I wrote it. I mean, what can you say? He’s the most soulful of singers, maybe in all of recorded history. If angels sing, they must sing in that voice. I just think his gift is so great. The man has no flaws, never has. He’s always been one of my favorite singers right from the beginning.” (2015 Q&A, Bill Flanagan)

Alanis Morissette – Subterranean Homesick Blues

“I couldn’t believe she got that so right, something I’d never been able to do” (2015 Q&A, Bill Flanagan)

Billy Joel – Make You Feel My Love

What did you think of Billy Joel bashing out “Make You Feel My Love?”

Billy Joel’s a very dynamic artist and he can hear things in a song because he’s also a songwriter. He managed to probably convey that song in a different way than me. Nevertheless, he got something out of that song I would have never dreamed of myself. That’s what happens when you write a song, somebody can definitely interpret it a different way than the person who wrote it.
How did he come to record it?
Well, all these songs were given to my record company before this particular album was released so they could see what I was recording and decide whether they wanted to release it or not, because we were recording a lot of stuff. At a certain point we stopped recording and said, “Let’s give this to the record company and see if they even want to release a record like this.” I wasn’t sure what was going to be on this record and what was not going to be on this record. Billy had heard this song, and at that time I wasn’t really positive one way or another whether it was going to be included, so might as well let Billy do it.
Did he hear a demo?
I don’t think there were any demos on these songs. We went in and recorded them exactly the way you’re hearing them. (1997 press conference in London, Serge Kaganski)

Bonnie Raitt – Standing in the Doorway & Million Miles

“Astonishing” (2015 Q&A, Bill Flanagan)

Bruce Springsteen – Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Live at MusiCares)

“Incredible! He did that song like the record, something I myself have never tried. I never even thought it was worth it. Maybe never had the manpower in one band to pull it off. I don’t know, but I never thought about it. To tell you the truth, I’d forgotten how the song ought to go. Bruce pulled all the power and spirituality and beauty out of it like no one has ever done. He was faithful, truly faithful to the version on the record, obviously the only one he has to go by. I’m not a nostalgic person, but for a second there it all came back, Peckinpah, Slim Pickens, Katy Jurado, James Coburn, the dusty lawless streets of Durango, my first wife, my kids when they were small. For a second it all came back … it was that powerful. Bruce is a deep conscientious cat and the evidence of that was in the performance. He can get to your heart, my heart anyway.” (2015 Q&A, Bill Flanagan)

Elvis Presley – Tomorrow Is A Long Time

“Elvis Presley recorded a song of mine. That’s the one recording I treasure the most… It was called ‘Tomorrow Is A Long Time.’ I wrote it but never recorded it.” (1969 Rolling Stone interview)
“When I first heard Elvis Presley’s voice I just knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody and nobody was going to be my boss. The highlight of my career… that’s easy, Elvis recording one of my songs.” (source unknown)

Guns ‘n’ Roses – Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door

“Guns n’ Roses are OK. Slash is OK. But there’s something about their version of that song that reminds me of the movie Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. I always wonder who’s been transformed into some sort of a clone, and who’s stayed true to himself. And I never seem to have an answer.” (1991 interview with Eduardo Bueno)

Jimi Hendrix – All Along the Watchtower

“It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.” (1995 Florida Sun-Sentinel interview)

Joan Baez – Farewell Angelina

“Oh, it was wonderful, init?” (1991 interview with Elliot Mintz)

John Doe – Pressing On

“A once in a lifetime recording.” (2015 Q&A, Bill Flanagan)

Johnny Rivers – Positively 4th Street

“Of all the versions of my recorded songs, the Johnny Rivers version of ‘Positively 4th Street’ was my favorite. It was obvious that we were from the same side of town, had been read the same citations, came from the same musical family and were cut from the same cloth. I liked his version better than mine. Most of the cover versions of my songs seem to take them out into left field somewhere, but Rivers’ version had the mandate down; the attitude and melodic sense to complete and surpass even the feeling that I had put into it. It shouldn’t have surprised me, though. He had done the same thing with ‘Maybellene’ and ‘Memphis,’ two Chuck Berry songs. When I heard Johnny sing my song, it was obvious that life had the same external grip on him as it did me.” (Chronicles)

Neil Young – Blowin’ in the Wind

“He’s been doing ‘Blowin’ In the Wind’ for a while and he does it the way it should be done.” (2015 Q&A, Bill Flanagan)

The Neville Brothers – With God On Our Side

“Now that sounds like a record!” (WTF interview with producer Daniel Lanois, who Dylan hired soon after hearing his Neville Brothers recordings)

Roberta Flack, Nina Simone, Richie Havens – Just Like a Woman

Roberta Flack did “Just Like A Woman” but she got the words wrong.
She changed the words.

I don’t think she changed them. I think she just got ‘em wrong.
I know Nina Simone did “Just Like A Woman” as well.
I think she makes a lyric change there.
Yeah. Personally, I don’t understand why anybody would want to do that song, except me.
Richie Havens did it.
Now Richie, it made sense coming from Richie.
I like Richie. I love his work.
That’s an understatement, yeah.
Yeah. I love his work. I love him as a human being. I love him as a musician.
He’s like a king. (September 1975 interview with Mary Travers, who is in italics)

Tom Jones – What Good Am I?

“Incredible.” (2015 Q&A, Bill Flanagan)

U2 – All Along the Watchtower

“Anybody here ever heard a group called U2? … Well, don’t matter … Anyway … they recorded this song … but they recorded it with the wrong words. Here are the correct words …” (1991 concert, Evanston)

Bonus: Beck – Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat

No specific comment, but the premise of this covers album, War Child Heroes, was that the original artist picked the artist that would cover them, so presumably Bob approved. A few years later he got Beck to perform it at his MusiCares tribute concert.

Dylan Comments on Artists Covering Him

The Byrds, the Turtles, Sonny & Cher

“They made some of my songs Top 10 hits but I wasn’t a pop songwriter and I really didn’t want to be that, but it was good that it happened. Their versions of my songs were like commercials, but I didn’t really mind that, because 50 years later, my songs were being used in the commercials. So that was good too. I was glad it happened, and I was glad they’d done it.” (2015 MusiCares speech)

Fairport Convention

Richard Thompson recalling a 2013 conversation while touring together: “He said Fairport did the best covers of his songs, ever.” (Uncut, June 2021)

Jerry Garcia

“I can’t say that I’ve made any great-sounding records. A lot of the older songs were just blueprints for what I’d play later on the stage. Jerry Garcia proved that to me. He took a lot of the songs and actually recorded them and sang them a step further than they were on my records. He heard where they should go. I would hear his versions of songs of mine and I’d say, ‘OK, I understand how it should go.’ Then I would play that and might even take it a step further. There have been other artists who have recorded my songs and shown me the way the song should go.” (1997 interview with Edna Gunderson)

Jimi Hendrix

“It’s not a wonder to me that he recorded my songs, but rather that he recorded so few of them because they were all his.” (Essay for 1988 Hendrix exhibition)

Manfred Mann

Of all the people who record your compositions, who do you feel does most justice to what you’re trying to say?
I think Manfred Mann. Manfred Mann. They’ve done the songs, they’ve done about three or four. Each one of them has been right in context with what the song was all about. (1965 press conference, San Francisco)

Nina Simone

“I used to cross paths with her in New York City in the Village Gate nightclub. She was an artist I definitely looked up to. She recorded some of my songs that she learned directly from me, sitting in a dressing room. She was an overwhelming artist, piano player and singer. Very strong woman, very outspoken and dynamite to see perform. That she was recording my songs validated everything that I was about. Nina was the kind of artist that I loved and admired.” (2015 MusiCares speech)

Peter, Paul, and Mary

“I also have to mention some of the early artists who recorded my songs very, very early, without having to be asked. Just something they felt about them that was right for them. I’ve got to say thank you to Peter, Paul and Mary, who I knew all separately before they ever became a group. I didn’t even think of myself as writing songs for others to sing but it was starting to happen and it couldn’t have happened to, or with, a better group. They took a song of mine that had been recorded before that was buried on one of my records and turned it into a hit song. Not the way I would have done it – they straightened it out. But since then, hundreds of people have recorded it and I don’t think that would have happened if it wasn’t for them. They definitely started something for me.” (2015 MusiCares speech)

Ricky Nelson

“Ricky’s talent was very accessible to me. I felt we had a lot in common. In a few years’ time he’d record some of my songs, make them sound like they were his own, like he had written them himself. He eventually did write one himself and mentioned my name in it.” (Chronicles)

The Staple Singers

“Long before they were on Stax they were on Epic and they were one of my favorite groups of all time. I met them all in ’62 or ’63. They heard my songs live and Pervis wanted to record three or four of them and he did with the Staples Singers. They were the type of artists that I wanted recording my songs, if anybody was going to do it.” (2015 MusiCares speech)

Some guy in Oslo

Today, who plays the old songs by Bob Dylan the best?
There’s a guy in Oslo that sings my songs better than me. Incredible! I don’t know the guy, I’d have had him come and play the show tomorrow night. (Laughter) He’s quite good.
(He’s Norwegian.) What kind of songs does he play, out of which period?
He plays “Baby Blue” and “All Along the Watchtower,” couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t on a record, it was on my television. (1981 press conference in West Germany)

Dylan on Covers of His Songs Generally

“A lot of my songs, they were becoming hits for other people. There was, the Byrds had a big hit. Some group called the Turtles had some hit. Sonny and Cher had a hit with a song of mine. People were sort of writing a jingly-jangly kind of song… which seemed to have something to do with me, I, you know, like, “okay…” You know, ‘I Got You, Babe,’ is some kind of take-off of me, something I wrote. Well, I don’t know what it was a take-off on that I wrote, you know? I didn’t really like that sound… or folk-rock, whatever that was, I didn’t feel that had anything to do with me. It got me thinking about the Billboard charts and the songs which become popular, which I hadn’t thought of that before.” (No Direction Home interviews, 2005)

“My old songs, they’ve got something… I think my songs have been covered—maybe not as much as ‘White Christmas’ or ‘Stardust,’ but there’s a list of over 5,000 recordings. That’s a lot of people covering your songs, they must have something. If I was me, I’d cover my songs too. A lot of these songs I wrote in 1961 and ‘62 and ‘64, and 1973, and 1985, I can still play a lot of those songs—well, how many other artists made songs during that time? How many do you hear today? I love Marvin Gaye, I love all that stuff. But how often are you gonna hear ‘What’s Going On’? I mean, who sings it? Who sings ‘Tracks of My Tears’? Where is that being sung tonight?” (2006 Rolling Stone interview)

Check back Monday for the 100 Best Bob Dylan Covers Ever.

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  7 Responses to “Every Time Bob Dylan Commented on a Cover of One of His Songs”

Comments (7)
  1. “Strangely enough, sometimes we’ll hear a cover of a song and figure we can do just as well. If somebody else thought so highly of it, Why don’t I? Some of these arrangements I just take. The Dead did a lot of my songs, and we’d take the whole arrangement, because they did it better than me. Jerry Garcia could hear the song in all my bad recordings, the song that was buried there.” – from 2006 Rolling Stone interview, Jonathan Lethem

  2. Tried to just cut n paste the quote but couldn’t. Expands and confirms the RT remark. (Scroll down and there is even another Dylan tribute album missed thus far.

    • “Ashley Hutchings is the single most important figure in English folk rock. Before that his group Fairport Convention recorded some of the best versions of my unreleased songs. Listen to the bass playing on Percy’s Song to hear how great he is.”

      ~ Bob Dylan

  3. The Oslo-guy must be poet Jan Erik Vold. He released a record of Dylan-songs (Stein Regn) in Norwegian that year (1981).

    Here’s my YouTube playlist of covers I’ve done

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