Why is Bob Dylan The Greatest Songwriter?

Crush #6

Bob Dylan has been called everything from a genius to an enigma, the original singer-songwriter, “the Shakespeare of songwriting,” and “the poet of our time.” Enormous legend has surrounded this artist for over half a century now: some forty studio albums and counting (not including various bootleg, best of, and live albums), writer of well over six hundred songs in nearly every genre of American music, author of a best-selling and critically acclaimed memoir in 2004, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for literature, along with other awards and honors too numerous to mention, this artist continues to draw legions of fans and sell out concert venues the world over while performing largely newer music and fronting a band of remarkable musicians. Rolling Stone magazine, to the surprise of no one, named him the greatest songwriter of all time. In the words of a recent biographer—and not one, by any means, who is inclined toward uncritical praise—“his art is his life. It is, profoundly, who he is. Dylan doesn’t control the art; the art controls ‘Bob Dylan,’ and remakes him time after time.” This is one complex individual. His songwriting, his lyrical poetry, his constant changes in musical style, his vocal phrasing, his voice, his demeanor on stage and off—all of it, and by all accounts, is nothing short of strange, and exactly what one would hope for in an artist.

Learned and unlearned commentary on Dylan’s work is a veritable industry. His music has never been described, including by the artist himself, as mainstream, unlike some other musical entertainers who have attracted a comparable following, and has resisted classification from the beginning. That he was signed at all in 1961, and by Columbia Records no less, was mystifying, and was widely considered so at the time. “The folk labels had all turned me down,” he writes in Chronicles, volume one. From the beginning, there was nothing commercial about his sound. He was barely twenty, a difficult sell, and a singer-songwriter before the term existed. The norm in folk music was that performers didn’t write their own songs, and the exceptions to this were few. When he was signed by John Hammond, the corporate executives at Columbia and Dylan’s musical peers in Greenwich Village were likewise mystified. What did this famous record producer, credited with having signed Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Lena Horne, Pete Seeger, and Aretha Franklin among others, see in this artist? The whole episode at the time was spoken of as “Hammond’s folly.” As biographer Ian Bell writes, “Hammond knows the blues. Yet here he is producing an act turned down by every label in town with even the slightest interest in folk or blues.” To make matters worse, Dylan’s self-titled debut album in 1962 was not great and included only two original songs. His second album, released the following year, would be called The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and included “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Girl from the North Country,” “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and nine other self-written songs. Hammond, according to his own account, was acting on instinct and so was his artist.

Instinct, mystery, and destiny are words regularly used by this artist in speaking of his musical career from his first recordings to the present. When an interviewer once assured him that “A genius can’t be a genius on instinct alone,” Dylan responded with “Well, I disagree. I believe that instinct is what makes a genius a genius.” The early songs often came quickly, with an assurance and fearlessness that seemed absolute, and by a process that the writer didn’t claim to understand. Speaking nearly four decades after writing “Like a Rolling Stone,” he remarked: “It’s like a ghost is writing a song like that. It gives you the song and it goes away, it goes away. You don’t know what it means. Except that the ghost picked me to write the song.” There have been periods in his career when the ghost visited often and other times, equally mysteriously, when it didn’t.

Dylan’s own understanding of his talent appears to be, once again, complex. When he speaks of it at all, he speaks mostly about influences, the list of which is long. Here’s what he says about Johnny Cash, to pick just one example: “Johnny Cash’s records … weren’t what you expected. Johnny didn’t have a piercing yell, but ten thousand years of culture fell from him. He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire, or in the deep snow, or in a ghostly forest, the coolness of conscious obvious strength, full tilt and vibrant with danger. ‘I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.’ Indeed. I must have recited those lines to myself a million times…. Words that were the rule of law and backed by the power of God. When I first heard ‘I Walk the Line’ so many years earlier, it sounded like a voice calling out, ‘What are you doing there, boy?’ I was trying to keep my eyes wide opened, too.” The task for the young artist was to discover how the songwriters he admired had accomplished what they had, and to listen and learn, borrow and synthesize elements from each without copying any. A major portion of Chronicles deals with influences, to the point of neglecting basic facts about the subject of this strange autobiography, memoir, or whatever one would call it. It’s a book mostly about other people. In its pages he never mentions even the names of his parents, his two former wives, or his several children; such is Dylan’s way. By the end of the book he emerges as a more mysterious figure than he was at the beginning, and the Dylanologists love him for it. What one does learn about this man is that he was in his formative years and remains to this day a musical free spirit, as predictable as the wind. His records of the last few years, for instance, including Triplicate of 2017, consist of old swing standards, completely rearranged and performed in a way that sounds nothing like a Frank Sinatra or a Bing Crosby. No one could have anticipated records like these, any more than the several other departures this artist has taken over the decades. “Instinct” is his invariable reply when asked for an explanation.

It’s well known that artists—indeed anyone who does creative work—have influences, yet what’s striking in the case of this artist is the range and depth of these. The word “sponge” is often used by those who came into contact with him in his early years. So too is tradition, his sense of which is remarkably strong. His palette would become large and his knowledge of the American musical tradition vast. Dylan has repeatedly stated that his work was not written in an aesthetic vacuum but follows in the tradition into which he initiated himself in his early years. Nearly every facet of American music—blues, folk, rock and roll, country, gospel, swing—comes together in his work, and began doing so well before “reinventing oneself” became the thing to do. “Going electric” in 1965 wasn’t the thing to do in folk music circles, and the condemnation that followed from folk hyper-traditionalists became part of the Dylan legend. Through over half a century and counting of following his instincts, Dylan has moved on from one unclassifiable non-genre to the next, confounding critics with some regularity while also, he insists, working within the rules of his tradition. He makes the tradition of American music his own, not only by knowing it and following in kind but by selectively synthesizing this element with that, repeating here and reversing there, in accordance with the artist’s acquired habits and instincts.

Despite the unparalleled influence he has had on other songwriters, there is an inimitability about Dylan. No one else sounds like that; the combination of poetic art, melody, voice, and phrasing is utterly singular, even as each of the elements is borrowed. The lyrics resist description, but combine verse with elements of prose and vernacular speech, often resulting in a poetic hodgepodge where one element doesn’t follow another in any tidy sequence even as the piece as a whole manages to hang together. The language is typically fast and loose; the rhymes are often out of left field (“Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches / I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages”); a long and seemingly unsingable line may be inserted in the middle of a verse (“She’s looking into my eyes, she’s holding my hand / She’s looking into my eyes, she’s holding my hand / She says, ‘You can’t repeat the past.’ I say, ‘You can’t? What do you mean, / you can’t? Of course you can’”). The poet also has a penchant for sudden reversals (“Legs and arms and body and bone / I pay in blood, but not my own”), tough language (“I came to bury, not to praise”), and a fierce wit (“All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie”). The poet Allen Ginsberg described Dylan’s early lyrical poetry as “chains of flashing images,” where one picture follows another for no discernible reason but that it works. Why it’s not gibberish is sometimes difficult to say, nor is it obvious that this matters. As a biographer writes, Dylan learned from modernist and Beat poets that “images need not form an orderly queue on their way to a conclusion…. One typical summary of modernism’s arrival in America speaks of poets investigating ‘fragmentation, ellipsis, allusion, juxtaposition, ironic and shifting personae, and mythic parallelism.’ The description fits the Dylan of the mid-1960s like a mitten. It became the Beat template, after all.” Dylan wouldn’t turn it into a formula, however, and what he was writing in the 1960s—the period that biographers and commentators on this artist so often fasten upon, sometimes inexplicably ignoring everything he has produced since then—changed considerably and often in the decades that followed.

There is something perplexing in Dylan’s music—shifts in genre and sound, wild visions, moral urgency, and weird mythology lumped together with absolute conviction, even when it doesn’t work (and it doesn’t always). The listener’s experience is of a persistent ambiguity, elusiveness, and difficulty that reflect both how this artist appears to see the world (“you’re talking to a person that feels like he’s walking around in the ruins of Pompeii all the time”) and quite possibly himself. Behold the art and behold the man; the sense of life appears the same (insofar, of course, as one ever knows the latter, and his several biographers have had a difficult task of it). “[T]he stuff I write does come from an autobiographical place,” he points out. The music follows in a tradition, but the tradition “was a counterpart of myself…. It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood.” The music isn’t what one expects, nor is the artist himself. Who expected the follow-up to Blonde On Blonde (1966) to be John Wesley Harding (1967), or Time Out Of Mind (1997) to follow World Gone Wrong (1993)? If all you know of this artist are his era-defining songs of the 1960s and ‘70s, listen to his records of the last twenty years or so, and prepare to be surprised. For my taste, the newer music is better than the old: albums like Tempest, Together Through Life, Modern Times, ‘Love and Theft,’ and Time Out Of Mind are indescribably good.

Through all the changes in musical direction, which have seldom been of immediate commercial benefit, the artist follows his instincts without seeming to care in the least what anyone thinks about it. “Most striking of all,” Bell writes of the “going electric” episode, “is the absence, yet again, of self-doubt”; “yet again, the impervious self-belief, the absence of doubt, the gall, is startling. Dylan knew he was right; the world would have to catch up…. Whoever ‘Bob Dylan’ happened to be, he believed utterly in the art of Dylan.” Whether it’s exactly oneself that an artist believes in or one’s work, aesthetic judgment, or instincts, is difficult to say, yet the artist in question has long spoken in this connection of truth. There is truth in art. To cite his speech for MusiCares in 2015, “Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice. He said, ‘Well, that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.’” No one has ever described Dylan’s voice as pretty. If the singing works at all, it’s because it says what is true. “I’ve got to know that I’m singing something with truth to it. My songs are different than anybody else’s songs. Other artists can get by on their voices and their style, but my songs speak volumes, and all I have to do is lay them down correctly, lyrically, and they’ll do what they need to do.” An artist, as he writes in Chronicles, is “someone who could see into things, the truth of things—not metaphorically, either—but really see, like seeing into metal and making it melt, see it for what it was and reveal it for what it was with hard words and vicious insight.”

There are many great songwriters, but not many can be described this way. He doesn’t belong on a pedestal—no one does—but he does merit the title of the greatest songwriter of all time.