Hendrix put his own sonic stamp on Dylan's sparse, low-key folk song, turning it into a melodic tornado of screeching, psychedelic guitars that became an anthem of the Vietnam War. Hendrix owns this song so much that a lot of people think it's his, and it's been played so much that Dylan's mellow, plucky original version just sounds plain wrong.
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"Summertime" is one of those songs that's been damn near covered to death, and has mutated in countless ways since it first appeared as an aria in the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. Many impressive versions of "Summertime" have been released over the years, including those by Billie Holiday and Sam Cooke. More recently, Sublime did a high-energy version called "Doin' Time (Uptown Dub)" on their Second-hand Smoke album. What makes Janis Joplin's 1968 version with Big Brother and the Holding Company special are two things: the beautifully reworked guitar parts (courtesy of dueling virtuosos Sam Andrew and James Gurley), and Joplin's winsome, scratchy vocals.
Jim Croce: "The Ball of Kerrymuir" (traditional, written down by Robert Burns)
This song was released on Croce's posthumous, Live: The Final Tour album. What makes Croce's rendition of this traditional Scottish song so entertaining is his live banter -- explaining the origins of the song, adding quips between verses, and preparing listeners for what he says is a mental image that "stays with you the rest of your life." It comes in the final verse: "The village magician, he was there; he gave us all a laugh/He pulled his foreskin over his head and vanished up his ass."
Ram Jam: "Black Betty" (Huddie Ledbetter)
This song is often credited to Ledbetter, better known as "Lead Belly," but the earliest known recorded version is by blues musician Iron Head. Whatever the origins, Ram Jam took this blues-folk tune and turned it on its head, adding some amazing drum work and solos. In fact, it's the relentless stomping rhythm of Ram Jam's version that made it a commercial success (it cracked the top 20 in 1977), and still makes it one of the best covers ever recorded.