It’s becoming clearer and clearer these days that my love affair with Bob Dylan’s music is coming to a close. It’s been a long affair, spanning back at least four years, maybe more. It’s ending in a similar manner to that of a brown dwarf, getting smaller and smaller until just about all energy is gone. It’s sad in a way, since his music has been such a huge part of my life for these past few years, but I’m glad because an over-obsession with one artist leads their style to permeate into and dominate every song I write. But as this affair comes to a close, I do want to offer some final thoughts about Dylan, and what I think I’ve ultimately learned from him.
Bob Dylan has been written about to death, in so many different ways that every time anyone starts to write something new about him, they have to start with this same disclaimer. Very little I write about him will be new, but there are a lot of ways that I could write something about him that’s very common. With that in mind, it makes little sense to go too in depth into either his life’s story or his music career, but as they are part of who he is, they deserve some mention.
Bob Dylan was born in Duluth, Minnesota on May 24, 1941. He lived in Hibbing, Minnesota for most of his formative years. He went to one year of college at the University of Minnesota and hated it. After his first year there he dropped out and drove to New York to meet Woody Guthrie, whose songs ruled Dylan’s universe, and also to try and make a name for himself as a musician. Within about a year and a half Dylan was signed to Columbia records and was recording his first album, Bob Dylan. At the same time as he was recording the album, he was playing tons of live shows, and his population and reputation grew rapidly. Dylan’s first album didn’t sell very well, topping out at 5,000 copies in its first year. Despite this, Columbia producer John Hammond – who first gave Dylan the recording contract – had faith in Dylan and kept him on for another album. This turned out to be a great move, as the next album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, featuring the songs “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” “Girl From The North Country,” “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” among many others, shot to #1 in the UK and #20 in the US.
It is fair at this point to say the rest is history. Dylan ended up going through more songwriting and stylistic phases than any other artist before or since, and pretty well established himself as the greatest songwriter of the modern era. Artists of all genres have covered Dylan, including hard rock bands like Rage Against the Machine (“Maggie’s Farm”), electronically influenced artists like Bryan Ferry (who recorded an entire album of Dylan covers, called Dylanesque), teen pop idols like Miley Cyrus (“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”), as well as artists of Dylan’s same vein, like Johnny Cash (“It Ain’t Me, Babe”, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”), Joan Baez (too many to count), Roger McGuinn (ditto), and countless others. Dylan is, quite simply, a legend.
But why Bob Dylan? Why is it Bob Dylan who has been canonized this way? There were plenty of other singer/songwriters who had more attractive voices, more attractive faces, better technical musicianship skills, more interesting chord progressions, and so on – but none of them have had anywhere near the degree of influence on music that Dylan has had. What is it about Dylan that makes him so damn popular? People have been trying to answer this question since Dylan got started – after all, a nasally-voiced, fast-paced, hard-strumming 20-year-old was doing things no one had ever done before.
I narrow it down to two things: an unparalleled insight and an impenetrable series of personas.
Dylan’s insight runs far deeper than just as it relates to songwriting. Dylan’s first stroke of genius was deciding how to sound. If you’ve listened to really, really early recordings of Dylan – and I mean bootlegs from 1959 – you know that Dylan could have chosen to sing just about any way he wanted. There is one home tape he made with a friend on which he sings two songs of note, “I Got a New Girl” and “The Frog Song”. The way he sings these songs are completely different, and neither style of singing at all resembles the sound he ended up choosing. On “I Got a New Girl”, Dylan sounds like a regular crooner, a beautiful, strikingly tuneful voice, heavy with nuance, and uncharacteristically rich for an 18-year-old – it foreshadows his Nashville Skyline voice, to some degree. On “The Frog Song” though, Dylan quite literally croaks, ignoring the obviously high capabilities of his vocal chords and opting for a sound reminiscent of an 80-year-old black Delta blues singer. Even from this very early age, we get to see Dylan’s ability to modify his voice to his choosing, and his ability to be as tuneful as anyone.
But he chose, in the end, neither the croak voice nor the tuneful croon. He chose a nasally whine, the kind that was impossible not to listen to, impossible to ignore, that penetrated the air no matter where he played. In conventional terms, it is not a pretty voice, not one that one might listen to as they try to fall asleep. But the genius behind this voice is just that, that it is so seemingly unimpressive, so easy to imitate, so regular-sounding, that it neither intimidates the listener nor puts them off. He sound like he could be anyone, anybody you know. The reason why this voice worked – and works – so well for him is because he sang songs, the gravity of which was unprecedented. The simplicity of his delivery understated the complexity of his songs, creating an immensely profound effect.
It was uncommon at the time for a folk musician to be writing his/her own songs. Traditionally, folk musicians took songs that were written decades before and modified them in minor ways. The same songs were being sung over and over again, admittedly with differences, but very few people were writing original material. Dylan, however, was. He would take many of his chord progressions and vocal melodies from older folk songs, but he would expand upon them in ways that other people didn’t do. “Blowin’ In The Wind”, for example, takes its vocal melody from “No More Auction Block”, an old slave spiritual. But rather than taking the relatively straightforward message of “No More Auction Block” – self-explanatory from the title – Dylan writes a song with a depthless message. He poses nine questions throughout, answering each one in that famous chorus: “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind.” Like his voice, the chorus is very simple, doesn’t purport itself to be anything terribly meaningful, but the question that inspires such great dialogue and long trains of thought is, “What exactly does he mean?” “Blowin’ in the wind” could mean a huge number of things – is “the answer” being aggressively thrust through the air, untamable, unknowable; or is it fluttering above us, there for all to see, but somehow out of reach?
This is where his other great insight came into play: the complete command over songwriting, the ability to make people question both the meanings of his songs, and ultimately, themselves. In the early 60s, Dylan saw that the style that was en vogue was protest music. The youth of America had quite a bit to throw themselves into, the biggest topics being the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. Dylan saw this, and wrote songs accordingly. Songs like “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Only A Pawn in Their Game” and “Masters of War” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (to name a few) captured every injustice of both war and racism, but more than that, it commented on them. In “Only A Pawn in Their Game”, Dylan daringly takes the blame off the man who murdered Medgar Evers, placing it instead on the pervading and resilient racist feelings that were so prominent and so exacerbated in the 60s. The “pawn” to whom Dylan refers in the song title is the killer, and the “they” referred to are the racists everywhere who encourage bigotry and discriminatory action. Phil Ochs, another prominent songwriter of the 60s, also wrote a song about the death of Medgar Evers, called “The Ballad of Medgar Evers”. In the song, Ochs recounts what happened to Evers and laments its tragedy, but makes no comment on the real root of the problem. Ochs’s song, while driven by good intentions, falls miles short of Dylan’s. Bob Dylan possessed an insight about songwriting that others did not, and from his very first songs, it led him to the legendary status he ultimately attained.
This insight is somewhat related to the other reason I believe Dylan became a legend: his impenetrable persona. From his very earliest days, Dylan knew he needed a persona. Luckily for him, he had a natural tendency to imitate, and to imitate well. When he was growing up in Hibbing, he idolized the movie actor James Dean. Dylan started dressing like him, walking like him, combing his hair like him, talking like him, to the point where one would think Dylan really believed he was James Dean. Given this tendency to imitate, developing a musician’s persona was not terribly difficult for him. In his early New York days, his primary influence was Woody Guthrie. This is easy to tell just by listening to him sing, especially when he covers Guthrie’s songs (a great example is “Car, Car” sung with Dave Van Ronk in 1961). But more than just singing like Guthrie, Dylan dressed like him and spoke like him. He saw what worked for someone before, took those characteristics, and made them his own. But what catapulted Dylan’s stage act beyond mere imitation of a folk legend was his ability to write incredible songs. Everyone has a primary influence, present especially in their earliest days, but Dylan transcended the copycat act to which so many people submit to by writing brilliant original songs.
But this was not the only persona Dylan developed. Associated with this concept of persona is Dylan’s amazing ability to change it. The Woody Guthrie act couldn’t last forever, and as soon as 1964, it was changing. Dylan continued to perform alone with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, but his voice changed from traditionally folky to more and more of his own thing, his style of delivery changed from relatively ordered and consistent to very loose, and his songwriting changed from protest songs to surrealist, Rimbaud- and Ginsberg-esque poems that eventually would characterize his writing. But this persona couldn’t last forever either, and so it too changed. Over the course of his career, Dylan’s genres included traditional folk (Freewheelin’) , electric blues (Bringing It All Back Home), country-western (Nashville Skyline), ska jazz (New Morning), disco (Empire Burlesque), religious (Slow Train Coming), Vegas big-band style (Street-Legal), jam (Dylan & The Dead), New Orleans-ian (Oh Mercy), nursery rhyme (Under The Red Sky), and finally the rich mix of it all that he’s come to today (Love & Theft, Modern Times, Together Through Life). With each of these styles comes a different persona, and one that has everybody going until he changes to his next one. In effect, having such a wide repertoire of music styles and types of persona led Dylan to be perhaps the most enigmatic figure in music history.
In interviews, Dylan was harshly deceptive. Interviews and press conferences, people thought, would be the time that the man behind all these unbelievable songs would come forward and reveal all his & his songs’ secrets. After all, that’s what all the other musicians did. But Dylan’s genius was in the way he spoke, the way he revealed absolutely nothing. Dylan’s answers were nearly always straight to the point, rarely spanned more than a couple sentences, but nearly every one was untrue in one way or another. In his first interviews Dylan told reporters he was from New Mexico, California, Texas, Arizona, all places that he’d never been before, but they didn’t know that. So one has to wonder, when Dylan found it so easy to deceive reporters and journalists on something so simple as his hometown, he must have found it even easier to deceive them on more complex matters, like the motives behind his songs. Dylan’s answers were structurally simple, so reporters had little room to follow up, but the genius of it was that Dylan revealed nothing. All the investigation is left to listener, and, without the luxury of having access to Dylan’s mind, we listeners can never really be sure about any of his motives. This uncertainty Dylan inspired in listeners by use of his public and private personas is the reason why people are driven to think about Dylan, the reason why people are never truly done deciphering what exactly he meant. It drives people back to Dylan’s music, back to the internet to research him, back to writing about him to maybe narrow him down, back to scholarly criticism to try and understand him through someone else, and ultimately, drives Dylan to legendary status.
Thus, I think Dylan’s success and status can be attributed to two things: his depth of insight as it related to his style of music and his songwriting, and his genius in developing and changing personas. As I, and countless other young songwriters try and get started in the music industry, these are things we should all keep in mind. Admittedly it is never a good idea to 100% copy another person’s methods, but just like Dylan did, it’s possible to mimic while still holding onto some originality. This is where I often have difficulty drawing the line, it’s all too easy to look at a lyric I’ve written and say to myself, “Would Dylan have written that?” but the point of my songwriting is not to write Bob Dylan songs, the point is to write Arthur Elliot songs. Dylan is, and likely forever will be, considered a legend, and just like any legend, he is to be seen as an example and expanded upon.
One last thing – a great bit of advice I heard a few months ago was, “If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.”