Regardless of how authentic an artist might seem, they are always partly a product of the influences and inspirations that fuel them. Bob Dylan might have seen further than any other songwriter, but he was happily propped up on the shoulders that supported him as he wove his own act into existence. “Dylan has invented himself. He’s made himself up from scratch. That is, from the things he had around him and inside him,” Sam Shepard once wrote.
Continuing: “He’s not the first one to have invented himself, but he’s the first one to have invented Dylan.” With this act, Dylan has collated his influences and inspired others to expose their inner jigsaws. And as Dylan once said, “The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?”
One of his first influences was the great Woody Guthrie. There are only two original songs on Bob Dylan’s self-titled debut record amidst a slew of old folk standards. One of those is ‘Song to Woody’, which he proclaims is the first he ever wrote.
At the time when Dylan first arrived in New York, ‘The Village’ was flooded with the first drabs of folk players who had poured off the pages of beat literature into gingham-clad shirts. As a rule of thumb, they all performed shop-worn folk classics from time immemorial. Likewise, the radio waves were chocked with singers taking on the works of Tin Pan Alley songwriters. This prompted Dylan to comment, “I always kind of wrote my own songs but I never really would play them. Nobody played their own songs, the only person I knew who really did it was Woody Guthrie.”
Thus, Guthrie may have instilled a solid dose of individualism in Dylan’s performance, but he was far from the only one or the first. In fact, Dylan was just about 11-years-old when he stumbled upon his first rousing kinship with none other than the country legend Hank Williams. As Dylan recalls in his memoir: “I became aware that in Hank’s recorded songs were the archetype rules of poetic songwriting,” he wrote. “The architectural forms are like marble pillars.”
This mandate of deeply grounded yet wondrously poetic tales set to simple melodic structures is one that would stay with not only the seismic force of Dylan throughout his career but the entire songwriting fraternity. When a young Dylan heard the news of Williams’ untimely passing, he recalled: “It was like a great tree had fallen.”
But beyond the songwriting, Dylan was also a true iconoclast, that much was clear when he embraced positively charged particles and paired folk with electrified rock ‘n’ roll. As Animals frontman Eric Burdon said: “You might say we were all exposed — when I say ‘all of us,’ I mean the same age group on both sides of the Atlantic — we were exposed to the root of true black music at the same time, and realized that that was the road that we wanted to take.”
And anyone who has ever rocked owes a nod of inspiration to Little Richard. As Dylan said upon the rock progenitor’s passing: “He was my shining star and guiding light back when I was only a little boy. His was the original spirit that moved me to do everything I would do.” Thus, it is no surprise at all to see his classic record Lucille amid the 12 that Dylan selected as the most influential in his life when he chatted with Scott Cohen in 1986.
With the blues of Big Bill Broonzy providing rattling lifeblood, the fearless performative ways of Memphis Minnie, the poetry of Hank Snow, and the rocking ways of Elvis, it is easy to see how each of his choices have influenced him. You can find the full list of records Dylan selected below and we’ve even wrapped them up in a playlist too.
Bob Dylan’s 12 influential records:
- ‘Lady’s Man’ – Hank Snow
- ‘Lucille’ – Little Richard
- High Lonesome Sound – Roscoe Holcomb
- ‘Tom Joad’ – Woody Guthrie
- ‘Mystery Train’ – Elvis Presley
- ‘Not Fade Away’ – Buddy Holly
- ‘Molly and Tenbrooks’ – Bill Monroe
- ‘Get Back’ – Big Bill Broonzy
- ‘Chauffeur Blues’ – Memphis Minnie
- ‘Riding on Train 45’ – the Delmore Brothers
- ‘Ida Red’ – the Smokey Mountain Boys
- ‘Pictures from Life’s Other Side’ – Hank Williams