Bob Dylan – as I wrote in the song “Carried on a-changing” – has been my hero in so many ways.
I eyed up my sister’s guitar that she’d left next to the piano in the living room when she went to university. With it were 2 songbooks (with diagrams of where to put your fingers). One was Simon and Garfunkel’s greatest hits. The other was a Bob Dylan songbook.
The first song I learned on the guitar was out of this book: Blowing in the Wind. I didn’t learn it to be a pop star, because it was cool, to get girls or to be like Dylan. I just loved the songs and the sound of an acoustic guitar with a voice. And the songs spoke to me a truth I found no place but in music. It was a truth very different to what my teachers were teaching at school. And set in a world very different from my life in England. But somehow I had more in common – it felt – with Dylan than with anyone I knew in real life (except my brother – it was him that introduced me to Dylan and much much more).
Bob is a controversial chap – and he knows it and loves it, I’m sure. He has made many incredible records over the years – and some that I would consider truly terrible. There’s something for everyone – so long as they can get past the voices he uses and that instrument of Satan – the harmonica. I don’t dis the harp itself…only when it’s in the holder round Zimmermann’s neck. The absolute greatest album he made though – in my opinion – is his second.
It starts with “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” It was the song that helped catapult Dylan to fame (mostly through Peter Paul and Mary’s version). It’s an amazing composition. And bear in mind the boy is 21 years old at this point (just turned 22 when it was released). For me he was asking the questions no-one around me was asking. The BIG questions…how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died? Dylan cared. The grown ups in my world didn’t.
Girl from the North country was an early example of Dylan putting his words to an established folk song melody (in this case Scarborough Fair). This he presumably learnt from Martin Carthy who he had met while in London shortly before. Paul Simon brought the same song (though with the traditional words) back from his time with Carthy in London. It’s a similar theme to Scarborough fair lyrically too.
Masters of War spoke to me too…it was just before my punk phase, but there was a lot of teenage anger boiling up inside me at the state of the world and the politicians who waged war for profit and killed for corporations. The bite in the lyrics and the disdain for the warmongering leaders struck a chord in my embryonic rebel soul. Lennon was anti-war, Dylan was anti-war…these were people to look up to when those I was taught to look up to were part of the system that create war.
Hard Rain’s a gonna Fall was another of the first songs I learnt…and performed a lot in the early days of me singing with an acoustic guitar (mostly round camp fires and at after-pub “parties”). I always loved the poetry in this and the imagery – everything is so easy to picture and yet can be examined in so many layers. And I absolutely love the humour of the last line…in a song so incredibly hard to remember all the words to…”I’ll know my song well before I start singing”. Not necessarily a motto I have lived by since!
Don’t Think Twice is the Dylan song I sing most – maybe equalled by Like a Rolling Stone. It’s cleverly written and puts a bunch of emotion in about a relationship without the slightest trace of cheesiness or cliché. It’s fantastic songwriting. All the songs are, of course, recorded just with guitar, voice and harmonica…this could be a time to mention the beautiful quality of the recording….I haven’t looked into what microphones and preamps were used, but as soon as I’m finished writing this I will…
Bob Dylan’s Dream is another folk tune…and one that I play. Lord Franklin’s Lament I learned from Pentangle, but I must have known Dylan’s song with the same tune before that. It all seems so long ago now.
Oxford Town was an anti-racism protest song, responding to an incident in Oxford Mississippi, but was still relevant to stories I heard of racial hatred from the States in the 80’s. And even now. Not that we didn’t have racism in the UK, but I grew up in a school with people from all over the world, in a town with a huge black and Asian population, going to church in a predominately black area and with parents who had black and Asian friends, so I never got to understand the whole racism thing. I’ve studied it a great deal since, and have conclusions regarding tribalism and evolution that I’ll bore you with some other time, but sometimes you just have to sing that hatred away.
Talking WWIII Blues. Again, Dylan is talking about stuff I was worried about – both 1963 when this album was released, and 1980 when I first heard the album were in the Cold War period. We were actually taught at school about how Nukes could destroy our town, and shown films of what the devastation would be. I’m glad we were told, but it was terrifying. I never saw us as the good guys…by the time I understood the Cold War it was Thatcher and Reagan on “our” side. And I knew that THEY were Masters Of War. I couldn’t understand how anyone could think we were the good guys with them in charge. Soviet Pseudo-communism (let’s face it, it certainly wasn’t ACTUAL communism) was scary too, and the few grainy pictures of decaying high-rise blocks and military parades did nothing to make it look a better option.
Corrina Corrina is a beautiful song…though not one of Dylan’s I didn’t realise it was a cover until recently. The same applies to Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance, which showcases Dylan’s fun side, and reminds us how amazing a performer he must have been in the early days.
It’s a terrific album and in my view the best singer-songwriter album of all time. And there’s nothing there but his voice, a guitar, a mouth-organ and the songs. Amazing.