From John Prine to Randy Newman: Bob Dylan’s 6 favourite songwriters of all time
Bob Dylan, it’s safe to say, knows a thing or two about songwriting. Active for over 50 years in the music industry, selling well over 100 million records worldwide and regarded as one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, Dylan has earned the right to sit atop of the pile as one of the all-time greats in his field and beyond.
What’s perhaps more impressive is that Dylan’s quality hasn’t very often diminished. With his most recent album Rough and Rowdy Ways, the singer has proven once again that his viewpoint is as vital as ever. To have enjoyed such an extensive career, one must be an expert in their field and respect the work and talent of others. Though he may not always be as vocal as some, Dylan has never been one to avoid giving out due credit.
The accolades celebrating Dylan’s poetic lyricism are endless, as are the repeated and somewhat tiresome compliments. When discussing his impact on the music industry, President Barack Obama said of Dylan: “There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music.” His inspiration isn’t reserved for those of us who listened to Dylan after he made his groundbreaking entrance, either.
John Lennon, a creative force of The Beatles, has been widely cited as not only a big Bob Dylan fan but seeing the freewheelin’ troubadour as the key to unlocking his own potential: “I loved him because he wrote some beautiful stuff. I used to love his so-called protest things. He used to come with his acetate and say, ‘Listen to this, John. Did you hear the words?’—I respected him, I respected him a lot.” Many suggest that following Dylan and The Beatles’ meeting in 1964, Lennon and the rest of the band decided to ditch the pop music and make far more personal songs. Such was the impact of Bob Dylan.
With so many of the world’s most prominent figures paying their respects to Dylan, coupled with the countless hit records and his pioneering influence on a rising counterculture which spearheaded alternative music, it’s easy to forget this musician had heroes of his own, fellow songwriting colleagues he held close to his heart and perhaps even listened to on occasion.
While Dylan has always been willing to celebrate the work of those around him, he rarely created definitive lists of his favourites. When sitting down in an interview with Huff Post, Dylan was asked to name some of the songwriters that have had the biggest impact on his creative vision and, to some surprise, he rolled off a selection of names ranging from Zevon to John Prine.
When speaking about the acclaimed talent of 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.”
“Yeah, Randy. What can you say? I like his early songs,” Dylan said in the 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.”
Dylan was also asked about the beloved songwriter John Prine. Sadly, the singer passed away this year after contracting COVID-19 which has since heaped more praise on his work than ever before. But Prine hadn’t escaped Dylan’s attention. “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” said the freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
“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.”
There aren’t many recommendations for songwriters that come with more weight and kudos than this list. When Bob Dylan says a songwriter is worth their weight in gold then you best believe it. If you’re struggling to take Dylan at his word, then check out the introductory playlist below and listen for yourself.