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How did Bob Dylan change music?

You would be hard-pressed to find another musical artist with more mystique than Bob Dylan. Born Robert Zimmerman on May 24th 1941, Dylan has become one of the most iconic legends in history for pioneering “new poetic expressions” within popular music. 

In 2016, Dylan was awarded the Nobel prize in Literature for his achievements. While many questioned whether awarding Dylan with this prestige constituted a fair judgement or even a logical one, one cannot deny his lyrical and poetic prowess. 

He moved to New York City in the early 1960s initially to visit his hero, Woodie Guthrie, on his deathbed, and then went on to become a staple figure in the folk community in Greenwich Village. His first eponymous record featured mostly cover material of folk standards, except for two original songs. Dylan started his career as a folk artist and was immersed in playing traditional folk standards. 

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, his second album, was when Dylan started to reveal himself as the master craftsman that he was. This record featured songs such as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Masters of War’, and ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’. These were original songs that supplanted themselves into the folk songbook as if they were traditional standards all along. 

Arguably one of Dylan’s most celebrated accomplishments as a songwriter was that he democratised the form of folk songwriting, influencing other contemporary giants such as The Beatles. He brought the best elements of folk songwriting into the realm of rock ‘n’ roll and pop music, emphasising the importance of lyrics within these popular styles of music.

Bob Dylan constantly pushed his creativity. (Credit: Alamy)

How did Bob Dylan change music?

Dylan’s early folk records proved to be the soundtrack of the collective’s fears, hopes, dreams, and struggles of the day, and even to this day this still rings true. Songs like ‘Blowin’ In the Wind’ tackled some of the most difficult questions that plague humankind: in a call and response type of structure, Dylan asked his listener, “How many roads must a man walk down/Before you can call him a man?” These types of questions strike the imagination only to be let down by elusive answers as any quality poet can provide: “The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind”. Dylan had an impeccable way of inviting his listener on a trip into the ethereal, often inspiring the listener to go on their own journey of self-discovery.

During the height of the civil rights movement, not only was Bob Dylan present during Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal “I Have a Dream” speech, but he had just performed on the very same stage moments before. Dylan was very much part of a cultural movement, and along with the likes of Joan Baez, he helped to provide the soundtrack to this movement. 

By the mid-1960s, Dylan had developed a reputation as a prominent protest singer. Although, Dylan continuously denied this characterisation and insisted that he was just a “song and dance man.”

In a San Fransisco press conference when Dylan was asked about folk-rock, he responded: “I don’t play folk-rock. I like to think of it as more like vision music.” 

Another defining trait of Dylan’s was his undeniable thirst to search for the unattainable and refused to be locked into a category. Consequently, he went from one phase into the next, constantly searching for his own answers. This thirst for knowledge could often be heard in his music, and as a result, many would follow him down his own rabbit holes. There is no other artist who suffered more from incessantness of the paparazzi, the press, stragglers, and the impressionable.

His fifth record, Bringing it all Back Home, was his first to feature electric tracks; the first side of the record was electric while the second was the familiarly acoustic type. ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ was a first of its kind; it was the album’s opener and presented a new side of Dylan. The song is in a style that resembles that of rap and exudes a ferocious word-play that hadn’t been seen or heard before.

Later tracks such as ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘The Ballad of a Thin Man’ introduced new themes to the general sphere of rock ‘n’ roll, themes that had enough cultural implication to potentially affect change. 

For example, ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ was a searing observation of the hapless journalist (Mr Jones) who attempts to trivialise an artist’s work to understand it. The poignant ‘Mr Jones’ ends up in semi-absurd situations and has no clue as to why he is there.

Bob Dylan has influenced countless artists over the years. (Credit: Alamy)

When did Bob Dylan go electric?

In February 1964, Dylan took a train across America. Biographer, Clinton Heylin recalled: “The primary motivation for this trip was to find enough inspiration to step beyond the folk-song form, if not in the bars, or from the miners, then by peering deep into himself”. This is when he wrote his fourth record, Another Side of Bob Dylan, and it moved away from his socially conscious material into the more personal realm. 

It’s not enough for an artist to simply exhibit talent, for someone to truly be the best, they have to prove to have the attitude as well. Dylan always did what was best for himself, even if it cost him part of his audience.

By 1965, Dylan was still writing within his folk template but began shifting towards a more rock ‘n’ roll sound. By this time, he had risen to the forefront of the American folk music revival, so when people came to see him perform at the annual Newport Folk Festival, audience members were in for a shock. 

Clad in all black with an electric guitar strapped over his shoulder while wearing sunglasses; gone was the protester who possessed some degree of innocence despite the wisdom of his folk songs. 

Instead, he would travel towards the centre of his own universe and adopt a rock ‘n’ roll attitude and would attempt to shake off the identity of the ‘folk-hero’ for decades to come. The ego-centrism of nihilism was more appealing than a justice warrior. This persona encapsulated the 1960s rock star paradigm and Dylan had invented it. From it came the quintessential albums of this archetype: Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks. 

Dylan shocked the world when he went electric. (Credit: Douglas R. Gilbert)

Who did Bob Dylan influence?

Bob Dylan’s influence could probably not be accurately pinned down as it is so immense. He is in the top three of the most covered artists of all time – he has over 340 songs that have been covered by other artists and that number is probably increasing at a rapid rate.

While Bob Dylan has always infamously been a bit of a curmudgeon in interviews, never giving the interviewer much to go off of, over the years he’s been slightly more receptive in giving credit to those artists who have paid tribute to the greatest bard of the 20th century. 

Below is a list of Bob Dylan quotes acknowledging the various artists who have covered his songs. What better way to truly examine his influence than by observing the vast range of artists who have paid tribute to him?

Many artists have covered Bob Dylan over the years. (Credit: Alamy)

Who has covered Bob Dylan?

Alanis Morissette – ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’

According to a Q&A with Bill Flanagan, he said of Morissette’s cover: “I couldn’t believe she got that so right, something I’d never been able to do.” It might be surprising to hear Morissette do a tribute to Bob Dylan, as the performers are so starkly different in their styles.

This tells us two things: firstly, Morissette’s secret weapon is her versatility and ability to interpret other’s songs and make them her own. Secondly, one should never underestimate just how much of an influence Dylan had.

Bruce Springsteen – ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’

Bob Dylan said about the Boss’ tribute to one of his most memorable anthem’s of mortality: “Incredible! He did that song like the record, something I myself have never tried. I never even thought it was worth it. Maybe never had the manpower in one band to pull it off.”

Adding, “I don’t know, but I never thought about it. To tell you the truth, I’d forgotten how the song ought to go. Bruce pulled all the power and spirituality and beauty out of it like no one has ever done. He was faithful, truly faithful to the version on the record, obviously the only only one he has to go by.”

Jimi Hendrix – ‘All Along The Watchtower’

One of the most iconic Bob Dylan covers has got to be Jimi Hendrix’s version of ‘All Along The Watchtower’. Dylan’s version originally appeared on his 1967 record, John Wesley Harding, Hendrix’s version became more popular for adding his inventive style of guitar playing to the already heartbreaking song.

Dylan said about the track, “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”

Neil Young – ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’

“He’s been doing ‘Blowin’ In the Wind’ for a while and he does it the way it should be done,” Dylan said of Neil Young’s version. If there was another songwriter that could come close to what Dylan does, it would either be Leonard Cohen or Neil Young.

If anyone can do Bob Dylan properly, it is Neil Young. Young said about his fellow songwriter, “Bob Dylan, I’ll never be Bob Dylan. He’s the master. If I’d like to anyone, it’s him. And he’s a great writer, true to his music and done what he feels is the right thing to do for years and years and years. He’s great. He’s the one I look to.”