Bob Dylan once said that “the highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anybody but inspire them?”. Dylan himself has lived by that mantra and stirred millions over the years, but he, in turn, had his ears pricked by his own Promethean hero.
As a rather disparate modern-day artist, Alex Turner, leader of the Arctic Monkeys, once said: “There is always that one band that comes along when you are 14 or 15-years-old that manages to hit you in just the right way and changes your whole perception on things.” Whether you’re the ‘Voice of a Generation’ or otherwise, it would seem that this is true of everyone who loves music or has a passion for the arts.
For Dylan, he was just about 11 years old when he stumbled upon his first rousing kinship with none other than the country legend Hank Williams. As Dylan recalls in his memoir: “I became aware that in Hank’s recorded songs were the archetype rules of poetic songwriting,” he wrote. “The architectural forms are like marble pillars.”
This mandate of deeply grounded yet wondrously poetic tales set to simple melodic structures is one that would stay with Dylan throughout his career. Both artists manage the uncanny knack of crafting fantastical paeans that seems to have tapped into the ether without ever losing sight of the humble careworn traditions of a travelling troubadour.
In short, they both wrote ditties that seemed bigger than themselves. As Dylan once proclaimed: “I’m not going to write a fantasy song. Even a song like ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ really isn’t a fantasy. There’s substance to the dream. You have to have seen something or have heard something for you to dream it.” The wrung-out life in Williams’ songs really sings from the same hymn sheet on this front.
Tragically, when Dylan was just about ready to start worshipping his newfound hero, Williams passed away at the age of 29 on New Year’s Day in 1953. Sadly, the turmoil’s that the country star endured led to a dependence on alcohol and morphine, and he suffered a fatal heart attack. When a young Dylan heard the news, he recalled: “It was like a great tree had fallen.”
This creative connection called for Dylan to emulate his hero. “I started writing songs after I heard Hank Williams,” Dylan once declared.” Even at a young age, I identified with Hank Williams.” Later adding, “Intuitively, I knew, though, that his voice would never drop out of sight or fade away.” Just like Dylan himself, the flock of followers that they have inspired has ensured that this will be the case, and their places are indelibly woven into the tapestry of cultural history forevermore.
In fact, in a simple twist of fate, Dylan himself would later give voice to Williams’ growing legacy in a very perfunctory sense. Following Williams’ passing, a janitor found lyrics penned by the late country star for songs that would never be finished. However, by 2008 these lines found their way to Dylan for an album based on modern artists interpretations of their heroes unfinished works.
Nevertheless, there is one notable asterisk to add to this tale – Dylan is notoriously unscrupulous about his recollections and often plays fast and loose when it comes to the ‘definitive’ in his creative oeuvre. In the past, he has also dropped his hat to Woody Guthrie in a similar fashion.
Just like with Williams, Guthrie’s profound individualism caught Dylan’s attention; thus, he decided to try his hand in homage. At the time when Dylan first arrived in New York, ‘The Village’ was flooded with the first drabs of folk players who had poured off the pages of beat literature into gingham-clad shirts and as a rule of thumb, they all performed shop-worn folk classics from time immemorial. Likewise, the radio waves were chocked with singers taking on the works of Tin Pan Alley songwriters.
This prompted Dylan to comment: “I always kind of wrote my own songs but I never really would play them. Nobody played their own songs, the only person I knew who really did it was Woody Guthrie.”
Adding, “Then one day, I just wrote a song, and it was the first song I ever wrote, and it was ‘A Song for Woody Guthrie’. And I just felt like playing it one night and I played it. I just wanted a song to sing and there came a certain point where I couldn’t sing anything, I had to write what I wanted to sing because what I wanted to sing nobody else was writing, I couldn’t find that song someplace. If I could’ve I probably wouldn’t have ever started writing.”