Dylan on writing his songs: the origins of his approach and style

By Tony Attwood

In my earlier article on how Dylan writes songs I outlined the notion that there are at least seven different types of art ranging from representational art to religious art.  In that article I quoted from Dylan’s interview for Rolling Stone in which he gave a fairly clear indication of his religious convictions.

Now I want to move on to the speech Dylan gave at the Musicare Awards in which he gave as detailed account as he ever has on his writing and where the songs come from.  This speech was interesting, for it was Dylan’s chance to contradict the Rolling Stone interview and say, for example, “You’re right – all these characters in these songs are all coded messages to do with the need to follow what is laid down in the Bible,” but he didn’t.  Instead he continued the theme of the interview, revealing the influences that worked upon his songs.

Right at the start of the speech he said,

“These songs of mine, they’re like mystery stories, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far. They were on the fringes then, and I think they’re on the fringes now.”

The stories Dylan refers to are generally known (at least in the UK) as the Mystery Plays or Miracle Plays – cycles of plays in verse which dramatised stories from the Bible.  Each town or city had its own cycle of plays – the most famous being the 48 play cycle from York.  They would be performed over a number of days, and in the larger towns in several locations around the town.

What one has to remember is that the audience of the day so no other dramatic entertainment, so when the characters (including God) got onto stage, this was real to the audience.  They literally had never seen anything like it.  Think perhaps of little children going to a theatrical performance for the first time today.  To them, there is nothing to distinguish what they are seeing on stage with what they see day by day.  All is real.

There is indeed a lot of evidence that the plays were performed across the country, so Shakespeare may well have seen them in Stratford on Avon as a child, and known of them in London when he moved there in the late 16th century.

The Miracle Plays were also the blockbuster productions of their day, costing huge amounts to put on, and often sponsored by guilds where the story could be used to show a trade or profession in a particularly positive light.  As a result the performances were entertainment, advertising, and the truth of the Christian story all mixed up as one.

Today we don’t necessarily associate religious festivals with humour and energy, but the Mystery Plays had lots of these.  Over the years the plays evolved and were re-written, and their “ownership” if there was any, was by the current performers.

Drama was the key, and so the fall of Adam, the murder of Abel and Noah’s flood etc were there to be used as New Testament events – and were often liked because of their vitality.

Thinking of this it is not too hard to see what Dylan was saying; he’s taking the myths and legends of his time and re-working them into stories, using the dominant medium of today that appeals to his chosen audience – the popular song – just as the Mystery Plays took theatre as their method of presentation.

If we just look at a few of the songs from 1962, the year in which Dylan wrote the first songs that are still widely recognised today, we can see that he is indeed this sort of story teller – and one blessed with an ability to tell stories in an incredibly varied way.

Ballad for a friend tells us of the death of a friend, while Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues makes fun of the far right wing.  Blowing in the wind  tells us to look out to the wider world to find what we want, but Corrina Corrina brings us back to the heart with a simple tale of lost love as does Tomorrow is a long time     And all this comes before the anti-war protest song Hard Rain’s a gonna fall and the desperate sadness and awfulness of life for the impoverished farmer in the Ballad of Hollis Brown and all this is followed (in terms of the order the songs were written in) by Don’t think twice the archetypal song of leaving, and then the protest against racism, Oxford Town – again told not as a “this is terrible dont do this” song, but as a story.

What Dylan is saying here is that he’s a story teller, and just as the original performed entertainments were in the style suitable for the day (religious tales acted out on temporary stages) so he started out as the storyteller with his guitar.

That then is the background – how he saw himself – as the story teller talking to the masses.   But in the next section of the same speech Dylan also gave us a clue as to how the songs came out as they did.  As he said,

“These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. Contrary to what Lou Levy said, there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock ‘n’ roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music.

“I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.

“For three or four years all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one  song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once.

“If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.”

Dylan was undoubtedly referring to two things here.  One is the obvious link between “John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man” and “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” and the other is the overall concept of the song in talking about the world around us, the world we experience.

Dylan continued…

“Big Bill Broonzy had a song called “Key to the Highway.” I’ve got a key to the highway / I’m booked and I’m bound to go / Gonna leave here runnin’ because walking is most too slow. I sang that a lot. If you sing that a lot, you just might write, Highway 61.”

Of course there’s no immediate link between Key to the Highway and “He asked poor Howard where can I go, Howard said there’s only one place I know, Sam said tell me quick man I got to run, Howard just pointed with his gun, And said that way down on Highway 61,” but there is the sold link with the blues (Highway 61 being the blues highway) and

When the moon peeks over the mountains
I’ll be on my way.
I’m gonna roam this old highway
Until the break of day.

Of course Dylan is exaggerating when he says, that “You’d have written [Highway 61] too if you’d sang “Key to the Highway” as much as me, but he is again giving us two big indications to what his work was all about.   It was seeing himself as the theatrical story teller, and the man who was utterly immersed in the folk and blues music that had gone before him.

He is talking here not only about themes, but also about feel – the particular implication that the lonesome highway has for the men and women whose music he listened to time and time again and into whose culture he moved.

Thus we have a clear indication from Dylan as to where he sees himself coming from and what his music is about: Dylan the storyteller, Dylan the inheritor of America’s popular musical traditions, Dylan the travelling showman tracing his performances back  to mediaeval England.

I’ll continue my investigation in the next article

All the songs reviewed on this site

Dylan’s work in the chronological order in which the songs were written.

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2 Responses to Dylan on writing his songs: the origins of his approach and style

  1. Elizabeth Clifton says:

    Extremely interesting. I’d thought his remark about the “mystery stories” was his way of acknowledging that he’d influenced William Shakespeare; his ego is that big and his brain that deranged. Also, when he drew parallels between songs like “Key to the Highway” and “Highway 61,” he was really using his 1960’s works of original genius to justify his later works of plagiarism.

  2. And here’s a Traum-Dylan-Helm connection re: biblical and mytholgical themes:Are there songs for which you weep?
    Posted on March 28, 2016 by drshuman
    Greed comes in many forms. We most often think of it as an unnecessary desire for “too much” material acquisition. Of course, we can be greedy for anything-sex, power, knowledge. Among the Christian seven deadly sins, it is differentiated from other “too much” faults such as lust and gluttony. The former is commonly associated with sex and the latter with food or fashion. All three characterize appetites well beyond what is necessary for sustenance. So taking them together as thoughts and deeds of excess, I want to briefly discuss greed as it relates to illness and ourselves.

    The impulse for this piece came from the tears I shed, unable to to sleep due spasticity arising from another uti, listening to Levon Helm, ill with cancer, singing Happy Traum’s “Golden Bird,” on his Grammy winning Electric Dirt album in the “high, lonesome wail” of his blues and Appalachian roots, 3 years before his death. The song, in voice and lyric, describes for me the danger to self and others the need to grasp and hold onto what I feel I must have regardless of cost.

    The song is sung by a man who “walking along a path in the mountains,” sees a bird with golden wings in the sun of the morning.. It’s beauty was such, and I felt I must have it, he goes on, and
    Finally angered that I couldn’t catch it, he finds
    a stone by a mountain stream flowing…
    It felt so warm and alive in my hand
    It was an arrow, my arm was a bow…then… a cry pierced the air…
    Weeping I left it, the thing that had fallen
    Blood stained my hands and tears wet my cheek.

    That night as he lays in his bed, he hears the sound of wings

    and The room became bathed in a warm, golden glow
    I opened my eyes and a woman stood there, singing
    Did not you know when you hurt me so cruelly
    I was your love, I was your friend.
    You couldn’t stand it that I was so free
    Now you will never see me again.

    Of course, in one reading, it is the sad tale of a man who loses a woman he loved, for he tried to control her and treated her so cruelly. And as sad a commonplace as the caged bird that does not sung may be, that is not my fate. So let me not talk falsely.

    Do you wonder why I weep? I see myself, Dante, at mid life having entered the dark wood. And mixing our myths as myths are meant to do to us, he looks back and up at his own Icarus self. Desperate to hold onto youth, to time as it flies by on its golden wings, unable to tolerate the truth of impermanence, he grabs a stone, even so hard an object rounded by the flow of time. He does not live in the present moment because he fears its end in death. We are greedy for life and beauty so we miss them, radiantly here and now.

    This morning, looking at the obituaries, we cannot believe we are nearly seventy. But who can believe their age? I can’t believe I’m thirty or forty or fifty or sixty or eighty or ninety. And what of the fantasy of living to one hundred and fifty or two hundred. Will we believe it then? And if we slow our aging, will others, as well? And will we accumulate years with our current strengths, aches, pains or will they worsen? And what of the earth’s resources, its carrying capacity?

    And what will we do with that extra time? Explore ways to stretch our life span to two hundred years? To what end? To what purpose under heaven? For greed, there is only one season, getting and keeping and getting some more. Are there songs for which you weep?

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