We do not always need Robert Browning’s passionate overtures to express love, neither do we need W. H. Auden’s war poetry to invoke a revolution. Sometimes, all that is required are simple and straightforward lines that drive the message home. And musical giant Bob Dylan has been doing exactly that since the 1960s. Come Vietnam, Feminism, Civil Rights, or yet another heartbreak, trust Dylan to do the talking via song-writing. At 75 now, his fans might argue that he’s finally been recognized for the true poet-seer that he is. For the rest of the cynics and the bemused, here is a brief look into his genius over the decades.
A Hard Rains A-gonna Fall
And what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son? And what’ll you do now my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’, I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
Where the people are a many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters.
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
And the executioner’s face is always well hidden
The infamous Cuban Missile Crisis may have ended, but nuclear warfare is still around. And so stands true Dylan’s protest song about injustice, pollution, and nuclear fall out. Dylan’s revolutionary temperament is arguably second to none. While the 60s was exploding with political agendas, Dylan was busy churning out a verse for every clash and every backlash.
Mr Tambourine Man
Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Here’s Dylan’s classic co-called drug song, Mr Tambourine Man. However, many suggest otherwise and claim that the song is about religious salvation. Interestingly, much like renowned poets, who have multiple interpretations to their verses, here’s Dylan with his song full of puzzles. Happy piecing it all together!
Like a Rolling Stone
You said you’d never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And say do you want to make a deal?
It’s a mighty long song like many a Tennyson poem, almost like a ballad. Unlike most of his politically-charged lyrics, this was inspired by a rivalry between the Dylan camp and Andy Warhol camp. This song definitely takes the art groupie to a whole new level. Trust the hit to get you interested in the counterculture art of the 50s and the 60s.
Fun fact: In 2014, the handwritten lyrics to “Like a Rolling Stone” became the most expensive popular music manuscript to be sold at auction when it fetched just over $2m at Sotheby’s.
The Times, They Are A-Changing
Don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’.
For the loser now Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.
Eminent writers write speeches and make quotable quotes. Here’s our poet penning war cries and anthems for the counterculture generation of the 60s – the psychedelic, frustrated hippies. The times were changing then, they are changing now, and Dylan has been consistently constant with his words.
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row.
At over 11 minutes, this is perhaps the longest Bob Dylan song. Due to its length, it was not released as part of any record for the longest time. In fact, Dylan himself refrained from playing the number at concerts, while claiming that he could improvise and lengthen it to 45 minutes if he wished. In many ways, this is a versatile song that goes from being a limerick to ballad to a novel.
One More Cup of Coffee
You’ve never learned to read or write
There’s no books upon your shelf
And your pleasure knows no limits
Your voice is like a meadowlark
But your heart is like an ocean
Mysterious and dark.
Much like literary exponents who are inspired by their own lives from time to time, experts feel that this Dylan ballad describes the breakdown of his relationship with his wife, Sara Lowndes. The song gives us a glimpse of Dylan’s emotional side, and what a sentimental treat it is.
Roll on, John
From the Liverpool docks to the red light Hamburg streets
Down in the quarry with the Quarrymen.
Playing to the big crowds
Playing to the cheap seats
Another day in your life on your way to your journey’s end
John Keats has often written tributes to his close friends, Beaumont and Fletcher. In this soothing piece, Dylan pays homage to his dear friend, the oft-misunderstood Beatle John Lennon. He relives the Lennon’s assassination and his powerful musical legacy in this underrated hit.
When a cop pulled him over to the side of the road
Just like the time before and the time before that
In Patterson that’s just the way things go
If you’re black you might as well not shown up on the street
‘Less you wanna draw the heat.
The sensitive side of Dylan shines through this track about Rubin Carter – who was accused of a murder the songwriter was convinced he did not commit. The artiste visited Carter in prison and was moved by his story. The people mentioned in the song are all real. In 1999, Denzel Washington played Carter in the film, Hurricane.
The song was released in America in 1976. How much has really changed in 40 years?
The Lonsesome Death Of Hattie Caroll
William Zanzinger who at twenty-four years
Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres
With rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him
And high office relations in the politics of Maryland
Reacted to his deed with a shrug of his shoulders
And swear words and sneering and his tongue it was snarling
In a matter of minutes on bail was out walking
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Take the rag away from your face
Now ain’t the time for your tears.
Dylan has written many a song about the murders and scandals of his time. And he doesn’t mince his words. This song recounts the gruesome killing of a barmaid called Hattie Carroll by the high-society influencer William Devereux Zantzinger. For the longest time, Zantzinger stayed mum about the song, only to rubbish Dylan’s lyrics in 2001, stating that he felt like suing the singer. Well, good luck with that now.
Song to Woody
Hey hey Woody Guthrie I wrote you a song
About a funny old world that’s coming along
Seems sick and it’s hungry, it’s tired and it’s torn
It looks like it’s dying and it’s hardly been born.
Dylan fans are sure aware of his admiration for the vagabond American songwriter, Woody Guthrie. He took upon him to preserve the legacy of Guthrie’s numbers, and often covered the folk legend’s songs. This track was featured on his debut album, which contained only two originals – Talk to Woody and Talkin’ New York.