When it comes to writing song lyrics in English, for me there’s Bob Dylan and then there’s everyone else. Many, many songwriters and many, many, many songs have fascinated me and inspired me and continue to fascinate me and inspire me in my life. None have inspired me or fascinated me quite so much as the songs of Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is one of the greatest poets I’ve ever come across in the English language. He’s one of those guys like Shakespeare. A million fools will tell you he’s brilliant but they’re actually right. And that’s not to take away from his music writing either. Dylan’s words flow brilliantly over his music. His melodies aren’t often complicated but they’re made with a catchy, seamless simplicity that’s incredibly hard to achieve even once, let alone hundreds and hundreds of times.
I got a copy of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits when I was fourteen. As soon as I heard those songs I just wanted to learn and recite every line. They opened up all kinds of feelings I had but couldn’t express; they stimulated my mind. The words and the voice of the singer had so much anger, alienation, playfulness, love and sensitivity all at once. It was overwhelming. I hadn’t been so excited since I had first heard the Beatles as a small child. I walked all around my little suburban town in the cold that winter singing those songs to myself. At times I would bust out laughing with joy from just how great the writing was. Pretty soon thereafter, I taped my brother’s copy of Bringing It All Back Home. It was hard to believe that so many images and stories and lovely rhymes were poured into one album. Dylan’s poetry became the gold standard for me, the great challenge. I figured if lyrics could be this good, evoke such a vivid picture and tell such a moving story, why try for less? I might never get close to as poetic myself but I could try.
Many years later, I was in Philadelphia on a winter’s night to open a show for a master singer/songwriter/guitarist named Chris Smither. We had some time backstage before the show and we just started talking about Dylan songs and Dylan records. Eventually, we pulled out our guitars played each other some of our favorites. Smither played a great version of “Visions of Johanna” in ¾ time. I had fallen in love with “Visions” when someone had given me Blonde on Blonde as a holiday gift nearly 20 years ago. Smither himself had been digging the song since it came out in ’66 and he was still as delighted with it as I was, going on 50 years later. He had been there in the 60’s when everyone was freaking out on Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and songs from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. A whole generation of artists had and tried to create their own continuation of the American folk tradition. Bob Dylan was able to seamlessly incorporate so much of the wealth of that history, tradition and lore better than anyone else, and he did it with a narrative voice more individual, more evocative and more innovative than anyone from that time or since then. His writing went far beyond that folk revival of the 60’s, in album after album that followed his first few. And though he wrote all different types of narratives in a number of styles he managed never to lose a profound connection to his roots. To my ear, no one has come near him.
I don’t really have anything to say about Bob Dylan as a person. I don’t know Bob Dylan or anyone who does. I’ve read some stories and seen some movies like everyone else. I’ve been to a bunch of his concerts, but I was pretty late to that party. I do recall a summer evening show at an Amphitheater outside of Chicago in the later 90’s that was pretty darn impressive. As much as I’ve enjoyed catching him in concert and learning about his life, I think the records and the songs are inspirational enough by themselves. If you’re looking for where to start with Bob Dylan’s catalog, it’s daunting. There’s just so much. I’ll give you 10 albums filled with what are for me the most “Holy Sh_t!” moments of Dylan poetry. Please note: Some of my favorite individual Dylan songs aren’t even on these albums. These are just a more than adequate starting point.
1.The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan 1963
2.The Times They Are A’ Changin’ 1964
3.Another Side of Bob Dylan 1964
4.Bringing it All Back Home 1965
5.Highway 61 Revisted 1965
6.Blonde on Blonde 1966
7.John Wesley Harding 1967
8.Blood On The Tracks 1975
9.Oh Mercy 1989
10.Time Out Of Mind 1997
Here a few other English language lyric writers whose work I love:
…I think Bob Dylan is better than all of them.