No matter what corner of the world you find yourself in, there’s a reasonably good chance that the words, music and intoxicating notion of Bob Dylan has already swept through those lands. One of the icons of the 1960s folk explosion, later developing himself into an all-around rock hero, Bob Dylan is rightly revered as one of the greatest songwriters the world has ever known. That may feel like a grandiose statement, but you’ll spend the rest of your life searching for someone who disagrees.
An astonishing career set across six decades, the work of Dylan will likely be studied as texts after we are all long gone, and there’s a reason that his songs are given such admiration — they have incredibly strong foundations. Born not only out of Dylan’s mercurial mind, which at one point embodied the very notion of a generation of counter-culture expressionists but also out of a wealth of literature. When you put these two assets together, magic happens.
Despite his place on the pedestal of pop culture, Dylan has always dissuaded those trying to hold him high as a god of music, claiming that writing songs is relatively easy. Speaking with Paul Zollo, the icon once noted, “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.”
‘The story’ seems to be the critical difference for Dylan. Not only does narrative affect what constitutes excellent music for him, but the use of literature has bolstered his own songwriting over the years. In 2016, Dylan was finally recognised for his contribution to the written word and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The freewheelin’ troubadour may have taken his time accepting the award (he went missing for a while after the news broke), but when he did finally share some thoughts on the accolade with the BBC, he also provided keen listeners with the secret to his songwriting success.
Naturally, it’s not a straightforward guide of how to write an anthem for a generation but it sees Dylan reflect on his beginnings and how they evolve into the back catalogue we all know today. “When I started writing my own songs, folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it. But that’s something else as well. I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school,” he explains.
He then goes on to list the early books that informed not only his vocabulary but his sense of wonderment and adventure: “Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities and all the rest.” The themes and notions buried within the pages would infiltrate Dylan’s writing as a young folkie: “Typical grammar school reading gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature and a standard to measure things by. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics. The themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs either knowingly or unintentionally. I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody had ever heard of, and these themes were fundamental.”
It would appear that, just as we were all told as children, it was with education, reading and understanding that Dylan gave himself the foundation of his songwriting stature. Without the levels of complexity, creativity and culture he derived from reading literature, Dylan would never have been able to give us such powerful songs. So, if you’re looking for the secret to Bob Dylan’s songwriting then it’s all there, in the pages of your bookshelf.