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Music

The songs Bob Dylan called “minor masterpieces”

Through the first half of the 1960s, Bob Dylan became the biggest name in American folk music and the spearhead of the baby boomer counterculture, thanks to the political themes expressed throughout much of his early work. During this period, Dylan made sure to appreciate his folk roots and regularly cited his influences, his biggest idol of the genre being Woody Guthrie. 

As he became more successful in his own right, he became less dependent on covers and the inspiration of other artists. Dylan famously went electric in 1965 and made a significant departure from folk into a more rock-oriented sound. As he joined the ranks of the booming British invasion era rock music, he was notably critical of his competitors and remained so for decades after. With the exception of a few contemporary collaborators and friends in the music business, Dylan’s admiration has been saved mainly for the earlier stars on whose shoulders he stood. 

Before folk took him to dizzying heights of success, Dylan was a huge fan of the rock ‘n’ roll pop acts of the 1950s, including the likes of Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. In a 1986 conversation with Interview, Dylan shed more light on his music tastes by listing three songs that he considers “minor masterpieces”. 

For his first selection, Dylan chose The Trashmen’s early 1960s hit ‘Surfin Bird’. Discussing the song in a 2017 interview with Bill Flanagan, Dylan discussed Minneapolis, one of the biggest cities in his home state of Minnesota, which is the hometown of The trashmen. Dylan explained that he wasn’t surprised a song like ‘Surfin’ Bird’ had come from the city. 

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“Minneapolis and St. Paul – the Twin Cities,” Dylan said. “They were rock and roll towns. I didn’t know that. I thought the only rock and roll towns were Memphis and Shreveport. In Minneapolis, they played northwest rock and roll, Dick Dale and the Ventures. The Kingsmen played there a lot, The Easy Beats, The Castaways. All surf bands, high voltage groups.”

“A lot of Link Wray stuff like ‘Black Widow’ and ‘Jack the Ripper,’ all those northwest instrumentals like ‘Tall Cool One’,” he continued. “‘Flyin’ High’ by the Shadows was a big hit. The Twin Cities was surfing rockabilly. So all of it cranked up to ten with a lot of reverb; tremolo switches, everything Fender–Esquires, Broadcasters, Jaguars, amps on folding chairs. The chairs even looked Fender. Sandy Nelson drumming. ‘Surfing Bird’ came out of there a little while later. It didn’t surprise me.”

For his second choice, Dylan picked out Ricky Nelson’s ‘Lonesome Town’. Dylan has often conveyed his deep admiration for Nelson. In the 2017 interview with Flanagan, he explained that Nelson was different from other teen idols of his time and that he sang his songs in a “calm and steady” way like he was “in the middle of a storm, men hurling past him.”

“His voice was sort of mysterious and made you fall into a certain mood. I had been a big fan of Ricky’s and still liked him. But that type of music was on its way out. It had no chance of meaning anything,” Dylan added.

The third song Dylan picked out as a “minor masterpiece” in 1987 was Larry Williams’ ‘Bony Maronie’. It was released in 1957 and became a big hit for the early rock and roll artist peaking at number four on the US R&B Chart. Listen to the single below along with Dylan’s other two “minor masterpieces”.

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