Decades ago, smart north-London folk were becoming dimly aware of somebody called Bob Dylan. Noting his talents as a lyricist, one critic added that he sang like a dog with its hind leg caught in a trap. Then there was an edition of BBC2’s Late Night Line-Up – an arts talk show that self-satirised to a degree never seen before or since – in which Dylan lyrics were solemnly read out. The discussion attained a consensus: this was not poetry.
The smart folk agreed. Dylan was a good songwriter who failed to be a poet, and a singer who could not sing. It is hard to plumb the depths of this idiocy, but I shall try. First, to state my own position: Dylan may be the greatest lyricist ever, and he is a superb singer. The two things are inseparable.
Now, of course, there have been – and there always will be – good cover versions of Dylan’s songs. The Byrds did a fine job of “Mr Tambourine Man”, Jimi Hendrix made “All Along the Watchtower” his own and, greatest of them all, Emmylou Harris sent shivers down my spine with “Every Grain of Sand”. Doubtless they all hit purer notes and kept better time than Dylan, but these were different, utterly different.
The point about Dylan’s voice is that it is his voice and that his lyrics are written for that voice. Think of this from “Tangled up in Blue”: “I helped her out of a jam I guess/But I used a little too much force”, or this from “Where Are You Tonight?”: “There’s a lion in the road, there’s a demon escaped/There’s a million dreams gone, there’s a landscape being raped.” That most perfect singer Ella Fitzgerald could sing those lines and even then it wouldn’t be as good as Bob, with his withering irony, his amused regrets, his strange visions, his endless stock of stories and, as the critic Christopher Ricks has pointed out, his superb use of rhyme. Dylan writes songs that can only really be covered by himself.
Then there’s the way that, unlike certain other rock stars, he has allowed his voice to age. “Murder Most Foul”, the opening track on his latest album, is delivered in an old guy groan, but it still sounds like music, great music. His 1997 album, Time Out of Mind, is all about growing old: “It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.” Perfect voices seldom survive the years; Dylan’s imperfections adapt.
What people find hard to understand is the unity of the man and the voice. Perhaps this is because of the superficial disunity of his career – folk star, electric rocker, religious, meditative and so on. Throughout he is being Bob and writing songs for Bob. A great gift flows through him and emerges in his voice. The lyrics are spectacularly good – no, they’re not poetry, that’s different – and they are at one with his singing. So, happy birthday to Bob, a very great singer indeed.
This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy