In Defense Of: Bob Dylan, Singer

Here’s one that will either make you raise your fist or scratch your head. I just love the way Bob Dylan sings. So many other singers have tried to rescue his songs from those beleaguered vocal cords (only the Beatles have had more songs covered by other artists), but except for a very few cases, I’ll take the original article. It’s not the most soothing voice, except when it is:

The Soothing Bob Dylan

But his ability to make us swoon is just one end of a wide spectrum of emotions Bob Dylan’s voice offers, and only one impressive feat in his trick bag. A Dylan fan has come to expect the unexpected — as soon as you think you know his limitations or his limitless potential, he will defy those certainties — so don’t be surprised if you start out hating the way he sings and end up with a very different view.

You won’t be the first or last one to change your mind about that.

“Song to Woody”

As a young folk singer, Dylan tried everything to make his voice sound like an old man singing through a sepia veil. Famously born to Jewish parents in the North Country (in the iron range of Minnesota, in the little town of Hibbing), Robert Zimmerman dropped out of college at the University of Minnesota in his first year and made his way to New York City in January 1961 to visit his hero Woody Guthrie, who was suffering from Huntington’s disease in a Long Island hospital. Already performing around campus in the Dinkytown folk circuit, the 19-year-old Zimmerman set out adventuring and, with only the clothes on his back but enough charisma, intelligence, and audacity to conquer the world, changed his name and resolved to learn every folk song he could.

For the people who actually saw him sing around Greenwich Village in the early days, Bob Dylan was a scruffy, boyish ragamuffin with an old man’s voice, small in stature, but with a laser focus, and an unmistakable command of the stage. As to whether or not he had any real talent, that was something that would be answered later and definitively with his songwriting. In the beginning, he was just an aspiring Woody Guthrie clone crashing on couches, absorbing the guitar styles and record collections of musical friends.

At the hospital, Bob befriended Woody’s pal and protégé Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Within a month, he was performing at hootenannies at Gerde’s Folk City and other Village haunts, rubbing shoulders with the talented, leading edge of the 60s folk revival, Dave Van Ronk, Fred Neil, Odetta, and members of the New Lost City Ramblers, as well as Irish folk luminaries, The Clancy Brothers, all conduits to the source of songs that Dylan would either cover or would eventually channel into his own songwriting.

His talents would develop, but what Dylan apparently had almost from the beginning was the power to move people with his voice. It was enough to earn John Hammond’s interest and a Columbia Records contract in 1962, before he had written any of his emblematic songs (Dylan’s self-titled first album is all folk covers except for his own Guthrie-derived “Talkin’ New York” and “Song for Woody”), and before he had signed with powerhouse manager, Albert Grossman. Dylan’s guitar playing was nothing too special. Hammond was not coerced — he was moved.

“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”

And he did develop at an astonishing pace. Here’s an early Dylan song that was made into a Top Ten hit by Peter, Paul, and Mary and has been covered countless times by the whole universe of competent to great singers, but no one comes close to Dylan’s own performance of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Singing is an interpretive art form, like acting. What Dylan’s version has is a point of view and a complexity of feeling that is there in the lyric if anyone else thought to look, but in anyone else’s hands, the emotion of the song is almost always reduced to either mere prettiness or scorn. In his version, Dylan threads the needle between the two and adds a heaping dose of regret between the lines, plus, when he sings the title hook, it’s unclear if he’s being sincerely compassionate or sarcastic, or both. And the real brilliance of the performance is how casually he directs the traffic between the different trains of thought. It’s a tossed-off masterpiece, powerful, yet casual — an early indication that Dylan the singer was going to be as much a sensation as Dylan the songwriter.

In fact, the whole Freewheelin’ album is a vocal tour de force. There’s a huge stylistic range in the songwriting, from apocalyptic, to hilarious, to tender, to philosophical, to activist. Dylan’s second album was immensely important as it revealed him to be the major songwriter of his time, but it’s overlooked as a great leap forward in his singing abilities. The best testament is to give the whole album a listen. Mostly just a guy and his acoustic guitar, but it’s positively spellbinding from beginning to end, and it’s up there with Blood on the Tracks and Slow Train Coming as Dylan’s best sounding album too.

“She Belongs to Me”

Skipping ahead a mere two years, Dylan has moved on from his boyish raggamuffin phase and has settled into his psychedelic poet, mid-60s period. In what the world will come to know as a classic Dylan move, he turns his back on “serious” folk protest to turn his attention to the even more serious task of making rock records and Bringing It All Back Home is a major achievement.

Here, in “She Belongs To Me,” Dylan sings about his muse, a woman who is so unencumbered by the demands of society that she renders everyone else a “walking antique.” Dylan positively croons in his most seductive voice and, with the help of his loveliest and most hypnotic musical track yet, implores us to behold and even bow down to this paragon of freedom and personal empowerment. The effect is otherworldly; the song is gentle but incredibly powerful and it all emanates from Bob’s vocals.

This entire mid-60s Dylan period is a case study in astounding record-making by virtue of commanding vocals. Of all of his eras, this is the essential Bob Dylan and from these three spectacular albums (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde), only “Just Like a Woman” has been widely covered by other artists. That’s because Bob owns these songs. Yes, the lyrics here are more abstract, but they would be nonsensical delivered by any other vocalist. 

“Visions of Johanna”

In “Visions of Johanna,” Dylan takes his cue from the first line of the song — he’s gonna play tricks while he tries to sing so quiet and the result is nothing short of devastating. The scenes he sets are vivid (the room, the heat pipes, the country music station, the empty lot, the nightwatchman), the emotions are personal and immediate, it’s all so concise and so clear and so completely authentic, that when he starts confessing about jewels and binoculars and the ghost of electricity, we see it, we hear it, and we believe it. This is simply one of the greatest recorded performances by anyone and no one but Bob Dylan could have delivered it. In “Johanna” we have plain evidence of a genius-level talent and there are countless others among Bob Dylan’s works — trying to single out his singing voice for harsh criticism while appreciating his performance on record is folly. A job for a contortionist. Way too much work for any critic.

The mid-60s Dylan is a boisterous and confident rock and roll poet in his swaggering prime. A virtuoso at play, feeling his oats and kissing off the premodern world, Bob Dylan would strap on a black Stratocaster and barnstorm the arenas of the world to a hail of boos, something he and his bandmates got used to but never quite understood. On record, Dylan sings his ass off; alternating between tenderness and brutality, compassion and scorn, bluntness and poetry, condemnation and humility. It’s all in his voice; not just in the words but often in the tone of voice, the sneer, the non-verbal interjections (“awww!…. Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people, they’re all drinking, thinking that they got it made.”) — Dylan’s muscular performance on record through these three albums is like watching a Brando supercut. Here’s a healthy taste:

Dylan ’65-66: Virtuoso at Play

Whether Dylan’s late 1966 wipeout was motorcycle-related or not remains the stuff of legend, a serious retreat was needed in every way from the breathless, high-stakes battle he was waging against the status quo on a daily basis. The ‘67-’70 years showed a less intense side of Dylan. The “little boy lost” stopped taking himself so seriously, and a softer, less acerbic, “countrified” Dylan emerged, one with a crooning voice (he attributed his new singing style to his temporarily quitting smoking, but that’s hardly believable). More likely, Dylan was intentionally pivoting, backing away from not only what the public expected, but demanded of him. At this retrospective point, there’s no consensus on this, but the overriding opinion is that the late 60s was a period of semi-dormancy for him and that Dylan didn’t start reemerging until the less aloof, more engaged New Morning album in 1970. It’s fascinating to watch observe Dylan’s muse awaken again through this period which includes the wonderfully eclectic New Morning, a couple of Leon Russell-produced singles, “Watching the River Flow” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” the dusty Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid soundtrack which includes “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” and the full-throated, fully committed Planet Waves album, which he cut with The Band over two weeks at the Village Recorder in Los Angeles in November 1973. Most people group New Morning with the country crooner-era Self-Portrait because of the short time interval between those sessions, but I hear a completely different forward-leaning intention and singing voice on songs like “Day of the Locust” and “Went to See the Gypsy” that certainly point the way to Dylan’s next phase. At any rate, whether or not he’s at his most scintillating, it’s more range, more flexibility, and more vocal capabilities that Dylan the singer displays through each of these eras, and there’s no lack of gems to be found if you’re looking.

Dylan ’70-73: Back to Life

When we finally get to Blood on the Tracks, the genius Bob Dylan has returned as a cubist singer-songwriter, telling fragmented tales that reflect back differently on each listening, shifting with the listener’s perspective, his voice containing all of the brilliant facets of a diamond. It’s a marvelous album, perhaps his best, and Dylan’s singing (recorded in late 1974) is at a resonant peak. Each song is an emotional firestorm, the performances are captured by Phil Ramone, but it’s Dylan himself at the helm as producer. Separated from his wife Sara at the time these songs were written and recorded, with very few exceptions, this is a document of every kind of personal pain; the pain of separation in “Tangled Up in Blue,” loss in “Simple Twist of Fate,” anguish in “You’re a Big Girl Now,” anger in “Idiot Wind,” and regret in “If You See Her, Say Hello.” Even in the breezy “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” he can’t feel the pleasure of new love without anticipating the inevitable loss. Dylan has denied that the songs are autobiographical, but he’s always admitted that the pain is real. It’s in his voice. You can hear it.

Blood on the Tracks also contains the gutsy blues performance, “Meet Me in the Morning,” and the epic story song, the wonderfully complex “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” plus the primordial love ballad “Shelter from the Storm,” and the offhandedly tearful “Buckets of Rain.” It’s an album you need to strap yourself in for, so powerful are the vocal performances throughout. Blood on the Tracks shot to number one in the U.S. and sold over two million copies. Nothing short of breathtaking, there is no sense in selecting examples of Dylan’s vocal prowess here because it’s on display in every song.

Trying to single out his singing voice for harsh criticism while appreciating his performance on record is folly. A job for a contortionist. Way too much work for any critic.

Dylan would finish out the 1970s with Desire, Street Legal, and the first of his Christian trio of albums, Slow Train Coming, all passionate outpourings, sung before his voice started to rapidly deteriorate in the mid-80s due to abuse and cigarettes (he was still smoking into his 70s). Along the way would be the gripping Bogart-like “Isis” studio performance from Desire, the chilling ‘Señor” from Street Legal, the alternately hilarious and scolding “Gotta Serve Somebody” from Slow Train Coming, the hushed beauty of “Every Grain of Sand” from 1981’s Shot of Love, and the sphinxlike “Jokerman” from 1981’s Infidels album, as well the nightly virtuoso performances during the Rolling Thunder Review tour. Here’s a sampling from this incredibly rich period — every one of these performances is a major testament to Dylan’s vocal talent:

Dylan ’74-81: Testament

Lately, Dylan’s singing voice is mostly gravel and hiss, but he’s learned how to manage it and still sing with a wide range of emotion. I saw Dylan perform two nights in a row in June of 2016 and the first night he was in wonderful voice, hitting notes and sustaining them, bringing out hidden meanings in the selections he made from the Great American Songbook, and nailing re-imagined arrangements from his own catalog. The next night, not so much. Dylan continues to make records despite his now ravaged vocal limitations and has even made it work to his advantage, the best example, I think can be heard on his 2006 studio album, Modern Times. Currently suspended due to the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, Dylan’s Never Ending Tour began in 1988 and will continue in spirit for a long, long time. In the meantime, we have the rich universe of his recorded works.

Admittedly, Dylan’s voice is not for everyone. It’s a delicacy. An acquired taste, no doubt about it. Mitch Jayne of the bluegrass band, The Dillards long ago described it as “a dog with its leg caught on barbed wire,” and perhaps that’s true, but it’s a voice that powered more than one revolution. Morphing over time, ripening with each album, every superfan has their favorite voice (mine is Desire). I think the best defense, the reason to get past the initial nasal quality, the tuning discrepancies, the rawness, the reason to endure and come to appreciate the way he sings is because of the songs which will simply knock you on your keister. And one day you will be laying there on the floor, and you will come to realize that it’s not just the tunes, it’s not just the lyrics, but it’s the way he sings them. He’s Bob Dylan, the guy that conquered the world many times over and he didn’t do it just with his pen. He did it at the microphone. Many have covered his songs, but the Columbia ad got it right back in 1965. “Nobody sings Dylan like Dylan!”

Links:
Known (and rumored) Early Performances by Bob Dylan, 1961:
http://bobdylanroots.com/1961.html 

Photo Credits:
Barbed Wire Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels

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