Bob Dylan: Through His Life and Ours, A Poet for the Ages

“I consider myself a poet first and a musician second. I live like a poet and I’ll die like a poet.”
bob dylan nobel prize
Photo credit: back cover of my college book, “Writings and Drawings by Bob Dylan”, 1973

It has been quite a journey through the month of April with Bob Dylan. It was my desire to do a little piece on him as the recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature in recognition of National Poetry Month, and so I retrieved all things Bob Dylan – books, CDs, albums, magazine articles, etc. – and started digging in. And now, many days later, I am still going strong, ever more moved and ever more amazed by his body of work, his art, and his genius.

Dylan is a modern day Shakespeare, as Neil McCormick expresses so well in his article for The Telegraph (Oct. 13, 2016):

“He is our greatest living poetic voice, the Bard of the Age, our rock and roll Shakespeare….[t]he Nobel committee say they are honoring Dylan ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’ but he did way more than that. Dylan utterly exploded the form, enabling the simple song to become a vehicle for every shade and nuance of human thought and expression, unleashing incredible forces of creativity on this ancient sturdy folk medium – and did it with a flowing electrifying word smithery and innate, almost mystical wisdom that has created a body of mind-blowing work that will resonate for centuries to come.”

It is no wonder that there have been many university classes devoted to Dylan. He is, as writes, “the most studied songwriter of the rock era” with, as The Telegraph writes, “a lifetime’s work you could spend a lifetime exploring.”

Think about all of the discussions Dylan fans and university professors have had about Bob Dylan – “a mythical figure, a guide, and a reference point” who draws “poetic and philosophical inspiration from William Blake, Allen Ginsberg, and Arthur Rimbaud, as well as biblical texts”, and the endless hours of debate about the mystical 11-minute song “Desolation Row” and the hours philosophizing on his “poetic enigma”, “Visions of Johanna”, which has been called “Dylan’s most haunting and complex love song” by a professor who went on to compare it to John Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, while another academic has referred to it as “the best written of all the songs he has ever read and heard” (as recorded in the book Bob Dylan: All the Songs, p. 223).

It has been 30-plus years since I sat in my college class, “Bob Dylan and the 1960’s”, taught by a professor who was still very much yearning for that era, doodling in my now tattered and torn book, Writings and Drawings by Bob Dylan. And though much has changed, Bob Dylan, ever mysterious and elusive, is still very much present and relevant in the world today.

bob dylan songsThe 2015 publication of the Shakespearean-size book, Bob Dylan: All the Songs, that takes one through “Dylan’s galaxy” of 492 songs, writes in the forward: “After all these years of enchanting and transforming the world, the artist’s popularity is undiminished.” And referring to his work as a “theater of emotions constantly transformed, a deeply human drama”, there is no doubt that listening to his ballads today can elicit a lifetime’s worth of emotion.

I realize now, though, that unlike Dylan – often called “the prophet”, and who at the very young age of 20 composed the classic “Blowin’ in the Wind” – I was too young and inexperienced to fully appreciate his unique contribution to the world of music and songwriting (just as one of my sons so beautifully expressed: “Because as a child it’s all about sound and style, and as an adult it’s all about substance; as an adult, you admire the admirable“) – a contribution that radically changed the nature of songwriting, opening up the subject matter to just about anything, establishing his own rules for rhyming, and extending the length of time that songs could be. Not to mention the unparalleled influence he has had on other great artists from the Beatles and Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell to present day singers like Adele and Sheryl Crow, as seen in the quote below:

“You can listen to one of his songs and think it’s so simple, you don’t even realize how intricate it actually is – the arc of the melody, the way he uses just two or three chords but everything builds to a great release.” –Sheryl Crow

My recent immersion in Bob Dylan, the songwriter, the poet, the singer, the man – who was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota May 24, 1941 – has been quite a journey, leading me to a fuller understanding and appreciation of the genius, the magic, and the beauty of his melodies, his lyrics, his poems; his many love songs such as “Emotionally Yours”, “Abandoned Love”, and “Girl From the North Country” are, after all, some of the most heart-rending I know.

Bob Dylan famous songsA quote by Bryan Ferry from the book, Dylan: 100 Songs & Pictures, expresses so perfectly what I have come to discover in my later years: “A lot of his songs are very beautiful, they seem to get deeper as you get older.”

With the release in 2015 of his 36th studio album, Shadows in the Night, one finds Bob Dylan in a new phase, experimenting again, this time with songs of old jazz crooners like Frank Sinatra, paying a tribute with his own unique sound. And at the “forever young” age of 75, he is still performing around the world, too busy to collect his Nobel Prize, staying true to his words, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”

As David Crosby once wrote:

“He has at certain moments in his writing career, crystallized stuff so well that it will last for a thousand years of human history…[i]f we don’t destroy ourselves by then, in the year 3,000 someone somewhere will be singing, ‘He not busy being born is busy dying.’ That’s significant. That’s really making a contribution to your art.”  

Reflect on the significance and impact of Bob Dylan with the following quotes from the book, Dylan: 100 Songs & Pictures:
“Dylan’s like the Beatles or the Eiffel Tower – he’s just there, his presence is so strong that you don’t see him anymore.” –David Gray
“Bob Dylan! It’s like trying to talk about the Pyramids. What do you do? You just stand back and…gape.” –Bono 
“It’s hard being free in a song, getting it all in. Songs are so confining. That’s why I write a lot of poetry…” –Bob Dylan
“He’s such a fine lyricist and craftsman with words,” says Daniel Lanois. “He’s staggering, the concentration that he has for lyrics.”
“I think he’s amazingly sensitive to all kinds of outside experience, the same as any artist who is really good at something. His songs take us to another level. He is absolutely a poet. He made songwriting into an art form and made it worthy of committing your soul to.” –Kris Kristofferson
“People came to me when he put out his Christian record and said, ‘This guy’s finished – he can’t speak to us anymore’. I thought those were some of the most beautiful gospel songs that have ever entered the whole landscape of gospel music.” –Leonard Cohen
“With God on Our Side” – “(When I heard that song) I took him seriously. I was bowled over. It was devastating.  It’s a very mature song. It’s a beautiful song. It changed the way I thought of Bob.” –Joan Baez
“We all thought Bob was phenomenal. Songwriters love to hear good songs, and it really had the effect of spurring us to keep trying to improve our writing. It just happened that a lot of the good songs we heard were from Bob.  The first time I heard Ian & Sylvia sing ‘Tomorrow is A Long Time’, which is not a widely sung Dylan song, I remember thinking, ‘That song is utterly beautiful'” –Tom Paxton
“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” – “It’s such a great song, a very spiritual song.” –Eric Clapton  
“‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ is an extraordinary thing.” –Allen Ginsberg
“Songwriting is like fishing in a stream:  you put in your line and hope you catch something. And I don’t think anyone downstream from Bob Dylan ever caught anything.” –Arlo Guthrie
“Bob’s songs seemed to update the concepts of justice and injustice. The civil rights movement was in full bloom and the war which would tear this nation asunder was moving towards us like a mighty storm. Before the first official bullet was fired, he had filled our arsenals with song.” –Joan Baez
“I wrote it at the time of the Cuban [Missile] crisis I was in Bleecker Street in New York. We just hung around at night – people sat around wondering if it was the end, and so did I…It was a song of desperation. What could we do? Could we control men on the verge of wiping us out? The words came fast, very fast.” –Bob Dylan, on “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, written 1962
“The songs are there. They exist by themselves, just waiting for someone to write them down. If I didn’t do it, someone else would.” –Bob Dylan, 1962

ATG’s Ongoing List of Favorite Bob Dylan Songs:

In no particular order, always with one more song and cup of coffee before you Shall Be Released onto Desolation Row with the Tamborine Man where it’s Not Dark Yet but he tells you the Hard Rain That’s Goin’ Fall and the Idiot Wind will be Blowin’ into a Hurricane that gets you all Tangled up in Blue and you will need Shelter From the Storm so Knock on Heaven’s Door and God Will Be On Your Side and remember Ma, It’s Alright I’m Only Bleeding and we will all be Forever Young because The Times are always A-Changin’!


“The Times They are A-Changin'”, 1964
“Blowin’ In the Wind” – from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963
“Girl From The North Country” – with Johnny Cash from Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963
“Masters of War”– from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963
“Forever Young” – from Planet Waves, 1974
“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” – listen to 30th anniversary celebration, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1973
“Like A Rolling Stone” – from Highway 61 Revisited, 1965
“Boots of Spanish Leather” – from The Times They Are A-Changin’, 1964
“All Along the Watchtower” – from John Wesley Harding, 1967
“Tangled up in Blue” – from Blood on the Tracks,1975
“Just Like a Woman” – from Blonde on Blonde, 1966
“It’s Alright, Ma, (I’m Only Bleeding)” – from Bringing It All Back Home, 1965
“Mr. Tambourine Man” – from Bringing It All Back Home, 1965
“Idiot Wind” – from Blood on the Tracks, 1975
“Song to Woody” – from Bob Dylan, 1962
“One of Us Must Know (sooner or later)” – from Blonde on Blonde, 1966
“With God On Our Side” – from The Times They Are A-Changin’ 1964
“One More Cup of Coffee” – from Desire, 1976
“Hurricane” – from Desire, 1976
“Visions of Johanna” – from Blonde on Blonde, 1966
“Abandoned Love” – from Desire Outtakes, 1976
“Series of Dream” – from The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3, 1991
“Most of the Time” – from Oh Mercy, 1989
“Red River Shore” – from Tell Tale Signs Rare & Unreleased, 1989 – 2006
“When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky” – from The Bootleg Series Volume 3, #15, 1991
“She’s Your Lover Now” – from The Bootleg Series Volume 3, #12, 1991
“Up to Me” – from Blood on the Tracks Outtake, 1975
“Emotionally Yours” – from Empire Burlesque, 1985
“I’ll Remember You” – from Empire Burlesque, 1985
“If You See Her Say Hello” – from Blood on the Tracks, 1975
“You’re a Big Girl Now” – from Blood on the Tracks, 1975
Finally, a special mention song, because…Dylan wrote this at the age of 21!:
“Let Me Die In My Footsteps”
(from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan Outtakes, 1962)

I will not go down under the ground
’Cause somebody tells me that death’s comin’ ’round
An’ I will not carry myself down to die
When I go to my grave my head will be high
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

There’s been rumors of war and wars that have been
The meaning of life has been lost in the wind
And some people thinkin’ that the end is close by
’Stead of learnin’ to live they are learnin’ to die
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

I don’t know if I’m smart but I think I can see
When someone is pullin’ the wool over me
And if this war comes and death’s all around
Let me die on this land ’fore I die underground
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

There’s always been people that have to cause fear
They’ve been talking of the war now for many long years
I have read all their statements and I’ve not said a word
But now Lawd God, let my poor voice be heard
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

If I had rubies and riches and crowns
I’d buy the whole world and change things around
I’d throw all the guns and the tanks in the sea
For they are mistakes of a past history
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

Let me drink from the waters where the mountain streams flood
Let the smell of wildflowers flow free through my blood
Let me sleep in your meadows with the green grassy leaves
Let me walk down the highway with my brother in peace
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

Go out in your country where the land meets the sun
See the craters and the canyons where the waterfalls run
Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho
Let every state in this union seep down deep in your souls
And you’ll die in your footsteps
Before you go down under the ground

Continue delving into all things Bob Dylan by making Bob Dylan’s Perfect Meatballs.
Also enjoy our previous Bob Dylan-inspired reflections, “Turning to Dylan During the Winds of Change” and “Waiting for a Ship from Spring“.
For more poetry, see “Treasured Poems from a Treasured Volume“, “Digging Deep in the Garden of Poetry“, “Falling into the First Day of Autumn“, “A Poem for Spring“, and “Springing With Flowers“.

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