“I Shall Be Released”

May 16, 2022 • 2:30 pm

Here’s a fantastic Bob Dylan song that’s even lovelier when sung by his ex-paramour, the great Joan Baez. I came upon this song by accident on YouTube, and remembered two things: what a great voice she had (up there with Karen Carpenter and Barbra Streisand, my two favorites) and what a great song this is.

It was written by Dylan around 1967 and first recorded by The Band (you can hear the group and Dylan nine years later here). But nobody, to my mind, even came close to the quality of Joan Baez’s version. Below is the live version of the song performed at Woodstock. Just a great song, an angelic voice, and a guitar.

It’s a gorgeous song, fusing a prisoner’s yearning for freedom with religious yearning for salvation. If you want a recorded version with more instrumentation, go here.

Below is one of Dylan’s versions. The reason his aren’t as good is simply that he’s nowhere as good a singer as Baez. It still amazes me, though, that something of this quality could come out of Dylan, just as all his great hits amaze me.

And I’m not the only one. In Dylan’s bio in Wikipedia you can read this:

 On hearing Dylan perform his song “With God on Our Side“, Baez later said, “I never thought anything so powerful could come out of that little toad”

But of course they then had a relationship.

Two other versions of note. First, the trio of Mama Cass, Mary Travers and Joni Mitchell singing the song on Mama Cass’s television show. To be honest, this version doesn’t move me that much, but it is a collection of great vocalists.

And the gala version with Dylan, the Band, and a bunch of stars (Joni Mitchell, Ron Wood, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison) from the 1976 version The Last Waltz:

Dylan must be ranked as one of the greatest songwriters of the late 1900s, but not as a great singer/songwriter. The man couldn’t sing that well, nor was he a great instrumentalist. All his talent went into the song.

42 thoughts on ““I Shall Be Released”

  1. Yes, a beautiful voice, and an amazing lyricist. She came out with a double-LP of Dylan covers entitled “Any Day Now” in 68 or 69. I think I wore out the vinyl on those.

  2. I love Bob Dylan’s vocals. He created his voice to be emotionally expressive and unique, as there is no doubt he was not gifted with a voice. Baez has a beautiful voice, and her version is pretty, which is why I prefer Dylan for this song. I think this song is best Dylan gritty and rough, or soulful, the way Nina Simone does it. I love Baez singing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and of course “Diamonds and Rust.” I’m playing that one now. Very haunting.

    1. I remember hearing “Diamonds and Rust” for the first time on FM radio working the graveyard shift as a computer operator. It blew me away. Also on that album is her cover of Jackson Browne’s “Fountain of Sorrow,” another lovely song.

    2. I agree. Dylan may not rank as a great singer as such but his voice perfectly suits many of his songs. He’s a great singer when singing his songs which, of course, are great.

  3. David Bowie wrote “A Song for Bob Dylan” which included the words:

    “… About a strange young man called Dylan
    With a voice like sand and glue
    Some words had truthful vengeance
    That could pin us to the floor…”

  4. “Dylan must be ranked as one of the greatest songwriters of the late 1900s, but not as a great singer/songwriter. The man couldn’t sing that well, nor was he a great instrumentalist. All his talent went into the song.”

    It has long been my opinion that the best thing that can be done with a Bob Dylan song is to let someone else perform or record it.

    1. actually if you listen to Bob sings when he was younger and he just sang regular songs not in the style that he does on stage he had a great voice. He could sing very well it was just a style that he created and at that time people loved it

  5. In The Band’s cover of “I Shall Be Released” that they did all on their own, Richard Manuel sings it in falsetto, giving the tune a particular poignancy :

  6. The young Dylan I grew up with had a good voice but it didn’t age well. I have never taken to Joan Baez’s voice because of her vibrato. 🙁

  7. The list of remarkable songs by Dylan is long. This is one of his most moving, no matter who sings it. Baez’s album version of it, however, loses the emotion with the chorus and trite instrumentals. It sounds like something for the Ed Sullivan show.

  8. As of a few years ago, Joan Baez still had a great voice, and she may have a great voice even today. My wife and I saw her play an outdoor concert in Oregon with The Indigo Girls. It was a fantastic evening under the stars, and audience members danced all through the two-hour performance! The respect shown to Joan Baez by The Indigo Girls and by the audience was spellbinding. One of the all-time greats with a lovely soprano voice.

  9. My favorite version of I Shall Be Released is Chrissie Hynde’s on the 30th anniversary Concert Celebration. I have the 4 LP album of that concert. As you say, other people often sing his songs better than him, and that album is almost entirely other great people singing them. My favorite is Stevie Wonder with Blowin’ in the Wind, and while I would never put John Mellencamp in any interesting category, he does do a great job of Like a Rolling Stone. They gave Neil Young, my actual favorite male singer, All Along the Watchtower, evidently the only person they could get to sing the song Jimi Hendrix made his. I also love Willy Nelson’s What Was It You Wanted.

  10. This is a song of anguish and hope. Dylan’s voice, though not beautiful, is a very fine vehicle for conveying those emotions. Many of his greatest songs are filled with rage, despair, frustration and need, to which the rawness of his voice is well suited. Idiot Wind is a god example.

    Joan Baez’s voice is almost too beautiful, at least for songs like Dylan’s. The beauty of the voice, of which Baez is very conscious, clashes with the lyrics and overwhelms the song. To my mind, Diamonds and Rust is so moving precisely because Baez for once wasn’t intent on displaying a “voice beautiful”. Instead, she modulated her voice so that it actually conveyed the emotions embedded in the lyrics.

    1. I do particularly agree on why I also like hearing Bob Dylan. Odd how it is that a not-good singing voice can still be an excellent voice for certain songs sung in a certain way.

    2. Yes, that’s exactly the way I feel about both of their voices, and you’ve zeroed in on one of the reasons Diamonds and Rust was in a different league from most of her songs.

  11. To me, her voice is incomparable. I am sure she has lost some range over the years, but I heard her a few years ago and she still sounded great. And what a wonderful soul she has as well.

    As for Dylan, it’s a matter of taste. I liked his voice in the early years, but his has not aged as well as Joanie’s.

  12. Au contraire Dylan is an underrated guitarist, in the class of signer/songwriters. (Not stunt guitarist, but in support of the music.)

    1. I disagree. I just looked up Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 best guitarists, including blues, pop, and rock, and Dylan didn’t even make the list. And there were plenty of players who played to “support the music” and were not “stunt guitarists”, like Joni Mitchell.

      1. I guess I’ll swim against the tide here and go with KD33. I’m not sure how one would rate guitarists as “best” but Dylan’s playing is crisp, clean and creative, and very difficult to emulate because of the picking and strumming patterns as well as the odd-ball tunings that he would come up with.

      2. I’ve always defined “stunt guitarist” within the taste and style of Frank Zappa. And within that frame, my favorite stunt man is Steve Vai.

  13. Dylan’s voice is definitely an acquired taste. I didn’t like it much when he was younger, especially during the “Nashville Skyline” era, which I call his Kermit the Frog years, but as he became an old road dog I thought his voice suited him more and more. He uses it to great effect on his latest album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways”. I thought he was nuts for recording all those albums of Sinatra covers a few years ago, but the results show on the new album in his use of phrasing and punctuation. You can see he learned something from those Sinatra covers!

    I can certainly see why people love Joan Baez’s voice, though it’s too “pretty” for my taste. Apples and oranges, I suppose.

  14. I think Dylan is an excellent singer as well, very often the best interpreter of his songs. His voice is not beautiful, but expressive, powerful, subtle (listen to the beginning of “masters of war”: no one could be more chilling and scary). The way he varies the basic melody is always creative and very musical. I often find Dylan’s covers a bit “unnecessary”. In my opinion, one of the few singers who sings Dylan very well is Nora Jones. Here is her verion of “I Shall Be Released”:

    1. I recall the first time I came across that video a few years ago. The experience was kinda like looking down from a Midtown apartment and espying your girlfriend helping her Uncle Bob cross Broadway.

      “Watch your step, Uncle Bob. There’s a sharp note over here, a flat note over there, and, remember, there’ll be a key change before we get to the curb on the other side.”

      Makes you feel really good about your girlfriend, and about Uncle Bob, too (albeit just a teeny bit jealous over all the attention she’s giving him). 🙂

  15. Dylan may not be a great instrumentalist but he’s an outstanding musician and though his voice isn’t to everyone’s taste, no one pace Baez et al gives his songs the heft they need, his voice suffused with irony, sarcasm, sadness and love. Only McCartney approaches Dylan’s range in this respect.

  16. I prefer the early Dylan voice (pre Nashville Skyline). He was never a technically great singer, but his voice is fine on his earlier material. I don’t like the way he currently presents his own material, especially the way he sings.

  17. I would add to your list of great female voices, Cynthia Gooding. Also a one-time paramour of Dylan although she was old enough to be his mother.

  18. I think the very best version is the very first recording of the song, cut with The Band during the “Basement Tapes” sessions in 1967. Every later version is inferior in my opinion:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHL5Y-ZCTY8

    Elvis took a very short impromptu stab at the song in 1971. If he’d recorded the whole thing with his band he might have produced one of the best versions of the song:

    1. Elvis’s favorite songs to sing were actually gospel music and spirituals — and “I Shall Be Released” qualifies, I’d argue.

  19. A favorite song that I can never tire of – any cover version is welcome. But no one can ever match Richard Manuel. Listen to the 2018 Big Pink remix a cappella version.

    Another favorite Dylan song that has many covers – You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere. A joy to sing aloud!

    1. You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere is a great jam song – lots of verses, harmonies on chorus, plenty of time for lead breaks for whoever wants a go.

  20. It seems this is a broad statement, that Bob Dylan does not have a good voice, and not merely an opinion. Bob Dylan’s unique genius is the theatrical interpretation that he conveys through his music, lyrics and singing style and he speaks through his words. Over the years he has been able to alter his voice. What about “Lay Lady Lay”? You call that inferior singing? The below video discusses his work on “Self Portrait” from 1970 including his voice and singing style. 61 years after he arrived in Greenwich Village he is the most prolific artist in the world. “Bad voice” and all. I think you’ve missed the point of Bob Dylan’s true essence.

    Not to diminish Joan Baez’s talent, but in my opinion, her best song was “Diamonds and Rust” because it was written about her love affair with Bob. She imparts deep loss, sadness and even resentment and it is palpable. To that point, Bob Dylan has always injected intense emotion, grit and passion into his songs via his voice and in conjunction with his lyrics. Is he Frank Sinatra? No, but that’s not comparing apples to apples. If you don’t like his voice, fine but state it as a matter of opinion and give him credit where credit is due. The body of work that he has put out, truly exemplifies his various talents.

    https://www.facebook.com/bobdylan/videos/2088407777980146/

    1. We’ll agree to disagree, and, clearly, there are millions who would also disagree. De gustibus non est disputandem. Baez’s voice is certainly prettier than Bob’s but his I find to be significantly more emotionally evocative. It is certainly an acquired taste. I prefer to listen to his recordings but I do find interest in the cover versions that provide a different interpretation.

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