It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have some fond appreciation for Bob Dylan. His songs are like stories, his lyrics like poetry. Melodies infused with wisdom, with many keeping political issues at their core. He’s changed the music game time and time again, subverting conventional notions of folk and rock music and taking the art form to new heights. We’re so proud that he’s been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and a few writers have gathered to say congratulations, Bob Dylan.
Troubadour of the Cue Cards
–Nancy S. Bishop
To start out, a confession. I’m a huge fan of Bob Dylan and also Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen. Clearly, I have a thing for gravelly voiced singers who write complex, polysyllabic lyrics.
My favorite visual memory of Dylan—and the one that cements his love for words in my brain—is the cold open of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary, Don’t Look Back, about Dylan’s 1965 European tour. Dylan stands in a deadend alley behind London’s Savoy Hotel. The alley is dirty and full of construction materials. He holds a pile of white cards. While his rendition of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” plays in the background, he peels off the cards, one by one, along with the song lyrics. The cards are jokey, full of puns and purposeful misspellings. It’s a classic bit of film, all 2:18 of it.
Another treat is seeing Allen Ginsberg watching over Dylan in the background of the film. He and Dylan became friends after meeting in New York in the early 1960s.
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” was released first as a single in early 1965 and as the lead track on the album, Bring It All Back Home, a few weeks later. It was Dylan’s first top 40 hit.
I love this film clip because I always visualize Dylan drawing these words on shirt cardboards (as Pennebaker describes) with a ballpoint pen. He’s being careful to add serifs and thick-and-thin strokes to the letters, just as I always did when I made signs. Before you could just do this on your computer.
This may have just been homemade shtick, but Dylan’s cue cards were hugely influential on many performers, as this article illustrates.
In a director’s voiceover to Don’t Look Back, Pennebaker says he thinks Dylan got the idea from French Scopitones, jukebox movies that were popular in Europe and the U.S. in the 1950s and ‘60s. He may even have been influenced by this Sonny King Scopitone rendition of “I’ll Cry for You,” with its many lingerie shots, culminating in lacy briefs as billboards. Take a look.
You ask, do Dylan’s lyrics qualify as poetry. Bill Savage, Chicago professor and pop culture savant, says, “It’s the poetry most people consume. FFS.” Bill gets the last word here.
— Bill Savage (@RogersParkMan) October 13, 2016
Song and Dance Man
— June Skinner Sawyers
KQED, SF, press conference, December 3, 1965.
Interviewer: “Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or a poet?”
Dylan: “I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man, you know.”
A song and dance man and
traveling musical salesman,
the Willie Loman of rock,
on a Never Ending tour
haunted by Child ballads
the devil at the crossroads
hounds snapping at his heels
the howl of Ginsberg
Brecht and the Pharaoh’s tribe
two riders approach
threatening the Apocalpyse,
the Book of Revelation
on their minds,
the Rimbaud of his generation,
or so they said,
with the Guthrie twang
and a touch of the Delta blues highway
that ran from Duluth to the Mississippi
running through his magpie veins
part John the Revelator, part Blind Willie McTell
all cascading cadences
of “love and theft”
the ghosts of slavery ships
and high water everywhere.
-June Sawyers is a writer and editor and author of Napoleon in Rags: Music Poems, and the book, Bob Dylan New York (2011, Roaring Forties Press).
Dylan’s Necessary Truths
— Julian Ramirez
Bob Dylan’s legendary status as a songsmith precedes his actual music in my and many people’s lives. I didn’t have the opportunity to discover Dylan as he solidified his greatness in the ’60s and ’70s (although the late ’90s were very kind to him). All of his era-defining music was produced well before I was competent enough to understand them. Having been born so late in the ’80s it might as well have been the ’90s and without a real source of musical guidance around me, I couldn’t fully appreciate his genius until I grew older.
The first time I had the need to go out and gain more knowledge about Dylan came through watching High Fidelity. I grew pale as I watched the scene where Jack Black’s immature and insensitive (some would add snobby) Barry simultaneously scoffed, condescended, and enlightened a bewildered record store patron with a copy of Blonde on Blonde. As a 12-year old, I felt the same embarrassment as the customer. I too didn’t own Blonde on Blonde or any Dylan album at the time and surely the men who made this movie knew more than I.
In the subsequent years I purchased a fair share of Dylan albums, both on CD and vinyl, and it became clear to me that Bob Dylan wasn’t just another popular musician creating mindless songs solely to entertain. He was creating an oeuvre that reveals necessary truths that are worth studying. Dylan beautifully guided me through personal or worldly revelations with a unique voice that is deft and honest. Every passing line of his songs adds up to indispensable poetry, invoking more feeling and purpose than I could ever truly comprehend. I have felt every emotion imaginable through his poetry. I’ve cried to love loss with “If You See Her Say Hello”, smiled with joy with “Man in Me, and seethed with angry toward our times with “Hurricane”. Dylan succeeds not only as an artist but as philosopher that questions everything and provides us with what we need to find our way.
Go listen to my personal favorite albums of Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, Blood on the Tracks, and Desire. There is no better proof of his impact as a storyteller, poet, and genius than in any single song on these albums. He is a cultural icon that has spanned generations and has influenced many to come. I’m sure that there are many people who are still in the same situation as I was when I was younger: knowing Dylan’s legacy more than his words. He is bigger than even himself and while Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature may seem as strange as it is obvious, unneeded as it is necessary, ultimately it is deserved. Congratulations, Dylan.
Dylan Made Rock ‘n’ Roll Post-Modern
— Colin S. Smith
Picasso once said, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” But Bob Dylan becomes. Up until the mid-1960s, rock ‘n’ roll music was essentially folk music electrified. But when Dylan went electric, he forced this onto the folk audiences. The electric guitar is a vehicle of commercialism and capitalism, they’d say. “Judas!” they’d scream. But Dylan did not relent. He saved rock ‘n’ roll by making it post-modern. He blended Guthrie with Leadbelly and Gershwin with Bo Diddley; he rambled about Shakespeare in the alley and Napoleon’s red, white, and blue shoestrings. He’s the great American storyteller known his parables disguised as ramblings (and ramblings disguised as parables) after he departed from the more rigid songwriting structure of traditional American folk music.
The beat goes on. And just like the watershed albums of his heyday — Highway 61 Revisited, Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — his award is yet another a post-modernist moment: he has proved that the written and spoken word, just like music, can be so many things at once.
An Open Letter to Bob Dylan in Wake of His Nobel Prize
— Stephanie Lenchard Warren
My dear Bob Dylan,
The first song of yours I remember hearing was “Like a Rolling Stone” from the back
seat of my dad’s pickup. As a child, I watched the green trees slide by as I rolled
down my window and felt the breeze along my skin through a rush of streaming
Living often comes to us in this way, an endless current of memory and feeling. We
face things abstract and indefinite, and, though they can be beautiful, at times they
can also leave us feeling lost.
I remember hearing your song again years later. I was 16, severely ill and
constantly in and out of hospitals, worsening by my own self-neglect. I felt hopeless
and lost. I wouldn’t talk to anyone. I stopped caring. And then your song came on the
To be on your own,
with no direction home,
like a complete unknown,
like a rolling stone…
That passing stream of trees streaked back into my mind: the breeze on my skin, the
colors in the air. I suddenly felt my own voice as I sang along with yours: “How does
it feel? How does it feel?”
To feel is perhaps as abstract as it gets, but you turned it into words. There is a
strange sense of solidarity to be found in the way we all feel through our lives.
Sometimes we just need another voice to sing along with when we can’t find our
Always your listener,