(Since it’s Bob Dylan’s birthday, I decided to write about him – again.)
Say what you want about greatest hits collections, but one greatest hits collection changed my life. On a break from college freshmen year, my dad decided to take me out to Borders to buy me some music to cheer me up since I was having a hard time adjusting to college-life. My dad never quite understood my obsession with music, so it was significant that he would want to take me out to get music. I couldn’t think of a CD to buy, and on a whim I decided on The Essential Bob Dylan. My dad looked at my selection and asked me if I was sure. He may not have understood rock and roll, or my obsession with music, but I could tell that he knew who Bob Dylan was.
Once I got back to school and started listening to the CDs, I decided to do some research on Dylan. If my dad knew of him, surely his influence must have been vast. Once I started looking around, I realized that most of the other artists that I liked practically worshipped Dylan. How had I been missing out on him all these years?
It wasn’t until I discovered “Visions of Johanna” that I became obsessed after hearing in it in English class. (This is what majoring in English is good for us let me tell you.) My professor told us the line about the jelly-faced women sneezing is actually referring to a painting. (For the life of me, I wish I wrote down the name of the painting, but you don’t really think about those things at 20.) I knew Dylan was literate, but that little bit of information totally changed my view of him. Here was a guy who was basically taking my love of literature and poetry and putting it to music.
I quickly when out and bought both Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited, and to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, Dylan’s music opened up a whole new world for me. It’s a world full of circus freaks, historical figures doing absurd things, literary figures trapped by their sins and lifeless, and quite often having the upper-hand in relationships. It’s also a world where civils rights and protest is brought to forefront. While Dylan never played punk-rock, he retains its spirit in being anti-authority. In Dylan’s world, nothing stays the same, and going against the grain is not just a credo, it’s a way of life. Just when you think you’ve understood him, he turns the other way. (For instance, lots of people were expecting Christmas in the Heart to be a very absurd take on the Christmas tradition, but by making a traditional Christmas album, Dylan managed to go against people’s expectations of his version of Christmas. In that way, it is very Dylan.)
Before listening to Dylan, I thought I knew a lot about music. As it turns out, by listening to Dylan, I found out how little I knew and have to learn. Nashville Skyline gave me a further introduction to Johnny Cash and traditional country music. The Basement Tapes provided me insight into Americana and folk music. After listening to The American Anthology of Folk Music (which if you haven’t listened to, I highly recommend it) I began to understand where Dylan fit in with folk music. To those who says they can’t stand his voice, his first few albums were sung in the voice that was part of a tradition of old folk music – he was just the first to truly popularize it.
By taking cues from folk singers and creating his own stamp on that world, Dylan recreated musical history. So many of his early songs such as Blowin in the Wind, The Times They Are A-Changing, and A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall have been such standards and are so rich, it’s almost hard to believe that they aren’t traditional. When Dylan and the Band recorded “Apple Suckling Tree”, many of the members of The Band, thought it was in fact, a traditional, and not a Dylan original. Ultimately, unless you’re a folk-purist it’s almost impossible to listen to American folk music, without conjuring up Bob Dylan into your mind. To many, he is American folk music personified.
American Folk music isn’t just the only type of music that Dylan has influenced vastly. Almost every single genre of popular music has been filtered through Dylan in one way or another. The Beatles began to shy away from songs about girls after listening to The Freewheeling Bob Dylan. The great soul legend Sam Cooke covered “Blowin’ in the Wind”, Dylan himself dabbled in gospel during his Christian-period, and along with The Band, he single-handedly created alternative country. And while Dylan has written many songs better than “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, with its quick barrage of lyrics and accompanying promotional film was a forerunner to rap, and MTV.
Besides his vast catalogue of songs, I think tend to think part of the appeal of Dylan is his attitude and mystique. I’ve read quite a few books about the man, and I still don’t know that much about him. Whether they admit it or not, almost every single person who listens to Dylan wishes they could take off for New York, erase the past and start a new life. While many writers and artists try their best to subvert the system and attempt to say “fuck it”, Dylan did just that several times throughout his career. It didn’t always work (think the Christian-period). But when in the mid 60’s Dylan took the attitude of, “fuck it, I’m going to do what I want, consequences be damned” and went electric, the world came around to him.
As much as I (or others) would love to have Dylan’s attitude and constantly be on the move, to paraphrase Bono – we’d all just be happy carrying his guitar-case. So happy birthday, Bob.
(Also if you’re interested, check out my literary comparison between Dylan and James Joyce.)