Bob Dylan: “Songwriter and Legend”

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Is there a more enigmatic or poetic songwriter than Bob Dylan? He’s reinvented himself and his music so often that it’s hard to peel the layers away to reveal the truth. His songs speak to our hearts, move our souls and bring us to alternating tears and laughter within seconds. Many who admit to not always understanding his lyrics still credit him as the best and most influential songwriter in rock and folk music.

Is there a more enigmatic or poetic songwriter than Bob Dylan? He’s reinvented himself and his music so often that it’s hard to peel the layers away to reveal the truth. His songs speak to our hearts, move our souls and bring us to alternating tears and laughter within seconds. Many who admit to not always understanding his lyrics still credit him as the best and most influential songwriter in rock and folk music.

His concerts are applauded by Generation Xers, Baby Boomer rock fans and old folkies. His powerful Time Out of Mindreceived a Grammy for best album and yielded Garth Brooks’ hit single, the hauntingly tender “Make You Feel My Love,” to give Dyland his highest charting country songwriting credit.

His music runs the full gamut of emotions: wildly romantic, cynical, heartbroken, optimistic, angry, and amused. He craves justice for the downtrodden and understands the disillusion of those whose dreams blew away like smoke. He boldly spoke out against war and racial inequality in some of the best protest songs of our time. He writes with incredible passion and unforgettable imagery. The 58-year-old Dylan is a legend, a troubadour, a visionary, still a pioneer and a mystery. He is touchingly respectful of the heroes who seem to still influence—Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie (who knew and cared about the teenaged Dylan), Buddy Holly and Hank Williams, Sr. But Dylan’s music is definitely his own, with phrasing that is affectionately imitated by his disciples and lyrics that sometimes seem to be created mainly to play with listener’s mind.

Nobody except Dylan knows when he first began writing songs, though his first notoriety came when he played in Greenwich Village in 1961. He wrote “Song to Woody” about Guthrie just three weeks after arriving in New York. Three years later, he said of his desire to write music, “I wanted just a song to sing, and there came a point where I couldn’t sing anything. I had to write what I wanted to sing ‘cause what I wanted to sing, nobody else was writing.”

Nominated for the past three years for a Nobel Prize in Literature, Dylan has stated “I consider myself a poet first and a musician second. I live like a poet and I’ll die like a poet…It’s the sound and the words. Words don’t interfere with it. They punctuate it…If you take whatever there is to the song away-the beat, the melody-I could still recite it.”

In an excellent and rare interview in the February 1990 MOJOmagazine, Dylan speaks of the distinction between a poet and songwriter. “Songs have to have an element of poetry in them. But a poem doesn’t have to be defined, whereas a song must be defined. It must have a clear definition. I think a song is much more limiting than poem. A poem is something open-ended and unlimited in scope. A song can’t do that, just by the nature of a song. One important thing about 30 ears ago…it might have been more connected to poems because the advent of television was not so prominent, so people still did news kinds of things in a song…everything momentous that happened in history was defined in a song. That’s not so anymore. People seem to know things instantaneously, and a song doesn’t have the same relevance. Great poetry can still be written from a particular point of view and still has relevance on top of the news, but a song can’t do that anymore.”

In the same interview, he says of collaborative writing, “When you can find somebody to write songs with that’s compatible, there’s no question that you can do it quicker and probably more efficient than when you’re left to your own self.” He never listens to any of his own records (“I don’t want to be influenced by myself”) but always goes back to the old music of those admires (“I don’t but always goes back to the old music of those he admires (“I don’t think there’s anything better than that”).

He feels there’s “a great deal of veracity” in Woody Guthrie’s feeling that “songs that you write are already written and floating around in the universe and you pick them up with the right intent.” He also believes “everything in life just happens” but is “pretty positive everything has a divine purpose.” He respects traditional music but wants himself to move “onward forever.”

Dylan doesn’t appreciate being called an icon of the ‘60s or a spokesman for his generation because he feels “That’s just another word for washed-up-has-been.” That’s one thing he has proven over and over not to be, though he undoubtedly has been a leading voice not just for his generation but for those following. Even Pope John Paul II is such a Dylan fan that he has quoted his song lyrics in at least one sermon.

After his nearly fatal heart infection a couple of years ago, Dylan is performing with a new vibrancy and exuberance. Teenagers aren’t flocking to his concerts out of nostalgia but because his music is truly meaningful to them, just as it was when their parents listened for his messages 20 or 30 years ago. The stories Dylan tells, the visions he’s created, the moods he evokes-these are just as powerful today as they were the first time anyone ever heard his music. Everyone has days when they feel tangled up in blue. We all want to get to Heaven before they close the door. And the answer is still blowin’ in the wind.

Noted songwriter Bobby Braddock perhaps says it best: “Many songwriters write songs that reflect the times they live in, but Bob Dylan wrote songs that actually helped shape the times he lived in.”


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