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Credit: Chris Hakkens/Laura Bland

Music

The vital songwriting lesson that Bob Dylan’s music taught Bruce Springsteen

@TomTaylorFO

There is an undeniable kinship between America’s two favourite blue-collar troubadours, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. When Dylan first heard his New Jersey counterpart he joked, “He better be careful, or he might go through every word in the English language.” In that respect, they both share a rather verbose likeness and since that early comparison, their paths have often crossed. 

Speaking on the American talk show, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Springsteen talked about the impacts that the early comparison had on his career. He told the host, “I became self-conscious about the Dylan comparison, so I moved away from [that style of songwriting] quickly.” 

This was a stylistic choice that ‘The Boss’ still laments to some degree, “Looking back I kind of had my own Dylan-esque style. And I kind of wish I had never moved away from it so quickly.”

He later described this early style as “a lot of fun,” with a lot of “joy and a reasonable amount of depth.” Fortunately for fans of his early outings, this organic “uninhibited” stream features heavily on Springsteen’s latest record, Letter To You, in the form of re-recorded previously unheard tracks from the period.

Whilst chatting about that new record, the Born to Run star discussed the impact Dylan had on him as a songwriter and eulogised his influence on American music. When pressed to pick his three favourite Dylan songs, Bruce began to squirm as he struggled to distil the vast back catalogue of the folk luminary down to just three tracks. 

The first place he started was with Dylan’s iconic ‘great American song’, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, with Springsteen describing it as a “history and culture changing piece of music”. Also adding that is simply a “fantastic rock ‘n’ roll song.”

However, it was the virtues that Dylan was boldly extolling on his albums as a whole during this period that truly stirred Springsteen and lured him into the bohemian world of socially conscious music. As he recalls in his autobiography: “Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home were not only great records, but they were the first time I can remember being exposed to a truthful vision of the place I lived.”

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This unflinching view of America exhibited the same token that James Baldwin spoke of when he announced: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” This is something that Springsteen has reflected continually in his own work. As he poetically continues: “The darkness and light were all there, the veil of illusion and deception ripped aside. He put his boot on the stultifying politeness and daily routine that covered corruption and decay.”

He continues to eulogise Dylan’s exacting encapsulation of society, adding: “The world he described was all on view, in my little town, and spread out over the television that beamed into our isolated homes, but it went uncommented on and silently tolerated. He inspired me and gave me hope. He asked the questions everyone else was too frightened to ask, especially to a fifteen-year-old: ‘How does it feel… to be on your own?’”

With this simple statement, Dylan stirred an entire generation like no artist had done before him or even since for that matter, albeit Springsteen has upheld the same tenets. “A seismic gap had opened up between generations and you suddenly felt orphaned, abandoned amid the flow of history, your compass spinning, internally homeless. Bob pointed true north and served as a beacon to assist you in making your way through the new wilderness America had become. He planted a flag, wrote the songs, sang the words that were essential to the times, to the emotional and spiritual survival of so many young Americans at that moment,” Springsteen concludes. 

As Springsteen would later state in a more directly analytical sense that as far as lyrics go he was instantly spellbound by the narrative hook on ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ with the introductory line, “Once upon a time you dressed so fine / Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?” It is an iconic intro that has an undeniable likeness to some of the lines that Springsteen crafted thereafter. Bruce described hearing the lyric and being “instantly hooked and into that song so intensely.”

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