Bob Dylan – The Free Spirited Literary Genius
Bob Dylan is considered by many to be the quintessential songwriter of the modern era. Everyone from Tom Petty, to John Lennon, David Bowie, and Chris Martin have expressed the significance Dylan’s songwriting influence on them.
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, Dylan grew up listening to popular music like country western, rock n’ roll, and rhythm and blues on the radio, particularly Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. Over time Dylan eventually became less interested in “radio hits” and much more fond of the richness and honest expression of folk music, starting with artists like Led Belly, and then eventually on to artists like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Dylan’s initial works were very much a continuation of the acoustic folk music scene, but with the twist of incorporating his influences in classic literature and poetry (Herman Melville, Edgar Allen Poe, Dylan Thomas).
By 1965, Dylan began to mix together all of his influences, including the rock n’ roll of his youth (Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited), combined with his folk roots, and his literary influences. He performed his first major gig on April 11, 1961, opening for iconic blues artist John Lee Hooker in New York City, and as of 2019 he is still performing and touring: a career spanning nearly 60 years as a significant performing artist.
Overall his music has broken down barriers in songwriting. His fearless style has illustrated to many that basically anything goes, so long as it evokes a meaningful response in the listener. He has sold more than 100 million records, amassed more than a dozen awards including 10 Grammy Awards, a Golden Globe, and an Academy Award, and has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, and in 2016 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In this 3-part article, we will examine various aspects of Dylan’s writing with an intent to absorb some of his magic into our own songwriting. Will you be able to write a song like Bob Dylan after reading this article? Probably not. But, that’s not the goal. In examining the master at work, our goal is simply to learn how to be better songwriters ourselves and to approach the craft in a way that yields our own best work, taking on the wildly creative and free spirit of Bob Dylan.
In part one, we will examine how Dylan drew heavily off of his well-established folk musical roots to write songs as a continuation of the folk tradition, as opposed to starting from a totally blank canvas. We will discuss how to do the same (for any tradition), while also being able to leave a unique imprint within that tradition.
In part two, we will look at how Dylan writes with an irreverence for what is proper, that is to say, to speak the complete truth from his mind and imagination, completely unfiltered, even if the content is not pretty (examining the role of the artist as a truth seeker). We will explore how to do this and why.
Finally, in part three, we will explore Dylan’s literary craftsmanship and influences which allowed him to convey complex emotions and difficult subjects in a more palatable way. We will attempt to incorporate his techniques to better express our more complex sentiments and songwriting ideas.
Many people have criticized Dylan for various reasons, be it his unique vocal inflections, his cryptic interviews, or even his unpredictability as an artist bouncing around different genres. Love him or hate him, he’s had a profound impact on the songwriting world and there is something for everyone to learn from his prolific career.
In reading this material, I hope you will gather up some valuable insights to apply to your songwriting process.
Part 1 – Folk Music Influence
The first lesson to learn from Dylan is that even a master craftsman doesn’t start with a blank canvas, and that it’s important to (1) establish your musical roots (learn the music you are most drawn to), and (2) draw from that music by repurposing techniques, themes, and other song ideas, while also putting your own spin on it.
In various instances, Dylan has expressly explained that his roots in folk music traditions heavily informed his writing. In his youth, he fell in love with the style after listening to an old Lead Belly record and immersed himself in all things folk music, playing it all day and night and congregating with other folk artists to play songs together and learn from each other. The tradition was demanding, requiring a wide repertoire of music, and Dylan soaked it all up. He listened and learned to play to all the work songs, ragtime blues, Appalachian ballads, cowboy songs, often falling asleep with his guitar in hand. Through his efforts, he eventually picked up the “vernacular” of folk, which became a massive influence his songwriting style and tone. (Dylan Lecture).
In drawing from a tradition (such as folk), Dylan has discussed the notion of “meditating on a song”. That is to say, he will think about a song much in the way people will stare at a crack on the wall when zoning out or meditating, until the words “change” and something new emerges.
In a 2015 Music Cares Person of the Year speech he explained:
These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. . . . there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock ‘n’ roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music. I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that 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 everything 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.
Evidence of the influence from other songs is observable in Dylan’s work. Sometimes the influence was more pronounced than other times. Consider the following parallel for instance:
This is the first part of Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright, written by Dylan in 1963:
Well it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
An’ it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
An’ it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
Ifin’ you don’t know by now
It’ll never do some how
When your rooster crows at the break a dawn
Look out your window and I’ll be gone
You’re the reason I’m trav’lin’ on
Don’t think twice, it’s all right
As compared to Paul Clayton’s Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons When I’m Gone, written three years prior in 1960:
It ain’t no use to sit and sigh now, darlin’
And it ain’t no use to sit and cry now
It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, darlin’
Just wonder who’s gonna buy you ribbons when I’m gone
Do you notice any parallels in the two songs? They both employ the anaphora “it ain’t no use” to begin each thought. They also both resolve each particular lyrical strophe with a slightly embittered comment directed to a lover the singer is about to leave. In the Dylan song, he “consoles” her by telling her that even though she’s the reason he’s leaving her, she shouldn’t think twice or worry about it. Similarly, in the Clayton song, he gets a last jab in at his soon to be ex-lover as to how she expects to get her hands on fancy ribbons after he’s out of the picture.
Musically, the songs also share some parallel use of melody as well as similar uses of secondary dominant chords (more on secondary dominants in another blog/lesson series). In turn, it should be noted that an even older folk song exists called “Who’s Gonna Buy Your Chickens When I’m Gone” (from sometime in the 1920’s – see here). I couldn’t locate a recording, but the title alone is revealing of this tradition of borrowing from the past to recalibrate for the present.
Now, this is not to say that copyright infringement is okay. Be aware of what you are doing in that regard; nevertheless, these examples illustrate that it is common practice for artists to repurpose ideas, themes, lyrical formulas and formats, and become directly influenced by the music they learn and listen to. As Pablo Picasso once remarked “good artists copy; great artists steal.” By “stealing”, this doesn’t mean trying to pawn something off as your own which you didn’t create and/or getting yourself in trouble; but, also take note that artists commonly derive their ideas from other artists. This is what is meant here. There is nothing wrong with that; actually, it’s a clever approach. Why feel the need to stare at a blank sheet of paper, when you can jump start your creativity by referencing music that inspires you already? Notice things about the songs you like. Lyrical devices, chord progressions, arrangement techniques, production techniques, etc. Repurposing good ideas is just smart.
How to Implement This Concept Into Your Own Writing . . .
(1) Establish Your Musical Roots and Musical Influences
It’s hard to have anything to say sometimes if you don’t have a place to start from. Having a sense of your “musical roots” is important in establishing a sense of personal musical identity and being able to put yourself out there in a coherent manner (not to mention tapping into an already established fan base, i.e. people that listen to a particular type of music). As a first order, make sure you are constantly learning songs that you are drawn to and building a repertoire of cover material that you enjoy to your core. Play your favorite songs often and as you play them “meditate” on them, i.e. contemplate the lyrics, the chords, the rhythms, the feelings that they invoke. Some songs will fit your style (and voice) really well, and others not so much. Develop an intimate knowledge of the material that connects with you the most. Eventually, the concepts you learn and absorb through those songs will invariably make their way into your own writing.
(2) Draw from Your Influences by Setting Parameters on Your Writing
Drawing from a particular musical tradition is also a great way to set limitations/parameters for your writing. Let’s say you don’t even like folk music. Let’s say, for instance, you identify that you want to write a song that is current day Top-40 pop rock because you like modern pop rock and you’ve learned dozens of cover songs that fit that category.
There are several constraints that you can immediately put on your writing that will keep you more focused in that genre. Study the pop rock hits that you like and play all the time. Notice the song form, the themes of the lyrics, the nature of the lyric (the type of language used, poetic devices, etc), the track length, production techniques, arrangements, and other aspects of those songs that strike you as critical to their quality. This information will give you a sense of what framework to write within to ensure that your song falls within that tradition of music.
Also, based on your intimacy with the songs you know, connect the dots by using your intuition. In other words, write a song that you could insert into a setlist if you were to combine it with the songs you already cover such that the new song would make sense culturally, thematically, energetically, emotionally, musically, etc. Qualitatively, you should aim to make your song be as good as (or better than) the songs you cover.
At the same time, however, within those parameters take liberties as an artist to put your own fingerprint on it. Don’t just mimic completely. You want your own unique voice to shed a fresh new light on the style or trend you are writing within. This strategy certainly worked for Dylan. He drew heavily from folk but put his own twist on it by incorporating literary components akin to the works of great literature that he read (more on that below in part 3).
To be like Bob Dylan, the big takeaway here is to find your own unique voice within a pre-established musical tradition, that is to say, (1) know a tradition by playing a ton of covers, and (2) find a way to add to that tradition in your own unique way (lyrically, musically, production-wise, etc). Don’t write from scratch by staring at a blank sheet of paper or staring a blinking computer cursor. Learning from others is just part of the craft of songwriting and the basis of you songwriting education. If there ever was a secret sauce to great songwriting, the ingredients of that sauce are scattered about in your very own record collection.
Part 2 – Writing with Irreverence for What’s Proper: Speaking Your Complete Honest Truth
Another great lesson to learn from the Dylan catalog is that anything goes in songwriting, and you should be fearless in expressing your complete and honest truth, even if that is difficult for you (I know it is for me).
In his interviews, Dylan has been pretty clear that he prefers honest, genuine expression of truth, be it sweet or sour; rather than to sugar coat his language or pander to a popular audience. Indeed, Dylan’s work tends to transcend motivations for writing that are anything but pure expression of images, ideas, and sentiments that come from within his consciousness and need to find their way out into song form. He tells stories, notices details others ignore, points out flaws in people and society, expresses bitterness, anger, sweetness and other emotions without concern of audience pandering. In other words, he keeps it very very real (for better or worse).
In some of his interviews, Dylan has discussed his affinity for tapping into that place beyond the self-interested person, in favor of true expression, almost coming from someplace outside the self. This link will connect you to Dylan talking about a jazz standard written by Hoagy Carmichael called “Stardust”, in which Dylan relates to Carmichael’s bewilderment with the tune and how Carmichael felt he had found the song rather than written it.
In other words, there is a certain magic or deeper truth to simply taking note of whatever is coming in from outside the self-interested egotistical self and simply taking it down; as opposed to trying to manufacture something out of a place of dishonesty or with some egotistical effort to impress audiences. In an interview with Paul Zollo, from the book Songwriters on Songwriting (please buy this book, it’s incredible), Dylan said the following:
It’s nice to be able to put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind. And block yourself off to where you can control it all, take it down … Edgar Allen Poe must have done that . . .
. . . there’s two kinds of thoughts in your mind: there’s good thoughts and evil thoughts. Both come through your mind. Some people are more loaded down with one than another. Nevertheless, they come through. And you have to be able to sort them out, if you want to be a songwriter, if you wan to be a song singer. You must get rid of all that baggage. You ought to be able to sort out those thoughts, because they don’t mean anything, they’re just pulling you around, too. It’s important to get rid of all them thoughts. Then you can do something from a kind of surveillance of the situation. You have some kind of place where you can see it but it can’t affect you. Where you can bring something to the matter, besides just take, take, take, take, take. As so many situations in life are today. Take, take, take, that’s all it is. What’s in it for me? That syndrome which started in the Me Decade, whenever that was. We’re still in that. It’s still happening.
Some have noted that Bob Dylan gets “cryptic” in his interviews. You may have had to read the above quote a few times for it to make sense (I know I did). But the message is there; it’s just hard to grasp it from an ordinary perspective. He’s talking about becoming disinterested in what you get personally from your songs (be it fame, recognition, praise, money, credit, love, etc.; i.e. to “take, take, take”). He’s talking about observing the thoughts of the mind like an artist, surveilling the contents of your imagination from a place of observation, noticing the detail, and then bringing out the truth from what you see in your mind’s eye, sculpting ideas from a deeper and more profound perspective. In curating that which is interesting artistically to you as an observer of your own consciousness, the result is honest, unique work that leaves a mark, states a position, arouses the senses, and otherwise cuts through the surface-level junk that most people put out.
Ultimately, Dylan’s courageous willingness to go deep, tackle truths, explore abstractions, rock the boat, get political, express counter-popular opinion, and otherwise show impatience with anything he sees as nonsensical, has resulted in us all getting to enjoy a lifetime of honest, thought provoking, and rich masterful work. Not to mention songs filled with incredible imagery, and a full array of emotional charge (heartache, vitriol, hurt feelings, injustice, …). Love him or hate him, if there is one lesson to learn from Dylan, it would be go forth and explore the truths that cut through the noise of your own mind and honestly express yourself. In other words, what’s the point of writing fluff, when their is a deeper truth to unveil? Isn’t that the point of great art? It takes courage to be honest, but it can be well worth it (notwithstanding the inevitable critics that will rip into you).
Here are some example from his catalogue of songs that illustrate his fearlessness as a writer:
Idiot Wind, released on Blood on the Tracks, has some of the most spiteful lyrics I have ever heard, almost on par with some of the venom of say, Eminem. This unfettered and unabashed willingness to express himself in complete candor is refreshing, albeit somewhat shocking to the senses.
I couldn’t believe after all these years
You didn’t know me better than that
Blowing every time you move your mouth
Blowing down the back roads headin’ south
Blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe
In an interview about the song, Dylan insisted that it did not pertain to him and that it was “just a concept of putting in images that defy time – yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I wanted to make them all connect in some kind of strange way.” (See here). Many people have a hard time believing him though and believe the lyrics may have been about about a breakup. Still, the song is a masterpiece and challenges the listener to feel the array of emotions and complexity of the situation as the song progresses from start to finish. Most of the beginning of the song pertains to his embittered frustration with his lover; however, by the end of the song his tone shifts to guilt and his own admission of fault in their love gone wrong:
Blowing through the buttons of our coats
Blowing through the letters that we wrote
Blowing through the dust upon our shelves
We’re idiots, babe
It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves
Haven’t we all felt this way in relationships, romantic and even non-romantic? It takes a certain amount of courage to express truth in this way. Honesty can beget adverse judgment, or can can even upset people in your “circle”, which nobody wants. Yet, truth is also liberating and when your truth connects with someone else’s, that is when the power of artistic expression reaches the height of potency.
Another more famous example is Like a Rolling Stone, released in 1965 on Highway 61 Revisited. The song is a harsh and critical exploration of the theme of high society being relegated down to a struggling poor person scrounging for food, a total fall from grace. The lyric of “how does it feel” carries so much weight as Dylan basically tears a woman apart for bringing about her own self-destruction after her once innocent, self-righteous, and naive views and bourgeois lifestyle couldn’t shelter her from the harshness of following the ways of the shady crowd she hung out with. Somehow the lyric is a powerful mockery of anyone whose character is devoid of substance and hides behind the veil of wealth or any other vapid shield from reality.
Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime,
People’d call, say “Beware doll, you’re
Bound to fall”
You thought they were all kiddin’ you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin’ out
Now you don’t walk so proud
Now you don’t talk so loud
About having to be scrounging for your
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
A complete unknown
Just like a rolling stone?
Somehow we all relate and champion the idea of a fall from high society for someone who seemingly thought she was just better than everyone else. In the reality of life, things get nasty and harsh and we tend to vilify anyone who thinks they get to be exempt from dealing with the struggles of reality. Powerful stuff. So much so that Rolling Stone Magazine listed the song at No. 1 in their “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list (and the name of their magazine too?).
How to Implement This Concept Into Your Own Writing …
As hard as it is to be totally real with songwriting, art is exactly the place to speak your mind in 100% candor. Moral of this lesson from Bob Dylan: be unabashedly honest to the point of absolutely not giving a crap about what anyone thinks of it. People might hate your music and hate you for it, but they might love it and love you too for saying what they were too afraid to say. I mean, this is not necessarily about spouting out vitriol in the name of being honest. For Dylan, that was part of his truth. For you, maybe you’re not as angry or spiteful, and actually being “fake” angry is disingenuous. But, maybe you are? Just don’t sugar coat your words or pander to people, see what if feels like to completely pour your heart out onto the page. Nobody has to ever hear it if you don’t want.
As an exercise, try and write a song with the pre-conceived understanding that you alone will be the only person that gets to hear the song. More importantly, tap into a topic you’re absolutely terrified to write about. Write it in secret, record it (even just on your phone), and feel the catharsis of being 100% real. This could prove very therapeutic and you will also unleash your creativity by allowing yourself the freedom to be completely truthful. You will also be training yourself as a writer to be more honest which will eventually make its way (in doses, as you are ready) into the material you are willing to release.
Make sure that as you complete this exercise you simply just transmit whatever you notice in your own consciousness. This is not the time to sit in judgment of what you see or filter things out; rather, just take note of what you see in your mind’s eye. In other words, if you find yourself wanting to bad mouth someone, just write out the words you would say. Don’t judge yourself and label yourself as a trash talker. Let the song speak through you and do all the talking for you. You just take it down. Even if it’s all nonsense or you hate yourself for what you are saying, or the words come out jumbled or out of order and nothing sounds like what you’d be comfortable saying. Notice the details in your mind, notice the feelings, the words that pop up, notice the people and characters, places. Spill it onto the page. Don’t filter, just let it out. See what happens . . .
Part 3 – Master Craftsmanship of Literary Device and Song Form
Dylan’s depth of expression is in large part due to his exquisite command of language, his literary inventiveness, and his ability to manipulate song form. There is a reason why he was awarded with the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Dylan’s lyrics imbue a beautiful poetic expression to communicate something more profound than simplistic thoughts and emotions. Though, at the same time, his lyrics are also accessible and presented with the warmth and down-home charm of the American folk tradition.
In the following examples, we will take a look at (a) how clever use of imagery and hidden meanings can camouflage even the most difficult of songwriting topics to make complex subject matters more palatable (very useful if you’ve read section 2 above and are afraid to be 100% open with the audience, i.e. speaking your truth), (b) how to use song form (spotlighting in particular) to breathe new life into your choruses (or any other repeating material, such as a refrain) and advance the emotional narrative of your songs, and (c) how drawing influence from great works of literature (or other great writing) can expand your depth of expression.
Most importantly, as you consider the following examples, notice the genius of Dylan in terms of how necessary it is for the lyrics to work in the way they do given the subject matter of the song. Each technique he uses is nothing short of ingenious for the particular need of the song at hand.
(a) Using Imagery, Abstraction, and Hidden Meanings for Difficult Emotional Subjects
Dylan’s ability to tackle difficult truths is greatly facilitated by his ability to write in abstract ways. A good example is Visions of Johanna from the 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. The song explores a very difficult subject matter in an extremely clever way, where Dylan hides the plain meaning of the song through the use of imagery, personification, and by creating fictional characters.
Under many popular interpretations, Dylan finds himself with a lover (Louise) that he has a difficult time focusing on and instead find his thoughts continually drifting to another (Johanna), even though his current lover is completely wrapped up into him. What’s worse, some have pointed out that this song may have been written around 1965-66 when Dylan was living with his then pregnant ex-wife Sara in the Chelsea Hotel in New York. (See Heylin, Clinton (2009). Revolution In The Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, Volume One: 1957–73. Constable). Being very literal in this instance would certainly fail lyrically, or come off as incredibly self-defeating, assuming this was true of course (which we can’t know). How much of a jerk would he be if he were being totally literal in this song … “Baby, you’re carrying my child but my thoughts are of another”. Yeah, I don’t think so. Yet at the same time, how can he suppress these feelings he has? What a mess.
In order to explore this complex topic, notice how Dylan camouflages his feelings through the use of imagery to show his emotion rather than spell it out literally. By creating an overall feeling/impression of his sentiments, what results is a great song notwithstanding the scandalous nature of the subject matter.
Here is the first verse:
Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind
Instead of telling you expressly how he feels (and thereby vilifying himself), notice how he attacks your senses with specific detail and visual scenes that invoke emotional response by including specific verbs and adjectives to characterize the scene around him (flickering in the lights, heat pipes coughing, country music playing softly) . Here he shows his longing rather than to expressly bemoan it. Although Louise appears playful and in love with him (holding out a handful of rain, entwined with “her” lover), Dylan is not as enticed by the moment (sit here stranded, nothing really to turn off, visions of Johanna). He never tells us in a literal way that he wishes to be elsewhere, but it becomes evident based on his ability to paint the scene. Objects in the room personify the tiredness and boredom he’s feeling (coughing heat pipes); or the dissolution of his affection for Louise (flickering lights).
Of course, because of the abstraction in the lyrics, it is very possible to construe the words as being about something entirely different. For example, some people think that Dylan was distracted not by another lover, but that Johanna may be his concern with his music/art. Some critics have noted that part of the brilliance of this song is how it is “forever teetering on the brink of lucidity, yet remaining impervious to strict decipherment” (Gill, Andy (1998). Classic Bob Dylan: My Back Pages. Carlton.).
In any event, as listeners, the hidden meanings and cryptic language give us the option to casually hear the words and generally draw a vibe from the song, or on the other hand, listen carefully and contemplate what he is saying. The mystique and nuanced experience of this lyric makes the listener have a personalized experience of the words, as opposed to being beaten over the head with a very literal expression (e.g. I’m so bored of your love … what happened to us …. and so on, insert cheesy pop lyrics here). The inherent mystery in the lyrics also gives the words a depth of expression that leave listeners with a slightly unresolved sensibility such that upon every listening, there is a remaining curiosity to try and unpack what might be happening in the narrative.
How to Implement This Technique …
If you are trying to be totally honest, but as a result you are having to write about a very difficult subject matter that you would prefer to mask from literal interpretation, this technique could work really well. Use objects, places, sounds, smells, and other descriptors to capture how you feel, instead of being super obvious about the subject of your piece. Just because you want to be honest in your expression, doesn’t mean your delivery has to be 100% literal. Actually, in some cases, being 100% literal is both too much for the artist to reveal and too much for the audience to take.
Paint the scene and create the vibe for the listener so they can “uncover” your difficult sentiment. Like Dylan, you could invent names to become characters that act out the drama in your own head. The result could be a very cathartic release of something difficult to hold onto, framed in a way that is both digestible to the listener and more easy to relay to audiences for the performer. The song won’t come back to bite you if you mask the topic well enough too (hopefully).
(b) Using Spotlighting Techniques to Advance the Emotion of a Narrative
Words themselves are not the only way to tackle complex subjects. Dylan was also a master craftsman in terms of using overall form to advance the emotional narrative of his songs.
In Simple Twist of Fate, for example, Dylan brilliantly manipulates form by casting various shades of emotional color onto a repeating refrain (single phrase that recurs at the end of a strophe or stanza) with a spotlighting technique. As a result, each time he utters the phrase “simple twist of fate” the phrase takes on a new meaning and advances the narrative of the story.
One interpretation of this song (though, like Visions of Johanna, we can’t know for sure) is that it’s the story of a man who falls in love with a call girl that works the docks (or maybe an older woman, or married woman), but he can never have a relationship with her. As a result, early in the song the phrase “simple twist of fate” feels whimsical and romantic, but by the end of the song, the same phrase is full of sadness and longing, as we learn more and more about the story teller and his longing for a woman he can never have. In each stanza, he tells a continuing part of the story, from the first meeting where he “felt a spark” to the final stanza where laments that things couldn’t work out.
The “spotlighting” technique functions by having the lyrical content of each of stanza create a different mood for each iteration of the refrain “simple twist of fate.” Here is the first verse, notice how the final line has a whimsical sensibility to it, but it also has an uneasiness that foreshadows how the man in the song feels the relationship will ultimately not work out.
They sat together in the park
As the evening sky grew dark
She looked at him and he felt a spark
Tingle to his bones
‘Twas then he felt alone
And wished that he’d gone straight
And watched out for a simple twist of fate
Now check out the second verse, where he loses himself in her a little. Notice how the phrase “simple twist of fate” feels at the end, much more whimsical and romantic.
They walked along by the old canal
A little confused, I remember well
And stopped into a strange hotel with a neon burning bright
He felt the heat of the night hit him like a freight train
Moving with a simple twist of fate
Also, notice above how the “He” randomly becomes “I”, indicating that perhaps it’s the narrator who is recalling his own experience. Perhaps he tells the story from the perspective of a third person “He”, but on occasion loses himself in his passion for the woman and interjects himself into the narrative. This pronoun swap is another clever device from this song, in addition to the spotlighting. It adds to the torment of the narrator in terms of him dissociating from the story because it’s too painful to recount from the first person.
Here is the final verse, where we get the full scoop on the narrator’s view of the woman and how fate was twisted against their romance:
People tell me it’s a sin
To know and feel too much within
I still believe she was my twin, but I lost the ring
She was born in spring, but I was born too late
Blame it on a simple twist of fate
By the end of the song, notice how the word “I” permeates the lyric as the narrator blows his cover and laments his inability to be with the woman he pines after. The final refrain has a bitterness to it, a sort of longing and sadness over something the singer has no control over. The spotlight is now showing us the pain of the narrator.
How to Implement this Technique …
Although Dylan’s song here is based on a strophe/refrain structure, you could apply the same technique to a more typical verse-chorus song. Having the refrain or chorus take on a fresh meaning each time it is repeated is a very good way to keep listeners’ attention. If they have you figured out by the first chorus, they may check out and lose interest. On the other hand, by twisting the plot and casting different shades onto the same phrase or group of phrases, you can keep them guessing and enthralled with the narrative of your lyrics. In working this technique into your writing, see if you can construct your verses so that each time you arrive at the chorus, the verse frames the chorus in a new light, i.e. every chorus feels emotionally different from the last one.
(c) Drawing Influence from Classic Literature to Enhance Depth of Expression
In his Nobel Prize lecture to the Swedish Academy, Dylan spoke at length not only of his folk music heritage, but also about the works of literature that had a profound effect on his sensibilities as a human being and a writer. Without a doubt these literary influences can be observed in the language Dylan chooses for his lyrics. If you’re looking to add a poetic and literary depth to your lyrics, Dylan provides a valuable lesson here. After all, great writing is great writing, so why not allow works of great literature to permeate your sensibilities as a lyricist?
Dylan explained, for instance, that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a story full of scenes of high drama, dramatic dialogue, abstract goals of the main character, religious allegory, stereotypes, pagan references, myths, and geographical knowledge influenced his writing. Dylan was particularly inspired by the poetic grandiosity of Melville’s work; like for instance phrases such as “the path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails wherein my soul is grooved to run.”
Shelter from the Storm showcases literary influences like Moby Dick in Dylan’s writing. Consider the first verse for instance. Notice the reference to thematic ideas that would seem to come from a great work of fiction as well as language that has that sense of grandiosity.
Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm
In addition to all the poetic verse and literary composition, however, notice the ending phrase mixes in the down home charm of a southern drawl too. Very classic Dylan.
All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque also had significant influence on Dylan. Dylan described the book as a book where “you lose your childhood.” The story is about the brutalities of war, defending the self from elimination, and contains accounts describing the psychological state of feeling like a cornered animal, the loss of innocence, as well as a graphic exploration of chaos and the ugliness of the world, death, destruction, poison, and nerve gas. The story has very macabre thematic content, such as the depiction of death as being everywhere, and betrayal by close loved ones including one’s own family, friends, and even government.
Consider these next two stanzas from Shelter from the Storm and notice the morose references, including themes of being hunted down and Dylan’s sense of becoming an outcast doomed to the worst of fates.
I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm
. . .
Well, the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount
But nothing really matters much, it’s doom alone that counts
And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm
How to Implement This Concept . . .
What can we learn from this classic literary thread in the works of Dylan? That anything is fair game in lyric writing. Also, don’t hesitate to read anything and everything that genuinely captures your imagination. If you can somehow use modalities of language that are effective in communicating your point of view, you just might be onto something big. At the very least, reading great written works (from any time period or genre) cannot do anything but help to open up your field of creativity and shine a light on avenues of expression otherwise hidden to you.
We covered a lot of material in this series, and hopefully you’ve enjoyed this exploration of the works of Bob Dylan and will be able to absorb some of these ideas into your arsenal as a writer.
Just to recap, we observed that songwriting can be considered a continuation of an existing tradition and it’s smart to borrow ideas from existing songs rather than to start with a blank canvas. We also learned to be unabashedly honest in our expression, rather than to pander to our audience with a needy sense of wanting to be liked. To write like Dylan, we have to be willing to share our deepest truths in all their glory as well as their grit and ugliness. Notwithstanding this vulnerability, we also learned that we can deliver our message in an abstract ways, rather than to be completely literal. By use of poetic and literary devices in language, or manipulation in form, we can put forth our message without vilifying ourselves or revealing dark and complex subjects in unpalatable, invasive, and upsetting ways, giving our listeners the choice to simple go with the vibe or dive deep into the hidden meanings of our lyrics.
Whatever nuggets of wisdom you take from Dylan, keep in mind that:
[i]f a song moves you, that’s all that matters … it doesn’t matter what it all means . . . It sounds good, and you want your songs to sound good.
-Bob Dylan (concluding thoughts from his Nobel Lecture in 2016)
Best of luck to you in your writing.