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Just Like a Woman: Female Artists Cover Bob Dylan

Listen along on Spotify as you read.

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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