Never Just One Thing, Part II: The Nature of Dylan’s Art

For Part II of thoughts that arose for me while reading of Clinton Heylin's The Double Life of Bob Dylan, I'll turn to three of the main aspects of his songwriting development and artistry: the way he built on traditional song forms, his intense verbosity, and the multivalent nature of his songs.

Any investigation of Dylan's songwriting immediately reveals that a great number of his early successes were based almost note for note on traditional British and American songs. Apparently, because they were all public domain, this makes it legal. Now, when you mimic a modern copyrighted song, that's another matter. My friend, the late jazz pianist Joe Bonner recorded a brilliant album called Impressions of Copenhagen in the early 80s. When I listened to the title track with him I said, Hey, that sounds like "Moon River"! He replied, well, different enough to not get sued. Which was true. I still don't know how Led Zeppelin got away with cribbing the opening melody of "Stairway to Heaven" from the band Spirit. But I digress. The main thing to know is that when true artists "steal" existing melodies, they take it to a new level, a better level, or at least level that strikes a chord more widely and deeply with people. For example, the melody Hank Williams used for "Jambalaya" had been floating around for a long time, but Hank grabbed it and turned it into the only version anyone wants to hear. In the case of Dylan, A Hard's A Gonna Fall is a prime example. It's based on the Scottish ballad Lord Randall, a typical story song about a man who had been poisoned by his lover. It now becomes an apocalyptic psalm, worthy of the Biblical prophets, but with immediate resonances for those living under the specter of the nuclear destruction. The thing about basing your song on an old folk song is that the melodies feel good deep in your DNA, or at least strike a chord there. I remember seeing one of the shows during Springsteen's "stadium folk" tour from 10 or 15 years ago where he did rocked up versions of traditional songs. It felt so good, especially the encore of "Buffalo Gal" (a sentence I never thought I would write). It takes you into another place, somewhere emerging from the collective unconscious, as opposed to from the mind of a specific composer. So Dylan was building his songs on the strongest foundation possible. 

As his career and art advanced during the 60s he became less dependent on the old songs and more original in his compositions. But crucially, when, in the late 80s, his career was limping and his inspiration was a dried-up creek bed, it was by returning to the old songs that he that he sparked a creative rebirth, specifically with two early 90s albums, Good As I've Been To You and World Gone Wrong. Since then, he has pretty much stuck with the method of his early days. He has even explained it in more than one interview. What he does is take a song and run it continually through his head, sometimes picking it on his guitar. Eventually variations and extensions occur to him, and at that point he begins a new song. Thus, his strongest album of the last 25 years features all sorts of words and melodies that have been repurposed and played with, and he even admits it right in the title of the record: Love and Theft -- itself a phrase lifted from a book on minstrelsy. But now the sources have moved up into the early 20th century. "Bye and Bye" sounds just like Blue Moon in its opening phrases, and the very best melody on the whole album, found in the song "Sugar Baby," was taken directly from an obscure-to-us but not-to-Bob hit from 1927, "The Lonesome Road," sung by Gene Austin. In short, he revived his art by returning to history and craft. As he put it in a 2004 interview with Robert Hilburn, he couldn't write songs such as "Like A Rolling Stone" anymore, since that one came as if it was written by "ghost." But if he was touched by inspiration for a while, there still was a method to the madness back in those heady days.


Part I: Dylan’s Mysterious Musical Maturation

Part II: The Nature of Dylan’s Art

Part III: Dylan's Verbosity and the Path to Poetry

Part IV: Close Reading Dylan's "Idiot Wind"

Part V: Don't Overlook Dylan's Musicality

Part VI: On Dylan's Identity Tricksterism

Part VII: What Dylan Knows and Doesn't Know

Part VIII: Dylan, Taylor Swift, and Genius Inflation

Part IX: Close Reading "Simple Twist of Fate"

Part X: The Authentic Zen of "Love Minus Zero/No Limit"   


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