With the Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International release today (January 24) reviews are rolling in, but so far the critics have overlooked the fact that the album represents the greatest collection ever of Dylan covers by female artists.
Of the 76 tracks, 19 are by women artists. Some are from singers you’d expect, like Joan Baez (Seven Curses) and Patti Smith (The Drifter’s Escape), who both have a history of covering Dylan. And there’s a terrific live version by Adele of Make You Feel My Love (which for me tops the studio version). Here’s a quick guide:
Often female singers who cover songs written by men about women flip the gender, so the lyrics are about a man from the woman’s perspective. But Carly Simon on Just Like A Woman and Angelique Kidjo on Lay Lady Lay don’t. Is this simply an act of fidelity to Dylan’s lyric, or an intentional feminist reading?
In any case Simon gives Woman a brilliant, affecting jazz interpretation, and Kidjo (the Grammy Award-singing diva from Benin) turns Lay Lady Lay into a soaring, Afro-reggae tribute to women’s strength.
Ximena Sariñana, the 26 year-old Mexican singer-songwriter, brings a youthful, confessional quality to I Want You, endowing it with a longing and wistfulness so different from the Dylan original.
Bettye LaVette infuses Most Of The Time with searing, righteous anger and regret. Marianne Faithfull, who has reinvented herself many times as an artist, delivers an achingly intense live performance of Let Me Follow You Down, her gravelly voice accompanied only by a brilliantly played ukulele that echoes the melody.
Before I heard Zee Avi on Chimes, I wasn’t familiar with her work. She’s from Malaysia and is only 23. Her cover of Tomorrow Is A Long Time is enchanting, and the spare acoustic arrangement, featuring a dulcimer, is reminiscent of the Rolling Stones’ Lady Jane (1966).
Miley Cyrus delivers a low-key but confident, countrified version of You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (this is a bit of a surprise because in 2010 she was widely quoted as wanting to stay away from country music) and Evan Rachel Wood turns I’d Have You Any Time into sexy jazz ballad in the tradition of the late Lena Horne.
Of the other contributions by women artists, it’s hard to imagine more poignant and deeply felt renditions of Tryin’ To Get To Heaven’s Door and Simple Twist Of Faith than the performances delivered by Lucinda Williams and Diana Krall, respectively. These are two of my favorites. In Patti Smith’s rocking, soulful The Drifter’s Escape you can feel her deep affinity for Dylan’s lyrics.
Many critics and fans have already commented on Kesha’s Don’t Think Twice. Whatever your reaction, it’s impossible to ignore the raw emotion she brings to her performance. Ditto for Sinead O’Connor on her commanding cover of Property Of Jesus. Thea Gilmore, Natasha Bedingfield, Sussan Deyhim, Sugarland (Jennifer Nettles & Kristian Bush), and Lucia Micarelli are the other women lending their beautiful voices to Chimes.
Steven Lawrence (yerosha.com) has produced and directed documentaries for MTV, PBS and Link TV, many on music and activism. For Amnesty International he produced the Price Of Silence and the Music For Human Rights series. His recent production, Sarabah, is about Senegalese rapper Sister Fa and her campaign to end female genital cutting.