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Bob Dylan's crucial advice to songwriters


“It’s not a good idea and it’s bad luck to look for life’s guidance to popular entertainers.” – Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is just about as elusive as the wind. Dylan will tell you one thing and then change it to something completely different the next time you hear him speak. “For me, it’s always been more con-fessional than pro-fessional,” Dylan said in an interview with Paul Zollo, found in Zollo’s book, Songwriters on Songwriting. 

It’s a handy book for any aspiring songwriter needing some advice; while Dylan’s advice is somewhat hard to completely get a handle of, they are still words to consider, as they are Dylan’s. Fellow songwriter, Van Morrison called Dylan “the greatest living poet.” While some songwriters like Nick Cave rely on a steady routine and a consistent schedule, Dylan’s process has always been one deeply rooted in the subconscious. “My songs aren’t written on a schedule,” Dylan said to Zollo. 

Really, if one attempted to boil down Dylan’s words of advice to aspiring songwriters, one would deduce that what Dylan is saying, is that the world doesn’t actually need songwriters anymore. “The world don’t need any more songs… As a matter of fact, if nobody wrote any songs from this day on, the world ain’t gonna suffer for it. Nobody cares. There’s enough songs for people to listen to, if they want to listen to songs. For every man, woman and child on earth, they could be sent, probably, each of them, a hundred songs, and never be repeated. There’s enough songs.”

Dylan goes on to say that “as far as songwriting, any idiot could do it… Everybody writes a song just like everybody’s got that one great novel in them.” For Dylan, it isn’t a case of ‘a desire’ to write a song, so much as it is ‘a need’ to write songs that makes one a great songwriter: “Unless someone’s gonna come along with a pure heart and has something to say. That’s a different story.”

According to Dylan, if one wants to be a songwriter, then you better have been rejected from society one way or another; it is not an occupation, so much as it is a lifestyle. Dylan added: “Your life doesn’t have to be in turmoil to write a song like that but you need to be outside of it. That’s why a lot of people, I myself included, write songs when one form or another of society has rejected you. So that you can truly write about it from the outside. Someone who’s never been out there can only imagine it as anything, really.”

Bob Dylan is one of the greatest songwriters in history. (Credit: Douglas R. Gilbert)

It begs the question, if anyone is seeking any real tangible advice from the great wordsmith himself, what can we take away from Dylan that one can actually use?

“First of all, there’s two kinds of thoughts in your mind: there’s good thoughts and evil thoughts,” Dylan once said. “Both come through your mind. Some people are more loaded down with one than another. Nevertheless, they come through. And you have to be able to sort them out, if you want to be a songwriter, if you want to be a song singer. You must get rid of all that baggage. You ought to be able to sort out those thoughts, because they don’t mean anything, they’re just pulling you around, too. It’s important to get rid of them thoughts.” 

How does one sift through the bad thoughts to get to the stuff that can help one actually write a song? Dylan says to put yourself in a constructive environment, a peaceful one that allows for your subconscious to comfortably spew forth the inner voice that lies hidden. 

“It’s nice to be able to put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind. And block yourself off to where you can control it all, take it down.”

What does Dylan think of other songwriters?

Another aspect of Dylan’s advice is that he claims that anyone wanting to be a true songwriter, must make sacrifices. He shared his thoughts on Madonna with Paul Zollo: “Madonna’s good, she’s talented, she puts all kinds of stuff together, she’s learned her thing… But it’s the kind of thing which takes years and years out of your life to be able to do. You’ve got to sacrifice a whole lot to do that. Sacrifice. If you want to make it big, you’ve got to sacrifice a whole lot.”

Dylan moved to New York City around 1961 to find Woodie Guthrie on his deathbed. In Dylan’s early days, he aspired to follow in Guthrie’s footsteps. As a folk singer who emulated Guthrie’s style, Dylan commented on the musical landscape as far as folk as a genre was concerned: “To Woody Guthrie, see, the airwaves were sacred. And when he’d hear something false, it was on airwaves that were sacred to him. His songs weren’t false. Now we know the airwaves aren’t sacred but to him they were. So that influenced a lot of people with me coming up. Like, ‘You know, all those songs on the Hit Parade are just a bunch of shit, anyway.'”

Adding, “It influenced me in the beginning when nobody had heard that. Nobody had heard that. You know, ‘If I give my heart to you, will you handle it with care?’ Or ‘I’m getting sentimental over you.’ Who gives a shit! It could be said in a grand way, and the performer could put the song across, but come on, that’s because he’s a great performer not because it’s a great song. Woody was also a performer and songwriter. So a lot of us got caught up in that. There ain’t anything good on the radio. It doesn’t happen.”

In Dylan’s next few comments, there is a common theme that he touches upon, and that is the ‘songwriter versus the performer’ and how the two relate to one another.

Dylan has taken songwriting inspiration from his contemporaries. (Credit: Alamy)

Dylan compares his entry into the music industry via the folk world, versus The Beatles’ entry, via rock ‘n’ roll: “Then, of course, the Beatles came along and kind of grabbed everybody by the throat. You were for them or against them,” he said. “You were for them or you joined them, or whatever. Then everybody said, Oh, popular song ain’t so bad, and then everyone wanted to get on the radio. Before that, it didn’t matter. My first records were never played on the radio. It was unheard of! Folk records weren’t played on the radio. You never heard them on the radio and nobody cared if they were on the radio.”

Dylan continues on the main differences between folk and rock ‘n’ roll: “Going on into it further, after the Beatles came out and everybody from England, Rock and Roll still is an American thing. Folk music is not. Rock and roll is an American thing, it’s just all kind of twisted. But the English kind of threw it back, didn’t they? And they made everybody respect it once more.”

Dylan has previously stated that his two favourite songwriters are Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie – although the two are very different, Dylan finds the similarities between the two: “To me, Hank Williams is still the best songwriter. Hank Williams never wrote ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ But it’s not that shocking for me to think of Hank Williams singing ‘Pastures of Plenty’ or Woody Guthrie singing ‘Cheatin’ Heart.’ So in a lot of ways those two writers are similar. As writers. But you mustn’t forget that both of these people were performers, too. 

“And that’s another thing which separates a person who just writes a song… People who don’t perform but who are so locked into other people who do that can sort of feel what that other person would like to say, in a song and be able to write those lyrics. Which is a different thing from a performer who needs a song to play on stage year after year.”