In 2010, during a time of personal turmoil, Miley Cyrus started listening to Bob Dylan constantly. "The songs all spoke to me in different ways," she says. "But there was something about 'You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go' that was just so sad and really spoke to me at that time. My world was upside down, and Bob Dylan brought me peace."
Cyrus' stripped, acoustic version of the 1975 classic is one of many surprising moments on Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International, a four-disc charity set featuring more than 80 artists including Adele, Ke$ha, Elvis Costello, Sting and Pete Townshend. The human rights organization has a long history with rock: Since Townshend played the Secret Policemen's Ball benefit in 1979, acts including U2, Sting, Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen have all played for Amnesty. Jeff Ayeroff, former chairman of Virgin and Warner Bros. Records, co-produced the set after working on 2007's John Lennon tribute Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur. "But Dylan," says Ayeroff, "was the holy grail for me."
In a rare move, Dylan's camp immediately agreed to donate publishing rights for more than 400 songs to the project. Starting last year, Ayeroff recruited friends including Lenny Kravitz, Jackson Browne and Joan Baez, with most artists financing their own sessions.
Ke$ha departs from dance pop with a moving, mostly a cappella "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right, "and Kravitz nails a rowdy "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," which he recorded in the Bahamas with a local brass band that had never even heard of Dylan. "That was beautiful in a sense," Kravitz says. "Their instruments were missing keys and taped up, and they had very limited musical education, but they had amazing feel and spirit." Joe Perry turns the Infidels rarity "Man of Peace" into a slide-guitar blues stomp, cut in his Massachusetts basement. "It's always been one of my favorites," says the guitarist.
"Dylan's genius is the way he twists the words. You go, 'God, all those words are in my vocabulary — how come I didn't think of that?'"
Townshend delivers a subtle, vulnerable performance of "Corrina, Corrina." "I want it to be a symbol of a person alone in a cell somewhere, a victim of an oppressive regime," he says. "They could be in Guantanamo, so not just foreign regimes, but also our own regimes."
The most surreal moment might be the Avett Brothers' posthumous collaboration with Johnny Cash on "One Too Many Mornings." Working with producer Rick Rubin, the band recorded new guitar, banjo and vocal tracks over Dylan and Cash's 1969 Nashville duet. "We love the song, and all we could do is try to help it," says singer Scott Avett. "I suppose it could be offensive to some people. But I don't think us and Rick see it that way. Folk is so similar to hip-hop — you can twist it and tamper with it."
Perhaps no one has more experience covering Dylan than Baez, who contributed a haunting take on "Seven Curses," an adaptation of an 18th-century English ballad that Dylan hasn't performed since 1963. "It was a natural because most people don't know it, and it wasn't something other artists would be fighting over," she says, adding that the album's eclectic roster of cover artists "is a measure of his gift." So did Baez have any contact with her old friend on the project? "No," she says with a laugh. "Don't be silly."
This is a story from the February 2, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.