Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Elections
19 May 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 7:01am

Bob Dylan at 80: His freedom spoke to me as a young almost-musician

 No, I wasn’t picking up my life after a doomed marriage and heading down Highway 61. But I was out of school, and had valid ID, a MySpace profile and a pay-to-play slot at the Camden Barfly.

By Emma-Lee Moss

In my second year of university, I became tight with a group of older friends from school. We bonded over shared aspirations to become musicians; I’d just started writing songs and playing open mic nights around London. One of the group lived on a houseboat in Oxfordshire. Every weekend, we gathered there to drink, listen to music and talk about musicians we loved, heroes whose examples we would follow into new lives. Dylan was our ultimate figurehead. At the end of the night, we would stand around a squat, upright piano and raucously sing “Tangled Up in Blue”.

That was my introduction to Dylan, and his presence immediately informed the fledgling steps I was taking as a musician. My tastes hovered around Desire and Blood on the Tracks, towards the songs with lots and lots of verses. I loved the span of his songwriting – the sweeping, epic lives, with all their lost loves and regrets, located between refrains. Lying on futons, the roar of the A40 in the distance, my friends and I shared instructive Dylan lore. Did you know he replaced the lyrics of old folk songs to teach himself songwriting? Did you know he sometimes wrote hundreds of verses and whittled them down?

“Tangled Up in Blue” benefits from that technique. It’s a song that seems to jump backwards and forwards through the ages, in keeping with our experience of time. Dylan, who wrote it at the end of his marriage to Sara, said it took “ten years to live and two years to write”. Listening to it, you feel not only a sense of the pain that is inevitable over the long thread of a life, but also the release that comes with every new chapter. Tangled, yes, but also free.

That freedom spoke to me as a young almost-musician. No, I wasn’t picking up my life after a doomed marriage and heading down Highway 61. But I was out of school, and had valid ID, a MySpace profile and a pay-to-play slot at the Camden Barfly. Dylan’s story gave me permission to start from scratch, knowing that, with dedication and a fierce heart, I too might one day transcend my birth name. A few years later, I released my first album as Emmy the Great (OK, I took it too far). It featured a song called “Dylan”, a tribute not only to Bob but the conversations I’d had about him, and those friends who had since scattered.

It’s been more than a decade since I first heard “Tangled Up in Blue”. These days, especially having lived through this pandemic year, what stands out to me about that song is how well it reflects the quality of memories, how the past can come careening into the present, triggered by sensations. Since those evenings on my friend’s boat, I’ve never known a feeling like that sense of limitless possibility. But, like a voice behind you calling “Don’t I know your name?”, it’s always on the verge of returning. All it takes is one flatly sung syllable, the in-breath of a harmonica or the sweet resolution of a final chord, and he’s there – Dylan the teacher, not just reminding you that the past exists, but also that your life goes on, and on.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

This article appears in our “Who is Bob Dylan?” series 

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy