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The 80 Greatest Dylan Covers of All Time

From Hendrix, Baez, and the Byrds to Cher, Adele, and the Roots, our list of the 80 greatest covers of Bob Dylan’s songs

Photographs in illustration by Bruce Fleming/AP; Yui Mok/PA Wire/AP; H. Thompson/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; David Corio/Redferns/Getty Images;

Jason DeCrow/AP

For Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday we’ve compiled our list of the 80 greatest covers of his songs — a collective gift back to him to say thank you for everything he’s given us. The list has songs recorded by his folk peers nearly 60 years ago, and others from as recently as last year. Getting down to 80 wasn’t easy. As the greatest songwriter of all time, Dylan has inspired thousands of covers of his songs by artists from every corner of music. Our picks include everyone from Hendrix, Baez, and the Byrds to Cher, Adele, and the Roots.

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Dylan loved the ides of other people doing his songs, and it’s amazing how many songs here were recorded many times by other artists before the man himself ever released his own versions; often, they lived whole other lives, evolving and changing over the years, with his idea of the song as only a blueprint. And because there are so many kinds of Dylan songs, there’s a vast array of different kinds of Dylan covers: R&B singers love relaxing into the contours of “Lay Lady Lay”; country singers like his rootsy stuff; indie-rockers key into his sad side; heroic rock singers love scaling the peaks of open-ended classics — like “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” or “Like a Rolling Stone” — finding their own way to make new meanings amidst the intersecting, and often contradictory, emotions and ideas that can roil around within one Dylan song. Even weird, tossed-off or straight-up bad Dylan songs can make for great covers.

Upon reading this, true fans will immediately think of their own favorite covers that didn’t make the list. And that’s part of the fun. This story leads in a million directions. The road always ends wherever you’re at right now.

From Rolling Stone US


The 13th Floor Elevators, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (1967)

Roky Erickson and his band of drugstore cowboys rolled out of Austin, Texas in the mid-Sixties, pioneers in the brave new world of psychedelic rock. They blew minds from coast to coast with their massively influential version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” the centerpiece of their 1967 classic Easter Everywhere. The Elevators took a totally new approach to the Dylan songbook — instead of reverent folksy imitation, focused on the lyrics, they just cranked up their amps and let the ghosts of electricity howl through their guitars. This doomy power-drone performance rewired how people heard and played Dylan’s music. It’s a fearsome sound — one of his most terrifying songs, in its most terrifying incarnation. R.S.


The Byrds, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” (1968)

Dylan had a lot of motivations for recording the Basement Tapes with the Band in 1967 and early 1968, but the primary one was to write songs that other artists could cover. One of the first groups to get their hands on a Basement Tapes song was the Byrds, who used it as the leadoff track on their pioneering 1968 country rock LP Sweetheart of the Rodeo. But Roger McGuinn misheard the lyric “Pick up your money, pack up your tent” as “Pack up your money, pick up your tent.” And when Dylan re-recorded the song for Greatest Hits Volume 2, he sang “Pack up your money, put up your tent, McGuinn/You ain’t goin’ nowhere” as a good-natured dig at his longtime friend. A.G.


Sam Cooke, “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1964)

Dylan’s frequently covered protest folk-song changed Cooke’s outlook on music—the soul great’s only frustration was that he wished that a Black artist had written it. Cooke introduced “Blowin’ in the Wind” to his live set upon hearing it, and eventually it spurred him to write his towering civil rights classic “A Change Is Gonna Come.” For a taste of the unique spin Cooke put on the song, you can hear an easy-swinging version on Sam Cooke at the Copa. K.H.


George Harrison, “If Not For You” (1970)

To a man, the Beatles idolized Dylan, but it was the Quiet One who ended up getting to know him best. George and Bob formed one of the most iconic rock-star friendships, enduring from their Sixties days strumming together in Woodstock to the Traveling Wilburies. After Harrison’s death in 2001, Dylan did “Something” on his next tour as a tribute, sending it out “to my buddy George.” “If Not For You” was a highlight of George’s 1970 solo classic All Things Must Pass, just a few months after Dylan debuted it on New Morning. Even better, they also sang it as a stunning stripped-down duet, in rehearsals for the Concert for Bangla Desh. R.S.


Guns N’ Roses, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (1991)

GNR started performing Dylan’s classic of Seventies frontier fatalism in 1987, and even released a live version on the 12-inch of “Welcome to the Jungle.” But the five-and-a-half-minute arena rock epic we all know first emerged on the Days of Thunder soundtrack three years later, only to be finessed for inclusion on Lose Your Illusion II. Slash finds his way back to the blues as a horde of multi-tracked Axls wail, groan, and plead around one another. And no one is really sure what’s up with that free-associative answering machine message. K.H. 


Elvis Presley, “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” (1966)

When Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner asked Dylan to name his favorite cover of one of his songs in 1969, he didn’t go with obvious candidates by the likes of the Byrds, Jimi Hendrix or Joan Baez. He instead went with Elvis Presley’s relatively-obscure 1966 take on “Tomorrow Is a Long Time.” Dylan wrote the song in 1962 when his girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, was studying abroad in Italy and he yearned for her to come home. His version wouldn’t come out until 1971’s Greatest Hits Volume 2, but Odetta covered it in 1965 on her LP Odetta Sings Dylan, which captured the attention of the king. His bare-bones take radiates with the heartbreak that Dylan felt when he wrote the song. “That’s the one recording I treasure the most,” Dylan said. A.G.


The Byrds, “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965)

Bob Dylan’s enrapt encomium upon hearing the Byrds’ 12-string dream-jangle vision of his folk sound — “Wow, man, you can even dance to that!” — remains true to this day. “Mr. Tambourine” took folk-rock to the top of the charts, played a huge role in jumpstarting the L.A. rock scene, and, in Roger McGuinn’s dappled vocals, proved that singing like Bob Dylan might have unlikely commercial potential. When the Byrds first heard a demo of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” they weren’t sure they could use it (David Crosby, for one, thought it was too long). As McGuinn later recalled, “I had an idea of how to save ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.’ I’d been playing around with some Bach licks on the 12-string and thought, ‘What if I put an intro like this . . . and we change it to a Beatle beat?! It worked! We got a Number One hit and were allowed to record the rest of the album!” Template for reverent rock reimaginings of Dylan had been set.  J.D.


Nina Simone “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (1969)

Though Dylan has a rep in some circles as a cranky fellow, he maintained acquaintances of mutual respect with many of his peers. He first met Simone on the New York folk circuit in the early-Sixties, and she came to cover his material regularly throughout her career. This Highway 61 Revisited song is one of three Dylan numbers she included on her 1969 LP To Love Somebody. Her piano gives it a soft, shuffling rhythm and her vocal is gentle and exploratory—where Dylan rambled across the countryside he sang about, Simone floats. K.H.


The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “All Along the Watchtower” (1968)

From the moment it arrived on John Wesley Harding, the cryptic “All Along the Watchtower” has been analyzed and picked apart. Is its conversation between a “joker” and “thief” (in which “businessmen, they drink they wine” and “the hour is getting late”) metaphorical or apocalyptic? Political or personal? But one thing nearly everyone agreed upon is that Hendrix’s gale-force version of the song, from Electric Ladyland, may be one of the few times Dylan was bested on one of his own tunes. Dylan’s original was taut and acoustic. But from the metallic shard of its opening chords to its howling wah-wah solo, Hendrix’s interpretation truly does sound like the end of the world. Unlike so many others who covered Dylan songs before and since, Hendrix didn’t approach his version with awestruck reverence. Instead, he dismantled and attacked it, adding a sinister quality to its lyrics; even his shrieking notes he elicits from his guitar sound like screaming doomsday voices. As Dylan himself reportedly said to Hendrix, “I don’t know if anyone has done my songs better.” D.B.