Bob Dylan - The Man, his Music and Legacy

Posted by Unknown On Wednesday, December 8, 2010 4 comments
The first time I sang "Blowing in the Wind" was in the privacy of my bedroom as a little girl because the refrain was so catchy but I did not think much about the lyrics until I was in primary school. My penchant for his music was revived during Brownie meetings and singalong sessions especially during campfires. From then, my fascination about Bob Dylan began.

By the time I learnt to play the guitar at the age of 12, "Blowing in the Wind", "The Times They Are A-Changing" and hit singles by other artistes were my firm favorites. As I moved into my teens, his music and works had an impact on me and I thoroughly enjoyed studying about him, his works, philosophy and its significance while in university and later teaching about his role in counter culture in my courses.

I find Bob Dylan to be one of the most fascinating artistes of the 20th/21st century. Not many would be aware that he is such a gifted American singer-songwriter, author, poet, and painter, who has been a major figure in popular music for five decades. Dylan was nominated four consecutive times for the Nobel Prize in Literature (1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 and you can read more over HERE). Bob Dylan's lyrics have been the subject of university literature courses and countless scholarly discourses. Even my older boy, a 2nd year music student was dumbfounded when he discovered in one of his major courses that it was Dylan who had a profound influence on the Fab Four (Beatles) not just in their music but also as the one who introduced them to cannabis! Now, my boy and I share even more similarities in our musical taste and we have had many interesting discussions on Dylan.

Much of Dylan's most celebrated work dates from the 1960s, when he became an informal chronicler and a reluctant figurehead of American unrest. A number of his songs, such as "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are a-Changin'", became anthems of both the civil rights movements and of those opposed to the Vietnam War.

According to Wikipedia:

Dylan's early lyrics incorporated political, social, philosophical, and literary influences, defying existing pop music conventions and appealing widely to the counterculture. While expanding and personalizing musical styles, he has explored many traditions of American song, from folk, blues and country to gospel, rock and roll and rockabilly to English, Scottish and Irish folk music, and even jazz and swing. Dylan performs with the guitar, piano and harmonica. Backed by a changing line-up of musicians, he has toured steadily since the late 1980s on what has been dubbed the "Never Ending Tour". Although his accomplishments as performer and recording artist have been central to his career, his songwriting is generally regarded as his greatest contribution.

Throughout his career, Dylan has won many awards for his songwriting, performing, and recording. His records have earned Grammy, Golden Globe, and Academy Awards, and he has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2008, a "Cultural Pathway" was named in Dylan's honor in his birthplace, Duluth. In 2008, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for his "profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power."

His Legacy

Bob Dylan has been described as one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, musically and culturally. Dylan was included in the Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century where he was called "master poet, caustic social critic and intrepid, guiding spirit of the counterculture generation". In 2004, he was ranked number two in Rolling Stone magazine's list of "Greatest Artists of All Time". Dylan biographer Howard Sounes placed him in even more exalted company when he said, "There are giant figures in art who are sublimely good—Mozart, Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, Shakespeare, Dickens. Dylan ranks alongside these artists."

Initially modelling his style on the songs of Woody Guthrie, and lessons learnt from the blues of Robert Johnson, Dylan added increasingly sophisticated lyrical techniques to the folk music of the early 60s, infusing it "with the intellectualism of classic literature and poetry". Paul Simon suggested that Dylan's early compositions virtually took over the folk genre: "[Dylan's] early songs were very rich ... with strong melodies. "Blowin' in the Wind" has a really strong melody. He so enlarged himself through the folk background that he incorporated it for a while. He defined the genre for a while."

When Dylan made his move from acoustic music to a rock backing, the mix became more complex. For many critics, Dylan's greatest achievement was the cultural synthesis exemplified by his mid-'60s trilogy of albums—Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. In Mike Marqusee's words: "Between late 1964 and the summer of 1966, Dylan created a body of work that remains unique. Drawing on folk, blues, country, R&B, rock'n'roll, gospel, British beat, symbolist, modernist and Beat poetry, surrealism and Dada, advertising jargon and social commentary, Fellini and Mad magazine, he forged a coherent and original artistic voice and vision. The beauty of these albums retains the power to shock and console."

One legacy of Dylan’s verbal sophistication was the increasing attention paid by literary critics to his lyrics. Professor Christopher Ricks published a 500 page analysis of Dylan’s work, placing him in the context of Eliot, Keats and Tennyson, and claiming that Dylan was a poet worthy of the same close and painstaking analysis. The poet laureate of Great Britain, Andrew Motion, argued that Bob Dylan’s lyrics should be studied in schools. Dylan has been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Dylan’s voice was, in some ways, as startling as his lyrics. New York Times critic Robert Shelton described Dylan's early vocal style as "a rusty voice suggesting Guthrie's old performances, etched in gravel like Dave Van Ronk's."When the young Bobby Womack told Sam Cooke he didn’t understand Dylan’s vocal style, Cooke explained that: “from now on, it's not going to be about how pretty the voice is. It's going to be about believing that the voice is telling the truth.” Rolling Stone magazine ranked Dylan at number seven in their 2008 listing of “The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time”. Bono commented that “Dylan has tried out so many personas in his singing because it is the way he inhabits his subject matter.”

Dylan's influence has been felt in several musical genres. As Edna Gundersen stated in USA Today: "Dylan's musical DNA has informed nearly every simple twist of pop since 1962." Many musicians have testified to Dylan's influence, such as Joe Strummer, who praised Dylan as having "laid down the template for lyric, tune, seriousness, spirituality, depth of rock music." Other musicians to have acknowledged Dylan's importance include John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Syd Barrett, Nick Cave, Patti Smith Joni Mitchell,Cat Stevens and Tom Waits.

If Dylan’s legacy in the 1960s was seen as bringing intellectual ambition to popular music, as Dylan advances into his sixties, he is today described as a figure who has greatly expanded the folk culture from which he initially emerged. As J. Hoberman wrote in The Village Voice, "Elvis might never have been born, but someone else would surely have brought the world rock 'n' roll. No such logic accounts for Bob Dylan. No iron law of history demanded that a would-be Elvis from Hibbing, Minnesota, would swerve through the Greenwich Village folk revival to become the world's first and greatest rock 'n' roll beatnik bard and then—having achieved fame and adoration beyond reckoning—vanish into a folk tradition of his own making."

Please read the whole entry about Bob Dylan in Wikipedia and A Bob Dylan timeline to appreciate the life and works of this exceptional man.

I wish I could have been like Dylan to write such beautiful, passionate works and music. The fact that his music and his repute has survived decades speaks volumes about his giftings. To write this post, I spent the whole of Saturday evening and Sunday morning reading and listening to his works and I am just awestruck by the timelessness of his messages, perspective and interpretation of his own compositions.

I honestly hope that you will click on the following links that I have put together, you can appreciate how while the lyrics of his songs remain unchanged, his interpretation in terms of his vocal delivery and musical orchestration matures through time. Do you agree with my views of the different versions? I would love to hear from you.

My all-time favorite is of course Blowing in the Wind.

* 1963 version of this song is over here and you can see the naivety and innocence in his voice, immaturity in his strumming and musical form of the whole song. It almost seems as though all he wants to do is to sing it out - his lyrics and music for all to hear - the simple innocence of a man with a social conscience with his boyish demeanour and typical 1960's hairstyle.

* 1971 version as performed in Madison Square in the Concert for Bangladesh is at this link. You can see the strumming is in a different style and even his prowess with the harmonica is more superior moving in and out of folk, rock and jazz.The same nasal voice is evident but this time, there is an almost yodelling effect in the way he sings the chorus.

* My favorite version is the 1978 version as performed at The Budokan. Unfortunately, the video is no longer available in youtube.

Ohhhh the sensual background vocals in such beautiful harmony, his mellow, melancholic voice at his most expressive mode and mood, and how he takes liberty to ad lib with the original melody gradually even right from the first note and building into a crescendo in synch with the back-up musicians - I could not ask for more but just to drink in the enigma of Bob Dylan!!!!

We don't get musicians like him any more - one who pays so much attention to minute details e.g. the solid guitar solo starting at 2:13 and entry of the other guitars interweaving (2:30) with the beautiful vocals crooning the refrain(2:45) before he unwinds in the last part of the song in a different tone (from 3:09). Man oh man - the way he sings the last refrain in 4:05 has an almost desperate cry from Dylan as to how urgent it is for us to see reality which is right before our eyes! Yup! Only Dylan dares to break barriers and NOT to conform to how his audience expects him to deliver the typical Dylan treatment of this song. Well, he dared to step beyond what is normal and performed LIVE this marvellous magical version of Blowing in the Wind.

Knocking on Heaven's Door is my No. 2 favorite and this version over here is the most popular link but it does not have an accompanying video but this version at this link is also not too bad, especially if you dig the twanging of the electric guitar and a more upbeat feel. Dylan started to use electric instruments in 1965 whereas previously, he was most at home with the acoustic guitar and harmonica. I cannot deny that the Guns N' Roses version is more powerful especially in the guitars and percussion as seen at this link but to me, nothing is better than a song performed by the composer himself for only he knows the correct interpretation and feel to the song; after all, he is the one who put it all together!

Then there is The Times They Are A-Changing which Dylan wrote in 1964 which reflected his political inclination and cynicism as a result of his involvement in the civil rights movements. You can see it at this link here and the 1978 Budokan version over HERE.

I could go on endlessly and wax lyrical about Dylan or Beatles or Hollies etc. but I will end this post with one of his lesser known songs called Union Sundown (available at this link) from the Infidels album released in 1983 which mentions MALAYSIA in the third line!!!! Dylan is a man beyond his time. He correctly prophesied the downfall of USA and failure of democracy in Union Sundown which was written 27 years ago!!!! Consider the lyrics of the song and then perhaps you may realize why I am a die hard Dylan fan!!! Please leave a comment if you wish. Thanks and have a nice day.

UNION SUNDOWN by Bob Dylan (1983)

Well, my shoes, they comes from Singapore
My flashlight's from Taiwan
My tablecloth's from Malaysia
My belt buckle's from the Amazon
You know, this shirt I wear comes from the Philippines
And the car I drive is a Chevrolet
It was put together down in Argentina
By a guy making thirty cents a day.

Well, it's sundown on the union
And what's made in the USA
Sure was a good idea
'Til greed got in the way.

Well, this silk dress is from Hong Kong
And the pearls are from Japan
Well, the dog collar's from India
And the flower pot's from Pakistan
All the furniture it said "Made in Brazil"
Where a woman, she slaved for sure
Bringing home thirty cents a day to a family of twelve
You know, that's a lot of money to her.

Well, it's sundown on the union
And what's made in the USA
Sure was a good idea
'Til greed got in the way.

Well, you know, lots of people complaining that there is no work
I say, "Why you say that for
When nothing you got is US made ?"
They don't make nothing here no more
You know, capitalism is above the law
It say, "it don't count 'less it sells"
When it costs too much to build it at home
You just build it cheaper someplace else.

Well, it's sundown on the union
And what's made in the USA
Sure was a good idea
'Til greed got in the way.
Well, the job that you used to have
They gave it to somebody down in El Salvador
The unions are big business, friend
And they're going out like a dinosaur
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.

Well, it's sundown on the union
And what's made in the USA
Sure was a good idea
'Til greed got in the way.

Democracy don't rule the world
You'd better get that in your head
This world is ruled by violence
But I guess that's better left unsaid
From Broadway to the Milky Way
That's a lot of territory indeed
And a man's gonna do what he has to do
When he's got a hungry mouth to feed.

Well, it's sundown on the union
And what's made in the USA
Sure was a good idea
'Til greed got in the way.

*I wrote this post on Sunday, March 29th last year. This post was first published HERE and made it to a few international websites.

4 comments to Bob Dylan - The Man, his Music and Legacy

  1. says:

    joshua wong Hi MWS,

    It seemed none of the link works. Maybe because your original post is over a year ago.

    But your write-up is very good lah, especially the details of the song "Blowing In The Wind" like guitar solo, refrain, tone of music. i liked to read details like these. It's like discovering a song through words- the second closest thing to experiencing a song itself.

    i'd actually listened to Dylan's version of "Knocking On Heaven's Door". While Dylan's folkier version is probably superior to GNR's rock cover, i still preferred the latter. That's what listening to it first did to my perception. And my damn ears had been abused to prefer anything that rocks. Sad...

    And the words to 'Union Sundown' rings so true now that the situation there is exactly that.

  1. says:

    Anonymous BD’s usually philosophical persona and the songs he wrote, mostly with steep social and political messages that sometimes borders on the mystical, makes it difficult for many (especially non-English speaking folks) to really appreciate his songs, except to remember him an American singer/songwriter icon whose works are mostly psychedelic, traditional and contemporary folk songs in much the same way as we know Joan Baez or Peter, Paul and Mary, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Jimi Hendrik or if BD were an actor; James Dean.

    Personally, I know little of BD, and I must admit that the only song that I can really sing along is “Blowing in the wind”. I feel BD’s strength and popularity is in his lyrics, not his voice or melody. He is also respected because of his involvement in social and charity work and is a sort-after performer in major fundraisers.

    The fact that his “Together through Life” album reached number one on the US Billboard 200 just last year speaks volumes of his immense popularity even though he is already 67 years old.

    BTW, you must have been a barely 13-year old lollipop-licking sweetheart when BD performed at the Budokan in Tokyo in 1978. :-)


  1. says:

    Unknown Hi Joshua

    Thanks so much for reading my post and for pointing out the dead links. Unfortunately, due to copyright reasons, those songs are not available anymore. What a pity!

    Thanks also for your encouraging comment wrt my post/writing. I love to note such details because it is part and parcel of interacting with the song and moving with the groove.

    Thanks for your candid comment wrt 'Knocking on Heaven's Door'. Don't worry - each of us has different taste in food, music, clothing and anything ...:-) That is the beautify of diversity.

    Yea...'Union Sundown' really resonates with our political scenario.

    Take care and thanks for sharing! Have a great weekend.


  1. says:

    Unknown Dear StraightTalking

    Golly! You can really write on anything and everything. What a brilliant comment you have shared here. Thank you so much!!! My humble post is a shadow in your brilliance. :-)

    Looks like you are a music enthusiast and that you know your genre and artistes too! Fantastic!

    And you are right. Bob Dylan is indeed a special artiste, poet and concerned citizen.

    But you are wrong about my age haha...By the time BD performed at the Budokan, I was much older than 13 LOL ...and I did not like lollipops. In fact, I only liked lollipops in the late 10980s cos of my older boy! hehe

    Take care and thanks for your elegant thoughts.


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