Measure for Measure: The Alchemy of Bob Dylan

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter


This article appears in our September/October 2015 issue, available on newsstands September 8.

Folk, rock, blues, country, rockabilly, the Great American Songbook – Bob Dylan has put his personal stamp on just about every American musical form, which is why Americana, the most eclectic genre of all, might be the only tent big enough to hold his restless muse.

But Dylan has always been reluctant to discuss his muse, as one young fan learned when she naively asked if his songs came from experience: “You shouldn’t even think about where they come from,” he said. “You shouldn’t think about anything. If you like ’em, you like ’em, if you don’t, you don’t – you don’t have to think about it, okay?”

Sometimes he deftly sidesteps with humor, as when a reporter asked, “Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or as a poet?”

“Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, you know.”

Exchanges such as these accustomed me to thinking of Dylan as a shooting star, never standing still long enough to shed any light on the art of songwriting, except by example. That’s why my jaw hit the floor when I heard his acceptance speech at the 2015 MusiCares award show.

Some folks latched onto the way he chided his critics. But what struck me as priceless was the nonstop parade of insights he gave into his art. The middle contained a motherlode, as he rattled off song after song and their origin. The way he delivered the list resembled a song in itself, which grabbed my attention all the more.

Here, then, are five of the seven songs he listed and a few notes on Dylan’s alchemy of transformation (written in second-person-imaginary tense). Unfortunately, this can only be an appetizer. If you want the main course, then listen to the songs over and over – better yet, learn how to sing them (like he did) – and compare and contrast.

1) “How High’s The Water, Momma?” vs. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”

Dylan says he wrote “It’s Alright, Ma” with Johnny Cash’s song “reverberating inside my head.”

Transformations: Switch guitar styles from classic country to raw, droning, hillbilly-primitive. Cash mimics rising water with rising modulations from Bb to Db to Eb to F, but you want ominous, so you use descending steps in the bass. Throw in some bluesy riffs. Make the chorus major to contrast with the dark, modal verses. Make the guitar frenetic, but keep the verses droning steadily – no rushing. For lyrics, consult your chief inspirations, “Rimbaud and W.C. Fields” (Dylan’s words, not mine).

2) “John Henry” (Doc Watson version) vs. “Blowin’ In The Wind”

“If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written ‘How many roads must a man walk down?’ too.”

Transformations: Mutate melodic motif on “Jo-hn Hen-ry” into “How many ro-ads …” Change keys from bright E to warm G. Where “John Henry” asks, “What matters more, a man or a machine?” and answers with a story, let “Blowin’ In The Wind” ask a series of questions that hang unanswered. Where John Henry lives on in death as a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit, let the chorus suggest that the questions themselves are eternal and beg the listener’s conscience to answer.

3) “Key To The Highway” (Big Bill Broonzy) vs. “Highway 61 Revisited”

“‘Gonna leave here runnin’ because walking is most too slow.’ If you sing that a lot, you just might write, ‘Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose…’”

Transformations: Stick to the blues. Keep the twangy guitar breaks. Rock the beat. Transpose from rootsy G up to brassy Bb. Add keyboard. Borrow siren whistle and clip in harmonica rack. Keep the mood of “being somewhere while belonging somewhere else,” but recast it as a Fellini circus through a series of satirical, dreamlike confrontations seen in the funhouse mirror of metaphor.

4) “Sail Away Ladies” (Joan Baez) vs. “Boots Of Spanish Leather”

Transformations: Shift keys from velvety Eb to noble Ab. Maintain tempo and folk song feeling. Transform melodic motif of “Sail away, ladies, sail away,” to “I’m sailing away my own true love.” Instead of meandering like “Sail Away Ladies,” focus on the broken heart of the one who’s left behind. Extend the story arc through nine verses in dialog form, a bit like “Barbara Allen.”

5) “Roll The Cotton Down” vs. “Maggie’s Farm”

“If you sang that song as many times as me, you’d be writing ‘I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,’ too.”

Transformations: “Roll The Cotton Down” is a foot-stompin’ work song designed to brace the back for another long day of toil and misery. What if you woke up and realized this was insanity? Maybe you’d write the anti-work song. Brace the backbeat instead of the back, slow down the tempo a notch and free associate on the slings and arrows of outrageous workplaces.

The rest of the list included 6) “Come All Ye Songs,” such as “Chisholm Trail” and “Tiny Sparrow,” vs. “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and 7) “Deep Elm Blues” vs. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”

To be continued.

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