For over 5 decades Americans and the world have listened to the poetry and music of Bob Dylan. His appeal has transcended generational limits. His artistic abilities of word-craft and his prolific contributions to the body of popular American music far exceed the standard of of his peers. In my view, he is the quintessential 20th Century, American poet-singer-songwriter. Over the course of his long career, he has maintained his finger on the pulse of the times and in a style that only he can deliver, has left his mark on American culture and the American music anthology. I consider him to be the Master Poet of my generation. 2013 is his 72nd birthday and this post is my tribute to Bob.
Dylan began his career as a folk singer and over time his music has evolved to many faceted new dimensions, but has always remained authentic. His second album, titled, The Free Wheelin’ Bob Dylan, was released in 1963 and featured mostly his own songs. Songs like, “Blowin’ In The Wind“, “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, have become very well known the world over. The list of musicians who have covered Dylan tunes is exhaustive and he is listened to by countless numbers of people across several generations. His music has been so influential, much like the music of the Beatles, it is now embraced by a multitude of musical genres among many different cultures.
Dylan’s early music was often a form of social commentary and sometimes adopted as anthem for political protest, particularly the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. His lyrics were provocative and his poetic structure was certainly unconventional for the time of his arrival on the scene. The range of sentiment expressed through his adept use of the language has sometimes appealed to whimsical notions of youthful freedom in tunes like, “Mr. Tambourine Man” —“to dance beneath a diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sand, with all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves, let me forget about today until tomorrow.” , or sometimes has revealed a level of seething vengeance in songs like, “Positively 4th Street”— “you’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend“, to the stunningly unconventional rhymes of songs like, “Your gonna make me lonesome when you go”— “I’ll see you in old Honolulu, San Francisco, Ashtabula. Yer gonna have to leave me now, I know. But I’ll see you in the sky above. In the tall grass, in the ones I love. Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go.” A rhyme that works with Honolula? Ashtabula! (A city in Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie that derives its name from the language of the aboriginal Lenape tribe). This is the sort of lyric that is uniquely American and so very uniquely Dylan! — to the heart-aching solitude expressed in the poetically reflective and matured Dylan, “Not Dark Yet”— “…Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb. I can’t even remember what is was I came her to get away from. Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” The range of emotions emitted through his lyrics are often times quite palpable.
During the long years of his popularity, Bob Dylan has worked with some of the music industry’s premier talents;
George Harrison- Here with Bob at the benefit concert for the victims and refugees of the war in Bangladesh during the early 1970’s, singing “If Not For You“.
The Grateful Dead – He toured with them in the mid-1980’s. Here they are together doing a classic Dylan tune, “Queen Jane Approximately“.
Johnny Cash- In 1969 he and Cash did a series of studio takes and a few live performances. Here is the melancholy “Girl From The North Country”
..and many others.
As a side note, I would mention that Dylan and artists like The Band, The Grateful Dead and Johnny Cash have been deeply involved in preserving the compendium of American folk music. Music from our rich cultural past that has been largely forgotten or ignored by the popular culture. These song-masters in their efforts to preserve the roots and traditions of American Folk & Country music have become part of the very lexicon they chose to record and memorialize.
The album that many people consider to be Dylan’s greatest achievement, Blood On The Tracks, was released in 1975. The song that embodies the highpoint of the album, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” weaves a fantastic tale, of romance, betrayal, gambling, bank robbery and murder. An up-tempo romp of nearly 9 minutes! Only Bob Dylan could put such lyrics to music. The plot rivals the intrigue and drama of an opera! Another cut from the album, “Tangled Up In Blue” tells a story of lovers and the passage of time as two people, separated by circumstances not within their control, meet again in a different time and place. Or the song, “Simple Twist of Fate“, speaks to love remembered and the incumbent regret of failure. When asked, Dylan said that the album was inspired by short stories of classic Russian author Anton Chekhov.
At dylanradio.com you can tune in to non-stop and free Dylan music. For a brief time, Bob even hosted the Theme Time Radio Hour and it was a lot of fun to follow the themes he picked and to listen to his commentary.
Here are the lyrics to one of Dylan’s recordings (1989) called “Everything is Broken” <- <- <- That link, by the way, is a terrific resource for finding all of his work. Lyrics and sheet music for every song he has written!
It is clear from Dylan’s autobiography that he has always been a voracious reader. I suspect that his reading habits may have contributed greatly to his ability to formulate the language in such stylistic form. Perhaps reading has been his muse. His autobiography also demonstrates his talent at self-promotion. Dylan has always been inventive in his ability to market himself. Whatever the driving force behind Dylan’s creative genius and prolific song writing, the world of music has been enriched by his presence…Thanks Bob!