Even since before his landmark Freewheelin' Bob Dylan disc dropped, Bob was lighting up the Greenwich Village folk music scene and raising eyebrows across that neighborhood with his revivalist ways. His delivery of Woody Guthrie songs, and the tunes he managed to pen in Guthrie's style, were some of the most musically informative of the time.
Paying Tribute to a Master
Considering this fact, it's barely even hyperbolic to claim that Bob Dylan's catalog provides snapshots of all elements of the human experience - fear, heartbreak, love, redemption, disgust, condemnation, pretension, celebration, and even prayer. It's an example of the various ways we seek to connect with one another, whether across a table or across the world. Taken as a whole, Bob Dylan's work does what art is there for: it speaks on our behalf. Much like Amnesty International (who organized this tribute to mark their 50th year), it gives voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless. While there's plenty of room for hitting and missing within its individual songs, the body of work as an entity is rather profound.
How the Music Measures Up
Included are performances by great singers like Bettye LaVette, Angelique Kidjo, Joan Baez, Adele, My Morning Jacket, and more. Pete Seeger (at 92 years old) appears with the Rivertown Kids for a an especially moving version of "Forever Young" (purchase/download).
While there's almost no disappointing track in the entire collection, these four discs are not only exhaustive and comprehensive, but they speak to the extent to which Dylan's influence has been felt.
Some of the performances stick very closely to the original thrust of the song. Surprisingly, Miley Cyrus (who has been raising a lot of eyebrows with her rendition of "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" | purchase/download) keeps the song basic and simple, accentuating its country vibe. Meanwhile, the Carolina Chocolate Drops adapt Dylan's provocative "Political World" (purchase/download) to their signature old timey stringband style. Listening to their rendition, you can almost imagine Dylan coming up with that arrangement himself, so the influence here is richly, deeply implied, while still quite different from the original.
It's moments like this one which play out like student playing for teacher. Similarly, the Gaslight Anthem's rocking delivery of "Changing of the Guards" (purchase/download) feels like a more accessible version of the original, albeit slightly more distorted and gritty.
The Bottom Line
The song is a tribute to the power of art, with all its powerful implications - a thing which is innately apolitical even while transcending politics. Indeed, it's this universality which moves most musicians to their music in the first place, and certainly the thing which keeps them there as they struggle against an unforgiving industry (a struggle which Dylan has met and overcome countless times in his career, and one similar to the struggle met by political prisoners around the world).
So, perhaps the best summation of this work is the second verse of "Chimes of Freedom" where Dylan himself sings:
In the city's melted furnace, unexpectedly we watched
With faces hidden as the walls were tightening
As the echo of the wedding bells before the blowin' rain
Dissolved into the bells of the lightning
Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an' forsaked
Tolling for the outcast, burnin' constantly at stake
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.