Tuesday, May 24, 2011

How to learn to appreciate Bob Dylan, in honor of his 70th birthday

First of all, Happy 70th Birthday, Bob Dylan ! 
The world is a better place with you in it. 

Second, there are billions of people out there who just can't "get" Dylan's music. 
I used to be one of them. 
I couldn't get past all the strange vocal mannerisms.  The swoops at the end of each line and his kazoo voice (which I think can produce the root and the 3rd of a chord simultaneously) were too off-putting for this boy who grew up singing in Southern Baptist choirs. 
But Dylan was always there in the background, lurking in the pages of my Rolling Stone subscription that my grandmother got me every year.  Every now and then Dylan's songs would get played on WHBQ in Memphis, or a little more often on Rock 103 out of Jackson.  Sometimes I changed the station, sometimes I didn't.  I figured Dylan was just a "you had to be there to appreciate it" 1960's thing. 

Dylan became a Christian in the late 70's, and his "Slow Train Coming" album could've been the gateway drug to a proper appreciation of The Great Bob and all his works.  I thought "Serve Somebody", "Slow Train", and "When You Gonna Wake Up" were pretty good songs, mostly because they fit well with the near-fanatical sense of evangelical purpose I felt at the time. 
But "When He Returns" was nothing to me but a series of croaks and groans.  Why on earth would anybody sing that way?  I mean, you could listen to him on "The Freewheeling Bob Dylan" and hear that the man really could hold a pitch for several seconds.  Why did he do that Minnesota Mud Throat thing, and why did so many people like it? 
I just didn't get it. 

And then it happened.  Trisha Yearwood covered Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love" on the "Hope Floats" soundtrack.  It was a beautiful song, and I had no idea that Dylan wrote it. 

Later on in the same movie, Ol' Garth did the same song.

I liked the movie; I loved the soundtrack.
Years passed by. Dylan kept writing songs. I kept ignoring them.
Then an employee of mine asked me to sing "To Make You Feel My Love" at her wedding. When I was downloading the guitar tab, I saw that the song was written by...Bob Dylan.
I found his original version, and it clicked. I loved it.
I got it.

(Is there any other performer out there who can inspire "conversion stories"?)

In my opinion, the vocal swoops and falls are more than just a weird mannerism. Listen to any of the dozens and dozens of covers of Dylan songs on the internet, and you'll hear people taking his melodies in radically different directions. That's because different people hear different pitches inside those weird-assed roller coaster vocal things he does. Bob Dylan hits every note in the scale when travelling from the first to the last syllable of a word. If you want to sing a Dylan song, you can take your pick of pitches and melodies.

Somewhere in there, your version fits his.

Rolling Stone magazine has published a list of the 70 Greatest Bob Songs.
If you're not yet a Dylan fan, but feel like you're missing something, select one of those tunes. Pick one that has lots of YouTube pickers who cover it. Listen to his fans do the songs. Keep it in your head for a few days. Sing it to yourself.
Then listen to his original. It'll be like finding a King James Bible after making do with nothing but a copy of Good News For Modern Man.

If that doesn't work, at least you'll know that you have an open mind and that you gave it a shot.

Here's one for all my friends in Memphis and the Mississippi Delta. "High Water Everywhere (for Charley Patton)".

I get it now. I get it. Beautiful, beautiful stuff.
Hope you learn to like it.


JT said...

I know exactly what you mean. Other than belting out "...everybody must get stoned..." in my teenage years, I had no appreciation. It is still mostly appreciation for songwriting, not performance. A young band I have worked with does a great cover of "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere". Here's a video of them, not great quality, but a clear demonstration of how un-Dylanlike a Dylan song can be played.

The Whited Sepulchre said...

Thanks for posting this. The Great Bob is perhaps best approached by his imitators until one can fully comprehend what he's getting at.
There's a compilation CD called "Dylan Country" that I didn't remember until I saw your comment.
Wish I'd given it some props in the post. Anyone interested can find it at Half Price Books. I love it.