The Sound of Bob Dylan – Poetry for your Ear.

It has always been the case, for me, that it is the sound of Bob Dylan that forms the basis of my passionate relationship with the artist. The sound itself is also fundamental to my understanding of his art. This in no way detracts from Dylan’s talent as a poet and master of words, his undisputed position as rock’s Shakespeare, his Nobel Prize-winning power to innovate and his work as a bearer of tradition. For me he is always a singer first, a poet second. With his vocals, he can take the darkness out of the nighttime, paint the daytime black, lift small and seemingly insignificant songs into the light, while at the same time he is sometimes able to lift even the biggest songs to new heights with the special alchemy that happens on the edge of the stage.

However, this is not at all about whether Dylan is a “great” singer or not, or whether he is more tone-setting and trend-setting as a singer than as a songwriter, but about the understanding of his artistic project. The performance is the moment of truth and the turning point for the artist we know as Bob Dylan. He is primarily the singer who write songs, more than he is a songwriter who sings. It can be argued back and forth that he is both, which is of course correct, but still beside my main point.

It is claimed, with some right, that “writing about music is like singing about architecture”(1). This applies not least if one tries to shed light on the central place of performance in an artistry. The limitations of silent letters on a white sheet are obvious. I’ll try anyway.

From the very beginning, Dylan’s radical vocal aesthetic becomes a particular characteristic of the young artist, an element that divides the crowd between those who are enchanted by it, and those who hear it as “a dog with his leg caught in barbed wire” (2) Unperturbed by this dispute, Dylan continues to develop the characteristic vocal and makes it his most important tool, throughout his entire artistic work probably the most underestimated of his gifts, despite honorable exceptions, both in music journalism and in academia.

Although Dylan’s poetry itself is a moving target, the toolbox of literary criticism and science is well-stocked and rich, both in terms of standards and criteria. The fact that this artist was also found worthy to win the Nobel Prize in Literature will probably further increase attention to Dylan’s written words at the expense of interest in him as a performing artist and as a singer. If so, perhaps this will be part of the reason for Dylan’s own prediction that he will not be understood for another hundred years.

Of course, Dylan’s talent as a singer has not gone completely unnoticed. Not at all. To promote this side of him as his greatest and most important asset is nevertheless rare. I was therefore very pleased when I first read Rolling Stone’s editor, Jann Wenner’s, review of Slow Train Coming (1979), including these words:

Bob Dylan is the greatest singer of our times. No one is better. No one, in objective fact, is even very close. His versatility and vocal skills are unmatched. His resonance and feeling are beyond those of any of his contemporaries. More than his ability with words, and more than his insight, his voice is God’s greatest gift to him. (3)

Strong, bold words, and obviously controversial, as they challenge the entire understanding of what a “great singer” really is. Wenner puts as much, if not more, emphasis on communication skills as on “singing voice”. That the Grammy committee in 1980 finally, eighteen years after his debut, gave Dylan the award for best male rock vocal for “Gotta Serve Somebody” shows that it took time, but also that something had changed. (Dylan received the same award in 1998, after the release of Time Out of Mind, for the vocals on “Cold Irons Bound”, and in 2007 for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance with the song “Someday Baby” from the album Modern Times, i.e. 36 and 45 years after his debut (4) This emphasizes that the view of Dylan as a singer has been divided throughout his career, which it still is. Examples of this can be found almost daily in more or less heated discussions in online groups and on Twitter.

Dylan thus not only challenged the notion of what a songwriter could be, but to the highest degree also what a singer is. Another great artist in the same segment, Leonard Cohen, also understood this:

Most music criticism is in the nineteenth century. It’s so far behind, say, the criticism of painting. It’s still based on nineteenth century art – cows beside a stream and trees and “I know what I like.” There’s no concession to the fact that Dylan might be a more sophisticated singer than Whitney Houston, that he’s probably the most sophisticated singer we’ve had in a generation. Nobody is identifying our popular singers like a Matisse or Picasso. Dylan’s a Picasso – that exuberance, range, and assimilation of the whole history of music”(5).

A few years later, the same Cohen puts it this way: “Dylan’s achievement is so monumental. He was the Picasso. I’m the Matisse. I love Matisse, but I’m in awe of Picasso.”(6). In this way, Cohen sheds light on the singer’s playfulness and diversity and his willingness to explore and push boundaries, quite contrary to other critics that have consistently referred to the same voice as the artist’s weakest point.

As well as the disdain, the fascination with Dylan’s special talent and way of singing has followed him from the start, and it is well documented in the video of him appearing for the first time at the Newport Festival (1963), singing “North Country Blues”, surrounded by other and more experienced artists who take in every phrasing from the young newcomer, speechless with admiration. (7)

The voice embraces tradition, but also brings with it renewal, as if an old soul conveys something fresh and timeless. Dylan does not seek perfection or beauty, but to deliver the song and the song’s content in a way that hits the audience in the heart. As he himself says in his memoirs: “Most of the other performers tried to put themselves across, rather than the song, but I didn’t care about doing that. With me, it was about putting the song across.”(8) This is also a principle, or perhaps more of a spinal reflex, that he has uncompromisingly adhered to throughout his career, almost always a dividing element, between those who just want the album version, and those who welcomes and hopes for new and different versions.

In 2008, the music magazine Rolling Stone asked a panel of 179 artists, critics and musicologists to vote for what they themselves perceived as the greatest voices. The result was a list of “the 100 greatest vocalists ever”. There are still, from time to time, people who passionately express their dismay that Bob Dylan ends up in a prominent seventh place on the list, ahead of artists such as Otis Redding and hot on the heels of Marvin Gaye. Jonathan Lethem introduces the entire list with, among other things, this comment:

For me, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, just to mention two, are superb singers by any measure I could ever care about — expressivity, surprise, soul, grain, interpretive wit, angle of vision. Those two folks, a handful of others: their soul-burps are, for me, the soul-burps of the gods. The beauty of the singer’s voice touches us in a place that’s as personal as the place from which that voice has issued.

In 2023, Rolling Stone releases an updated list, this time of the “200 Best Singers of All Time”, still having Dylan at #15, after Freddie Mercury, but before Prince and Elvis Presley. It is both interesting and inspiring that a voice one would think as an acquired taste reaches so close to the top. Tears of rage & emotional outbursts understandably follows every such list – we all want our favorites given the honor we personally think they deserve. The rationale from Rolling Stone this time: “Once he was fully in control of his instrument, he could use it to express everything from wry disdain (“Like a Rolling Stone”) to deep devotion (“If Not for You”), wrenching pathos (the Basement Tapes masterpiece “Goin’ to Acapulco”) and sardonic venom (“Idiot Wind”). (On 1969’s Nashville Skyline, he even morphed into a clean-voiced crooner.) And in his later years, he’s built an entire mature style out of his increasingly ragged-throated sound, moving freely between wistful romance (see Triplicate readings like “My One and Only Love”) and bawdy black comedy (“False Prophet”).

The distance between soul and voice is particularly short for the greatest voices, they take no unnecessary detours, but the straight path to art. David Weiss in Newsweek is on to something of the same when he tries to analyze Dylan’s special approach: “Like a great jazz wind or horn player, Dylan’s sound is unmistakable because he chose his own tonality, hewing close to the microtonal pitches of spoken speech to achieve a specific expressive effect. In that sense, he prefigured the Rap Revolution, where melody took a back seat to rat-a-tat elocution and the People’s Diction”. So then, you actually can find support for saying that Bob Dylan has a “great” voice, regardless of whether the individual listener considers it “beautiful” or not.

In his acceptance speech for the award as “MusiCare’s Person of the Year” in 2015, Dylan surprised the happy attendees with his longest speech or acceptance speech for anything to date (10). “Some critics say I can’t sing”, he says brusquely, eventually, and shows us that he has, to a great extent, absorbed a large amount of what has been said about his voice, ever since he started. He wonders, to loud laughter from the audience, about why other singers, such as Cohen, Lou Reed and Tom Waits, have been allowed to go in peace for similar claims, and adds a “Why Me, Lord?”(11) as part of his reasoning that the critics have gone wrong or have not understood. He ends the speech by referring to Sam Cooke, one of the few who ended up above him on the above lists, who was once praised for his beautiful voice, to which Cooke replied: “Well, that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.”12. Then Dylan adds: “Think about that the next time you are listening to a singer.” It is reasonable to believe that this is a credo he not only professes himself in his assessment of singers, but also something he has tried to live up to in his endless journey from stage to stage, as well as in the studio, lately also an environment that he has almost continuously treated as a place for spontaneous and “live” performances of his songs, never the same way twice. The fact that he has highlighted the female Egyptian singer Om Khalsoum as one of his favorites in several places, also says something important about the vocal aesthetics he is inspired by. The strongly personal performance from a female Arab singer, known for never singing the same stanza in the same way twice, it is easy to understand that Dylan recognizes and is inspired by. In the search for new ways to sing a song, he often chooses the risk associated with a new phrasing rather than repeating one he has used before. Then he might smile to himself if it works, and sing on undeterred if it doesn’t. There are more slow trains coming.

Of course, we already meet the singer Bob Dylan on the self-titled album from 1962, and although he has described himself as a “Woody Guthrie Jukebox” at the time when he arrives in the city that never sleeps, in his debut he gives us ample access to a wider range of sources of inspiration. That he sounds older and more mature than his age one would suggest is obviously not a coincidence. In the liner notes to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), penned by Nat Hentoff, Dylan himself speaks openly about singing, about the art of performance and about the hope of reaching the heights of his favorites sometime in the future:

Dylan treats “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” differently from most city singers. “A lot of people,” he says, “make it sort of a love song-slow and easy-going. But it isn’t a love song. It’s a statement that maybe you can say to make yourself feel better. It’s as if you were talking to yourself. It’s a hard song to sing. I can sing it sometimes, but I’m not that good yet. I don’t carry myself yet the way that Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Lightnin’ Hopkins have carried themselves. I hope to be able to someday, but they’re older people. I sometimes am able to do it, but it happens, when it happens, unconsciously. (13)

This quote hit me with full force when I saw several concerts with Dylan in 2019, knowing that I was witnessing an aging bluesman who has become exactly what he aspired to in his youth, still intensely concerned with conveying the song. His performance of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” this year was one of the most moving throughout his career. This completely harmonizes with Dylan’s own comment from the film No Direction Home (2005): “The ideal performances of the songs [came] on stages throughout the world. Very few could be found on any of my records.”

There are obviously many voices that have made a strong impression on Dylan, and it is with passion that he describes their, occasionally, almost physical effect on himself. In Chronicles he mentions some of them. About his first idol, Hank Williams, he says the following: “The sound of his voice went through me like an electric rod.” About a Wilbury colleague, Roy Orbison, he says it like this: “He sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop and he meant business. […] Made you want to drive your car over the cliff.” About Dave Van Ronk, “the major of McDougal Street” in Greenwich Village, who kept his wings over Dylan from the start, and who saw Dylan’s potential early on, he says: “He never phrased the same thing the same way twice.” Not unlike Om Khalsoum, that is. In the same book, he also tells in detail about his meeting with Brecht and about the time when Suze Rotolo took him to see the Twelvepenny Opera, where “Pirate Jenny” became a highlight and a strong source of inspiration for his further work with songwriting:

It was the form, the free verse association, the structure and disregard for the known certainty of melodic patterns to make it seriously matter, give it its cutting edge. It also has the ideal chorus for the lyrics. I wanted to figure out how to manipulate and control this particular structure and form. I could see that the type of songs I was leaning towards singing didn’t exist and I began playing with the form, trying to grasp it — trying to make a song that transcended the information in it, the character and plot. (14)

The strong impression the song gave was not only about the form of the song as such, but also about how the form affects the experience directly: “Each phrase comes at you from a 10-foot drop, scuttles across the road and then another comes like a punch on the chin. This piece left you flat on your back and it demanded to be taken seriously. It lingered.” Dylan wanted to create songs that created similar experiences when he himself performed them.

In the increasingly comprehensive literature on Dylan’s life and work, his performance of the songs also became the subject of musicological studies and musicological views. Betsy Bowden was early on with her book Performed Literature (15) where she develops a method for analyzing art that is heard, not seen, and for this purpose takes as its starting point 24 performances of eleven of Dylan’s songs. Paul Williams’ passionate books about Dylan as a Performing Artist have placed a strong emphasis on Dylan’s vocal development and mastery. In recent years, Steven Rings has delved deeply into the matter, including in the essay “A Foreign Sound To Your Ear. ‘It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding’, 1964–2009”, where he treats the entire song primarily based on the sound of the performance, based on musicological criteria, both in terms of arrangement, keys, phrasing and timing. In the introduction, he formulates his challenge and ambition in this way:

This article presents a «longitudinal» study of Bob Dylan’s performances of the song «It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)» over a 45-year period, from 1964 until 2009. The song makes for a vivid case study in Dylanesque reinvention: over nearly 800 performances, Dylan has played it solo and with a band (acoustic and electric); in five different keys; in various meters and tempos; and in arrangements that index a dizzying array of genres (folk, blues, country, rockabilly, soul, arena rock, etc.). This is to say nothing of the countless performative inflections in each evening’s rendering, especially in Dylan’s singing, which varies widely as regards phrasing, rhythm, pitch, articulation, and timbre. How can music theorists engage analytically with such a moving target, and what insights into Dylan’s music and its meanings might such a study reveal?” (16)

It is this question that Rings attempts to answer, through a combination of musicological dissection, deep engagement and a insightful look at Dylan’s talent as a singer.

I include the quote and the reference because this essay puts words and expressions to what I, as a listener, experience as an enormous variety and excitement in Dylan’s development as a “performing artist” throughout his sixty-year career. And Rings does that based on one of the hundreds of songs that Dylan has developed this way. As Dylan himself put it: “My work is a moving thing.” (17). This is particularly evident in moments that occur on stage, in front of an audience. The claim that an artist who has delivered over 3,700 concerts has no interest in his audience is, in my opinion, highly questionable – it is precisely in the meeting with the audience that much of Dylan’s creativity is expressed. It is where he develops the songs, from the sketches they sometimes were at the first hasty recording, and until, in some cases, they burst into full bloom a year, five years or perhaps ten or fifty years later. Dylan, who is not at all such a taciturn interviewee as one would often think, has also openly spoken about the horror-mixed joy of being on stage. One would think that the horror is greater when you go on stage without a safety net, knowing that you don’t want to copy yesterday’s concert:

A lot of people don’t like the road, but it’s as natural to me as breathing. I do it because I’m driven to do it, and I either hate it or love it. I’m mortified to be on the stage, but then again, it’s the only place where I’m happy. It’s the only place you can be who you want to be. You can’t be who you want to be in daily life. I don’t care who you are, you’re going to be disappointed in daily life. But the cure-all for all that is to get on the stage, and that’s why performers do it. But in saying that, I don’t want to put on the mask of celebrity. I’d rather just do my work and see it as a trade.” (18)

Both live performances and archived studio recordings give us an opportunity to follow the development of the individual songs. Here we’ll find different approaches – jazz-like improvisations, different phrasings, different tempos and different keys – all as part of the attempt to get to the bottom of the song’s inherent possibility. There are also many examples of songs that have been left in the archives as unfinished, either because, in Dylan’s opinion, they did not match the context of a current album, or because in his own opinion he could not quite capture what he was looking for. “I didn’t record it right”, as he is known to be saying about “Blind Willie McTell”, recorded in 1983, first released in 1991. Especially through the extensive series of archival releases, the Bootleg Series, we get rich access to study the way Dylan works with the performance, through alternative versions both live and in the studio.

When Jann Wenner asked Dylan in 1969 if there are particular songs he has released that he is particularly happy with, Dylan replies: “On any of my old albums? Uh…as songs or as performances?” For Dylan, the two things were never the same. At times, he also completely downplays the studio work in favor of performing the songs live. He has suggested that the studio versions are only “blueprints”, and that the songs’ full potential is often only realized on the road.

An album for me isn’t anything more than a collection of songs … written to be sung from the stage … It’s always been that way for me … songs aren’t any good unless they can be sung on stage . They’re meant to be sung to people, not to microphones in a recording studio.” (19)

Let’s take a closer look at some examples. Steven Rings delves into one of Dylan’s songs, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, first released as an acoustic version on Bringing It All Back Home (1965), with a calm, almost hypnotic performance of the powerful lyrics. Nine years later, we still hear it as an acoustic recording, this time in front of a cheering audience on Before The Flood (1974), at a significantly higher tempo. It is a more rock and rapping approach, where certain punchlines are almost shouted out, with a touch of cry here, of anger there. On the 1978 tour we get the heavy rock version with a full band, with Billy Cross on squealing guitar, a choir in the background and David Mansfield on violin (Bob Dylan At Budokan (1978)). In 1986 he’s alone again in a machine gun version in Australia. During the celebration of Dylan’s 30-year career as a recording artist, he himself eventually appears, armed with an acoustic guitar, in a very intense performance of the song, but this time also colored by the fact that it is a man over fifty who is singing, where lived life not not only characterizes the voice, but also the presentation and phrasing. The song was last performed in Stockholm in 2013, when Dylan had passed seventy years, this time with a full band of acoustic instruments, united in an almost bluegrass-like sound, while Dylan recites, occasionally whispering tenderly, occasionally suddenly snarling: “Money doesn’t talk, it SWEARS!”

“Tangled Up in Blue” first appears on Blood on the Tracks (1975) in the classic version with a full cast, before Dylan takes it to the stage later in the year alone with the acoustic guitar. In the Bootleg Series release in 1991, we heard distinctly alternative studio versions, both in terms of text, arrangement, performance and atmosphere. When Dylan picks up the song in 1978, he recites it with great dramatic effect, accompanied by saxophone and glockenspiel. In 1984, he again makes it an acoustic highlight alone, with major changes in the text and high intensity in the performance. In 2018, he sits at the piano and delivers an almost jazz-like arrangement that is unlike any previous versions: soon reciting, soon singing, commenting with his own piano, different phrasing from verse to verse, a version which also contains several textual changes.

“I Want You” from Blonde on Blonde is cheerful pop in the original version, but appears in 1978 as a mournful ballad with lyrical flute playing. Dylan almost cries out the song with a hand-held microphone, and every word contains sadness and longing, moods he surprisingly brings out again when he sings the song during the recording of MTV Unplugged in 1995, this time with only acoustic instruments, guitar-driven and with a strong bass tone that emphasizes the seriousness.

The funky version of “Gotta Serve Somebody” (1979), which brought Dylan his first Grammy, was performed in 2019 in a rolling honky-tonk version, really as if the train is coming rolling, and with Dylan spread-legged at the piano with newly written lyrics. In the same year we got the most sensitive performance of all time of “Girl from the North Country” in a muted piano ballad version, melancholic looking back from the point of view of an aging self, sensitively performed with a pathos that was far out of reach when it was recorded for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963.

“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” has been through many changes, from the quiveringly intense original version from 1963, to dramatic boogie version on Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975, to subdued country version on Rolling Thunder Revue in 1976, to the fabulous version in Nara in 1994. In Nara we meet Dylan with an acoustic guitar, but finely tuned backing by the Tokyo Philharmonic. A fantastic performance, where each verse and chorus is presented in its distinctly own way. Yes, and then there is the frenetic band version from Holmdel, New Jersey in 2002, where desperation lights up the drama from start to finish. The examples are countless.

For Dylan, songs are not set in stone. He works with the songs as if they were made of clay. They are in development. The first released version is only a starting point for further work. When we see him in concert, he is like a painter in his studio, where he paints one stroke and then paints over, a deeper blue color here, a golden tinge there, before the next day he likes to start again, with new brushes.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the lyrics, both form and content, are also important to Dylan. But neither are carved in stone. “Everyone” knows that over the years Dylan rewrites lyrics, if not on paper, then in performance, more and less spontaneously. In the song “Long and Wasted Years” (2012) he could for longer periods change one of the verses from night to night, and “Tangled Up in Blue” in its 1984 recording had greatly changed lyrics, etc. The publication of the book Mondo Scripto (2018) took this to new heights. The book is basically a collection of around sixty of Dylan’s most famous songs, illustrated with pencil drawings by Dylan himself, the text in Dylan’s own handwriting. Interesting enough in itself. While flipping through the book for the first time, I discover that the lyrics of one of the songs have been changed, which makes me go through all the lyrics carefully, and I find that approx. a quarter of the songs are partly or substantially rewritten – not necessarily to something better, purely literary, but still an expression of Dylan’s restless method and Whitman touch. In some of the cases, later that year I get to hear the new lyrics performed as they appear in the book, but not “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” with this new passage:

I see things inside my mind –
things Milton saw after he went blind
I saw your little footprints in the snow,
These sleeping pills belong to you –
I guess I ought to take one too,
you’re gonna make me lonely when you go.

This is an example of how new characters and events can drift in and out of the songs, as well as new lyrics allows new phrasing. It is in itself worth a study, not least because Dylan’s breathing technique and “tonal breath control” (20) allow him to squeeze in a sometimes incomprehensible number of words in perfect timing with the intervals the melody allows. Then, of course, there is an interaction and a dynamic between life, the song and the performance throughout. In the MusiCares speech, Dylan explicitly addresses this and gives several examples of how he digs into tradition and finds his way to his own new songs:

I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people who played them, back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that every- thing belongs to everyone. For three or four years, all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once.

If you sang «John Henry» as many times as me – «John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.” If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too. (21)

Here he flirts a bit, but still opens the door wide to how he sees his own development, where he eventually had to write the songs himself in order to have something to sing, something that represented it and where he himself was, and that could create the reactions and experiences he wanted, both for himself and for his audience.

From the old songs came new songs. From singing came new songs. And from the new song came new ways of singing the same song. Constantly. Even songs that he has sung over two thousand times, he constantly re-arranges, as he recently did with “Like a Rolling Stone” itself after letting it rest for a few years. He stopped midway through each verse and recited a piece, before continuing with the chorus. All this to get us too to stop and listen, listen again, not as if this was something we had heard before, the greatest rock song of all time, but something we heard for the first time tonight. That’s how he keeps at it. “The Ear’s poetry”, as the “secretary” of the Swedish Academy called Dylan’s art.(22) And that is precisely what it is. Meant for the ear, from where, at least in my case, it easily finds its way to the heart, without unnecessary stops elsewhere.

The story of Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature fits nicely into this discussion of the importance of song and performance. The rationale behind the award links Dylan to the origins of literature, which was based on oral performance, an experience in the glorious present, not to say “blowing in the wind”. Or, as the committee actually put it: The award was given as a thank you “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Dylan’s acceptance speech builds on this. He thanks the Academy for taking the trouble to find out whether his art deserves to be referred to as literature, something which he himself, and certainly not Shakespeare, has had time or leisure to think about. If he had primarily been a songwriter who sang, and not a singer who writes songs, this would certainly have been different. It is still moving when in his speech he thanks the Academy for “that they came to such a wonderful answer” – where the Academy itself was involved in a further “connecting of the dots”, which he himself has been busy with throughout his life and career. His awareness and special affinity for language, for rhyme and for new poetic expressions have of course been completely decisive for his work, from “Song To Woody” on the debut album until he wrote his own mass in “Murder Most Foul” in 2020. Nevertheless, despite the obvious link to world literature, he concludes after mature consideration, in the Nobel lecture, which in itself was created as a performance, with piano accompaniment, in this way:

… but songs are unlike literature. They are meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days.

I return once again to Homer, who says, “Sing in me, O Muse, and through me tell the story.” (23)

And that’s exactly what she did. Listen to Dylan. Again. He who has ears to hear, hear.

Johnny Borgan

(This essay is my own translation of the essay “En fryd for øret? – Om sangeren Bob Dylan” in the book “Den radikale Bob Dylan”, Scandinavian Academic Press, 2022))


1 has, after thorough investigations, come to the conclusion that the comedian Martin Mull is the first to have demonstrably used the expression “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture”. Here, Frank Zappa and others must find themselves standing at the back of the queue.

2 Playboy Interview: Bob Dylan, Nat Hentoff, February, 1966: “But they argued about his voice. Some found its flat Midwestern tones gratingly mesmeric; others agreed with a Missouri folk singer who had likened the Dylan sound to that of a dog with his leg caught in barbed wire.”

3 Rolling Stone, September 20, 1979.

4 In addition to this, Dylan has been nominated a number of times for the equivalent of those prizes, as well as for his three American Songbook albums nominated for the award for the year’s best “Pop Vocal Album”.

5 Interview with Mark Rowland published in the magazine Musician (1988).

6 Interview with Jim Slotek in the Toronto Sun, 11/19/92.

7 “North Country Blues” (Newport Folk Festival 1963) exists on YouTube, but is taken from Murray Lerner’s great documentary The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan At The Newport Folk Festival (2007).

8 Bob Dylan: Chronicles. Volume I. (New York: Simon & Schuster), p. 2004.

9 David Weiss, Newsweek, 2015

10 Rolling Stone, 9/2/2015, reproduces a transcribed version of the speech receiving the “Musicare Person of the Year 2015” award.

11 Lightly alluding to Kris Kristofferson’s song “Why Me, Lord”, and to his own words of appreciation to Kristofferson in the same speech.

12 It is part of the story that Sam Cooke himself was convinced by Bob Dylan’s voice, impressed by the young and white artist’s ability to put into words the experience of the blacks as well. It is also said that Cooke was inspired by “Blowin’ in the Wind” (which he himself covered) to write “A Change Is Gonna Come” himself.

13 “Freewheelin'”, Liner Notes by Nat Hentoff, 1963.

14 Bob Dylan: Chronicles, 2004, p.

15 Betsy Bowden: Performed Literature. Words And Music of Bob Dylan. Lanham: University Press of America, 2001 [1982].

16 Steven Rings: “A Foreign Sound to Your Ear: Bob Dylan Performs ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’, 1964–2009″. Available on MTO’s website ( – “A Journal of the Society of Music Theory”.

17 The quote is handwritten by Dylan on one of the notes from Dylan’s friend Tony Glover’s collection, which was auctioned off in 2020.

18 Interview with Jon Pareles in Rolling Stone, 1997.

19 Star Tribune, February 3, 1978. Interview with Jon Pareles.

20 From the liner notes on Highway 61 Revisited, 1965: “the songs on this specific record are not so much songs but rather exercises in tonal breath control.”

21 From Rolling Stone’s transcribed version of Dylan’s acceptance speech at “MusiCare’s Person of the Year”, 2015.

22 Interview with SvT, 13 October 2016: “Bob Dylan writes an örat’s poetry. Just as Sappho and Homer did 2,500 years ago, he writes poetry to be performed.”

23 Bob Dylan, Nobel Lecture, 2017, © The Nobel Foundation.


Borgan, Johnny. “‘Where Have You Been, My Blue Eyed Son?‘—The Singer And The Song. About the performing artist – Bob Dylan”,

Bowden, Betsy. Performed Literature: Words And Music of Bob Dylan. Lanham: University Press of America, 2001.

Dylan, Bob. Chronicles.: Volume One. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Nainby, Keith, and John M. Radosta. Bob Dylan in Performance – Song, Stage, and Screen. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

Otiono, Nduka and Josh Toth (eds.). Polyvocal Dylan – Music, Performance, Literature. London: Palegrave Macmillian, 2019

Ring, Steven. “A Foreign Sound to Your Ear: Bob Dylan Performs ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),’ 1964–2009”. MTO – a journal for The Society for Music Theory, vol. 19, No. 4, December 2013.

Wenner, Jan. “Slow Train Coming,” Rolling Stone, September 20, 1979.

Williams, Paul. Dylan – What Happened, New York: Entwhistle Books, 1979.

Williams, Paul. Bob Dylan: Performing Artist I–III. London: Omnibus Press, 1990, 1992, 2004.

Zuk, Tara. “Beyond an angel’s art: Bob Dylan’s voice, his vocalstyles, delivery, and the oral tradition of storytelling through song.” ISIS 193, August, 2017: 37–48. Reprinted in No Depression, November 6, 2017.

5 thoughts on “The Sound of Bob Dylan – Poetry for your Ear.

  1. Pingback: “Songs From Behind The Curtain” – Fragments: Time Out of Mind Sessions (1996 – 1997), Bootleg Series Vol 17, Bob Dylan, 2023 | Johnny B.

  2. Pingback: Happy 82nd Birthday, Mister Dylan. 24th of May, 2023. | Johnny B.

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