Not for nothing is Bob Dylan considered to be one of the greatest songwriters of his, or any other, generation. His compositions have provided a prime source of repertoire for hundreds, even thousands, of recording artists for 50 years, and his catalogue continues to be regularly revised and revisited in all genres of music.
Spanning more than two decades of Dylan compositions, “How Many Roads” offers 20 first-rate examples of how well his songs have lent themselves to being remade/remodelled by high profile names in black American music. Few of his peers have had their catalogues visited as regularly by black singers and musicians. Only John Lennon and Paul McCartney (the subjects of the next volume in this short “Black America Sings…” series) come close in terms of breadth of catalogue and number of covers.
Black America was very quick to wake up to the potential of Dylan compositions and savvy singers started covering them almost as soon as he released them. Early fans included the Staple Singers, who cut no less than three songs from his breakthrough album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” and can be heard here on a stellar version of ‘Masters Of War’. Sam Cooke was inspired to write his masterpiece ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ after hearing Dylan sing ‘Blowing In The Wind’ on TV and wondering why no black songwriter had come up with anything that spoke so eloquently of the need for racial equality as the song’s opening line, “How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?” That song is heard here in a compelling 1968 rendition by front-tier Memphis soulman O.V. Wright, one of more than 30 black American artists who recorded it within five years of Dylan’s version.
This set includes some of Dylan’s favourite recordings of his songs and the CD comes to you with his blessing and approval. My own favourite tracks include the Persuasions’ glorious a cappella remodelling of ‘The Man In Me’ from Dylan’s “New Morning” album, Con-Funk-Shun’s surprisingly effective funk-up of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and gospel queen Marion Williams’ heart-wrenching deep soul version of ‘I Pity The Poor Immigrant’ from “John Wesley Harding”.
There are many other great tracks that finite CD running time didn’t allow us to include here, so keep your fingers crossed for a second volume. Until then, there’s plenty of superbly soulful singing to be savoured, on some of the finest songs that will ever be written by anyone, anytime.
By Tony Rounce