Bob Dylan turns 80: eight inspirational songs to listen to today

The music giant and Nobel laureate, considered one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, has 39 albums to his credit

American rock and folk musician Bob Dylan turns 80 on May 24, 2021. AFP
American rock and folk musician Bob Dylan turns 80 on May 24, 2021. AFP

Bob Dylan’s debut album, a self-titled interpretation of folk classics with two original compositions, was such a big flop when it released in 1962 that record executives considered dropping his contract.

But Dylan, then an aspiring 20-year-old singer-songwriter, had the good graces of influential record producer John Hammond, who had signed the budding star to Columbia Records and stood by him.

“His guitar playing, let us say charitably, was rudimentary, and his harmonica was barely passable, but he had a good sound and a point of view and an idea," Hammond would later recall of Dylan in biographer Robert Shelton’s 1986 book No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan.

"He was very disenchanted with the social system. I encouraged him to put all his hostility on tape, because I figured this was the way, really, to get to the true Bob Dylan."

Later in 1962, Dylan would perform the seminal Blowin’ in the Wind, first released as a single, and then part of his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in 1963.

The song and album would catapult Dylan to international fame, and eventually to become one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.

Dylan, who turns 80 today, now has 39 albums to his name, with his last, Rough and Rowdy Ways, released last year to critical acclaim.

In a career spanning almost six decades, Dylan, famously known for his secretive and elusive personality, has amassed numerous accolades, including becoming the only musician to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, along with The Beatles and The Beach Boys.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, delivered in private a year after Dylan refused to acknowledge the honour for months, he spoke of the inspirations for his songwriting.

“If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important,” he said. “I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means.”

To mark his 80th birthday, here are eight inspirational songs by Dylan that are still as relevant today as when they were written.

1. 'Blowin' in the Wind' (1962)

Reportedly inspired by a line from his musical idol Woody Guthrie's 1943 autobiography Bound for Glory, this song is undoubtedly one of Dylan's most famous works, and, according to Rolling Stone magazine, one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Dylan was only 21 when he wrote the tune for his second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in 1963. The song, which would turn him into a star, also became an anthem for the American civil rights movement in the 1960s and is still today best known as a 'protest song', with themes about peace, war and freedom.

"Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won't believe that. I still say it's in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it's got to come down some," Dylan wrote about the song when it was released in 1962. "I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it's wrong. I'm only 21 years old and I know that there's been too many wars ... You people over 21, you're older and smarter."

The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994.

2. 'A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall' (1962)

Continuing his stream of consciousness, this other song from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was written following the confrontation between the US and the then Soviet Union, which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Almost seven minutes long, the ominous anti-nuclear war tune was first written as a poem, and is still as relevant today as it was when it was first released.

“Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song,” Dylan said at the time. “But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs, so I put all I could into this one.”

Patti Smith performed the song at the Nobel Prize ceremony in 2016 in Dylan's honour, as he did not attend.

3. 'The Times They Are a-Changin' (1964)

Dylan continued to echo the sentiments of the times with this title track of his third album, and said he wrote the song "as a deliberate attempt to create an anthem of change for the moment", referring to the American civil rights movement.

Inspired by Irish and Scottish ballads, the hopeful song has been performed by numerous artists over the years, used in various contexts, such as Jennifer Hudson's emotional rendition at the March for Our Lives gun legislation protests in Washington DC in 2018.

The Times They Are a-Changin' is part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.

4. 'Chimes of Freedom' (1964)

Dylan's ode to the downtrodden, from the album Another Side of Bob Dylan, is a hopeful tune about better things to come.

The song marks a transition between Dylan's earlier protest songs and his later more free-flowing poetic style, writes Mike Marqusee in the book In Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan's Art.

Some music writers have suggested the song was inspired by US president John F Kennedy's assassination in 1963, referencing the chimes of church bells announcing his death.

Dylan performed Chimes of Freedom at the inauguration of former US president Bill Clinton in 1993.

5. 'It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)' (1965)

For his fifth album Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan took a break from his searing political lyrics to take aim at hypocrisy, consumerism and commercialism with It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding).

With lines such as "Money doesn't talk, it swears," and "That he who is not busy being born is busy dying", Dylan has said it's one of the songs that means the most to him, and he couldn't write it again.

"I've written some songs that I look at, and they just give me a sense of awe. Stuff like, It's Alright, Ma, just the alliteration in that blows me away," he told The New York Times in 1997.

The song is consistently on lists of Dylan's best songs.

6. 'Desolation Row' (1965)

Praised for its poetic lyricism, this Dylan song from his sixth studio album, Highway 61 Revisited, is known for its length (11:21) as well as its surrealism.

While the songwriter has suggested it was inspired by songs played at minstrel shows, where white people would don blackface to poke fun at black people, some critics say it could have been inspired by the lynching of three black men in Dylan's hometown of Duluth in Minnesota in 1920.

The opening line of Desolation Row is: "They're selling postcards of the hanging, they're painting the passports brown." It been said it seems to reference the event in which three black circus workers who were accused of raping a white woman, and then taken out of the police station and hanged by a mob of white men.

7. 'Like a Rolling Stone' (1965)

Also from Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan made the transition from folk hero to pop star with this track, known for both its lyrics and musical arrangement. The song is No 1 on the Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Bruce Springsteen, who inducted Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, said the song had a massive impact on him as a 15-year-old.

"The first time I heard Bob Dylan, I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody'd kicked open the door to your mind," Springsteen said. "The way that Elvis freed your body, Dylan freed your mind, and showed us that because the music was physical did not mean it was anti-intellect.

"He had the vision and talent to make a pop song so that it contained the whole world. He invented a new way a pop singer could sound, broke through the limitations of what a recording could achieve, and he changed the face of rock 'n' roll for ever and ever."

8. 'Hurricane' (1976)

Like his 1962 song The Death of Emmett Till and 1964 track The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, about a black barmaid murdered by a white farmer, Dylan would use his scathing lyrics for topical commentary of the times.

Hurricane, from his 1976 album Desire, speaks about the imprisonment of boxer Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, who was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1967 and spent 20 years in prison.

"All of Rubin's cards were marked in advance. The trial was a pig-circus, he never had a chance," Dylan sings in the song, which was credited for harnessing popular support to Carter's defence.

Carter, who was a champion boxer, was released in 1988 after all charges were dropped. He died in 2014 from prostate cancer.

Published: May 24, 2021 06:41 PM

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