Bob Dylan needs no introduction. Rising to prominence in the mid-1960s, he became the mouthpiece for an entire generation of post-war youths looking backwards and forward at the same time, hoping to spot some semblance of a brighter, greener world. As the leading light of the Greenwich Village folk scene, Dylan was proof that revivalism didn’t have to be regressive, that by grounding oneself in a collective past it was possible to imagine a more egalitarian future
At the same time, he expanded the scope of pop music, replacing all that empty talk of love under the moonlight with a focus on the subterranean landscapes of human experience, the paddle beneath the water. These words were quickly adopted by entire communities, uniting people with transient images of immense political resonance. With that kind of legacy, it’s hard to imagine Bob Dylan being impressed with the work of other musicians, as though he lived in some sort of vacuum. In truth, Dylan was just one part of a thriving musical culture made up of a diverse range of voices.
Of those voices, there was one artist who Dylan felt a real affinity for: Randy Newman. Speaking to The Huffington Post in 2011, the songwriter said: “Yeah, Randy. What can you say? I like his early songs, ‘Sail Away,’ ‘Burn Down the Cornfield,’ ‘Louisiana,’ where he kept it simple. Bordello songs. I think of him as the Crown Prince, the heir apparent to Jelly Roll Morton. His style is deceiving. He’s so laid back that you kind of forget he’s saying important things. Randy’s sort of tied to a different era like I am.”
Bob’s appreciation of Randy Newman may have something to do with the fact that the latter’s music contains a notable strain of Dylanian DNA. His music contains the comedic hoodwinkery of Blonde On Blonde tracks such as ‘Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35’ and ‘Leopard‐Skin Pill Box Hat’, while Newman’s scathing humour also made him something of an outsider. While his contemporaries fixated on writing confessional lyrics, he conjured up entire worlds populated with casts of whimsical misfits, charlatans and outsiders.
In ‘Sail Away’ he paints an image of America in which wealth and comfort have made actions empty of meaning. In a world where everything is handed to you, all that’s left to do is “sing about Jesus and drink wine all day.” That’s not to say he wasn’t capable of showing a more sensitive side too. One of his most famous songs, ‘You’ve Got A Friend In Me’, written for the animated children’s film Toy Story, is surely the pinnacle of wholesome piano balladry. Although I can’t say if Dylan’s ever been a fan of tear-jerking Pixar films; the more logical side of me thinks probably not.