Rough Guide to Bob Dylan
One of my earliest memories is from the tender age of four, when my father introduced me to a man named Bob Dylan. He pulled out what was called a compact disc, or “CD”, which were all the rage at the time (or so I was told) and placed it onto the outstretched plastic tongue of the stereo. Together we waited as the machine slowly swallowed the disc, whirred to track one, and dropped into those eery few seconds of silence before the music begins. My life changed that day. Out rang this husky voice and a lonesome acoustic guitar, seasoned with sweet chimes of harmonica. On top of this, words danced movingly along the lines of the music, telling a story. I looked down at the CD case and saw a mysterious man with absurd curly hair, half shrouded in shadow and staring straight down the barrel of the camera lens.
Who was this man? I had never heard anything like him (although in fairness my listening experience by this point had not extended far beyond ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm’). Every day since this first encounter, Dylan has been there for me in some form or another. To me he is like a surrogate father, ironically introduced to me by my actual one. However, not everyone has been as lucky as me in getting to enjoy Dylan’s music for the last 20 years, so for those who are unconvinced, sceptical, or have never even heard of him, I have composed a definitive (and of course in no way biased) list of his 10 best songs over a career spanning 60 years. May this playlist catapult you into the wonderful world of Dylan.
But first you may want some concrete information on top of the sentimental ramblings of someone you have never even met. Starting out in Greenwich Village, NY, in the late 1950s, Dylan could be found playing the folk clubs such as the The Gaslight Cafe or Café Wha? alongside other folk artists such as Dave Van Ronk and Joan Baez. With only a guitar and his voice, he was initially inspired by Woody Guthrie’s music to play classic folk songs, before proceeding to write his own material and release ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ and ‘The Times They Are a-Changing’. Dylan has always resented and rejected the widely held view of these as two seminal albums of the folk and protest song era; but whether he likes it or not,
his work was influential for many millions across the United States at the time, as he wrote articulately and beautifully about the issues that were dividing American society at the time. His lyrics cover themes such as race, war, and justice, which provided an appropriate soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
However, if there’s one thing that’s true about Dylan, it’s that he’s a bastard. Just when he was being heralded as the saviour of folk, he turned up to the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and committed the most heinous crime a folk artist ever could: he plugged in his guitar.
If there's one thing true about Dylan, it's that he's a bastard.
The day Dylan went electric is one that some will never forget, nor forgive – I sometimes wonder whether there are octogenarians out there still squirming in their rocking chairs at the thought of Dylan picking up a Stratocaster for the first time. He was branded a Judas by the folk community, as his music was propelled into the mainstream. Entering his ‘rock phase’, he released three albums between 1965-66: ‘Bringing it all Back Home’, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and ‘Blonde on Blonde’, which some argue contain his finest music and lyrics to date. It was this work from the mid-60s that influenced so many other popular artists of the time such as The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell (to name just a few).
After this, tragedy struck as Dylan was in a motorcycle accident. He went through a period of seclusion before returning in the late 60s with several country albums, including a collaborative album with Johnny Cash. In the mid-70s he released two (pretty obviously) semi-autobiographical albums about love and heart break, which Dylan still denies are even remotely based on his own life. Some critics consider this to be his best work.
1980s to Present
Early 1980s Dylan is characterised by his conversion to Christianity – another phase which alienated his fanbase. In June 1988 he embarked on his ‘Never Ending Tour’ which, as the title may suggest, is yet to end. Dylan is still making music, writing, and performing to this day. While his more recent material may never stand up to the quality of his early awe-inspiring songs from the 60s and 70s, the fact that he is still creating is a testament to an artist who has inspired three generations of fans over the course of his career. That’s a feat very few artists achieve.
Of course, there is far more that could be said about the man, and I suspect other Dylan enthusiasts may read this thinking this idiot knows nothing, how could he not mention such and such…! but that’s part of fun of being a fan and, truthfully, 20 years in I am still learning about Dylan and his work myself. Making this list is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, and I curse the editor for only allowing me 10 songs. Dylan’s sheer magnitude of back catalogue is one of his main draws – there is just so much to listen to! I could ramble on about the man for hours on end, but the best way to learn about Dylan is through Dylan himself… So here we are, in chronological order, the top ten Bob Dylan songs:
He Was a Friend of Mine (recorded 1961, released 1991)
This is a classic folk song and the only one on this list not actually written by Dylan himself, but it offers insight into his origins and influences. The tragic story is told by a man mourning for his deceased friend. In this performance especially, Dylan uses the harmonica in a way that captures the sombre tone of the song, yet retains a dimension of joy, which one could imagine looking back in fondness at a friend who is sadly no longer around.
Blowin’ in the Wind (1963)
Arguably Dylan’s most famous and influential song. This is the first track of ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’, and I struggle to think of any other album that opens with such a powerful and important track. Dylan asks, “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?”, voicing the question on America’s lips as the struggle for Civil Rights raged throughout the 1960s.
The Times They Are a-Changing (1964)
Another protest song which encapsulates the sentiment of younger generations at its time of release. The combination of a beautifully simple chord progression and playful lyrics makes this song arguably the closest to anthemic that Dylan gets. Its brilliance is proved by its ongoing relevance, despite being written 60 odd years ago. It is the epitome of the intersection of the Civil Rights and Folk movements.
Maggie’s Farm (1965)
This is a more left-field, personal choice. It’s the first Dylan song I fell in love with; the first one my father played me. It is one of the first tracks to come out of Dylan’s monumental shift from acoustic to electric guitar and is the song that first shook the crowd at the Newport Folk Festival. He creates a stunning metaphor for the music and media industry, as well as people’s expectations from him – tearing them to pieces and rejecting their demands. He howls “I try my best to be just like I am / But everybody wants you to be just like them” as his guitar rings louder than it ever had done before.
Like a Rolling Stone (1965)
This is the Bob Dylan song. The first note of the Hammond organ played by Al Kooper hits and instantly sets the tone for an awe-inspiring, epic track that spins you into the weird and wonderful world of Dylan. ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ was the sign that Dylan’s folk days were well and truly over
It has such a powerful impact, with all the instruments playing at top volume and Dylan’s vocals bounding through the chaos with that strained huskiness for which he is renowned. So much has been written about this song; the significance of it, yadda yadda yadda, but in reality it’s just an absolute banger, nothing more need be said.
Ballad of a Thin Man (1965)
In another powerful opening, Dylan plays a dark, clunking progression on the piano, which mirrors the movement of the song’s protagonist as he walks. The words are written from the perspective of an elusive Mr. Jones, as he encounters a world he does not understand. This is another vicious attack on the world and people that inhabit it, but again Dylan does it in a playful way, with vivid imagery. Mr. Jones becomes discombobulated with questions, surrounded by the misfits Dylan constructs.
I Want You (1966)
The first love song on this list. In my opinion, this track demonstrates the leap forward Dylan makes lyrically in this album. The multi-instrumentality retains Dylan’s distinct style despite being far off his original simplicity of man and acoustic guitar. The melody is sweet and haunting, holding within it the sense of longing conveyed in the words. This is the perfect example of the complexity of Dylan’s music catching up to the sophistication of his words, and he tells a story through the two media combined.
All Along the Watchtower (1967)
This song may be better known by Jimi Hendrix fans; his 1968 cover takes the song, combines it with remarkable virtuosic musicianship and creates arguably the greatest guitar solo of all time. But he could not have achieved this without Dylan, whose original came out the year before. This album (‘John Wesley Harding’) sees Dylan return to the simpler song structure of his early career while retaining the lyrical complexity of his mid-60s material. In the opening he plays the harmonica like a siren – fluctuating hypnotically between notes. It builds steadily throughout the song, gathering character and feeling. Although Hendrix’s version may be more popular and technically impressive, there is something to be said about the emotion that Dylan manages to convey in this song with just three chords, a harmonica and his unique brand of singing.
Tangled Up in Blue (1975)
This comes from ‘Blood on the Tracks’, written after Dylan’s marriage disintegrated. There is a warmth in the tone of the guitar and such passion in Dylan’s vocals that it’s hard to believe this song doesn’t draw on anything from Dylan’s own life (as he claims). It follows a love affair across time, with two people who are constantly meeting and missing each other (in both senses of the verb). He writes with such clarity and passion that really his words transcend the universe of song writing and become poetry.
This is about Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, a black boxer accused of murder in the 1970s who Dylan famously went to prison to meet. The song is a powerful bid for justice as Rubin was falsely accused – hailing back to Dylan’s protest song days. This song and the rest of the album features a violin played by Scarlet Rivera, which accompanies the narration of Carter’s story beautifully. The song brought Carter’s case to the public’s attention, helping stimulate much-needed discussion about race in America.
Illustration: Adam Gilleard
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