Why do so many musicians rate Dylan as the most influential musician in their lives?

With Dylan, there’s no pinning him down.

by Tony Attwood

In a rather interesting piece of pop and rock research the American news and culture website Quartz collected data from the AllMusic site on 53,630 artists, of which about 25,600 were listed as having influenced or been influenced by at least one other artist.

You can read how they collected the data and see the full sets of data on their web site with the link above, but for now here is the top of the “100 most influential musicians” list with the number of citations in each case.

  1. Beatles 1230
  2. Dylan 669
  3. Rolling Stones 557
  4. Bowie 432
  5. Velvet Underground 425
  6. Beach Boys 442
  7. Kinks 384
  8. Neil Young 374
  9. Jimi Hendrix 371
  10. The Byrds 360

I find that interesting because these individuals and bands have been an influence on me but I know that many of my friends across the years don’t really rate them or even know them all.  For example I was rather taken with finding Brian Eno at number 13.  His is a name not one that everyone (who would know the list above) would immediately recognise, I think.

As Quartz says, the “Names at the top may no surprise—consider it an obligatory homage for any modern-day rock artist to list The Beatles as an influence in press interviews, for example—but the rankings get more interesting when you look a bit further down the list.

“The Velvet Underground is several times more influential than more easily recognizable “top” artists like Nirvana and Bruce Springsteen; Madonna, one of the biggest pop stars of the last few decades, is not high up at all.”

What it suggests is that “influence” is completely different from “popularity”.  In other words artists are influenced by innovators, whilst popularity is based on something completely different.  It is obvious when you think about it – I guess I had simply never thought about it.

Which leads me to ask myself: what is it about Dylan that has given him such an influence?

By this I don’t mean just that he is a great songwriter, I wonder what else there is in Dylan that make musicians see Dylan as such a huge influence on their own work.

Why do so many song writers rank Dylan as the greatest influence on their songwriting?

Of course I don’t have the resources to ask them, but I came up with these possibilities…

1: Because he writes about subjects that were taboo before he came along.

I have mentioned this before in articles but it is so fundamental I think it is worth repeating.  The most obvious example is Dylan’s songs of disdain.  While others have written about lost love, and there are all the traditional blues about the duplicity of women, Dylan picked on individuals and has really gone on the attack.

Ballad in Plain D, Like a Rolling Stone, Please Crawl Out Your Window, Positively 4th Street…. if Dylan takes a dislike to you it is a good idea to get out of the way.  Fast.

But listen also his use of nursery rhymes, his political pieces, his songs about boxing, his tales of the downtrodden farmers.  Dylan has shown that with rock music nothing is out of bounds.

2: Because he keeps up the touring and has an absolute fascination with being on the road.

Dylan’s fascination with endless touring is not only expressed in the Never Ending Tour, but also in terms of his songs of leaving and moving on – a tradition he picked up particularly from Irish folk music, although it is to be found in many other genres.

It is not the case of moving on for a purpose, but rather just moving on because that’s what you do.  The Irish song “The Parting Glass” is worth a listen if you don’t know it.

But it is more than that.  It is his desire to experiment continuously, even if the experiments don’t work.  He’ll never stop trying.

3: Because he covers such a huge range of different approaches to the art of the song – some of which have rarely been considered before.

In February 2016 I had a bash at looking at different approaches to art in all its forms, and then how these approaches relate to song, and then how Dylan has, or has not, faced them.

What I found was that he really does seem to have faced up to many of the challenges of making the song an art form that can approach all the different types of art that exist in Western Society.  In short he has raised the popular song to a much higher art form than it ever was before.  He has revolutionised the popular song but seeing it through each of these types of art…

  • Representational art
  • Symbolic art
  • Abstract Art
  • Surreal Art
  • Hidden meanings in Art
  • Fictional Art
  • Religious Art and Propaganda

The complete article is on the site here.

4: Because he endlessly re-works his songs into new versions which I don’t think anyone else has ever done with their own songs, to such an extent before.

Some of these new renditions become almost like new songs, others, well, sometimes I wonder why he kept the new arrangement.  But hearing Desolation Row as a dance song remains one of the highlights of my times watching Dylan perform, and he has done this sort of thing so many, many times his ability to re-invent himself seems endless.  And how much I wish I had been there to hear the piano and organ reworking of “When He Returns”.

He could make an album called “Dylan plays Dylan” of a collection of songs that have been utterly reworked on the Tour, and I guarantee it would at the top of the charts for a year and a half.

5:  Because he has endlessly been working his way through different genres

Bob has shown a couple of generations that nothing is out of bounds.  You’re a folk singer, fine, pick up the electric guitars.   You just been playing electric rock, great, take it right back and play simple three verse songs that tell tales of the past.  Be funny in your songs.  Be ludicrous.  Be incomprehensible.  Try and merge pop art, the beat movement and rock n roll – and do it successfully.  Suddenly veer off into country and western which at least in terms of its lyrics is the opposite of where you’ve been.  Start singing religious songs, rework old classics into new songs, take the hits of the 1920s and 1930s and rework them, sing Christmas songs.

Has anyone ever done all that before?  I don’t think so.

6: Because he has never been afraid to experiment no matter what critics say. He has never stood still.

Part five above would not be possible if Bob Dylan was afraid of the critics.  He’s not – and he never has been.  It is not that since he became rich and famous he decided to do what he liked, but rather he has always done what he liked right from the start when he created an album called Times they are a Changing which contained a collection of songs that were primarily about nothing much changing.

7: Because he refuses to explain

Occasionally Bob does tell us a bit about some of his songs, but when he does you know that the next time he does an interview, he’ll say the opposite.

Most musicians have accepted the media on the media’s terms.  Bob Dylan demands that the media accept him on his terms.   Ask him what a certain song means and maybe if you have his attention for a while he’ll tell you, but you’ll never know if it is what he means.

Except maybe at the Musicares conference that we covered on this site.  If you are interested in Dylan’s most serious summary of how he writes songs that speech is an absolute must read.

8: Because he’s a friend of two Presidents.

Jimmy Carter and Barak Obama.

I know it has been quoted a million times but it is such a wonderful quote I want to do it again.  President Obama on the first time Bob Dylan came to the White House to perform at what in Britain we would call a “Command Performance”.  (Sorry don’t know what the phrase is in the USA).

The President said,

“Here’s what I love about Dylan: He was exactly as you’d expect he would be. He wouldn’t come to the rehearsal; usually, all these guys are practising before the set in the evening. He didn’t want to take a picture with me; usually all the talent is dying to take a picture with me and Michelle before the show, but he didn’t show up to that.

“He came in and played ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’.’ A beautiful rendition. The guy is so steeped in this stuff that he can just come up with some new arrangement, and the song sounds completely different. Finishes the song, steps off the stage — I’m sitting right in the front row — comes up, shakes my hand, sort of tips his head, gives me just a little grin, and then leaves.

“And that was it — then he left. That was our only interaction with him. And I thought:  That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don’t want him to be all cheesing and grinning with you. You want him to be a little sceptical about the whole enterprise. So that was a real treat.”

9: Because he’s cautious about explaining or pontificating about his works.

Except during one period when he turned logic upside down by telling us in a lecture during his concerts about the meaning of the religious songs, when the meaning was totally obvious.  How very Dylan.  The time you don’t need an explanation you get one.  The rest of the time he doesn’t even announce the title.

10: Because he is so so incredibly knowledgeable about literature and the musical past.

I must admit I had only a partial knowledge on this score before Larry came along and started writing for this site.  I picked up some references here and there, elements from poems I had read or studied, classical works, but it was not until recently that I realised just how wide spread these references were.

There is a partial index of Larry’s work, in which articles on this site about influences on Dylan are listed by the writers Dylan is referencing or using.

Conclusion

So why do so many musicians rate Dylan so highly?  I suspect for some it is because of just one of those reasons.  For some it might be several.  For others it could be something completely different.

And that’s the point.  As the President said, with Dylan, there is no pinning him down.

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.

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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5 Responses to Why do so many musicians rate Dylan as the most influential musician in their lives?

  1. Babette says:

    He has a philosophic and imaginative mind.
    He can express his feelings with a few unforgettable words.
    His stories are painful honest without self-censorship
    He uses his voice in a very unconventional way, that no one can immitate.

    The voice expresses emotions in a lesser-cultured way, but it reminds you of an ancient mum, screaming, complaining, joy, cheering or dancing.
    His has taken jazz, blues, rock , folkmusic to another level. A level which is more personal – not a style – but an honest expression – his expression of his emotions. Only a genious can do that, so you like to hear it again and again.
    And we do.

  2. Isn’t it because he changed the nature of music, songwriting and singing.
    Music today would be nothing like it is without Bob.
    The Beatles were writing simple pop love songs before discovering Bob.
    He combined poetry and music unlike anyone before or since.
    Bob Dylan- not just the most influential musician ever but simply the greatest musician ever.

  3. jzsnake says:

    He’s friends with 2 presidents. That’s a stretch! Don’t forget his favorite politician was Barry Goldwater.

  4. Babette says:

    Every grain of sand:
    https://vimeo.com/61822795

  5. Carl Mosk says:

    Intelligence above all else: Enlightenment era reason and skepticism personified. Most important: applied to himself and all of his creations. Dylan is the ultimate American artist, embodying the pendulum swing inherent in a Enlightenment model of government, regular election cycles in a two party democracy correcting excessive actions of the party in power. Think about Dylan’s journey: first folk singer; then rock and roll blues singer turning his back on folk singer; then country singer turning his back on rock and roll; then back to electricity with the Band in big stadiums; then rejecting big stadiums with Rolling Thunder Review very roots and folk; then Elvis style slick undergirded by dark crossroads blues evoking the Devil; then Salvation and Gospel! Then back to electrical blues; then folk; at each turn rejecting his own prior stances, embracing opposites. That takes deep skepticism; that takes the “enemy within” reaching out for the rejection of one’s own claims to artistic truth. No one else in popular music comes close. Only Leonard Cohen is in contention.

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