In 1966, Columbia Records launched a new advertising campaign to promote Bob Dylan’s sixth album, Highway 61 Revisited, along with his catalog of already recorded songs. By that time, he had already charted with hits (“Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”) in versions performed by Peter. Paul and Mary. Not long before the campaign was launched, he had just recorded the song that made his name a household word, “Like a Rolling Stone.” It reached no. 2 on the charts. Rolling Stone Magazine later named it the “Greatest Song of All Time" years later, heading a list of 500 songs that ranked below it. Rolling Stone’s judgment has been confirmed by his current status as the first real singer-songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The song that first brought Dylan to the attention of the world. It established his reputation among critics and fans in the US, England, and eventually in Asia, Africa and beyond.
"I wrote it. I didn't fail. It was straight," Bob Dylan said to Rolling Stone of his greatest song, shortly after he recorded it in June 1965. "There is no better description of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ — of its revolutionary design and execution — or of the young man, just turned 24, who created it,” said the nation's leading rock magazine.
The tagline for the campaign was “No One Sings Dylan like Dylan.” It’s difficult though to ignore the fact that many of his songs have now been recorded by hundreds of recording artists who have put their own personal stamp on songs (scholars differ but the best guess seems to be more than 500, including traditional songs he put to new lyrics) he’s published since 1961. I haven’t ranked them here because I've found it impossible to decide which songs should be listed as better than others—with the exception of Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.” I know I have left out many great songs and very good covers. This is only a list of my personal favorites of the moment. Your mileage may vary. Tomorrow I may decide there are others I could have just as easily included.
Paste Magazine noted recently that "it might be easier to compile a list of artists who haven't covered Dylan.” After doing a thorough search on YouTube and the internet, I agree. Everyone from Aretha Franklin to The Ramones has covered Dylan. They may not sing Dylan like Dylan but singing his songs in their own way, they offer a fitting tribute to the man who changed the history of popular music by writing new kinds of songs that will be sung long after he’s left the stage for the last time. No collection of music memorabilia will be complete without a selection of Dylan songs covered by other artists who have been moved by his work.
Jimi Hendrix “All Along the Watchtower”
Considered one of the finest interpreters of Dylan’s work, his cover of “All Along the Watchtower” is one of the very few that is remembered and admired even by people unfamiliar with the original. No one sings Dylan like Hendrix. His version is the standard by which all other Dylan covers should be judged.
Adele “Make You Feel My Love”
Of the dozens of attempts made to cover this song by some very talented performers, this is the one that best captures the "feel" of the lyric in a way that honors Dylan’s craft.
Elvis Presley “Tomorrow is a Long Time”
When Dylan underwent a near death experience, he famously said he thought he was going to see Elvis. Perhaps he would have been greeted by Elvis’s spirit serenading him with his own version of one of his most moving love songs. Elvis also covered Dylan's "Blowin; in the Wind" and "I Shall Be Released."
Van Morrison “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”
Before he launched his solo career, Morrison was already using Dylan as a touchstone. His version of this song was one of the first covers to show how Dylan could be covered without losing individuality or emotional power.
The Byrds “Mr. Tambourine Man”
The Byrds began their career with this rock version that brought folk to rock in a way that introduced Dylan to a mass audience wider than even the Peter, Paul and Mary covers of his song had reached.
Rage Against the Machine "Maggie's Farm"
This a funky version of one of Dylan's most important songs. It fit RATM's political stance against the establishment perfectly.
Guns N' Roses "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"
Guns N' Roses had one of the most popular covers of Dylan's Knockin' on Heaven's Door. In 1987, they included the song in their live sets. A studio version was released on their Days of Thunder soundtrack in 1990.
Jeff Buckley "Just Like a Woman'
Although he is best known for his cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," Buckley also recorded a version of "Just Like a Woman" that has become a fan favorite.
Eddie Vedder "Masters of War"
The frontman for Pearl Jam recorded Dylan's classic "Masters of War" much later, but he had been singing his emotional version of the song for many years. This is from a live performance at Neil Young's Bridge School benefit in 2004.
Neil Young “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”
Young performed this Dylan song at the 30th-anniversary tribute to Dylan in 1992. He once said that Dylan was the only singer-songwriter he truly holds in awe as a writer and performer.
Katie Melua "Blowin' in the Wind"
Katie is a Georgian-born British singer-songwriter who has sold millions of records around the world. As a teenager, she listened mostly to R&B and pop but soon began hearing artists like Bob Dylan. Joni Mitchell, and Eva Cassidy who had a profound impact on her becoming a singer-songwriter. According to Katie, "They were older artists whose music felt raw and real. I looked around for modern music that had as much emotion, but I couldn’t find any."
The Ramones “My Back Pages”
The Ramones may have been a punk band but they recognized Dylan as someone who brought a punk sensitivity to his music long before punk became a “thing.” They were not being ironic by covering “My Back Pages,” they are paying tribute to the song in their own edgy way by playing and singing it with punk rock energy.
Mark Knopfler “Restless Farewell”
Knopfler, following his time as the frontman of Dire Straits, played guitar on Dylan’s Infidels. With this cover of an early Dylan song, he emphasized the Celtic roots of the song's melody and shows that he understands Dylan’s lyric nearly as well as Dylan did.
Paul Westerberg “All I Really Want to Do”
The former lead singer of The Replacements showed a deep understanding of Dylan’s importance to the American song tradition with this cover of one of Dylan’s lesser known but most powerful expressions of how relationships sometimes unfold.
Bruce Springsteen “The Times They Are A-Changin'”
Springsteen, like Neil Young, is another top songwriter who recognizes that Dylan invented his job. His version of "The Times They Are A-Changin'" comes close to the passion of the original.
Many great songs didn’t make this list of covers only because I couldn’t find definitive versions by singers other than Bob or I just didn’t have room for them in this piece. I will write about them in subsequent articles. As you can tell, it’s a never-ending task. The songs he's abandoned or thrown away would have easily been highlights in the catalogs of other less prolific songwriters. I’ve left many songs out that are also among my personal favorites. There are many songs he’s covered that he’s made uniquely his own that have not been covered as often but one day will be performed for generations and will be added to lists of great covers.