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The one singer Bob Dylan hailed as "Proustian existentialism"

Bob Dylan is an artist who needs no introduction. Over the past six decades, he has made a critical contribution to music and culture, and his songs, such as ‘The Times They Are A-Changin”, are counted as some of the most important ever put to wax. In terms of solo artists and credibility, one would wager that only Leonard Cohen also occupies the gilded halls of admiration in which Dylan has found himself for so long. 

Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in 1941, the man we all know as Bob Dylan is steeped in literary theory and references. As was the case with Cohen, Dylan’s extensive back catalogue contains a vast array of references plucked from the canon of literature, and it is this that marks him out as a true diamond in popular music. 

In this sense, Dylan has more in common with the traditional musicians from the fields of folk and blues than he does with any “rock god” or jazz musician. Originally a folk musician, it is not hard to heed why. Folk and blues are established genres by and for the people, whose blueprint involved telling stories to the working classes in a bid to prick enjoyment in a day otherwise marred by the strife of years gone by.

Therefore, Dylan is a storyteller as much as he is a brilliant musician, and together these elements comprise the unmistakable ‘Voice of a Generation’. If we were to compare Dylan’s career to any work from the dense library of literature, it would be Homer’s Odyssey. His long musical career has taken so many twists and turns since it began in the ’50s that this comparison fits like a glove. 

For a man that has influenced practically everyone, it makes you wonder what musicians he liked. One, which may come as no surprise, was the late John Prine. The singer-songwriter passed away last year from Covid-19 complications, which led to his work being revisited by fans and critics alike.

A brilliant songwriter and performer in his own right, Prine’s career took listeners on a journey that is only comparable to Dylan’s. He wasn’t afraid to do it his way and would write songs in the styles that he saw fit. Whether drenched in humour or pathos, Prine’s songs continue to inspire new listeners. Prine was such the master of his own destiny that he turned down the first record deal that was offered to him. 

An interesting side note about the Chicago native is that esteemed film critic Roger Ebert is hailed as the one who first discovered him. Ebert stumbled across Prine performing by chance in 1970 and wrote after: “He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight. He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.”

Bob Dylan was a huge fan of John Prine. (Credit: Eric Frommer)

Contemporary and friend, the iconic Kris Kristofferson, recalled the first time he encountered Prine: “By the end of the first line we knew we were hearing something else. It must’ve been like stumbling onto Dylan when he first busted onto the Village scene.” Kristofferson’s account offers up the second similarity to Dylan.

The diverse amount of icons that Prine influenced is endless. These range from Johnny Cash to Roger Waters, and of course, Bob Dylan. By the time Prine had established his career in the ’70s, Dylan had already been dubbed the ‘Voice of a Generation’ after soundtracking the turmoil of the ’60s. Denoting his stature, he had also already taken an extended “break” from touring in 1966, coming back only once to perform at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival. As we have already noted, though, there were other similarities between Dylan and Prine; only Dylan had undertaken his career earlier.

Something else resurfaced in the wake of Prine’s passing. A 2009 interview where Dylan discussed his love of Prine’s music. For any musician, this can only be regarded as the highest of praise.

Confirming just how well-read he is, Dylan likened Prine’s work to that of the influential French essayist Marcel Proust. In The Huffington Post interview, Dylan stated: “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism.”

Dylan explained: “Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. ‘Sam Stone’ featuring the wonderfully evocative line: ‘There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes, and Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose.’ All that stuff about ‘Sam Stone’, the soldier junkie daddy, and ‘Donald and Lydia’, where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that.”

There we go—another example of the unparalleled Bob Dylan showing his vast array of knowledge and influences. In delivering his respect for Prine, Dylan affords us a forensic insight into the brilliant mechanics of his own mind, something that will continue to be written about eternally.

Listen to John Prine’s 1971 debut album, below.