“All I can do is be me, whoever that is.” — Bob Dylan
There are few artists as influential in the world of music as Bob Dylan. Across many albums, songs and performances, the freewheelin’ troubadour has earned his place in the history books as one of the most important musicians of all time. These are facts that cannot be undermined with time or different personal tastes. In fact, it’s not just the songs he wrote that have littered the airwaves for decades but also the songs written about him.
Below, we are looking back at the songs inspired by the freehweelin’ troubadour, Bob Dylan. Some are affectionate, recognising Dylan for the foundational stone in modern pop that he is. In contrast, others take direct shots at the singer, either for his personality or lack of creative command. Whichever way you cut it, and whichever song you prefer, it’s hard not to see Bob Dylan as one of the biggest artistic influences the world has ever known.
Of course, Dylan himself had an idol. He was so infatuated with folk hero Woody Guthrie and his fascist killing machine (his guitar) that the singer penned his own homage to a singer with ‘Song for Woody’, a track title which would be rekindled by at least to artists with their own response to his song and career. Notably, Cat Power and David Bowie both use the title but to wildly different ends.
That seems to be the over-arching factor in the creation of this list. If we were to select songs that mentioned Dylan in the lyrics, the list could be doubled and trebled without a drop in quality, but to pick the songs directly written about Bob Dylan is a little more tricky. That’s because, at the basis of every song is a creator, an artist, or perhaps more astutely, a human.
That may seem a little obvious, but it’s paramount to understand that ten best songs written about Bob Dylan won’t be the ten songs written about Bob Dylan being the best songwriter in the world. In fact, there are probably two contributing factors to whether you care enough to write a song about someone — love and hate.
Below, we have a hefty dose of both homage and hatemail, as well as David Bowie somewhere in between.
The best songs about Bob Dylan:
‘Diamonds and Rust’ – Joan Baez
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan’s relationship is, like many friendships, that has spanned decades, not without its issues. In fact, since the eighties and an ill-fated tour, the duo has kept largely out of each other’s way, far from their early days spent not only personally entwined but professionally joined at the hip. In the seventies, a few years on from those salad days, Baez and Dylan were still in cahoots as far as friendship goes, and so she penned ‘Diamonds and Rust’ for the singer.
“Well you burst on the scene/ Already a legend/ The unwashed phenomenon/ The original vagabond/ You strayed into my arms/ And there you stayed,” sings Baez, touching on their romantic past. The folk singer ha soften noted that the song was written about Dylan saying she scribed the song in tribute to, “by far the most talented crazy person I have ever worked with.”
That’ll be Bobby then.
‘Song for Bob Dylan’ – David Bowie
Many of the songs on this list are a homage to the freewheelin’ troubadour. But for David Bowie, never really happy to do things the ordinary way, he used the spot on his album Hunky Dory to make a point—that point was, ‘I’m the leader now’.
It’s not our favourite song on the 1971 album, as it feels a little too dad-rock, but Bowie himself once highlighted the song’s significance in a 1976 piece in Melody Maker. He once recalled: “There’s even a song – ‘Song for Bob Dylan’ – that laid out what I wanted to do in rock. It was at that period that I said, ‘okay (Dylan) if you don’t want to do it, I will.’ I saw that leadership void.”
He added: “Even though the song isn’t one of the most important on the album, it represented for me what the album was all about. If there wasn’t someone who was going to use rock ‘n’ roll, then I’d do it.” You can’t argue with determination like that and Bowie proved himself right, again and again, later showing his true affections for Dylan.
‘Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs’ – The Minutemen
So far, it’s easy to see the connection between Bob Dylan and the names on this list. For the eighties hardcore punk outfit The Minutemen, it’s a little more difficult to ascertain the link. However, within a few seconds of this lyrically dense piece, it becomes a whole lot easier.
Using a poetic style, the band wrote the track after becoming concerned that their songs were closer to political pamphlets than actual music. Mike Watt told Flipside: “That song came out because I was starting to worry are my songs starting to sound too sloganeering? And then I thought, ‘Hey Bob Dylan, his stuff was almost as vital as propaganda.'”
Dylan meant more than that to Watt though: “Bob Dylan was probably the only person who I listened to the words in the ’70s. My dad was a sailor, and he was always away, and Dylan seemed like a surrogate dad to me in a way.”
‘Talk to Me’ – Joni Mitchell
Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell have never endured a perfect relationship. Though they could count each other as friends and contemporaries, it appears that the relationship deteriorated rather quickly; even when Mitchell was a part of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, the pair were at loggerheads. It led to Mitchell, naturally, penning a song about Dylan’s “miserly” figure.
The track in question aimed at Dylan was 1977’s ‘Talk To Me‘, which featured on her experimental record Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and included an exquisite snipe at her former tour buddy. “Or we could talk about power, About Jesus and Hitler and Howard Hughes, Or Charlie Chaplin’s movies,” she swoons in the track — Chaplin was a hero of Dylan’s, arguably one of his most dearly held, and leaves no question marks about who the track was aiming at.
“Just come and talk to me, Mr Mystery talk to me,” Mitchell later sings on ‘Talk To Me’ as she lets out the frustrations of a year on the road with the silent man of immense musical mystery and intrigue. “Are you really exclusive or just miserly?, You spend every sentence as if it was marked currency,” she fires in the direction of a certain bohemian singer-songwriter.
‘Song to Bobby’ – Cat Power
The second inclusion on the list for Bob Dylan and his name specifically. Well, he was pretty influential, after all. While David Bowie’s addition was a little more confrontational than celebratory, Cat Power goes entirely the other way on this track taken from her album Jukebox.
Bowie’s song was a declaration that he was ready to take on the baton of rock legend, whereas Power puts herself back in time and reflects on a young girl dreaming of her own stardom. Written as if she was “15 or 16” in the form of letters, the lyrics share a singer utterly obsessed with not only the work of Bob Dylan but the freedom and iconography that permeated the air around him.
Her musical adoration soon became romantic infatuation, and within the song, we can see the journey a young Cat Power went on. It’s one many of us will be entirely wary of, and there are a certain candour and charm about this track which is a rose-tinted and golden-hued joy.
‘Telegram Sam’ – T.Rex
Another addition from the glam-rock core of Britain in the seventies, Marc Bolan, joins David Bowie on our list of sings about Bob Dylan. But where Bowie used Dylan as a figure to train his crosshairs on, Bolan and his band T.Rex instead went the other route and showered the singer with an incredible amount of praise in their song ‘Telegram Sam’.
The track, it must be said, isn’t as direct as Bowie’s song, largely because it references plenty of other people in it. But to ignore the lyrics “Bobby’s alright, Bobby’s alright/ He’s a natural-born poet/ He’s just outta sight,” as a reference to the mercurial poet of pop would be a serious oversight in our minds.
Using a similar narrative to that of The Beatles and drawing characters from across their lives, Bolan and co. Certainly, make a jaunty tune, and Bob Dylan’s introduction into the scenario is another welcomed input.
‘Serve Yourself’ – John Lennon
The connection between John Lennon and Bob Dylan can stretch back to 1964 and be recognised as one of the most pivotal moments in the history of 20th-century music. The meeting saw The Beatles try smoking marijuana for the first time, and Lennon and Dylan connect about songwriting on a new pop plane.
Dylan inspired John Lennon to accept himself, not as a pop star, but as an artist, choosing his songs to express himself and the world around him, rather than just get feet on the dancefloor. Lennon responded by writing some of his most potent work. Equally, Dylan learned about pop sensibilities from the Fab Four, and it was, for a time, a mutually beneficial friendship. However, once Dylan turned away from music, and towards God and Christianity, Lennon became suspicious.
The folkie went one further and even released a song titled ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’, which promoted the life-saving religious actions he had taken. Lennon saw this as a slight and delivered his own retort titled ‘Serve Yourself’ where he sang: “You tell me you found Jesus/ Christ! Well that’s great, and he’s the only one/ You say you just found Buddha?/, and he’s sittin’ on his arse in the sun?”
‘Like Dylan in the Movies’ – Belle & Sebastian
While John Lennon had turned on Bob Dylan, one band that seems determined to keep the freewheelin’ love-in going is Belle & Sebastian. The group are famed for their lo-fi indie sound, and it’s hard not to join the dots between them and Dylan’s folk foundations.
Not only do the band make references to Dylan’s acclaimed film Don’t Look Back in the lyrics, but it showcases how the singer enriched the band’s lives when they were at their lowest point. It’s a touching sentiment that most fans of the singer can get on board with.
What’s more, in the video for the song, the group have a joke as they also make use of Dylan’s cue cards from ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’.
‘Bob Dylan Blues’ – Syd Barrett
As the frontman of Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett was, at a time, regarded as one of the most gifted lyricists of his generation. Drenched in the tribal folk poetry of the time, Barrett became infatuated with LSD and took the foundational style Bob Dylan had provided him with into a brand new direction.
It would sadly all end in tears as Barrett’s drug use spiralled out of control alongside his mental health, but the singer made sure to pay tribute to Dylan nevertheless.
‘Bob Dylan Blues’ is certainly one of the more obvious tributes to the troubadour on our list. Equally, Barrett is also one of the more obviously influenced artists on the list too. It was one of the Floyd man’s first compositions from back in 1965, but it didn’t see the light of day until 2001.
Said to have been inspired after Barrett attended a Dylan concert, the track is pure homage to the great man.
‘Hey Bobby’ – Country Joe and the Fish
“I’m sick and tired of hearing your lies/ takes nothin’ less than the truth to get me high,” sings Country Joe and the Fish on their song about Dylan from 1970. One of the first tributes to the singer to be composed, this track more accurately reads as an attack on the folkie than any great ode.
Instead, ‘Hey, Bobby’ is a plea for Bob Dylan to return to his old ways and pick up the acoustic guitar once more. The group were a growing entity in the music industry when the song was composed, and they chose to use their position to highlight their dismay at Dylan’s lack of contribution rather than make their own. During 1968, he wrote just one song; in ’69, he again delivered very little. It was enough to anger his fans.
“Hey Bobby, where you been? We missed you out on the streets/ I hear you’ve got yourself another scene, it’s called a retreat/ I can still remember days when men were men/ I know it’s difficult for you to remember way back then, hey.”