Defining Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature recently: for me this just reinforces the oddity of his career. A literature award for a recording artist is a one off, and the fact that his material has appeared on pop music charts is a real confusion. Pop music is not about excellence, it’s about popularity. Dylan, with over 100 million records sold, is one of pop music’s biggest selling artists. I’m a Bob Dylan fan, and I’m not talking about his achievement, but about the way it’s been recognised.

When “Blowin’ in the Wind”, from Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), made the pop music charts in a version by Peter, Paul and Mary, Dylan received a good deal of publicity. Fans and the media alike struggled to assimilate him into music they knew.

Over the next few years Dylan would be treated as a pop star, regarded as a folk singer and then as a protest singer, hailed as a poet, held in awe as a genius, admired as he moved from pop to Country, took up Judaism and then Christianity, thought of as a has-been, and then slowly resurfaced as a multi-faceted touring musician with an astonishing skill at composition.

Most of these estimations were wide of the mark. Dylan should be seen as unique to fully appreciate his achievement. There has been nothing like his body of work since the troubadours were active in the 12th century, and nobody now knows much about them.

A documentary

A recent YouTube video emphasises that miscategorisation of Dylan’s work has been the case since the very start of his career as well as silly generalisations about him (

Looking only at the first four albums he released, the film shows how Dylan adopted elements from blues and folk music, became first a political balladeer in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie, then joined the 1960s protest movement, flirted briefly with beat and symbolist poetry, and wrote personal lyrics of exceptional originality.  He absorbed, and superceded his need for, all these genres without ever being a part of any of them. The film is notable for excellent sound quality, which transforms many of the songs performed, mostly taken from TV shows.

Watching and listening to these four albums one can see, as one rarely can, an artist developing in front of you, and developing with astonishing speed.


When Dylan arrived in New York and attempted to make his way among the folksingers of Greenwich Village, he  was 20 years old. The folk boom was in resurgence since its occlusion in the 50s as left wing (the Weavers had been banned in that period) and label executives were looking for folk artists. Dylan was almost unique in being a follower of activist Woody Guthrie, now ill and all but forgotten, but he presented himself as a folk singer and got a record deal. It was a foot in the door.

The first album, a couple of folk songs mixed with two Dylan songs and the rest mainly blues, didn’t sell, but somehow Dylan convinced his label to try again, with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan of 1963; two folk songs, the rest his own compositions, including some early ‘protest’ songs. Protest was the next big thing, as America warmed up for the Civil Rights decade. The album was one of the first singer/songwriter albums (the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night was the next, in 1964).

The Times They Are a-Changing of 1964 was emphatically protest, and included the title anthem, but one track, “Boots of Spanish Leather”, heralded the way Dylan was to go. Another Side of Bob Dylan, also 1964, was personal, ending with an obvious device, an anti love song called ”It Ain’t Me Babe”. Obvious, yet no-one had tried it before. Dylan then moved into the most poetic of his albums, the trio Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, (both 1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966). It wasn’t just all top hats, cigarettes and dark glasses. Dylan had by now created a new market for his music.

This time, he wasn’t a folk singer, nor a protest singer, but a genius. He was an icon who was expected to know everything. He was also being taken seriously by academics as a literary figure: fans with doctorates pushed him as a cultural and literary figure (resulting eventually in the Nobel Prize).

Dylan had to answer more inane questions from the media than most people in the public eye. He fended one request to comment on his songs by saying: “Sure. Some are 10 minutes long. Others run for five or six minutes”. He’d read that in the newspapers. One can form a kind of Dunciad of some of his songs in which people that worried him are firmly put in their place (“Positively 4th Street”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Ballad of a Thin Man”, “Idiot Wind”).

After the 1970s Dylan’s inspiration seemed to peter out until he resolved to return to touring and made contact with his audience again. He’s toured ever since, and much of his creativity has gone into band selection and musical arrangements. Dylan’s ability to write a good tune has never been more evident than now.

Hard as it seems to have been, even though perfectly obvious, the best way to see Dylan is as a musician.

Testing the labels

How does Dylan’s work measure up to the way it’s labelled? Does folk, protest, commercial, folk-rock, genius, poetry, pop, rock, apply to any of the following songs? Looking at his tunes would show conclusively it doesn’t, but words are all I’ve got.

Not many people would be familiar with all the work of Bob Dylan. Over the past 56 years he has released 51 studio and live albums, and has written 522 songs (so far)  Only Paul McCartney, with over 600 songs, has been as prolific. Dylan also has several films to his credit, and one very significant book. Chronicles I.

Defining Dylan’s work, though not impossible, has to be based on a representational sample. Admitting my own limitations, I’m  looking at songs of significance to me, all from the first half of his work, 1963-1975, and one additional title. Lyrics at Here’s a selection.

This is the last verse from “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” (Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan 1963).

And what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?

And what’ll you do now my darling young one?

I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’

I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest

Where the people are a many and their hands are all empty

Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters

Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison

And the executioner’s face is always well hidden

Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten

Where black is the color, where none is the number

And I’ll tell and speak it and think it and breathe it

And reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it

And I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’

But I’ll know my song well before I start singing

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard

It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

Surely this mix of a Childe Ballad and post nuclear apocalypse couldn’t be mistaken for folk music nor for protest song. It’s tone is biblical, the horror it expresses a personal one. But it’s not poetry, it’s a song. What else can you call it but a Bob Dylan song, a completely new genre in its first manifestation.

Here’s the last two verses of “With God on Our Side” (The Times They Are a-Changing 1964). (Neville Brothers).

In a many dark hour

I’ve been thinkin’ about this

That Jesus Christ

Was betrayed by a kiss

But I can’t think for you

You’ll have to decide

Whether Judas Iscariot

Had God on his side.

So now as I’m leavin’

I’m weary as Hell

The confusion I’m feelin’

Ain’t no tongue can tell

The words fill my head

And fall to the floor

If God’s on our side

He’ll stop the next war.

Could this be a protest song, the other half of “Masters of War” ? (one of whom, ironically, was Alfred Nobel). But no, it’s politically cynical, telling how “I” the narrator has been manipulated over the years in identifying non existent enemies who must be destroyed. And it’s pessimistic, as only if god is on our side (shown as political manipulation) will war cease. It’s a confessional cry of despair not fitting easily into any category.

Here’e the last verse of “It Ain’t Me Babe” (Another Side of Bob Dylan 1964). (Joan Baez).

Go melt back in the night

Everything inside is made of stone

There’s nothing in here moving

An’ anyway I’m not alone

You say you’re looking for someone

Who’ll pick you up each time you fall

To gather flowers constantly

An’ to come each time you call

A lover for your life an’ nothing more

But it ain’t me, babe

No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe

It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe.

Here the singer, and the artist, defines what he’s not. Although a personal lyric it’s also a refusal of categorisation. The me they see ain’t me, he says.

Here’s the end of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” (Bringing It All Back Home 1965).

The bridge at midnight trembles

The country doctor rambles

Bankers’ nieces seek perfection

Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring

The wind howls like a hammer

The night blows rainy

My love she’s like some raven

At my window with a broken wing.

By this stage Dylan has done the seemingly impossible and created an audience for what was uncommercial material. He can now write a simple love song, a personal lyric that plays with rhyme. I love that “bridge at midnight trembles/the country doctor rambles” even though I don’t know what it means: it’s a sound not a sense reaction. Neither poetry nor pop, this is the voice of someone doing their own thing, very important in the 1960s. Even more true of “Mr Tambourine Man” from the same album which became a hit both for Dylan and the Byrds.

Here’s the opening to “Desolation Row” (Highway 61 Revisited 1965). (Stan Denski).

They’re selling postcards of the hanging

They’re painting the passports brown

The beauty parlor is filled with sailors

The circus is in town

Here comes the blind commissioner

They’ve got him in a trance

One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker

The other is in his pants

And the riot squad they’re restless

They need somewhere to go

As Lady and I look out tonight

From Desolation Row.

“Desolation  Row” is one of Dylan’s masterpieces. Every word has meaning, though whole phrases make no sense. The song succeeds on every level, performance, voice, guitar and a devastating harmonica, melody, emotional response, in short, this is poetry and popular song, social comment and personal expression. Nobody has done all this in one song except Bob Dylan.

Here’s the last verse of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (Highway 61 Revisited 1965). (Nina Simone).

I started out on burgundy

But soon hit the harder stuff

Everybody said they’d stand behind me

When the game got rough

But the joke was on me

There was nobody even there to bluff

I’m going back to New York City

I do believe I’ve had enough.

It’s a song of disillusion that draws the listener into a complex of meanings, while, after all, meaning plays little part in the song’s effect. The sound is everything, as the listener too plummets from melancholy to disillusionment to even despair. Another Dylan masterpiece.

Here’s “All Along the Watchtower” (John Wesley Harding 1967).

“There must be some way out of here” said the joker to the thief

“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief

Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth

None of them along the line know what any of it is worth”.

“No reason to get excited”, the thief he kindly spoke

“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke

But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate

So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late”.

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view

While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl

Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

This vignette draws a vivid picture of an embattled town (the watchtower) where princes are on the alert for enemies, and two are approaching, called the Joker and the Thief. The women come and go, not talking of Michelangelo as TS Eliot has them in Prufrock. The two riders are close to despair and full of cynicism, and they augur no good for those they might meet. As they approach the wind begins to howl. A medieval tapestry, an early Renaissance triptych, a picture full of foreboding, Dylan shows what he can do welding pop and high culture. Jimi Hendrix destroys this atmospheric foreboding of Dylan’s and substitutes a sonic unease. 

One of the drawbacks of looking at lyrics is that they prompt a literary response. But of course the lyrics come from songs, and are accompanied by melodies and a performance that carry the listener along with them.

The list

Everyone who likes Dylan must have a list. Here’s mine, from which I’ve drawn the quotations:

A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall (Freewheelin’ 1963)

Boots of Spanish Leather (The Times They Are a-Changing 1964)

With God on Our Side (The Times They Are a-Changing 1964)

It Ain’t Me Babe (Another Side 1964)

It’s All Over Now Baby Blue (Bringing It All Back Home 1965)

It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) (Bringing It All Back Home 1965)

Love Minus Zero/No Limit (Bringing It All Back Home 1965)

Mr Tambourine Man (Bringing It All Back Home 1965)

Subterranean Homesick Blues (Bringing It All Back Home 1965)

Desolation Row (Highway 61 Revisited 1965)

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (Highway 61 Revisited 1965) Nina Simone

Like A Rolling Stone (Highway 61 Revisited 1965)

Queen Jane Approximately (Highway 61 Revisited 1965)

Positively 4th Street (Greatest Hits 1965)

Absolutely Sweet Marie (Blonde on Blonde 1966)

All Along the Watchtower (John Wesley Harding 1967)

Idiot Wind (Blood on the Tracks 1975)

Tangled Up in Blue (Blood on the Tracks 1975)

Dignity (Tell Tale Signs 2008).

Of all the labels applied to Bob Dylan’s songs over the years: folksongs, protest songs, ‘commercial’, folk-rock, poetry, productions of a genius, uniquely Bob Dylan, the work of a talented musician – even though there is some truth in them, the most accurate are the least pretentious, the last two. Dylan’s work is unique, and in the last resort, despite the brilliance of the words, it’s a musical achievement, not a literary one.

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

©2018 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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