Bob Dylan is not a black artist; not thought of as an R&B/soul/blues artist; and not even especially thought of as a songwriter often covered by African Americans. Yet his compositions have garnered their share of interpretations by black musicians, and 20 such covers from 1964-1990 were assembled for this unusual compilation. The Ace label excels at putting together imaginative, cross-licensed anthologies bridging different eras and styles, as well as combining material by stars and unknowns, and How Many Roads: Black America Sings Bob Dylan is no exception. None of these tracks were hits, but the majority of the performers were either very popular (Nina Simone, Solomon Burke, Gary "U.S." Bonds, Booker T. Jones, Esther Phillips, Brook Benton, the Isley Brothers, the Neville Brothers, the O'Jays, the Staple Singers, Patti LaBelle) or had a solid level of niche popularity (the Persuasions, Howard Tate, Freddie Scott, Bobby Womack). Most of the songs date from the '60s, but a couple post-'60s compositions do dot the program.
But while there's no faulting this CD on packaging grounds (including Ace's usual excellent liner notes), the music isn't quite as exciting as it is historically interesting. For the most part, these don't rate among either the best or more inventive Dylan covers. They're often simply competent tracks done in a more soul-oriented style than these items usually are. Highlights are naturally the cuts where performers strongly imprint their own personalities or come up with a particularly effective arrangement, like Nina Simone's impassioned "Just Like a Woman"; the Isley Brothers' surprisingly restrained and heartfelt "Lay Lady Lay"; the Persuasions' a cappella "The Man in Me"; and the Staple Singers' "Masters of War," which with a 1964 recording date goes back to their folk days. It might be a little harsh to suggest that some of the lesser efforts verge on forced novelty, but certainly Solomon Burke's strange 1965 version of "Maggie's Farm" does not play to that great soul singer's strengths. Other items are not so much worthy of praise or criticism as they are fairly perfunctory or unremarkable. It's also undeniable that this is missing some of the best and most famous African American Dylan covers, like Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower," Richie Havens' "Just Like a Woman," Stevie Wonder's "Blowin' in the Wind," or (to dig a little deeper) anything from Odetta's fine Odetta Sings Dylan album. There might be room for such selections on subsequent volumes, however, and overall this does a commendable job of putting an eclectic mix of lesser-celebrated Dylan covers in one place.