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The language and influences of the early Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan, born Robert Allen Zimmerman, celebrates his 72nd birthday on 24 May 2013. The singer-songwriter, music producer, and writer has been one of the most influential figures in popular music and culture since the release of his first album in 1962.

There is no systematic way of analysing Dylan’s song lyrics or poems; they span more than five decades of historical context and musical style. But perhaps one of the most interesting sides of Dylan is how he uses language and his lyrics to project certain identities, including folksinger and protest-musician.

There’s not many men that done the things that you’ve done

Arguably Dylan’s greatest early influence was Woody Guthrie, the American singer-songwriter and writer of one of the most famous American folksongs, ‘This Land is Your Land’. Dylan allegedly read Guthrie’s autobiography, Bound for Glory, and became obsessed with its protagonist, who is depicted as a mythical being in the book.

Dylan, who is originally from Minnesota, started mimicking Guthrie’s Oklahoman speech patterns set out in his book, and when he arrived in New York in 1961, he told a crowd at a club where he was performing, ‘I been travellin’ around the country, followin’ in Woody Guthrie’s footsteps.’ Minnesota does not have the same tradition of folk music, nor does it have such a distinct twang as Oklahoma and the plains states, and so this change reflects a decision on Dylan’s part to integrate himself into the folk scene.

Dylan went to visit the ‘Dust Bowl Troubadour‘, as Guthrie was known, in Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital where Guthrie was hospitalized with Huntington’s disease. Dylan played a piece called ‘Song to Woody’, which Guthrie apparently approved of and appreciated.

‘Song to Woody’ was released on Dylan’s debut album, entitled Bob Dylan. Over fifty years later, is still one of his best-known songs and one of the most famous tributes to the American folk tradition.

In the song, Dylan uses language to convey his Odyssean view of Guthrie’s life and combines it with a more personal style:

I’m seein’ your world of people and things
Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings

Hey, Woody Guthrie, but I know that you know
All the things that I’m a-sayin’ an’ a-many times more
I’m a-singin’ you the song, but I can’t sing enough
’Cause there’s not many men that done the things that you’ve done

He also uses a line that can be read as a response to a line Guthrie uses in one of his best know songs, ‘Pastures of Plenty’. Where Guthrie sings:

I worked in your orchards of peaches and prunes
I slept on the ground in the light of the moon
On the edge of the city you’ll see us and then
We come with the dust and we go with the wind

Dylan responds with his own tribute to the artist:

Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men
That come with the dust and are gone with the wind

Two Dylans

It has never been clear exactly what influence Dylan Thomas had on Bob Dylan’s lyrics and poetry, but in his autobiography, Chronicles, he confirmed the long-debated idea that he adopted the name ‘Bob Dylan’ after the Welsh poet in around 1959. A 2004 interview offers insight into this decision:

You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.

Dylan’s identity has always been a point of contention, perhaps even to himself. He said in the 2005 documentary No Direction Home:

I didn’t really have any ambition at all. I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be, and so, I’m on my way home, you know?

One can speculate how Dylan was influenced by the poems of Dylan Thomas. For example, many of Thomas’s poems have a theme of conflict: conflict between the speaker and reader of the poem, conflict between the poem’s structure and the language, and often the conflict of  the inevitability of death. In Thomas’s poem ‘And death shall have no dominion’, the speaker is clearly conflicted by this issue, and the opening of the poem makes this clear:

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one

Several of Dylan’s early songs that address death have similarly powerful opening lines, perhaps evoking the influence Thomas’s language. ‘Let Me Die in My Footsteps’ (written 1962), opens:

I will not go down under the ground
’Cause somebody tells me that death’s comin’ ’round

while his topical song ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ (recorded 1963), written in response to the brutal murder of a black woman by a wealthy young tobacco farmer, starts:

William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ringed finger.

Although the second example refers to a specific event, the powerful language still evokes a conflict with death, and more importantly, the desire to make sense of such a senseless act.

Dylan’s conflicts with certain issues appear in many other early songs, for example in ‘Oxford Town’ (1963), which refers to the enrollment of the first black student at the University of Mississippi, Dylan sings:

He went down to Oxford Town
Guns and clubs followed him down.

‘Masters of War’ is another example where Dylan uses deliberately strong language, similar to Thomas, to show conflict with a certain issue. The song protests against the Cold War arms build-up, and begins:

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks

Although one can certainly find similarities between the two poets’ styles and how they address certain issues, Bob Dylan has never explained fully how Dylan Thomas influenced him in his work.

The question of Dylan’s name-change also brings to light the fact that Bob Dylan seems to enjoy joking with reporters and interviewers. He has claimed to have grown up in New Mexico (he didn’t), and that he changed his name to Dylan because his mother’s maiden name was Dillon (it wasn’t). He has said that at the time he changed his name, he hadn’t read much Dylan Thomas, and if Thomas had been that influential, Dylan would have put his poems to music. In other interviews he has confirmed that Dylan Thomas was indeed the reason behind the name-change. Dylan leaves us to speculate.

How many years can some people exist, before they’re allowed to be free?

Dylan’s early albums comprise a collection of songs that became known as protest songs, and many of them became anthems of various social movements that were happening in the United States in the early sixties, notably the Civil Rights Movement.

Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, begins with one of his most famous songs, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. Described as a protest song, it poses a series of rhetorical questions about war, freedom, rights, and peace –  for example, ‘how many times must the cannonballs fly/Before they’re forever banned’ and ‘how many deaths will it take till he knows/That too many people have died’ with the same answer:

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

The idea that the answer is ‘blowin’ in the wind’ implies a universality to the questions he poses, and the answers he implies.

These themes show up in other songs on the album. It has been suggested, for example, that ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’ refers to nuclear fallout. In the last stanza, Dylan sings:

I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it

Although Dylan denies that the song is specifically about the nuclear fallout, it is still quite clearly a commentary on violence and injustice, and the language reflects this.

‘Talkin’ World War III Blues’ addresses the subject of nuclear annihilation with humour, and uses the same ‘talkin’ blues’ style that Woody Guthrie had popularized. In this song, Dylan sings about ‘a crazy dream’ he has about waking up in World War III, but never points fingers or lays the blame.

By 1965, Dylan had released five studio albums. His fifth, Bringing it all Back Home, features both electric and acoustic instruments, which shows his move away from traditional folk-music. However, many of the songs on the album have similar themes as his earlier songs. For example, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ features the well-known line ‘you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows’, a commentary on how people are inclined to turn to authority for direction rather than think for themselves.

The album also features the lesser known ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m only Bleeding)’, described by one Dylan biographer as a ‘grim masterpiece’. One of the most powerful stanzas reads:

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred

The lyrics express Dylan’s anger at consumerism, commercialism, and American culture and values. Although not classified as a protest song, it is Dylan’s own personal protest against the establishment. As he said in an interview in 2004, ‘morality has nothing in common with politics’.

The Grand Canyon at sundown

Woody Guthrie’s health began to deteriorate, and he was moved to Brooklyn State Hospital in 1961. Bob Dylan wrote a piece about Guthrie, which was recorded in 1963 at a reading where he explained:

There’s this book coming out, and they asked me to write something about Woody, sort of like ‘What does Woody Guthrie mean to you in 25 words?’ and I couldn’t do it, I wrote out five pages… this is called ‘Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie’.

The poem begins:

When yer head gets twisted and yer mind grows numb
When you think you’re too old, too young, too smart or too dumb

and continues his train of thought till the end, where Woody Guthrie is mentioned for the first time. But it is clear that not even Dylan can summon up the words to convey this emotion; Woody is transcendental.

You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You’ll find God in the church of your choice
You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital

And though it’s only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You’ll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

Although recorded in 1963, the reading was not released until almost thirty years later, in 1991, which would suggest that Woody Guthrie’s influence and the folk-tradition stays with Dylan to this day. He has never performed the poem since; this was its first and only reading.