Love him or hate him, there’s a lot about Dylan’s career arc that is important and inspirational for songwriters, from his transforming song form to the fact that he’s kept writing almost non-stop for six decades.
Bob Dylan is probably the most influential songwriter in the pop/rock idiom – so much so that he is the current Nobel Laureate in Literature, the first songwriter to be awarded the honor. Whether or not a songwriter deserves the prize versus a novelist is certainly debatable. But if we operate from the premise that a songwriter winning this award is acceptable – Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were actually sung before they were written down, after all – then certainly there is no worthier first recipient of the honor than Dylan.
Granted, his singing voice is an acquired taste for many, but if you are a songwriter, I argue that whether or not you like Dylan is pretty irrelevant; chances are whoever you emulated in your first songwriting attempts owes a debt to Dylan for forging the original trail.
Still doubtful? Here’s some insights into why Bob Dylan’s writing was and is important, especially for those studying and devoted to the craft of songwriting.
Dylan transformed song form
Pop music before Bob Dylan was pretty fluffy stuff, thematically, and was considered lightweight culture by most people. Before Elvis and the Beatles hit the charts, and even during their early popularity, popular music was mostly dominated by novelty hits like “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?,” “Purple People Eater,” and “Dominique” by the Singing Nun, and the early rock and roll songs that charted were concerned with teen themes of romance.
Dylan referenced this in his song “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” where his post-apocalyptic narrator comes across a record player playing a song: “It was Rockaday Johnny singing ‘tell your pa, tell your ma, our love’s a-gonna grow, ooh wah ooh wah.’” In addition, due to the physical constraints of the 10” 78 rpm record, a limit of three minutes had been set as the length for pop songs – DJs refused to play songs on the radio that were longer. In fact, legendary producer Phil Spector falsely wrote the time of the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” on the single as 3:05 (the actual time was 3:45) so that it would be played on the radio.
“Like A Rolling Stone,” which ran 6:13, hit #2 on the Billboard pop charts in 1965, and that’s when everything changed in terms of acceptable song length and acceptable themes. Columbia Records initially refused to release it as a single, and only did so when DJs and radio programmers insisted, after a renegade Columbia employee snuck an acetate of it into an NYC nightclub where the song was played repeatedly all night long, causing quite a stir. There is nothing light about “Like A Rolling Stone.” While its aggression doesn’t sound nearly as jarring to modern ears, it was a slap in the face to what had come before it – from the first snare drum crack to the last harmonica riff.
The song tells the story of a bourgeois woman’s fall from social status and fortune; initially accusatory, it evolves through its six minutes into a compassionate, positive celebration of what the woman has as opposed to what she’s lost. Themes of freedom, loss, self-reliance, poverty vs. riches, and truth vs. deception circle around each other through the verses and build to the unforgettable chorus hook: “How does it feel?”
The public loved it and embraced its full length. Bob Dylan had broken a decades’ old format and showed the world that pop songs didn’t have to be formulaic; a mass audience could and would accept a more complex narrative, albeit still cloaked in familiar structural song hooks like rhyme scheme and solid verse/chorus structure.
But Dylan had already been stretching the form on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, his first album of all original material. Being put in the folk category meant Dylan didn’t have to play by the same rules as pop hit makers like the Beatles; his albums offered him the opportunity to explore in ways others could not. He experimented with form, sometimes writing six or seven verses to a song, often reprocessing and modernizing traditional folk structure.
The talkin’ blues format in Dylan’s hands became a vehicle to explore current 1960s racism and prejudice, as well as fears of the apocalypse. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan clocks in at nearly seven minutes, as do many of the tracks on his subsequent records. “Desolation Row” on Highway 61 Revisited is nearly 12 minutes long, and while not as famous as its more popular cousin, it’s even more important artistically. A postmodern pastiche of literary and historical figures in ’60s hipster situations, it chronicles a kind of beatnik hero’s journey to skid row.
Dylan’s success as a folk artist allowed him the creative freedom to draw from sources hitherto unexplored for someone raised on Woody Guthrie and early rock and roll: the Beats, French symbolist poets, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Salvador Dali, the various books he read at friends’ houses, and newspaper articles on the Civil War he would find at the NYC public library. Through these explorations, he brought a sense of adventure and literacy to popular song that had not been there in the century of recorded music before and showed pop songwriters that the industry-imposed standard of three minutes was entirely arbitrary. While it’s true that Dylan’s fame and success allowed him the freedom to innovate and experiment, it’s telling how few artists at the top of the food chain actually do this.
After “Like A Rolling Stone,” songs got longer and rock’s explorations got deeper and wider. FM radio developed as a free-form platform for devoted rock-loving DJs to indulge themselves by playing full album sides and deep tracks not released as singles. Jimi Hendrix redefined the electric guitar and what records sounded like; The Beatles, The Who, and The Kinks wrote “concept albums” devoted to an entire storyline or idea. The nature of the great ’60s and ’70s rock music was exploration, but the catalyst and much of the rocket fuel for these explorations came from Dylan exploding the idea of what was possible with songs such as “Like A Rolling Stone.” Self-indulgence became acceptable as opposed to a repetition of the 78 rpm pop standards and themes that came before.
Dylan’s work made it acceptable and even fashionable to follow your artistic whims. Not only did he alter song form itself, but he pointed the way for others to alter song form in their own ways – on their own with no direction home, if you will – assuring his own place in music history.
The journalist Mikal Gilmore, who has interviewed Dylan more than any other journalist in the last 20 years, defended the artist’s Nobel Prize in The New York Times by saying that what separated Bob from his peers was “the way he wielded language.” “Like A Rolling Stone” contains an assemblage of phrases not seen before in pop music. The pampered college girl Miss Lonely who is now forced to make her own way in the world encounters a “mystery tramp” with eyes like a vacuum, jugglers, clowns, a thief disguised as a diplomat with a Siamese cat on his shoulder, and “Napoleon in rags.” Her bright light at the end of the tunnel contains an almost-mantra like saying (“When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose”), and with this newfound invisibility comes a new transparency (“you’ve got no secrets to conceal”).
“Like A Rolling Stone” is representative of the rambling, surreal narrative that Dylan became known for through his so-called “great period” on the albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. This kind of storytelling had no precedent in popular music. Its roots are in the long folk song ballads of the late 19th century mostly derived from English and Irish traditional music, but Dylan fused this with a Beat poetic sensibility (and electric instruments) to create something entirely new.
Let’s go back in time for a moment. Poetry actually predates literacy, according to scholars. The first poems were recited or sung and passed down orally through generations. When writing appeared, poetry became known as lyrics (derived from the Greek word for lyre, the stringed instrument that was meant to accompany the performances of poetry). Music and poetry have been inextricably linked, then, for many thousands of years.
Fast forward to the Middle Ages, where the primary poetic form among the illiterate was the ballad. The ballad had a structure, a meter, and a rhythm designed to make it memorable, and often told a complex story with many verses. Fast forward again to the early 20th century, when African-American musicians began expressing themselves with the blues stanza: “I was up this morning / blues walking like a man/ I was up this morning / blues walking like a man / worried blues, give me your right hand.” The poet Langston Hughes incorporated that form along with the rhythms of jazz into his poetry. So the connection between music and poetry is as old as humans themselves.
Through his songs, Bob Dylan brought poetry into the spotlight in a way that it had never been before. Others had been writing poetic lyrics; Dylan himself called Smokey Robinson “the greatest living American poet.” The complex Motown rhythms and arrangements often overshadowed Robinson’s elegantly-constructed lyrics, plus the subject matter (and no doubt the color of the artist’s skin) buried the high poetry being expressed deep in their tracks.
The Beats had been the first dose of poetry in modern Western popular culture, but they were never blasting out of every radio within earshot. Dylan himself has evolved through several different species of poet: a Woody Guthrie-style social justice balladeer, a stream-of-consciousness surrealist, an Old Testament-inspired chronicler of spiritual experience, a succinct Hank Williams Sr. country crooner, a shaggy dog story yarn spinner, and a Chicago bluesman.
Often these styles mix and match at different times. By the time of the album Another Side of Bob Dylan, he had moved into unambiguously poetic territory. “Crimson flames tied through my ears throwing high and mighty traps,” he declaims in “My Back Pages.” “Far between sundown’s finish and midnight’s broken toll / we ducked inside the doorway with thunder crashing / as majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds / seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing,” he sings on “Chimes of Freedom” from that same album. His lyrics (of the mid ’60s especially) display a facility with language and a poetic awareness of the power of words which, to the modern ear, sound as poetic as any of the great poets who came before.
The hero’s journey
Joseph Campbell speaks in his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces about a mythical progression known as The Hero’s Journey. There is a typical narrative throughout mythology of the archetype known as The Hero, the person who goes out into the world and performs great deeds on behalf of the group, tribe, or civilization. Ultimately the lesson that The Hero learns on the journey is that the aim of the journey is only to find the wisdom and the power to serve others.
Dylan said that one of the things he learned from Woody Guthrie was that songs should pick you up, not knock you down. He took Woody’s message to the listeners of WNEW very seriously. Woody said:
“I hate a song that makes you think that you’re not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are either too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that… songs that run you down or songs that poke fun of you on account of your bad luck or your hard traveling. I am out to fight those kinds of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood.”
Dylan spends most of his time in interviews insisting that he has no central message, he just writes songs as they come out with no hidden agenda, and he’s not trying to be a leader to anybody. I believe the artist when he says this; I think he works very hard at crafting his songs and performing them and it’s the work (and only the work) that he cares about, especially at this point in his career. He wants people to judge him and notice him for the work and not for any other part of it.
However, there are a great deal of positive messages in his work, the central one being “you are your own hero.” He is very encouraging in his desire for his audience to find their own path.
“Don’t follow leaders,” he says in “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” “Forever Young,” a song written for his son Jakob as an infant, can be extrapolated to apply as a benevolent blessing to anyone. Another example of this would be “Trust Yourself” which is basically a pep talk from the underrated Empire Burlesque. There are also a lot of positive messages in what Dylan rails against: “Masters of War,” the racist amoral murderer of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” the gossipy jealous small-minded crowd of “Positively 4th Street,” and the racism inherent in the system in “Hurricane.” And, if you need a further example, his spoken word piece, “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie,” is basically a blueprint of understanding of the dark night of the soul. There is tremendous hope and strength to be found in Dylan’s songs; when you are feeling kicked down by life, Dylan’s voice and tunes seem like an ardent defender against the cobwebs and gloom of the mind.
Outside of the music, it’s easy to find inspiration in Dylan’s life as an artist: he has followed his muse and his artistic inclinations rather than commercial trends for his entire career. His shifts in style reflect his personal interests and inclinations rather than a desire to please an external source. He has never been afraid to challenge himself or step out of his comfort zone. And if he has encountered fear, he’s retreated back into the folk songs that inspired him to play music in the first place, like in the early ’90s with Good as I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, or even now with his many volumes of old standards.
Now in his sixth decade of playing and performing, as many of his peers have succumbed to substance abuse and ill health, 76-year-old Bob Dylan is still out there playing. So love him or hate him, there is a lot about Dylan’s career arc that is important and inspirational for songwriters, mainly the fact that he has kept writing almost non-stop for so many years. His biographies can provide some insight into the personal details around the songs that can prove instructive as to where he sourced his song material. I recommend the ones by Howard Sounes, Robert Shelton, Clinton Heylin, Anthony Scaduto, and Bob Spitz, as well as Dylan’s own autobiographical Chronicles: Volume 1.
Image sourced from Shutterstock (editorial use only).
Chris Huff has been a professional singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for over 20 years. He has worked as a sideman with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Echo and the Bunnymen, Chuck Hammer (David Bowie, Lou Reed), and Tom Kitt (Broadway composer of Next To Normal). Chris also wrote liner notes for David Bowie’s Live And Well CD, and has two full-length albums of original music available on iTunes.