The Arts

Bob Dylan, the Enigmatic Storyteller Who Changed Songwriting

Not only did Dylan address everything from politics and war to social justice and love, he also made songs longer and longer, inspiring many others.

Not only did Dylan address everything from politics and war to social justice and love, he also made songs longer and longer, inspiring many others.

Bob Dylan. Credit: Xavier Badosa/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Bob Dylan. Credit: Xavier Badosa/Flickr CC BY 2.0

You fasten the triggers

For the others to fire

Then you sit back and watch

When the death count gets higher

You hide in your mansion

As young people’s blood

Flows out of their bodies

And is buried in the mud

– ‘Masters of War’, 1963

The power of Bob Dylan’s writings is such that they hold true through extended periods of history. ‘Masters of War’ is relevant even today as the world deals with divisions, the rise of right wing politics, terror, war and nationalism.

Arriving on the music scene in his simple and unassuming manner in 1960-61, Dylan wrote out ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and followed with that ‘The Times They are a-Changin’. Both songs became part of the civil rights movements of the time as well as the protests against war in Vietnam. He directed lines at congressman and senators telling them to give way to the views of the young: “There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’ / It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls / For the times they are a-changin’”.

‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ “became an anthem” that symbolised the generation gap, making Dylan the reluctant ‘spokesman’ for the youth revolt,” Peter Dreier wrote in The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.

But it wasn’t just what he wrote but how he wrote songs. With the arrival of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ – a song that was later declared the single greatest song of all time by Rolling Stones magazine – Dylan had changed the matrix of song writing. From four to five word lines, this song had seven to nine words in a line – something that no one had attempted.

He just didn’t do that, he made songs longer and longer, and somehow carried them off making his melodies the vehicle for powerful messages. ‘Desolation Row’ in 1965 was over 11 minutes long, pushing the limits of the length of songs. He literally opened this space for several other artists, be it Leonard Cohen, The Beatles, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young or even The Who.

Springsteen has often acknowledged the influence Dylan had on his music and songwriting in the early 1970s. “That snare shot sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind,” Springsteen is quoted as saying in the Rolling Stones. “When I was 15 and I heard ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ I heard a guy who had the guts to take on the whole world and who made me feel like I had to too,” he said.

Even John Lennon admitted to the involvement of Dylan in his expression as he moved away from the market and writing objective songs to more subjective ones describing what he felt. “It was Dylan who helped me realise that,” Lennon has reportedly said.

Unlike many songwriters, Dylan was a storyteller who could address politics, war, capitalism, social justice, love, religion or our daily lives. When it came to love, he had his own way of saying it. “People carry roses/ and make promises by the hours/ my love she laughs like the flowers/ Valentines can’t buy her,” he sang in ‘Love minus zero/No limit’. In ‘Love Sick’ (a 1997 Grammy-winning track) he referred to being “sick of love” and yet “love sick”. Earlier in the ‘Ballad For A Friend’, he writes about the death of a friend. In ‘Corrina Corrina’ he talks about love. In ‘Oxford Town’ he protests against racism. The list goes on.

Even though just about every other song of Dylan’s was dissected and analysed to find out what he meant, no one ever seemed to know what was in his mind. People have done PhDs on his writings and the medical fraternity has even seen some of his works being referred to several times in medical journals.

Yet, somehow, Dylan’s influence was not limited to merely what he wrote or said. In the mid 1970s after a near fatal crash, Dylan tried to find his way back into songwriting and the music scene. He found The Band at that time creating a classic – The Basement Tapes. This revived him and gave The Band a new stage of sorts.

Later on, Dylan toured with Grateful Dead and gave Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers a platform they had never seen. He also went on to call Mark Knopfler of the Dire Straits to join him for two albums – Slow Train Coming and Infidels. This, they say, helped Knopfler write long tracks that were evident in Dire Straits’ Love Over Gold album.

It was around that time (1983) that Dylan wrote ‘Union Sundown’ – a song that spelt out the disaster that the US economy was bound to face some 30 years later. He wrote: “Well, it’s sundown on the union/And what’s made in the U.S.A./Sure was a good idea/’Til greed got in the way.” While he referred to jobs, he spoke about productivity as well as “commodification of all things, nature included,” points out Brandon Turbeville in the Activist Post. “They used to grow food in Kansas/Now they want to grow it on the moon and eat it raw/I can see the day coming when even your home garden/Is gonna be against the law.” Again, a “prophetic” passage, according to Turbeville, referring to the US laws on planting gardens!

Even as he continues to host sell-out concerts, his raspy, croaky and at times troublesome voice has rarely allowed people to recognise his ability as a musician or composer or even a contributor to the success of other singers. ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’, for example, was a big hit for Eric Clapton and Guns N’ Roses; ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ gave The Byrds a name; ‘Blowin’ in The Wind’ was probably the biggest hit for Peter, Paul & Mary; ‘Make You Feel My Love’ was a huge hit for Adele, running up millions for her; ‘All Along The Watchtower’ was considered legendary for Jimi Hendrix. They were all Dylan songs.

Dylan continues to sing the way he has forever, with only age telling on his vocal chords. As Bono of U2 put it, “Almost no one sings like Elvis Presley any more. Hundreds try to sing like Dylan. To understand his impact as a singer, you have to imagine a world without Tom Waits, Kurt Cobain, Bruce Springsteen, Lucinda Williams or any other vocalist with a cracked voice, dirt bowl yelp or bluesy street howl.”

His influence has been so great that he was placed with the likes of T.S. Eliot, Gabriel García Márquez and Samuel Beckett when he was awarded the 2016 Noble Literature Prize. Salman Rushdie said Dylan is “the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition”.

Yet, even as Dylan continues to tour and puts out more music, he continues to be a mystery to many. Probably what encapsulates his great mind and unpredictability of thought, is his own words, “I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else.”