Hear versions by Marianne Faithfull, Joan Baez, Nina Simone and more.
In 2016, when Bob Dylan became the first singer-songwriter to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, The Guardian asked six female artists to talk about his work. With his wild, Einsteinian coif, Romantic poet adoration and cryptic, sometimes ornery nature, Dylan is often held up as an emblematic example of the modern male genius. We’ve heard plenty about him from men over the years; refreshingly, The Guardian let some brilliant and fascinating women have their turn. “My mother always thought that Dylan was somewhat misogynistic,” the singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega said, “but I don’t see that. I see a whole range of female characters in his music from goddesses and queens and women revered and then also women used, abused.”
When adding footnotes to the republished version of an incisive 1967 essay she’d written about Dylan, the great cultural critic Ellen Willis came to a slightly different conclusion. “Here and elsewhere in this prefeminist essay I refer with aplomb if not outright endorsement to Dylan’s characteristic bohemian contempt for women (which he combined with an equally obnoxious idealization of female goddess figures),” she wrote, adding that she’d since come to view these tendencies more critically. Still, these observations didn’t dilute her appreciation of Dylan’s work, nor the rigorous scrutiny she brought to it throughout her life. She was simply asserting something that has often become lost in more recent times — that “talking back” to a piece of art isn’t the same as dismissing it. It is much more often a way of keeping it alive.
For today’s playlist, I wanted to put together a kind of musical version of that Guardian piece: a collection of Dylan songs interpreted by women. It’s not meant to be comprehensive; while putting it together I was reminded that there are a lot of great Dylan covers by female musicians, so apologies if your favorite didn’t make the list. (Though feel free to let me know.)
As Willis put it, memorably, at the end of that previously mentioned essay, “In a communication crisis, the true prophets are the translators.” She was talking about Dylan, of course. But I think of the following artists — like Marianne Faithfull, Joan Baez and Nina Simone — as translators in their own right, too.
1. Cher: “All I Really Want to Do” (1965)
Cher’s debut single, produced by her then husband Sonny Bono, was this jangly cover of the opening track on “Another Side of Bob Dylan” — a kind of one-person duet between the masculine and feminine ends of Cher’s vocal range. As she writes in her highly entertaining 1998 biography “The First Time,” “No one believed it was just me, because I did both the high part and the low part at the beginning of each verse.” She also recounts, later in that chapter, how she ran into Dylan in a New York recording studio as her version was climbing the charts. He told her that he dug what she’d done with it, which, Cher writes, “made me feel like floating away.” (Listen on YouTube)
2. Joan Baez: “Simple Twist of Fate” (1975)
By the time she released her 1975 album “Diamonds and Rust,” Baez had been recording gorgeous, reverent covers of material written by Dylan — her folk musical peer, collaborator and former flame — for more than a decade. Her rollicking cover of “Simple Twist of Fate” is something else, though: playful, self-assured and even a little sassy, especially when she uses a laughably nasal Dylan impression in the second half of the song. Writing the haunting title track off “Diamonds and Rust,” a poetic remembrance of her ’60s romance with Dylan, must have freed her up to have some fun with his material. (Listen on YouTube)
3. Marianne Faithfull: “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (1971)
In 1965, shortly after the release of her debut single “As Tears Go By,” Faithfull spent some time hanging in the Savoy with Dylan and his entourage, while D.A. Pennebaker was filming “Don’t Look Back.” At one point, Dylan played Faithfull his latest album: “Bringing It All Back Home.” Six years later, when her voice had begun maturing beyond light pop fare and into that seen-it-all croak, Faithfull recorded her own version of the album’s final track, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” She’d revisit the song again many years later, too, on her 2018 album “Negative Capability.” (Listen on YouTube)
4. Nico: “I’ll Keep It With Mine” (1967)
It’s a rare experience, getting to hear a song’s muse sing and interpret material that was written about her. (Allegedly, as we must add with any speculation of what or who a Dylan song is “about.”) But such is the poignancy and power of Nico’s rendition of “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” which she recorded for her 1967 debut solo album, “Chelsea Girl.” Dylan wrote the song while traveling around Europe with a pre-Velvet Underground Nico during their brief 1964 romance, and though he attempted to record it for “Bringing It All Back Home” and, later, “Blonde on Blonde,” he ended up saving it for release on his bootleg collection. Nico’s version, then, is probably the best known: The signature, heavy-cream richness of her voice makes it sound impossibly melancholy, but there’s a buoyancy to her cadences that conveys the sweetness and devotion to companionship at the heart of the song. (Listen on YouTube)
5. Bettye LaVette: “Ain’t Talkin’” (2018)
I discovered this smoldering cover just a few months ago, after reading about it in Greil Marcus’s great 2022 book “Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs.” (Always read Greil Marcus on Bob Dylan.) One of those seven songs is the creepily somnambulant “Ain’t Talkin’,” from Dylan’s 2006 album “Modern Times,” though Marcus rightly praises this reworking by the beloved soul singer Bettye LaVette for enlivening the composition with her unique sensibility. He quotes LaVette, speaking of this and a few other Dylan covers on her 2018 album “Things Have Changed”: “I wasn’t going to tributize him.” Instead she was looking to make the songs “fit into my mouth,” as she put it, “just as if they’d been written for me.” Mission accomplished. (Listen on YouTube)
6. Mavis Staples: “Gotta Serve Somebody” (1999)
The story goes that Dylan — a huge fan of the Staples Singers — proposed marriage to a young Mavis Staples when his career was just getting off the ground; she turned him down because she wasn’t yet ready to settle down. (She told The Guardian in 2016, “I often think what would have happened if I’d married Dylan.”) Musically, though, the two linked up throughout their lives: Staples joined Dylan for a 2003 duet of his 1979 gospel song “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” and in recent years they’ve toured together repeatedly. Staples’s blazing solo version of “Gotta Serve Somebody,” from a 1999 Dylan tribute, revels in the gritty rasp and bottomless depths of her one-of-a-kind voice. (Listen on YouTube)
7. Marianne Faithfull: “Visions of Johanna” (1971)
I simply could not choose just one Marianne Faithfull cover! And then I realized I didn’t have to! (Listen on YouTube)
8. Emmylou Harris: “Every Grain of Sand” (1995)
Emmylou Harris’s voice strains and nearly cracks open with exalted feeling on her passionately sung cover of “Every Grain of Sand,” a standout from Dylan’s spiritually minded 1981 album “Shot of Love.” It’s a welcome spotlight on a less appreciated stretch of Dylan’s songwriting. (Listen on YouTube)
9. PJ Harvey: “Highway 61 Revisited” (1993)
PJ Harvey dredges up the darkness in “Highway 61” with this wild version that appeared on her landmark 1993 album “Rid of Me.” Gone is the whimsical slide whistle; taking its place is Harvey’s torrential storms of guitar distortion and menacingly whispered vocals, making Dylan’s cheeky biblical sendup sound more like a nightmare. (Albeit a very cool one.) (Listen on YouTube)
10. Nina Simone: “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (1969)
On her 1969 album “To Love Somebody,” Nina Simone completely reimagines “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” in both arrangement and tone. The version Dylan made famous on “Highway 61 Revisited” is charmingly cluttered, chock-full of layered instrumentation and reference-stuffed lines. But Simone clears almost everything out, building something extraordinary out of little more than quietly played piano, hand drums and that magnificently weary voice, turning Dylan’s surrealist fresco into a deeply felt hymn to the down-and-out. (Listen on YouTube)
I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough,
The Amplifier Playlist
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“Just Like a Woman: Female Artists Cover Dylan” track list
Track 1: Cher, “All I Really Want to Do”
Track 2: Joan Baez, “Simple Twist of Fate”
Track 3: Marianne Faithfull, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”
Track 4: Nico, “I’ll Keep It With Mine”
Track 5: Bettye LaVette, “Ain’t Talkin’”
Track 6: Mavis Staples, “Gotta Serve Somebody”
Track 7: Marianne Faithfull, “Visions of Johanna”
Track 8: Emmylou Harris, “Every Grain of Sand”
Track 9: PJ Harvey, “Highway 61 Revisited”
Track 10: Nina Simone, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”
Tina Turner’s cover of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” is — alas! — missing from most streaming services, but if you dig around I bet you can find it on YouTube. Ahem.
Also, on this week’s Playlist, Taylor Swift rewrites her back pages, plus new songs from First Aid Kit, Anohni and the Johnsons and more.