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Hear Bob Dylan Cover Johnny Cash’s ‘Big River’ For First Time in 21 Years

Bob Dylan‘s 2024 tour kicked off less than a week ago, and he’s already pulling out some big surprises. They began March 1 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when he covered the 1956 Jimmy Rogers song “Walking by Myself” for the first time in his career. And they continued last night when he played Johnny Cash‘s “Big River” for the first time since a guest appearance with The Dead in 2003.

Dylan’s love of Johnny Cash goes back to his childhood in the Fifties. The appreciation was reciprocated once Cash heard Dylan’s second record in 1963. “I had a portable record player that I’d take along on the road,” Cash wrote in his autobiography. “And I’d put on [The] Freewheelin’ [Bob Dylan] backstage, then go out and do my show, then listen again as soon as I came off. After a while at that, I wrote Bob a letter telling him how much of a fan I was. He wrote back almost immediately, saying he’d been following my music since ‘I Walk the Line,’ and so we began a correspondence.”

Cash covered Dylan’s songs “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind” on his 1965 LP Orange Blossom Special. Two years later, Dylan recorded Cash’s tunes “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Belshazzar,” and “Big River” during the Basement Tapes sessions. He revisited “Big River” alongside Cash himself in February 1969 when they spent two days together at a Nashville, Tennessee studio cutting songs for Nashville Skyline. Their rendition of “Girl From The North Country” was the only one to make the album, but the rest of the session leaked out to bootleggers. In 2019, the Dylan/Cash sessions were finally officially released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 15: Travelin’ Thru, 1967–1969.

Dylan didn’t sing “Big River” again until an August 7, 1988 show in Santa Barbara, California. It popped up again in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1999, Santa Cruz, California, in 2000, and in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2003, when he sat in with The Dead on a co-headlining tour. Cash was in extremely poor health at the time and died just seven weeks later.

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“If we want to know what it means to be mortal, we need look no further than the Man in Black,” Dylan said in a statement to Rolling Stone after Cash died. “Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul. This is a miraculous and humbling thing. Listen to him, and he always brings you to your senses. He rises high above all, and he’ll never die or be forgotten, even by persons not born yet — especially those persons — and that is forever.”

Dylan is going to spend the next six months playing gigs all across America. In June, he’ll team up with Willie Nelson for the traveling Outlaw Musical Festival. That should provide Dylan with plenty of opportunities to honor Jimmy Rogers, Johnny Cash, and other legendary songwriters that inspired him as a young songwriter.

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