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Music

Bob Dylan's six favourite singers of all time

@jackwhatley89

It’s hard to comprehend the seismic impact of Bob Dylan. Like the advent of Coca-Cola or the internet, we simply cannot imagine a life without the freewheelin’ troubadour. However, unlike the aforementioned inventions, the soulful sounds of Bob Dylan did not spring up in isolation. Like we all are, he was a music lover too and took influence and inspiration from those around him as easily as he now shares his own with generations of singers.

Just like us regular folk, Dylan was enraptured by the power of music and the singer’s position as a poet, actor, scribe and observer all in one. He found idols as easily as he found lyrics and became infatuated with the stars of smoky coffeehouses in New York’s Greenwich Village. But who are the singers that Dylan would call his favourites? It’s a question posed many times to the mercurial wordsmith, and, as you might imagine, it has received a varied response almost every time it has been uttered his way. However, below, there’s a list as robust as his discography.

Dylan has often received a fair amount of flack for his singing voice. Not only has it changed on numerous occasions over the years — due to alcohol, motorcycle accidents and everything else in between — but it has always been seen as a necessity to hear Dylan’s words more than relief from reality. Unlike Joni Mitchell or Harry Nilsson, people came to hear Dylan speak rather than be corralled by vocal chord crescendoes. But those estimations are actually a little tough.

Bob Dylan’s six favourite songwriters of all time

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“When I started playing with Bob, I didn’t know how so much vocal power could come out of this frail man,” said The Band leader Robbie Robertson when he began the infamous electric ‘Judas’ tour. “He was so thin. He was singing louder and stronger than James Brown. We were in a battlefield on that tour, and you had to fight back.” It shows that Dylan was well aware of the force needed to truly deliver the message within the songs.

Of course, when selecting some of Dylan’s favourite singers of all time, it’s essential to discern whether Dylan himself considers them songwriters or standalone singers. Naturally, many of those mentioned below dabble in both, but while Dylan’s favourite songwriters list is succinct, his list of favourite singers is somewhat sprawling. Considering the man in question, there is only one place to start: Woody Guthrie.

Guthrie is widely considered Dyan’s forefather in the genre of folk. The songwriter and fascist killing guitar has been routinely cited as Dylan’s focal inspiration, meaning leaving him off this list would be a crime. Dylan rarely outwardly paid homage to the artist despite the ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ singer constantly sharing his admiration through his work. As Richard Goldstein, who was in attendance when Dylan finally shared the stage with Guthrie, notes: “Dylan paid tribute to Woody Guthrie, by making his songs musically relevant. With stomping rhythms and shrieking harmonies, he infused ‘Grand Coulee’ with electric breath. It was a moving homage,” Goldstein declared, “and nobody stopped to wonder whether it was real folk music.”

Another, far more tragic, figure from the folk scene of New York was the iconic Karen Dalton. A supreme singer built out of a filthy soul and sweet despair, Dalton was a majestic performer but struggled to align her fame with her substance abuse. Dylan paid tribute to Dalton in his 2004 autobiography Chronicles: Volume One: “My favourite singer was Karen Dalton. Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday and played guitar like Jimmy Reed, I sang with her a couple of times.”

Thankfully for us, Dylan once gave a list of his favourite singers out when posed the looming question and the names he reels off are truly phenomenal: “Oh, let me see, Joe Cocker, I suppose, Graham Nash can sing. Van Morrison’s fantastic and so is Stevie Wonder, but of all of them, Joe’s the greatest.” Let’s unpick those names a little. Of course, Dylan’s connection Van Morrison is well documented, most perfectly during their Acropolis performance in Athens back in the 1990s.

Dylan also pays tribute to the Hollies and CSNY performer Graham Nash as having one of the best voices in the business. It’s hard to disagree. Few have taken command of the mic as effortlessly as he. Next up on the list is Stevie Wonder who burst onto the rock scene as part of The Rolling Stones touring party before becoming a Motown and disco hero. But the person Dylan gives most credit is Joe Cocker.

The Sheffield singer had a voice that could stir honey into tea through the walls of a fortified bomb shelter. When performing live, he spasmed his way across the stage like a human jackhammer, as though the summoning force of his voice was causing contractions and the audience looking on were left with slicked-back hair and not a care to speak of. If performance is about whisking folks away from the cares of the world, then Cocker left you engrossed to such an extent that you barely had cause to even wonder whether he was any good—unlike most performances, that seemed to be a simple unspoken certainty.

All in all, when pawing through the introductory playlist shared below, we can get a sense of what really makes Dylan tick when it comes to singers. Every one of the names listed below possesses something unique. Guthrie’s raw determination permeates every note. Karen Dalton is as sad and beautiful as is possible to balance, while Graham Nash acts like a Hollywood polish on every mic he steps up to. Meanwhile, Joe Cocker delivers buttery soul like no other, Van Morrison is like a snowflake on an Irish morning and Stevie Wonder is simply mercurial.

Bob Dylan really knew how to pick them.

Bob Dylan’s favourite singers:

  • Woody Guthrie
  • Karen Dalton
  • Graham Nash
  • Joe Cocker
  • Van Morrison
  • Stevie Wonder