Bob Dylan brought the folk traditions of artists such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to both the mainstream and beatnik culture of America, and into the rock and roll era. His writing provided a more thoughtful counterpart to The Beatles and the other musicians of the era, who were always more commercially successful, fusing popular music with an intellectuality and social conscience. His lyrics were the first to be analysed and seriously regarded as literature and his words today represent part of the Western Canon, cited by presidents, scholars and musicians in equal measure (Rolling Stone 2001).
For five decades he has been writing and performing, and his works are hugely varied in musical and lyrical content, from blues-influenced anti-war sing-alongs to ecclesiastical-funk in the rather forgettable born-again Christian years. His lyrics’ social commentary – particularly in his earlier years – truly fulfils the role of folk-music in spreading tales and ideas by oral means, which will always be a refreshing memory of when the large proportion of popular songs didn’t seem to revolve around either fellatio or handguns.
Biography Ethnic/Racial Roots and Early Years Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman into a Jewish family in Minnesota, where he grew up in the earliest years of rock and roll, and popular music as a whole. While his Jewish roots had little effect on his musicianship and career, it was the work of singers such as Elvis and Little Richard that led the boy to pursue both the piano and the electric guitar – which he would later shun for many years – and begin to write music; performing in several high school bands.
He also found an icon in James Dean, collecting memorabilia (Life in Hibbing 2002) and riding a motorcycle, which would almost kill him and send him into his longest period of seclusion in the late 60s. Though overshadowed for many years by his folk-revival status, rock and roll was what had the greatest influence his youth and earliest musical beginnings. Music Formative Years In his high-school yearbook, Dylan is said to have written his ambition as being ‘to join Little Richard’ (No Direction Home 1998), however folk music replaced these ambitions during his brief education at the University of Minneapolis.
The shift away from rock and roll can be attributed to his maturity, and it is in these years that he truly becomes a poet. After dropping out of university, he began using the name ‘Bob Dylan’ for the first time, and moved to New York City in search of his idol, the folk-hero Woody Guthrie. It was his relationship with Guthrie that defined these years, and he spent a huge amount of time at the ailing man’s bedside, as well as growing in popularity within the Greenwich Village folk scene, performing in many small clubs around New York.
It was at the age of only 21 that he released his eponymous debut album and his commercial career began. Performing Career Dylan has recorded thirty-three albums since 1962, and – as I mentioned in the introduction – been through several significant phases in his music and his life. Aside from typical musical development – most significantly ‘going electric’ in 1965 and putting his grassroots folk beginnings behind him – his most interesting paths have been his personal ones.
With a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966, the end of the beginning of his career was ended abruptly, and he was sent into seclusion for many years, performing rarely and releasing albums of very inconsistent quality, repudiated by many of his earlier fans. He was honored by the music industry in 1991 with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, and at the ceremony he delivered a speech which rather epitomized his opinion of his career; stating that “My daddy once said to me, he said, ‘Son, it is possible for you to become so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you.
If that happens, God will believe in your ability to mend your own ways. ‘” (Behind The Shades 2003). Discography The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) In his second studio album, Dylan for the first time performs only his own songs. In the midst of his years in the Greenwich folk scene, the songs are largely performed with only vocals and guitar, and the occasional harmonica solo, and represent the most bare and traditionally folk of Dylan’s works. The album’s opening track ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ is his most well-known early song, and the classic example of the ‘protest song’ which he was known for.
Highway 61 Revisited (1965) Dylan’s sixth studio album, ‘Highway 61…’ was the first he recorded with a full backing band, and represented a return his rock and roll roots. A departure from the often light-hearted grassroots folk songs of his earlier career, the album is emotionally intense and far more serious. Offending many of his folk fans, Dylan was booed off during his second performance of the album by the crowd Folk Festival in England, whose rage was directed symbolically at his electric guitar, seen as a particular betrayal.
The album’s best-known song ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ was in 2004 named the ‘Greatest Song of All-Time’ by Rolling Stone magazine. Desire (1976) One of his most commercially successful albums, and the most acclaimed in the on-off period of the 70s and 80s, Desire was the most folk-influenced of the era for Dylan. The album was recorded with somewhat of a bordello of travelling musicians, with whom Dylan had toured and written with for the past year or so.
The album’s opening track, Hurricane is one of his later protest songs, and – of the 4 songs over seven minutes on the album – an almost epic ballad, and his best example of classic folk storytelling. Modern Times (2006) His second album of the new millennium, Modern Times is a blues-rock orientated album, a genre not explored extensively in his earlier career. Singing with an impossibly rough voice, Dylan was in his mid-60s during the album’s recording, yet the album was well received by critics, many of whom suggested it was among the best of his career.
His rendition of’ Someday Baby’, a blues ballad allegedly first written by Muddy Waters (Wikipedia), was awarded a Grammy for the best solo male rock song in the year after its released. Critical Commentary ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ Highway 61 Revisited (1965) Music To the folk purists of Greenwich Village who Dylan had grown to detest, the first few seconds of Like A Rolling Stone embodied Dylan’s ascent into the grand musical landscapes of rock, with a single strike of the bass drum introducing the famous organ, piano and guitar melody which continues throughout the 6 minute song.
Immediately fast-paced and energetic the instrumentation reflects an escape from the relative constraints of the one-man-band acoustic guitar, harmonica and voice which Dylan had brought to the mainstream in previous albums. The songs surface rhythm is fairly conventional and consistent, with a largely unadventurous drum kit and tambourine keeping time throughout for the guitar and organ, but beneath this, the jangly bar-room piano is moving through rag/blues improvisations and straying from the rhythm in the background.
The organ which so anthematically opens the song, compliments Dylan’s vocals throughout, wailing the celebrated riff of the chorus, but it never approaches drowning out his voice in any way, again firmly our of the foreground. The melody is for the most part led by the organ, which plays for the songs entirety and works around several chords, without any significantly adventurous breaks. On top of this are several solos, by the lead guitar, which carries the vocals into the chorus, and the harmonica, which stands as a reminder of Dylan’s folk roots.
Lyrics The song has been interpreted for decades in enormous detail, but we can see clearly that Dylan is recounting at essence two sides of a fall from grace; directed at a “princess on the steeple” who to lives in a blind decadence, while warned that she is “bound to fall”, but who lands up “scrounging around for [her] next meal”. Many have claimed the song is directed at Dylan’s one time lover, actress Edie Sedgwick, whose drug addiction and early death greatly affected the singer.
Each of the five stanzas follows a similar rhythmic and rhyming structure, and follows a similar content structure in beginning by referencing the subject’s indulgence and ignorance, and consequentially linking it to the desolation of her current condition – “You said you’d never compromise/With the mystery tramp, but now you realise he’s not sellin’ any alibis” In this example the bold word indicates the shift in the whole stanza and the almost condescending manner in which Dylan delivers it, like the conclusion of a fable – drawing a moral lesson from an unfortunate scenario.
The chorus asks rhetorically and yet pleadingly, “How does it feel? To be on your own…with no direction home” and seems to blame the subject for her position, but – especially considering the last line of the quote – Dylan could see some of himself in the character. After spending so long escaping his upbringing Dylan had been rejected by the community he ran away to join and heartbroken, and it is this aspect which is the song’s most poignant. For more information www. bobdylanroots.
com – This website catalogs the musical and social bases of Dylan’s work, and has compiled many articles and influences relating to his influences. It also contains an extensive lyrics library which I used in analyzing ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and many audio and video files of recordings and performances. http://folkmusic. about. com – This extensive catalog of articles has a particularly good section on protest songs, and the significance of folk music in the anti-war and civil rights movements.
The article entitled ‘Who’s The Next Bob Dylan’ also provided me with some new names in folk music to pursue Citations Romanowski et al. The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll – (Simon & Schuster, 2001) A Tribute to Bob Dylan – Life in Hibbing. www. hibbing. org – (Copyright 2002) Shelton. No Direction Home – (Penguin, 1987) Heylin. Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited – (Harper, 2003) Wikipedia – Modern Times (album). en. wikipedia. org