Why does Bob Dylan write songs?

By Tony Attwood

I’ve never come across anyone asking the question in this article’s title (although of course I am sure many have), but it popped into my head when I first read Joost’s article on Neighbourhood Bully.

Now, please don’t shut this page down thinking I am going to be utterly tedious and reply to Joost’s reply to my article.  Or that am I going to write another article about Neighbourhood Bully.  Two reviews are enough I think.

But I have often wondered why Bob wrote that song – just as I have wondered why he wrote many specific songs.  And each time I feel this is a valid question because it then allows me in part to answer the question, “Is this a successful song?” in the sense – “does it work?”

To me this is a much more valid enquiry than the more commonplace “what does it mean?”  Meaning can be a difficult concept to capture, and often involves taking the art form out of its context, but “does it work” sees the song as a work of art, and then asks about what it is and what it means to be.  These are the interesting questions I think.

Now I want to begin by explaining where I come from on this, not because I want to talk endlessly about me and suggest that there but for a simple twist of fate would go I, with my songs, but because I think it valid in such an exploration to consider the critic’s position and bias.  If you’ve read bit about me before, or you know me, just fast forward a bit.

For most of my working life I have earned my living via the arts: first in music, then in the theatre, finally as a writer.  Like many who were not born with talent enough to find the world beating a path to one’s personal creative door, I supplemented my income in the early days by teaching and lecturing.

Also, I know something about the concept of creativity, because I studied the subject as part of my undergrad and postgrad degrees, and because I have lived by utilising my creativity (such as it is) to write things that people want to read.  Writing adverts, lots of non-fiction books, and a small number of novels.

As a result of this background and I feel moderately able to take on this challenge and answer the questions that follow.  Thus, I ask what I take to be the four key questions below, and finally, like all good academics, draw my conclusion.

1: Why does anyone create artistic works?

1.1  Money.  It’s not that easy – witness the millions of painters, actors, song writers, rock n roll musicians, playwrights, designers, poets, sculptors, novelists… who struggle to make a living from their art.

But if you get it right, it works.   And then over time the market changes – either for your benefit or to kick you when you are already down.    When I started out, in any TV production the writers of the script were pretty much at the bottom of the financial pile.  Now the best writers are the top earners on TV dramas.  Being there are the right time helps and Bob was certainly there at the right time for his type of music.

1.2  Drive.   Many artists continue to work without any reward, financial or otherwise.  None of the songs I have written have had any success.  But I still write songs, and once every year or two gather up the 20 or so best songs from recent times and hire a studio for a few hours and record them.  I just do it for myself and for my daughters to have a record of what their dad did when on his own.  I am, I guess one could say, driven to write songs in the same way that some people are driven to gamble.

From what I understand many creative people are likewise simply driven to create.  Certainly my friends in the arts, one or two of whom have had commercial success, find it hard to stop, even when age makes it tough to keep going.

1.3  It’s fun.  Well it is for me.  Writing books, blogs, songs and dance routines is enjoyable.  I like the research, I enjoy the act of creation and I enjoy the performance.  Writing is part of my life.  Not all of my life, because I also watch football matches etc, but it is a big part of what I am.

1.4  Love of fame.  I never got fame, but occasionally because of my writing people come up and say, (usually because of something I have written about football) “Hey you’re that ****ing Tony Attwood”.   I’ve had the death threats too, which are not pleasant, but mostly people are very nice, and yes I like it.  Can you imagine what it is to have this times 10 billion?  That is what Bob has.

And I think he likes it – or at least the recognition that is shows he has.  Consider the way the Oscar has been displayed at concerts.  Nothing wrong with that – I’d most certainly have done it.  But it shows he likes the recognition.

But then again he was very slow to respond to the Nobel prize and did not want to go and give his lecture in person.  Maybe there is a point beyond which the fame is too much.  Just as on occasion Bob has locked himself away with his family.

1.5  To change the world.   I wrote the music for a musical in my early years as a composer, and the writer of the lyrics, who was much more famous than I, told me, “the only reason for writing is to change the world.”

Did Bob think this when he wrote “Masters of War”?   Did he think that he would help solve the problem of the rural poor by writing “Hollis Brown”? And the Christian songs; were they written for this reason – to save the souls of non-believers like me?

Incidentally this was a reason for writing this piece – I was taken back to my original thoughts on Neighbourhood Bully – why was it written?

1.6  To celebrate an occasion or honour the memory.  And continuing that theme, was this why Bob wrote “Hurricane” or “George Jackson”?

I wrote organ pieces for the weddings of my two eldest daughters and played it as part of the church service; it was one of the best things I have ever done in my life.  Not to show off, but to say “this is the best gift I can give you, because this is truly part of me.”  Art as a celebration is probably the most extraordinary art that can be created.

2: Why Bob and songs?

I guess this one is easy – he is a songwriter not a painter, because he is a better songwriter than painter.  And also because in his early days in New York it was easier to get an audience as a singer songwriter.  He was there just at the moment when the audience for what he was doing was ready for what he had to offer.

In other words, part of the success of Bob Dylan, and what led him to continue writing, was not just that he was very good at his art, but also there was an immediate and growing audience for his art.

That doesn’t mean that artists who don’t find an early audience give up.  Many clearly don’t and so live on handouts and scraps.  Bob however had the right talent at the right time which meant he kept on keeping on.

3: So what drives Bob, the songwriter?

I think the answer to question two is a fundamental.  Songwriting is his natural art form and he was in the right place at the right time too.  That combined with great talent is the perfect combination.   But is there more?

3.1  Money

The fact that Dylan has licensed his songs to appear in adverts suggests that he is willing to maximise his income from various means.  It doesn’t mean that he’ll do anything for money, but rather that he’s not averse to maximising his income from his creative work – and of course many artists who have this opportunity also seek to protect their work.  Indeed working on a much smaller scale I have occasionally moved to protect my copyrights.  With me every penny counts.

3.2  It’s something to do; it shows he can do it.

Bob is obviously exceptionally good at writing, and in earlier times he used to write songs in hotel suites while touring.  Many of the recordings of such songs that were never put on albums come from the sound checks on tours.

But in later life the touring continued when the writing stopped, so clearly writing itself was not driven by touring.   In the end, for Bob Dylan the touring is a much greater driver than the writing.

Linked to this is the notion that Bob sometimes wants to change and explore other approaches.  The sudden switch to the JWH style – with almost all the songs following a similar three verse format, with the same accompaniment style and similar (although sometimes hard to comprehend) themes – was clearly a deliberate choice.  A way of exploring and saying “let’s see how it goes”.

“New Morning” was another album that went out on its own limb, exploring rural themes.  And when we go back to a song like “Peggy Day” it is almost as if Bob is saying “look I can be trivial too”.

But also have a listen to “Caribbean Wind,” apparently written in the part of the world to which it links in the title, but then not liked by Dylan enough to go on playing it more than once.  For many of us that is one of the great songs, but clearly not to Bob.  He could do it, so he did it, but that doesn’t mean he has to play it.

3.3  Anger, love and other emotions.

Bob Dylan has written songs on so many different subjects and incorporating so many emotional variations it is very tempting to see this as a major reason why he has written so many songs.

“Masters of War” sounds like the song of an angry young man.  “Love minus zero” the song of a man in love.  “Sara” a song of love and asking for forgiveness.  “Sad eyed lady” a song of adoration.  “Idiot Wind” a song of vengeance and disgust.  “Only a pawn” a song of despair at the way society works.

But it is not just an exploration of emotions.  One can go on and on with these songs and find more and more themes – some of them being songs which explore something as esoteric as the formulation of time.  “Tangled up in blue” is the ultimate perfect example, and clearly a song that Bob loves given the number of times he has re-written parts of it.

3.4  Religion

As I have mentioned several times (and I keep writing it because I find is so fascinating) Dylan rarely explains the meanings of his song.  But when he came to write and perform the Christian songs – the songs that are among the easiest of his works to understand – he suddenly began to spell out the meaning – including the occasional seven minute monologue at the gigs.

Just how perverse can a songwriter be?  Well, in Bob’s case, very.  When an explanation might have been helpful, we don’t get it.  When it’s all as clear as day and night, we get a lecture.

Yes for a while Bob was driven to write by his religious conviction, but only for a while.

4: So why did he stop?

Stop Bob most certainly has.  In 1967 he wrote, amended or utilised 77 songs.  Then in 1968 he wrote one – and that was delivered late. In 1971 and 1972 we were picking up gems but so few of them it seemed that Bob had had enough.  And by 1976/7 he just about had stopped – offering half written songs to others to complete.

Religion got him back into song writing mode and kept him going through part of the 1980s, but then after the Wilbury’s again he stopped, this time for five years.  1991-5 another time without writing (songs dated from within this period by some authorities were actually written in the 1980s), some more activity in 1996/7 and then another stop.  As for this century, the output has been erratic.

So why did Bob stop when he did?   Many a writer of literature and music has spoken of writer’s block – that period where the creativity just won’t happen, and I know from my conversations with other people who live by their art, and my friends with non-art jobs, it can be a very difficult time.

The best way to describe and explain it is through a comparison with another job.  A job where you turn up and work.  One could be working for a local council, or lecturing in a university.  One might be tending gardens or working on a farm.  Whatever it is, it is possible to do the job with drive and enthusiasm, or simply to do it.  And I suspect most people will find in their jobs that this is what happens – sometimes they have drive and energy and sometimes they don’t.  But all the time they keep working.

But for an artist working in any of the arts life is not the same, because one is not only doing the work, but also judging it against one’s own standards, which on occasion might be quite different from everyone else’s standards.

Think again of Caribbean Wind.  Something in that song is just not right for Bob, so he won’t perform it or cut it for a mainstream album. He has that choice.  But most of us don’t have such a choice.  We have to do the work or else we don’t get paid.

Conclusion: Why does Dylan write songs?

Well, actually he doesn’t any more.  After the Tempest collection in 2011/12 he’s not been writing songs as far as I know.   Maybe he can’t be bothered.  Maybe he’s too tired.  Maybe he just doesn’t have anything he wants to write about.  Maybe he’s fed up with us saying, “hey this melody comes from a Fred Astaire hit and this line comes from that civil war poet.”

Maybe he just got bored with the whole thing.

But when he was writing, I think many of the ideas I’ve tried to sketch out above have come into play.  And when it came to Neighbourhood Bully I suspect he was just angry with the way he perceived Israel to be portrayed on the news.  So he wrote a song, simple as that.

And quite possibly that is what happened much of the time.  Something came to mind and he wrote a song about it, and because he has been so supremely blessed with songwriting talent, a lot of the songs have been highly memorable, some to the extent that they are works of genius.

This however doesn’t mean he has to keep writing.  If he wants to stop, he can stop, which is the flip side of the question in the title.   Why does Bob Dylan not write songs any more?

The answer I guess is that he doesn’t feel he has anything he wants to write about at the moment.   And that’s his decision.  After all, who could possibly tell Bob Dylan what to do?

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home 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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8 Responses to Why does Bob Dylan write songs?

  1. Wow! Loved it. You’ve got my juices running. (Is that English? Probably not). What I mean is I’ve got something to say. Working on it.

  2. Chip says:

    Tony, I’ve become a regular reader of your posts. I’m 65 and first saw Bob on the famous 1966 tour–in Seattle, age 14. Last saw him two years ago in San Antonio where I now live–49 years after my first encounter. I was turned on to his records age 12, and have been listening to them all, living life with Bob, since then. I’ve been excited, ecstatic, inspired, comforted, disappointed, dismayed, revived, resigned, and grateful. Thoughts: Why does he write songs? He’s an artist: initially he was compelled to, by a creative urge, a muse, and he discovered his powers. Then he had to learn to, as he said, do consciously what he once did unconsciously. His dignity and sense of meaning have long been bound up with songwriting *and* performing–but performing, I believe, once came first, and in later years certainly comes first. He feels a duty both to God and to himself to write–and if he is fallow, has no inspiration for long periods, that’s part of the relationship with the spirit’s enterprise. He is supremely willful; which means that he doesn’t make himself write when he has no inspiration. It is like a marriage: there are fallow periods, and you trod on, knowing that if the renewed connection comes, it will come when it comes. Initially ambition, fame, women, glamor, ego, but above all a disocvery of what he was artistically capable of, drove the songwriting. He’s long settled into a different relationship with himself about it. Will he write more songs? The muse bloweth where it listeth.

  3. Richard Ettinger says:

    why does a dog lick his balls?
    because he can.

  4. just like sugar and candy says:

    As to why Bob stopped writing songs the answer may be simple: after Under the Red Sky was both critically and commercially dismissed it may have seemed that the mojo had finally stopped working and the feedback( from certain corners) he had hoped for was no longer there. Before Under the Red Sky there had been other critical failures but the market may still have supported them in sales. Bob may have thought much higher of that album then people realize. It seems like right up to Empire Burlesque he still believed in the album as a coherent form to tell a story, he was said to have been proud of Empire Burlesque, but when that album was dismissed by some critics he issued collections like Down in the Groove and Knocked out Loaded which he said in interviews did not have a theme or purpose. With Oh Mercy it seemed like he was back on track, maybe he thought that Under the Red Sky would also be celebrated and when it was not he may have given up on the album as an art form and went right into touring. Of course though I could be way off base.

  5. Babette says:

    The explanations can´t be found in the rational world, and emotions can not be explained in words.
    Unless you ar Bob Dylan.

  6. TonyAttwood says:

    Joost – yes, your knowledge of colloquial English is spot on.

  7. tom says:

    another reason : the songs he is ripping off dont do full justice to the premise and bob wants to expand upon the point
    eg patriot games expanded more fully into god on our side
    jo hill into st augustin
    high water everywhere into high water (for charley patton) ambitious that one, but the verse about george lewis recontextualises everything
    rolling and tumbling,,,, ooops that one im joking about , i simply cannot see what he added to that song

  8. Kieran says:

    There’s no reason to think that Bob Dylan has stopped writing songs. He may have any number of new songs either written but ignored, written and waiting to be recorded, or written, recorded and pending release.

    We have no information contrary to this that suggests he’s stopped writing. We also have no reason to thing he is writing – either way, we’re only speculating.

    I enjoyed the rest of it though, an interesting breakdown on why somebody writes songs, and there can be many reasons…

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