Dylan’s quirky tribute to the songs of his generation 

Through his long career, Bob Dylan has created a niche for himself in the American song tradition. In his new book, he deepens the narrative.

Updated - November 23, 2022 01:20 pm IST

Published - November 23, 2022 12:28 pm IST

Bob Dylan. File

Bob Dylan. File | Photo Credit: Reuters

From 2006 to 2009, Bob Dylan hosted Theme Time Radio Hour, taking listeners on a journey through musical history. Some of the songs were well-known, others were rare and almost lost, and topics included anything from stones to presidents, tears to flowers. Episode 1 was dedicated to the Weather, and a raspy woman’s voice, with the sound of rain in the background, set it up with these words: “It’s night time in the big city/ Rain is falling, fog rolls in from the waterfront/ A night shift nurse smokes the last cigarette in a pack.” 

With possibilities endless, Dylan came on with a growly voice, “Curious about what the weather looks like? Just look out your window, take a walk outside,” and played from a set-list that included Muddy Waters (“Blow Wind Blow”), Jimi Hendrix (“The Wind Cries Mary”), Judy Garland (“Come Rain or Shine”), Slim Harpo (“Raining in My Heart”), The Staple Singers (“Uncloudy Day”), and so forth. As Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” winded down, Dylan remarked, “West coast weather is the weather of catastrophe. The Santa Ana winds are like the winds of the apocalypse. But the summer wind that Frank’s singing about may be a little lighter. Come on in, Frank.” 

Expansive and quirky 

Bob Dylan. File

Bob Dylan. File | Photo Credit: AP

In his new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan uses a similarly expansive approach to pen a quirky insight into the history and culture of popular American music. Garland’s song is in the book — “this song is a declaration of faith, a solemn vow,” he writes. With stunning photographs (the first in the book is of Elvis Presley at a vinyl store, gazing at albums including his own), film posters, book covers and lyrics, he runs through the songs of artists including Elvis Costello and Presley, Hank Williams, Sinatra, Merle Haggard and Nina Simone. In 60-odd essays, the iconoclast gives us a glimpse of his influences and what he has learnt from their words and craft. 

Like his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One (2004), where he waxes eloquent on how he made the journey to New York which set him on his way, how he dealt with a writer’s block mid-career when he nearly gave it all up, and a deeply-felt impression of New Orleans, these essays are written in his inimitable style, mysterious and funny, and have been in the works since 2010. Through his long career, he created a niche for himself in the American song tradition, winning, controversially (fans won’t agree), a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. Right from “Blowing in the Wind” and “Times They Are A-Changin’” in the 1960s to his 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan has pretty much taken the road less travelled, choosing to be true to himself, hit or miss. 

When he was hailed as the voice of the generation for folk music, he promptly plugged in his electric guitar; when fans booed him for going electric, he toured the world with The Band and then later teamed up with The Grateful Dead; when people complained about his croaking voice, he decided to sing Sinatra.  

In short, he has influenced a whole new generation of singers to do their thing. In his autobiography, Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen calls Dylan “the father of my country”. He says in records like Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing it all Back Home, Dylan asked the questions everyone else was too frightened to ask. “How does it feel… to be on your own?” in “Like a Rolling Stone”, for instance, “served as a beacon to assist you in making your way through the wilderness America had become. [Dylan] planted a flag, wrote the songs, sang the words that were essential to the times.” For Springsteen, Dylan showed him and other musicians how to be a voice that reflected the experience and the world they lived in. 

Those who shone a light

In this book, Dylan pays tribute to generations of musicians who shone a light, to inner and external turmoil, and the way to finding a place in the flow of history. Dylan, who has always insisted that he is a big fan of Little Richard, picks “Tutti Frutti”, which was released as a single in 1955, and deep-dives into the significance of the song. “There’s a lot of people… slipping by in the shady world of sex and dreams… He’s saying something is happening. The world’s gonna fall apart. He’s a preacher. Tutti Frutti is sounding the alarm.” Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” is a “murderous ballad”; Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” is a “song of a travelling bandit… [it is] about the joy of moving, not staying anywhere. The thing about being on the road is that you’re not bogged down by anything. Not even bad news. You give pleasure to other people and you keep your grief to yourself.” A sentiment Dylan shares perhaps, having been on the road, touring, against all odds for years, which continues even now when he is over 80 years old. 

He picks “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead, and whether Deadheads agree or not, he calls them essentially a dance band, with the guy singing the song acting and talking like who he is — “and not the way others would want him to talk and act.” For Jimmy Reed, he zeroes in on “Big Boss Man”, and calls Reed “the most country of all the blues artists in the 1950s”; in an accompanying piece, Dylan uses a picture of Marlon Brando in The Godfather and writes about another of Reed’s songs, “Let it Roll”. “He knew what he was talking about. ‘You’ve got me runnin’, you’ve got me hidin’, you’ve got me run, hide, hide, run anyway you wanna, let it roll.” Dylan’s “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” in his Rough and Rowdy Ways album is a tribute to the “electric simplicity” of the blues musician.    

Strangely, there’s no Woody Guthrie or Joan Baez or even Dave Van Ronk, but the folk era and “remembrance of things past” is represented by Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”, about a “newcomer, a raw recruit… playing war games in the swamplands.” From the war in Vietnam to the suppression of freedom of expression in the McCarthy era, everything falls under its gaze. 

At a press conference after the release of Highway 61 Revisited (1965), a journalist asked him whether he thought of himself as a poet or a singer, and Dylan quipped: “Oh I think of myself as a song and dance man!” The writing is uneven at places, the metaphors too stretched, but Dylan is having fun, and like he has been saying through his songs, urging readers not to take everything so seriously.  

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