“Songwriting? What do I know about songwriting?”
Beverly Hills, California 1991
“I’ve made shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot.”
From “I and I” by Bob Dylan
“Songwriting? What do I know about songwriting?” Bob Dylan asked, and then broke into laughter. He was wearing blue jeans, a white tank-top T-shirt, and drinking coffee out of a glass. “It tastes better out of a glass,” he said, grinning. His blonde acoustic guitar was leaning on a couch near wear we sat. Bob Dylan’s guitar. His influence is so vast that everything around him takes on enlarged significance: Bob Dylan’s moccassins. Bob Dylan’s coat.
Pete Seeger said, “All songwriters are links in a chain,” yet there are few artists in this evolutionary arc whose influence is as profound as that of Bob Dylan. It’s hard to imagine the art of songwriting as we know it without him. Though he insists in this interview that “somebody else would have done it,” he was the instigator, the one who knew that songs could do more, that they could take on more. He knew that songs could contain a lyrical richness and meaning far beyond the scope of previous pop songs, that they could possess as much beauty and power as the greatest poetry, and that by being written in rhythm and rhyme and merged with music, they could speak to our souls.
When you write songs, do you try to consciously guide the meaning or do you try to follow subconscious directions?
Well, you know, motivation is something you never know behind any song, really. Anybody’s song, you never know what the motivation was. It’s nice to be able to put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind. And block yourself off to where you can control it all, take it down…You have to be able to get the thoughts out of your mind.
Is songwriting for you more a sense of taking something from someplace else?
Well, someplace else is always a heartbeat away. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. There’s no rule. That’s what makes it so attractive. There isn’t any rule. You can still have your wits about you and do something that gets you off in a multitude of ways. As you know very well, or else you yourself wouldn’t be doing it.
Is rhyming fun for you?
Well, it can be, but, you know, it’s a game. You know, you sit around… you know, it’s more like, it’s mentally…mentally…it gives you a thrill. It gives you a thrill to rhyme something, you might think, well, that’s never been rhymed before. But then again, people have taken rhyming now, it doesn’t have to be exact anymore. Nobody’s going to care if you rhyme “represent” with “ferment,” you know. Nobody’s gonna care.
I interviewed Pete Seeger recently.
He’s a great man, Pete Seeger.
I agree. He said, “All songwriters are links in a chain.” Without your link in that chain, all of songwriting would have evolved much differently. You said how you brought folk music to rock music. Do you think that would have happened without you?
Somebody else would have done it in some other kind of way. But, hey, so what? So what? You can lead people astray awfully easy. Would people have been better off? Sure. They would have found somebody else. Maybe different people would have found different people, and would have been influenced by different people.
You brought the song to a new place. Is there still a new place to bring songs? Will they continue to evolve?
[Pause] The evolution of a song is like a snake with a tail in its mouth. That’s evolution. That’s what it is. As soon as you’re there, you find your tail.
* * * *
Senior Editor Paul Zollo’s book Songwriters on Songwriting (Da Capo) is currently in its fourth edition. Overflowing with candid interviews, Zollo’s keen questions with 62 songwriters provides an exciting and necessary read for anyone interested in the craft. From Bob Dylan to Frank Zappa, Merle Haggard to R.E.M., these interviews are nothing short of a treasure.
AmericanSongwriter.com readers can rediscover some of these classic Q&A’s. Check out the Paul Zollo Blog each Friday to read excerpt from Songwriters on Songwriting.