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Dylan Opens Up

February 10, 2015

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I’ve read the comments Bob Dylan gave at the MusiCares benefit in LA last Friday. As others noted, there’s lots of critic bashing and other things that to me seemed a little petty. However, it’s a great speech because Bob opened up about his influences and about the way he approached songwriting. Bob hasn’t talked this much since the 60s!

I especially enjoyed this part:

I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them, back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone. For three or four years, all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once.

If you sang "John Henry" as many times as me – "John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand." If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written "How many roads must a man walk down?" too.

I love the fact that you get to see where his inspiration comes from — and he lets you know which songs inspired his songs. He gives several examples like the one above.

This is what artists are supposed to do. More experienced artists owe it to younger artists to help them understand how to develop their craft and what influences to turn to. Bob lets us know that his compositions are grounded in the past and that they didn’t fall out of the sky. One is reminded of Isaac Newton’s statement: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

Art is generally the process of analysis (breaking down something in order to understand it) and synthesis (putting together component parts in a new and innovate way). In doing so, Bob created works of lasting value.

In my opinion, the artist whose tools are simple — voice and guitar in this case — is sadly missed. There was and is a sincerity there that is missing in modern music.

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