It speaks volumes that Bob Dylan was the first and only songwriter to date to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Much of his music over the past six decades has transcended mere audible enjoyment and deserves a read, taken as poetry as well. Dylan’s unique ability to convey striking imagery while leaving narratives to the artistic hands of mystery has served him extremely well.
While most of Dylan’s music that we now familiarise him with came from his own pen, he did have a helping hand in the early days from some of the oldest names in the folk tradition. Early on, his small coffee house gigs would often be laden with Woody Guthrie covers and a spattering of other folk classics. Guthrie’s political material, especially, taught a young Dylan that music was a powerful tool when used properly.
When confident enough in his own skills as a songwriter, Dylan migrated from the comfort covers and aired some of his early hits, including ‘Song To Woody’, ‘Blowin’ In the Wind’, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ and ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’. His early rise to worldwide acclaim was mostly attributable to his knack for poignant lyrics that pointed fingers at the injustice in society and called for political change. But by the mid-1960s, he was looking to unshackle himself from his status as a folk singer. He wanted to be a label of his own.
While proving himself to be a gifted songwriter in his first few albums, Dylan seemed to charter unprecedented ground in Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde a year later in 1966. Dylan’s lyrics began to flirt with avant-garde compositions reflecting his passion for literature of the so-called Beat Generation, especially that of Allen Ginsberg. By this point, much of Dylan’s music could be read like poetry, and some of the narratives were so mystical and evocative that one’s imagination would be constantly stimulated.
Some of these more involved and stimulating narratives of Dylan’s could be quite easily re-imagined in an expanded novel format. Today, I’m exploring ten of Dylan’s songs that best suit adaption to a novel.
10 Bob Dylan songs that could be novels:
‘Visions of Johanna’ – Blonde on Blonde
One of the best albums of the 1960s was Blonde on Blonde, and its greatest song was probably ‘Visions of Johanna’. The mystical and eerily adventurous music flows alongside some abstract lyrics that Dylan wrote while living with his wife-to-be, Sara, at the famous Chelsea Hotel in New York. Some accounts go as far as to say the song was written during the East Coast blackout that hit New York and seven neighbouring states on November 9th, 1965.
The vivid imagery sets the scene of New York in the winter as “the heat pipes just cough” in Dylan’s room. The story is generally understood to have been written about Joan Baez, with whom Dylan had been in a short relationship a year or so earlier. The opaque narrative involves another woman, Louise, who seems to represent love, understanding and warmth, while Dylan paints the conflicted and upset state of his own mind, “On the back of the fish truck that loads / While my conscience explodes”. Dylan’s use of imagery here could be expanded with a more exposing and elongated narrative into a classic New York love tale.
‘Tangled Up In Blue’ – Blood on the Tracks
‘Tangled Up In Blue’ is yet another fine example of Dylan’s remarkable songwriting genius. As has been a constant through much of Dylan’s work over the years, the song communicates his “tangled” relationship with love and lust. The lyrics spell out Dylan’s longing for one woman in particular from the past, conveying a great deal of regret: “But all the while I was alone / The past was close behind / I seen a lot of women / But she never escaped my mind, and I just grew / Tangled up in blue”.
Later, Dylan changes the tense to the present as he sees the woman he longs for, “later on as the crowd thinned out / I was just about to do the same / She was standing there in back of my chair / Said to me, ‘Don’t I know your name?’” The woman then hands Dylan a “book of poems” “written by an Italian poet from the thirteenth century”, adding to the mystique of the plot.
The story concludes with the pair still not being able to see eye to eye as they drift into the future: “But me, I’m still on the road / Headin’ for another joint / We always did feel the same / We just saw it from a different point of view / Tangled up in blue”.
‘Desolation Row’ – Highway 61 Revisited
Often contender for one of Dylan’s finest albums, Highway 61 Revisited is awash with classic hits, including ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, ‘Tombstone Blues’ and ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’. Still, lyrically, the most evocative and involved of the album is the 11-minute closer, ‘Desolation Row’. The epic is up there with Dylan’s greatest lyrical achievements, and over the 11 verses, it tells a strange, convoluted tale involving an extensive cast of characters.
Dylan weaves a series of familiar characters and events into a torrent of enigmatic poetry. Each verse is a new addition to the story of this place, Desolation Row, and with each verse, the plot thickens. Robin Hood, Cinderella, the Good Samaritan, Cain and Abel are all present and at the song’s close, we’re left with a sense of mystery. This peculiar narrative is certainly one I would like to read on and on in a novel adaptation – perhaps the characters’ stories would converge for a final showdown in a Quentin Tarantino style adaption.
‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ – Blonde on Blonde
Dylan followed up the impossibly brilliant Highway 61 Revisited with Blonde on Blonde in 1966. Somehow, he managed to further the sterling work of the previous year with a double album teeming with poetic wisdom. While I will always maintain that the album’s third track, ‘Visions of Johanna’, is the greatest lyrical feat of the album and quite possibly of all time, it is closely followed by the album’s 11-minute closer ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’.
The lengthy composition is a love song written for Dylan’s then-wife, Sara Lownds. While it’s a love song, in true Dylan fashion, it couldn’t be as simple as ‘All You Need is Love’ or ‘And I Love Her’. This love song instead has a drawn-out narrative that Dylan unfolds over the 11 minutes. The imagery depicts a beautiful woman who gets stolen away by a “thief” because her “magazine husband” left. This part of the story likely refers to the photographer Hans Lownds who was married to Sara before Bob Dylan came along.
‘Isis’ – Desire
In 1976, Dylan released Desire, a marked change from his previous studio album, Blood on the Tracks (The Basement Tapes came in between, but most of the material was recorded much earlier in the late 1960s and earlier 1970s). The album is known for its heavy use of the fiddle and is most famous for ‘Hurricane’, a song that would find itself on this list if the narrative wasn’t an account of the real-life story of boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter.
Among the other songs on Desire is ‘Isis’, a particularly intriguing story that sets itself in the theme of Cinco de Mayo celebrations. “I married Isis on the Fifth Day of May, but I could not hold on to her for very long,” the lyrics begin. The verses unfold a convoluted plot as the narrator embarks on a journey and longs for Isis. During the travels, the subject encounters the pyramids which tie into the name Isis, a goddess representing the virtues of being a wife and a mother in Egyptian mythology. It is generally understood that Dylan wrote Isis about his wife, Sara.
‘Blind Willie McTell’ – The Bootleg Volumes 1-3
‘Blind Willie McTell’ was one of Dylan’s greatest achievements to have been excluded from his studio albums. As with many of Dylan’s more insightful and impactful epics, this song isn’t exactly a light-hearted ditty. The lyrics and the atmosphere set by the instrumentals induce apocalyptic anxiety. The subject of the narrative has clearly been through some hard times with the repeated verse end, “Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell”.
The lyrics cover scenes from the St. James’ Hotel to East texas, or “All the way from New Orleans / To Jerusalem”. Across all these places, Dylan appears to give his sombre socio-political commentary as he describes “chain-gangs” and “the ghost of slavery ship”. Through all of the places and events covered, Blind Willie McTell remains the constant. An epic novel could follow the bleak life and times of McTell, a man who can clearly spin quite the yarn, albeit a sobering one.
‘Jokerman’ – Infidels
The jewel in the crown of Dylan’s 1983 album Infidels is undoubtedly its opening track, ‘Jokerman’. The six-minute song shows Dylan looking in the mirror and giving himself a critique of sorts. While the narrative isn’t particularly involved, the imagery and events paint the Jokerman (Dylan) as a conflicted and confused individual.
The song is filled to the rafters with religious imagery and is the result of Dylan’s conversion to Christianity at the time of writing. Like Jesus Christ, the Jokerman has messianic aspirations, but unlike a real God figure, the Jokerman has an impure past. While this internal muse isn’t enough of a narrative for a whole novel, it could set the scene for a particularly interesting focal character.
‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ – Blood on the Tracks
Another one of Dylan’s greatest lyrical accomplishments comes in the form of ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’. Appearing on 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, the nine-minute epic tells a disorientingly befuddled plot involving several characters who cross paths in a seemingly drunken tangle of lust, greed and envy.
The song seems to centre around the Jack of Hearts, a charming robber who seduces two women, Lily and Rosemary, both of whom are romantically attached to Big Jim, the wealthiest, greediest man in town. Big Jim is ultimately murdered by Rosemary, who is then hung for her crime. Meanwhile, Jack of Hearts escapes into the night, having accomplished his robbery, leaving poor Lily alone to ponder the events that have taken place. Dylan has never disclosed anything further about the meaning of the muddled story leaving it up for speculation, as any true artist should.
‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’ – The Times They Are A-Changin’
With a back catalogue as impressive as Dylan’s, many of his greatest tracks can be crowded out amongst his greatest hits. One of his early unsung compositions is the harrowing story of the farmer, Hollis Brown. This is one of the less convoluted and muddled Dylan plotlines. The perfectly structured lyrics are scattered over a fitting folk-blues arrangement and unfold the financial misfortune of Brown and his starving family who are trying to survive in the mid-west during the depression.
The lyrics paint a vivid picture and set the tone of desperation: “Your children are so hungry / That they don’t know how to smile”. Later the plot intensifies as hope is further extinguished: “The rats have got your flour / Bad blood it got your mare”. The story ends with Hollis Brown finding no way out of his situation and ultimately using his “last lone dollar / On seven shotgun shells”. He eventually shoots his family and then himself, and the lyrics leave us with the bleak image of “seven people dead / On a South Dakota farm / Somewheres in the distance / There’s seven new people born”.
‘Talkin’ World War III Blues’ – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Dylan’s second studio album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, launched him to superstardom with its poignant political commentary. His youthful charm met the folk tradition and brought something particularly intriguing. The album is home to such classics as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, and ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’. Despite these soaring classics, the standout track for me has always been the peculiar ‘Talkin’ World War III Blues’.
In six minutes, Dylan tells the story of a man who checks himself in at the doctor with a mental health complaint. He tells the doctor that every night he dreams of World War III. The doctor says, “nurse, get your pad, this boy’s insane”. He then spells out the story of his dream in a post-apocalyptic world where he’s climbed from some nuclear fall out shelter, and he looks to find friends in the wasteland. He struggles to find food, company and even the time. Although he does manage to find a Cadilac to drive – so there is a silver lining of sorts. The lyrics come to a conclusion where the doctor says he’s been having the same dreams: “Hey I’ve been havin’ the same old dreams / But mine was a little different you see / I dreamt that the only person left after the war was me / I didn’t see you around”.