Bob Dylan’s creative challenges, and why doesn’t he play the harmonica any more?

Bob Dylan’s creative challenges

By Joost Nillissen

Tony’s article on the seemingly rather absurd question of why Dylan writes songs came just when I was mulling a similar absurd question of why he is still performing about 70 to 80 shows a year (in 2016) when he is 76 years old.

It’s almost like asking the goose why she lays eggs. Because that’s what a goose does, stupid! He writes songs and he performs. I do not have a lot of friends (none, as a matter of fact) who share my fascination for Dylan and when I bring him up, they ask me: “He’s old, rich and famous, he sings like a crow. Why doesn’t he retire, lean back and enjoy the rest of his days?

But the questions are not absurd, as Tony proves in his article. I believe the short version of the answer is: creativity.

As any creative person knows, creativity can sweep you up and away into the dazzling heights of heaven, only to throw you back a few moments later into the depths of the darkest pits. We have all been there. In my late teens and early twenties I was an artist who couldn’t decide between painting and writing. I did both, never studied, rambled and gambled, wrote and painted, and finally – more or less – gave up.

There was a child on the way. I found a job and had a fantastic career, but my art became a hobby. For years I felt embarrassed by this defeat. Unlike Tony, I was not so lucky to have a career “via the arts”.

All through my life I found out, again and again, that creativity never leaves you. “It’s a part of me now, it’s been cherished and saved.” In my spare time the dazzling heights still continue to seduce me, while I timorously try to avoid the pitfalls. During the last five or six years I wrote and published three novels and recently a collection of short stories with my own pen drawings to sum up an artistic period of 40 years. I am world famous in the tiny circles of my tiny network.

The Questions

The question of why anyone would create artistic works (money, fame, drive, religion, fun) is academic. It’s probably all four and a few more, and over the years one impetus may replace another. But the root, for most, I believe, is: look at me! I made this, what do you think? Isn’t it amazing? Who would have thought I could do this, or still can do this?  While all the time you were thinking “I was past my prime…”

For an intensely private and socially awkward person like Dylan this must be difficult.

But Dylan is already recognized as the greatest, the most influential, with numerous prizes, including an Oscar and the Nobel prize for Literature. We, the hoi polloi, have no idea what it’s like. If only we could “for just that one moment stand inside his shoes”, perhaps we would have a clue as to why Dylan does what he does. So what else is there for him to win? How can he gain our recognition or prove he is still worthy of it?

By challenging himself. On stage. For months in a row four of five nights a week, anywhere in the world.

The question: Can he still fill the venues, will they still want to hear him sing? The answer is yes. (Although in Canada last month one or two shows were cancelled due to disappointing ticket sales).

So that challenge is met, the crowds still gather to see him perform.

Another question: Why did he put down his guitar and moved to a silly keyboard? Was this a creative challenge? He hasn’t picked up the guitar for years, only to strap it around his shoulder last October in Las Vegas  when he heard he was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature and played so appropriately A Simple Twist of Fate. (And then again when performing To Ramona in New York last June. Why? We don’t know).

In the meantime he got rid of the keyboard and brought on the baby grand, which looks a lot better.

Another question: What about the set list? He hardly changes it anymore. Night after night the same songs in the same sequence. We know Dylan usually chooses his songs carefully. (I saw him in Jerusalem in 1987 and he played John Brown… the boy who went off to war… In Israel, where every boy (and girl) has to go off to war. It hit us like a bullet).

So he sat down and composed a balanced set list that he will play night after night. Every night it’s a challenge; to get the most out of the songs, to do it better than the night before. Or as well as the night before. That’s one hell of a creative challenge.

Another question: Why doesn’t he play the harp anymore? The crowd loves the harp, the minute he brings the instrument to his lips and the first notes cut through flesh and bone, the audience goes wild. Maybe he thinks that’s too easy, a cheap thrill. We’ll they still appreciate my work without the harp? Another creative challenge.

So in conclusion, I believe they are all creative challenges. Maybe he doesn’t write anymore (we don’t know that!). Maybe the need to write about love and emotions or the need to change the world, has evaporated. Maybe he feels he has said it all and nothing he can say will change one iota in the big schemes of things. We don’t know.

The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last play. Not because he died or became feeble. He just stopped, left London and went back to his wife in Stratford upon Avon. Maybe Dylan’s Tempest is his last. We don’t know.

What we do know is that creativity is always there, it never leaves you. “It’s indescribable, it can drive you to drink”.

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.





  1. Not to offend anybody here: I dont think you can use the same eathly principles for a genius as we use for ourselves. The genius mind is just so different, when it comes to personal dicision making. They feel a power coming from somewhere outside themselves, a power which they can´t control. That explanation of an external power also make them more free to stay as they are, and accept WHO they are.
    They just can´t stop what we call working, because that “work” is not a part of them – it is the whole person.

    But when it comes to the body – they are just as mortal as you and I.

    Eathly principles no. 1:
    Why does he not play the harmonica anymore?
    My professionel explanation is:
    Because the lung capacity declines with age, and if you smoke or have been a smoker it declines much quicker. He simply does not have air enough.

    Eathly principles no. 2:
    Why does he not play the guitar?
    If you have artrosis or artritis in your hands I think it is more easy to play the piano than the guitar, but I dont know.

    Eathly principles no. 3:
    Why does he make concerts 5 days a week?
    If you are self-employed and run a business, then you have a lot of expenses.
    To have an economic profit – the income must be higher than the cost. . So when you can´t reduce the cost, you will have to work more . Either you are in or out of business.

  2. He does play guitar at home and at soundchecks, a lot of the stuff he plays on piano would be difficult if you were riddled with arthritis.

    Its only this last year that he has dropped the harmonica and maybe that is simply because it allows him to concentrate on his vocals more. I feel he was much clearer on his last European tour and though I like the harmonica it didnt ruin the evening.

    I dont really think Bob is touring because he needs money.

  3. Babette: I’ll happily accept the first two principles as they can hit anyone but Dylan, no matter what his overheads may be, doesn’t need the money. Besides, if he stopped touring, he’d cut his costs just like that. No, something else must drive him to the stage night after night. He did say he was keeping to his side of the bargain. Who knows?

  4. Why analyse and critize, blow your eyes and stamp your mice, finalize you, try to categorize you, call you old and blame you for that, “All I really wanna do, is baby, stay friends with you”. A scientific study for already a twenty odd years, this Dylan, and Bobby, well, he stays forever young!
    Forever lovesick, Eve.

  5. Time are strange – – – we are children of a global change:

    Well I come from such a tiny Kingdom, where you just ask people your question next time you meet them, but we often forget the shortest distance between two people is a smile.

    Why dont we ask him?

  6. Well, ok, your probably not going to like it, but here it is:

    I read a quote from him that basically says that he doesn’t play guitar in shows any more because he couldn’t find a keyboard player who could play like him, only better. He said he couldn’t find anyone, so he decided to do it himself.

    My personal opinion is that is just nonsense. He is a master at the guitar, and most people want to hear him play it.

    I think that he should drop that piano off of a very tall building, on pay per view, and be done with it. Fuuuck….. I dont give a shyt about the keys; not important. Well, not as important as the guitar. What is he thinking? Cant “genius” step back and look at itself clearly? I actually think not.

    Man…… I wish that I didnt find that answer…. ever. Im sorry. Still great , ,,,, but shiiiiit.. just grab the guitar and strap it on. bro. lol
    Peace all.

    BTW, the article made no mention of pain or anything else as any cause. Well, there are hundreds of live Bob shows on youTube with great sound quality to listen to.

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