From John Prine to Johnny Cash: A list of Bob Dylan’s 20 musical heroes
If you have been thriving for 60 years within the music industry then you tend to pick up a thing or two about some of the best in the business; Bob Dylan, it is safe to say, knows a thing or two about music.
While a lot of Dylan’s most celebrated work was released during the 1960s when he became a pioneering icon of a growing counterculture, the musician has successfully managed to blend the genres of rock, folk, pop, gospel, country and jazz with his ever political, social and philosophical lyrics.
With well over 100 million records sold throughout his career, Dylan has created his music while forging a legacy which considers him one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. Dylan’s impact hasn’t gone unnoticed, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for “his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power” and was swiftly hailed by former President Barack Obama who said of the musician: “There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music.”
Despite his never-ending list of plaudits, Dylan himself has always been forthcoming when discussing his fellow artistic colleagues whether it be influences, collaborators or general admiration.
Below, we explore the 20 figures who have had a lasting impact on the creation of Dylan’s artistic vision.
Bob Dylan’s 20 musical heroes:
One of the foremost folk singers of her time, Dalton and Dylan crossed paths in the Greenwich Village scene where she dazzled him with her vocals and her guitar and banjo skills.
Dylan heaped praise on the artist, proclaiming, “Karen Dalton is my favourite singer. Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday’s and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed and went all the way with it”.
The legendary artist who sold his soul to the Devil, Robert Johnson was a deeply influential artist after his untimely death at age 27. The Faustian legend sees Johnson, with a desperate need to be a blues star, take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation. There he was met by the Devil who after playing a few tunes returned the guitar to Johnson who then had mastery of the instrument.
Following his death, Columbia Records released a collection of his recordings titled King of the Delta Blues Singers in 1961 and Johnson’s influence across artists like Keith Richards, Robert Plant and, of course, Bob Dylan quickly grew. All the aforementioned cite Johnson’s poetic lyricism and masterful playing as deeply influential to the explosion of rhythm and blues in the ’60s.
Dylan describes listening to Johnson for the first time: “From the first note, the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up. The stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window. When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armour. I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard.”
One of the more unlikely inclusions on this list is Jimmy Buffett. The Parrothead leader famed for his islander adoration is a more curious addition but his songs like ‘Margaritaville’ must have struck a chord with Dylan, who has often proclaimed Buffett’s prowess.
When asked the songs which really impressed Dylan he once said, “‘Death of an Unpopular Poet.’ There’s another one called ‘He Went to Paris’.”
At the turn of the decade in 1960, Dylan borrowed a copy of Woody Guthrie’s autobiography Bound for Glory from a classmate and was instantly infatuated. Published in 1943 the book transformed Guthrie into an idol for Dylan—he allegedly started speaking like Guthrie and upon first walking into the iconic New York hotspot Cafe Wha? proclaimed: “I been travellin’ around the country, followin’ in Woody Guthrie’s footsteps.”
When Dylan and Guthrie first met, after some somewhat rigorous detective work, Woody allegedly gave Dylan that read “I ain’t dead yet.” It sparked a sweet friendship as Dylan played a new song of his, ‘Song to Woody’. Guthrie approved of the song and it became one of only two original compositions on his debut record in 1962.
With Guthrie’s influence on Dylan undeniable, Bob once said of his idol: “His repertoire was beyond category. Songs made my head spin, made me want to gasp, for me it was an epiphany. It was like I had been in the dark and someone had turned on the main switch of a lightning conductor.”
Contemporaries during the 1960s, Gordon Lightfoot represents the old school of songwriting and has rightly earned his place as a legend of folk music.
While Lightfoot’s work truly does speak for itself, it does help to have the occasional endorsement. Dylan said of the songwriter: “Gordo’s been around as long as me. ‘Shadows’, ‘Sundown’, ‘If You Could Read My Mind.’ I can’t think of any I don’t like.”
John Lee Hooker
John Lee Hooker, the legendary blues singer and guitarist, represents a special moment in Dylan’s career. Dylan’s first major gig (other than playing for loose change in Greenwich) was to support the iconic artist in April of 1961.
“Every night he’d be right there with me. We’d stay there, we’d party there, drink gin,” recalled Hooker in Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography. “He’d sit around and watch me play; he’d be right there every night, and we’d be playing guitars in the hotel.
“I don’t know what he got from me, but he must’ve got something.”
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
A Brooklyn native, Elliot was inspired by the rodeos a Madison Square Garden and set his sights on becoming a musical cowboy. His strained nasal vocal tone was something that many have said Dylan was said to have been influenced by during his time in Minneapolis.
By the time Dylan arrived in New York, many thought he was Elliot’s son. Having mastered some of Dylan repertoire, he would often be found introducing Dylan’s songs with the words: “Here’s a song from my son, Bob Dylan.”
“Ramblin’ Jack was a musical hero,” Dylan once said. There’s a loving story that has done the rounds about a time when Elliott once performed a version of ‘Don’t Think Twice’ while Dylan was in the audience. Moved by the moment, Dylan apparently stood up and declared: “I relinquish it to you, Jack!”
One of the more obscure artists on the list of inspiration is the folk singer Guy Clark. Having been covered by so many different artists in his time, he holds a special place in music and in the heart of Dylan: “Guy Clark is one of my favourite songwriters,” Dylan once said.
Clark is what you might call a songwriter’s songwriter. Hailing from Texas, he inspired Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt, and as we’ve now learned Bob Dylan himself. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and has recorded over 20 studio albums.
The Flying Burrito Brothers
The Flying Burrito Brothers are an American country rock, their influential 1969 debut album, The Gilded Palace of Sin gathered huge attention upon its release. The band drew wide critical acclaim and especially from Bob Dylan.
When Rolling Stone asked Dylan for his favourite country-rock album he had no hesitation, “The Flying Burrito Brothers. Boy, I love them. Their record instantly knocked me out.”
The iconic Americana storyteller Randy Newman has long been a songwriting stalwart. Adding many songs to the Great American Songbook, Newman remains a cult hero.
“Yeah, Randy. What can you say? I like his early songs,” Dylan said in an interview before listing some specifics. ‘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.”
The continued mutual adoration between Joan Baez and Bob Dylan is one of those charming love stories which warms your heart. Having shared their formative years together as flower children of the new musical folk movement springing out of New York, Baez and Dylan constantly challenged each other.
When she met Bob in 1961, Baez’s first album had already been recorded and she was fast becoming the ‘Queen of Folk’. Her confidence and composure made her an incredibly attractive proposition to young Dylan. Their love affair was as tempestuous and bright as their creativity which birthed from it.
Both have written songs about the other and their love didn’t stop at physical and emotional—they appreciated each other’s art greatly. Baez was invited to perform as part of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975 and they continue to share inspiration to this day.
Simply put by Dylan himself: “There was no one in her class. When she sang she made your teeth drop.”
Dylan always showed appreciation for great vocalists as well as songwriters. One such artist, the Soul legend Aaron Neville is a particular favourite of the Freewheelin’ singer.
Dylan said of the artist: “Aaron is one of the world’s great singers, a figure of rugged power, built like a tank but has the most angelic singing voice. A voice that could almost redeem a lost soul.
“It seems so incongruous. So much for appearances. There’s so much spirituality in his singing that it could even bring sanity back in a world of madness.”
The iconic country singer Hank Williams is a key inspiration for many of the artists that came out of the New York scene in the 1960s and beyond. His work has been widely covered by some of music’s greatest and Dylan remains a fan to this day.
After a janitor found and then sold a set of unfinished lyrics which had been found in Williams’ career the night he died the lyrics eventually found their way to Bob Dylan in 2008 to complete the songs for a new album. Ultimately, the completion of the album included recordings by a host of artists who had been influenced by the artist.
“I started writing songs after I heard Hank Williams,” Dylan once declared.”Even at a young age, I identified with Hank Williams.”
When Williams passed away Dylan said that “it was like a great tree had fallen.”
Despite not being one of the most instantly recognisable names on this list, Arlen is in fact likely the most popular.
A serial composer whose work has littered the Great American Songbook, Arlen is best known for composing the music for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, with ‘Over The Rainbow’ being the pick of the bunch.
“I could never escape from the bittersweet, lonely, intense world of Harold Arlen,” Dylan once wrote.
When all is said and done and we look back at the music of the 20th century you’d be hard-pressed to find two more iconic songwriters than Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. They met at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and remained friends until Cash’s death.
The pair’s admiration for one another is undoubted and their influence on each other was there for all to see in their 1969 Nashville recording sessions and covering each other’s songs. Cash’s iconic cover of ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ remains one of the best versions of the song.
Dylan said when Cash passed in 2003: “In plain terms, Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him—the greatest of the greats then and now, truly he is what the land and country is all about, the heart and soul of it personified.”
Speaking about Warren Zevon specifically, Dylan said: “There might be three separate songs within a Zevon song, but they’re all effortlessly connected. Zevon was a musician’s musician, a tortured one. ‘Desperado Under The Eaves’. It’s all in there.”
He adds: “‘Lawyers, Guns and Money’, ‘Boom Boom Mancini’, Down hard stuff. ‘Join me in L.A’ sort of straddles the line between heartfelt and primaeval. His musical patterns are all over the place, probably because he’s classically trained.”
The King inspired pretty much the whole Western world when he sashayed his hips into the homes of millions during the 1950s. Presley put the danger and sex into rock and roll and provided an idol worthy of admiration during his early career.
While it is unclear if Dylan ever met Presley though rumours he met him with John Lennon in the 1970s, it is shortsighted to not expect Dylan to have gleaned some aspects of Elvis’ work. While Presley is a very different performer to Dylan his power of performance must’ve undoubtedly rung true to Bob.
Upon hearing the news of Presley’s death, a friend of Dylan, Faridi was with him when he got the news: “He really took it bad… He was really grieving. He said that if it wasn’t for (Presley) he never would have gotten started. He opened the door. ”
Dylan said: “I went over my whole life. I went over my whole childhood. I didn’t talk to anyone for a week”.
Often regarded as one of the most melancholy songwriters of all time, John Prine continued to be one of America’s most poignant singers before he passed away earlier this year. His double-edged sword of powerful sadness and light-hearted humour leaves him as one of Dylan’s most talented contemporaries.
Dylan said: “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene.
“All that stuff about Sam Stone the soldier junky daddy and Donald and Lydia, where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that.”
Known as ‘The Colonel’ to many, the American guitarist, songwriter and record producer is not only the leading guitarist of the Stax Records house band, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, which has backed artists such as Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas and Johnnie Taylor.
Cropper worked with Dylan as part of the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary concert in 1992 sharing the stage with Eric Clapton and George Harrison. ‘The Colonel’ is often regarded as the greatest living guitar player.
Ma Rainey is a blues legend. As one of the earliest African-American professional blues singers and one of the first generation of blues singers to record she was quickly picked up by Dylan in the 1960s as an inspirational artist. She was often billed as the ‘Mother of the Blues’ and drenched everything she did in the soul of the song.
Her unstoppable vocals and the passion with which she sang had a lasting effect on all those who experienced her including Dylan. He would go on to namecheck her in his song ‘Tombstone Blues,’ and Dylan also once wrote a song called Yonder Comes Sin which was an update on Rainey’s ‘Yonder Comes The Blues’.