Bob Dylan: the greatest songwriter of all time?

By Tony Attwood

Songs, like stories, have long been a central part of western society, and although the absolute history of songs goes beyond my knowledge limits, I think that every society that we know anything about has songs as one of its earliest art forms.   We know that in western society they go back as far as the first century AD – and that is just the date of the oldest song of which we have information.  Songs are probably as old as civilisation itself.

And what I want to do here is try and see where Bob Dylan fits into this ancient tradition.

For many years Dylan has divided people in terms of his artistic merit and his ability to entertain more than most songwriters – and I guess this is primarily because of his longevity in the world of popular music, and his gigantic range of compositions and styles, from the downright silly to the utterly profound, from the lyrics that border on incomprehensibility to the simplistic, from the deep to the songs for children.

And just as his lyrics have varied so his musical style has varied too, from folk to country from blues to the classics of the 1930s, from rock to … well anywhere else you want to go.

So is that it?  Can we just say Bob is the greatest songwriter of them all because of these factors?

No.  I think that we do have first to say that we are looking only at popular songs, rather than what we might call art songs; the songs from the classical romantic tradition that have appealed to a much smaller audience.   So I’m not thinking of the songs of Brahms or Hugo Wolf, or Schubert.    I’m thinking of songs that have been immediately attractive to a wider ranging audience.  Songs with the broadest of appeals.

And if we exclude the art songs of the Romantic era, the question arises who might we put up against Bob as a rival to the title of the greatest songwriter in the popular genre?  There have been other great songwriters of course, and in terms of popular songs in the last 100 years we might consider Paul McCartney as one such.  But although he has written very many songs that have become extremely popular in western society, the number he has written can’t be above 200.   And although he has innovated – Eleanor Rigby for example was indeed an innovative piece of music, as was Hey Jude, it is hard to think of too many songs that have had a profound influence on people’s way of thinking, or become national anthems.   Everyone knows the final section of Hey Jude, and it is sung in many situations (we sing it at Arsenal when Giroud scores) but that isn’t really the level I am thinking of.  I am looking for composers who have taken the whole genre into new dimensions.

In fact in terms of sheer volume of production, popularity becoming central to a nation’s way of thought, the only comparison I can think of to Bob Dylan in terms of western music  is Irving Berlin.   And if you think there is someone else who could challenge in this list of elite of elites songwriters, please do write an article for this site about the composer.  I’d love to see the argument.

Of course if you are not familiar with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” the extraordinary impact that Berlin had on popular music can be hard to fathom, but if you have an interest in popular song surely you will know not just that song but also at least some of, “What’ll I do?” along with “Always”, “Blue Skies”, “Putting on the Ritz”, “God bless America”, “There’s no business like show business”, and above all “White Christmas”.  In all he wrote Berlin around 1250 songs – so well over twice as many as Bob.

Now here’s an interesting thought along the way.  “God Bless America” was meant originally to be a peace song, but became a patriotic anthem.  Woodie Guthrie is said to have disliked it so much he wrote This Land Is Your Land,” in 1940 and indeed this became popular as an alternative to “God bless America”.

And while we are on oddities, Berlin was very controlling of the use of his songs, although he did allow the American Society of Composers and Publishers which he helped found in order to ensure that songwriters benefited financially from their work, to create a televised tribute to him on his 100th birthday.  However it is said that he demanded that all of the orchestrations be destroyed immediately after the performance!

So we can be fairly happy with the notion that Dylan has gone further than Berlin in terms of expanding where popular song can go and what it can do.   But while Dylan has been very varied in his genres, he has rarely if ever done what Berlin did in writing for the popular taste and has not worked to help the patriotic mood of his country.  Dylan’s anthems might be nominated as “Blowing in the Wind” and “Times they are a changing”.

On the other hand Dylan has written a number of songs that promote Christianity.  Which leads me to another thought.  Both Dylan and Berlin were born into Jewish families and brought up in the Jewish tradition.  And although Berlin didn’t write Christian songs as Dylan did, he did write two songs that are deeply rooted that are not only rooted in the Christian tradition: “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade” both of which have become fundamental parts of western cultural traditions.

Berlin thus was most certainly much more mainstream than Bob.  Which leads me to think of songs like “What’ll I do” – an overwhelmingly powerful romantic ballad with an instant appeal to huge parts of the American population.  The song that can instantly bring tears to the eyes of millions.  Goodness knows how many marriages it has saved!  That is not a world that Dylan has entered any more than Berlin thought of writing about the arms industry or songs which turned time upside down.

And maybe that is the difference.  Two American popular songwriters that stand out above all the rest, but with utterly different focus points.   Dylan has never been very interested in celebrating the modern world, when he does celebrate modern times it is often in relation to an imagined rural lifestyle; otherwise his approach has been to challenge us, either directly by writing about people he clearly dislikes (what I’ve called “the songs of disdain”) or by challenging us by his sudden turns into types of music we would never normally associate with him (I think at once of “Country Pie” – a song which I personally would never choose to play, because I find it both alien and mundane at the same time.)

So in my understanding of American popular music (and remember I am English, not American, so my understandings will certainly be far from complete) Dylan stands at the top of the songwriting tree with Berlin, but without writing to the popular mood (as Berlin did unrelentingly,) often instead taking the music into all sorts of different dimensions.  The mood that says, “this is wrong”, and “this needs challenging”.  The exact opposite of “White Christmas” in fact.

Put simply, Berlin wrote feel good, Dylan wrote challenges and enigmas.

And this brings me to another point; all the arts appeal to different people – and there are many who have no close engagement in any art form.  It seems to me a constant indictment of the education system in my country that such a tiny minority of people end up in adult life with any serious engagement in any art form beyond cheaply made TV series and everyday top 40 pop.   They don’t read books, don’t go to the theatre, don’t spend time looking a visual art presentations, and their engagement with music is often little more than as a constant background to the day.

So for such people anyone who is so serious about any art form that he/she makes it part of daily life is going to see strange.  And that certainly means that anyone who is interested in Dylan, is going to seem odd.

Indeed in my country we seem to have lost any sense of the value of becoming engrossed in something deeply.  Because the whole notion of life has become one in which we can understand everything in a second, and that theory is irrelevant, considering a musician and his work in depth seems ludicrous, and thus any in depth analysis of anything is irrelevant and pointless.

Why should I bother to understand opera when I can tell from five seconds listening that it is garbled rubbish?

At one level none of this matters; each to his own, of course.   However there is another point that arises here, because we live in a world in which people do (to utilise the phrase Bob made famous) criticise what they can’t understand, and also what they have never tried to understand.  Only now it is not the mothers and fathers who do this, but their children who rebelled against such a lack of understanding.

This resultant “analysis” (I use the word lightly) that everything not instantly understood is rubbish, comes about because we have moved into a society in which everyone not only has an opinion (it has always been thus) but can express that opinion and have it taken seriously.  Whether spouting on the radio phone ins or in response to blogs, anyone can be heard, and each now demands to be taken as a valid point of view no matter how lacking in detail, analysis, evidence and theory it is.

To put this in the context of artistic movements, we have moved on from modernism in which the new was particularly valued and there was a huge faith in progress and development.   After modernism we had post-modernism, in which it was seen that art from the past could be of great merit in itself and worthy of interest, re-evaluation and reinterpretation (as with Bob’s use of melodies from the 1930s and 1940, and lyrics from all eras).

Now we have pseudo-modernism in which every opinion is supposedly of equal merit.  And this is where I step aside from the the progression because I don’t think this is true.  While I fully appreciate that there are many developments in the arts I can’t comprehend (opera is one, ballet another and a lot of contemporary visual art another) I see the movement towards everything being of equal value, so that everyone can have an opinion of equal merit, is not only silly, but also dangerous.

But for me it is only when one starts to look to see what makes Dylan’s music of particular interest that one begins to understand it a little more: hence my few thoughts on whether Dylan might be the greatest songwriter of the last 100 years.

That doesn’t mean you can’t love an art form without such analysis, but to understand why Dylan is appreciated by so many people one needs to get deeply involved in the music and appreciate it emotionally, historically and analytically – and that means not just analysing the songs but also looking at the history of popular music and considering Dylan’s place therein.

And through such a review we may notice that Dylan’s music is immensely varied in the way most other composers of songs have never achieved.  Variation by itself of course is of little interest – but when combined with quality and depth, then it is something to take into account.   This is not to put down Irving Berlin, but to suggest that this attribute puts Dylan right up there with Berlin when the greatest songwriters of the last 100 plus years are being considered.

And in addition to variation of style and approach we also have volume of work.  Again writing a lot of stuff is of no significance if it is all tripe, but when across a whole lifetime one can find works that quite a few people will consider masterpieces of the genre then one must surely begin to take notice.  Again Dylan and Berlin come to the fore.

Seeing Dylan within the context of popular music seems to me to be as important as comprehending what it is that makes Dylan special within his own right.

And the answer to the question posed as the title of this little piece thus becomes irrelevant.  It is the asking of the question that is important because it takes us into issues that are themselves of interest to anyone seriously concerned with popular culture, and its place in our society.

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order below on this page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.

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19 Responses to Bob Dylan: the greatest songwriter of all time?

  1. I admire you you for sitting down and writing down these thoughts. It made me think, which was your intention, so well done. But ultimately, I don’t care, it’s too soon to ask this question: after all, he ain’t dead yet.
    Another thing, you are comparing songwriters, but Bob (and Paul and Bruce etc) are also performers with millions of followers and by performing they keep the songs alive.
    Would we listen to Modern Times if Dylan wouldn’t perform Sick of Love night after night?
    Because of these modern times we live in, there is more to find on Dylan then on Irving Berlin in his day. Take the Internet, YouTube, social media. Irving Berlin did not have that. So it’s hard to compare. We’ll have to wait a couple of hundred years and then the offspring of our offspring of our offspring will agree that through the ages you have the anonymous writers of the Torah, Homer, Shakespeare and Dylan.

  2. Jerapah says:

    Yes.

  3. Larry Fyffe says:

    I’ve heard you say many times that you’re better than no one, and no one is better than you. If you really believe that you know you have nothing to win and nothing to lose.

    For some reason, I’m not willing to wait a couple of hundred years to discover a songwriter who is better than Bob Dylan.

    “No one is better than you”, the double-edged key ….Not to conform, not to not care, but to boldly go where no man has gone before.

    In Dylan’s case, his songs fit the present, but many of them apply to the human condition for all times.

    Anyway, in my previous life in the days of Elizabeth I , I remember saying to myself, ‘That Shakespeare guy , he’s not a bad playwright” As it turned out, I was right.

  4. Kieran says:

    Once you exclude Schubert and the other Romantic songwriters, you should maybe not ask if Bob’s the Greatest Songwriter of All Time. I know it makes the heading more provocative, but it’s kinda like those Rolling Stone magazine lists, ” The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”, and all the 500 greatest songs of all time just happen to be modern pop songs, written in the last 60 years.

    But yeah, I think you’re onto something if we say, is Bob Dylan the greatest folk and popular songwriter of the last 100 years, or so. I can’t think of anybody who even comes close…

  5. Richard says:

    It’s great that you consider Berlin together with Dylan. You make a very thoughtful and fair case for each of them. As others has said …. time and history will decide.

    I think I want to suggest Leonard Cohen as a third member of this triumvirate. I would not have said this in, say, 2005. However, Cohen’s last three albums – together with the almost unfailing quality, beauty, bravery and poeticism of his early work – take his songwriting into the stratosphere for me. Not musically innovative enough? I think his writing and performance do indeed have unique qualities: of the communication of spiritual, erotic and philosophical moods and “old ideas”. Plus, he is funny as heck. And as for his lyrics ….

    Oh, then there’s this guy who sings in French, called Jacques Brel! He’s well worth learning French to enjoy ….

  6. Larry Fyffe says:

    Bob Dylan considers Leonard Cohen’s not bad

  7. tom says:

    what about gilbert & sullivan, rogers & hammerstein, john coltrane, charley patton… ?just saying if you exclude these because they were duos, composed for comic opera or musicals or maybe jazz is not songs and did charley write or borrow half his chops and lyrics (who knows?)…HI Bob I’m looking right at you…. you’ve rather tilted the “contest” somewhat…..

  8. Kieran says:

    “Bob Dylan considers Leonard Cohen’s not bad”

    Most sane people agree, but I remember thinking during the Nobel Prize controversy, when people suggested Leonard deserved it more than Bob, that old Lennie went as deep, but never as broad as Bob Dylan, in his songs. Bob traverses easily folk songs, blues, gospel, rock, all at the supreme level, and his songs never sound like “poems set to music”, but rather, they have an authenticity about them, that no matter how poetic he gets, the song still sounds like a “folk song”, a “rock song”, etc. The music rarely sounds like it’s just a scaffold for the words.

    But yeah, I love Leonard Cohen, listening to Popular Problems while I cook, these days.

    And I enjoyed reading about Irving Berlin there, too…

  9. Frank Andrews says:

    The greatest songwriter of all time was Walter Dahl. I don’t think there’s any question about that. He had a little farm outside Las Cruces, New Mexico, in the thirties and forties. My grandparents knew him. He only wrote eight songs, but they were really long, and of course really good. (Besides, Leonard Cohen only wrote three or four songs. He just kept changing the words around.) And he taught his cows to sing them! Not the words, of course. Just the harmony. On Saturday evenings, when the chores were done, he’d sit in his old tin washtub and sing while the cows chomped and bellowed and stomped out the rhythm with their hooves. People would come from as far as El Paso, even Juarez, to listen. My grandparents said it was really something. The WPA sent a man out with a tape recorder one time, but it wasn’t his bath night and the cows were out to pasture, so he couldn’t sing his songs. But he did take them into the parlor and sing them “Home on the Range,” including the naughty verses, and I think some Schubert lieder. The University of New Mexico has a copy of the recording in their archives, if anyone’s curious.

  10. Gary Pullan says:

    All things considered absolutely no one comes close.
    There are no current songsters who deserve to be mentioned in Bob’s presence, I mean McCartney, Springsteen really -please! Good in there own right but Genius’ absolutely not.
    Hank Williams, Buddy Holly etc were great but Bob being a Genius of Genius’ took bits of their craft and built his own – never to repeated. When Bob leaves this earth, then for me songwriting will stand still – just so thankful to have been born in time!

  11. Larry Fyffe says:

    Mooooooooooo

  12. DeGaulle says:

    I concur with the writer’s thoughts on the increasing ignorance and decreasing attention-spans of what is probably the vast majority of the population. Perhaps it is an inevitable consequence of greatly reduced childhood mortality. Being the most complex organ, genetic degradation is more likely and potentially more severe in the central nervous system, therefore it is plausible that the greater survival of modern generations is going to lead to decreased intellectual capacity. It is, ultimately, a self-limiting problem. Increasing societal breakdown will eventually cause a rise in childhood mortality and a consequent improvement in general intellect.

    To illustrate what I have said, consider that Shakespeare was a popular entertainer. His wonderful language was only a refined version of the vernacular of his common contemporaries. Many of these audience members were probably illiterate, but their oral linguistic ability would far surpass what exists now.

  13. Larry Fyffe says:

    McLuhen spectulated, not reduced mortality, but the over-abundance of electronic and digital media reduces attention span and the ability, in many members of the general population, to write and speak well as their central nervous systems adapt to the new media: the media is the message.

  14. Wait a minute… ‘White Christmas’ ??????????

    This is NOT a great song. This is a piece of maudlin sentimental bollocks, compared to which ‘Wiggle Wiggle’ is a masterpiece!!!

    Are we supposed to believe that Irving Berlin was a greater songwriter than Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell or Neil Young or John Lennon or Richard Thompson or Leonard Cohen or Robert Johnson or Bob Marley or Patti Smith or Kate Bush or Ray Davies or Paul McCartney or Lou Reed or Jim Morrison… I mean, I could go on and on…. yes Bob is thoroughly engaged in exploring the so called ‘Great American Songbook’ but the real Great Age of Songwriters was the one that he himself largely instigated… the generation of writers I’ve mentioned above who, inspired by Bob (yes, every single one of them., although Simon is a bit sniffy about it!) turned songwriting into a REAL artform with no bounds.

    Yes ‘White Christmas’has become a fundamental part of the cultural tradition but so has ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ and ‘Wish It Would Be Xmas Every Day’ and , er…. ‘Wonderful Christmas Time’ and (now we get to the real point! er… ‘Last Christmas’ (Vomit!) ‘Mistletoe And Wine’ (Buckets of Vomit!)

    Berlin’s generation of popular songwriters were writing within strictly defined commercial limits. Perhaps the point of Bob’s exploration is to show that, despite these limits, some of the songs of this generation were great songs. But nobody from the Great American Songbook generation EVER wrote a song like ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, ‘First We Take Manhattan’, ‘Genesis Hall’, ‘After the Goldrush’, ‘She’s Leaving Home’, ‘The End’, ‘Them Belly Full (But We Hungry), ‘Hounds of Love’,
    not to mention at least a hundred Bob Dylan songs. And while Irving B made lotsa money, real geniuses like Blind Willie McTell or Robert Johnson (his contemporaries) died in poverty or ‘in vain (as the song goes)…

    I’ll shut up now, then…..

  15. Larry Fyffe says:

    First we take Manhatten, then we take Berlin

  16. This type of ‘who is the best?’ or ‘is so and so the best?’ question in entertainment or art seems to me to be a pointless and self-defeating exercise despite its popularity in the media and on the internet. It isn’t just that people will have different opinions about what is great, it is the fact that what is being compared ends up being assessed by people on selective criteria rather than on a like for like basis. Dylan, for example, is rarely assessed on his melodies as an equal factor in what constitutes a great song or songwriter. Compared with many other songwriters his melodies are mostly good but rarely exceptional. By a similar token, Hank Williams is often admired by other songwriters as one of the greats, yet his lyrics mainly use straightforward, everyday language to put over a wide range of human experiences. Does the fact that Leonard Cohen’s use of poetry set to music make him a better songwriter than Hank Williams? Cohen himself didn’t think so and I suspect many others don’t either. As with poetry, drama and literature, the era in which songs emerge also plays a part in how they become regarded at different times. Today, it is easy to argue that a song like White Christmas sounds over-sentimental and entirely disposable. But during World War 2 this song, and many others that sound sentimental to us today, held a strong resonance for the soldiers away from home and for their families who missed them and worried about their safety. I love the process of people discussing the reasoned merits of particular songwriters’ work but these ‘who’s best’ type of comparisons, for me at least, end up unsatisfying, inconclusive and divisive.

  17. TonyAttwood says:

    Tom – yes of course I have, but I’ve tried to give reasons, and one has to start somewhere. What I am hoping is someone else will take the challenge further and explore the sort of options you have outlined.

  18. Larry Fyffe says:

    You have to admit that when Tony wanders around the cow pasture, he treads where a lot of people are careful not to.

  19. Fools and angels, rushing and treading, that’s what we are.

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