By Filip Łobodziński
To parody Bob Dylan? Any problem? I’d say it’s easily done, you just pick any song and pretend you sing it with typical Dylan phrasing and accent.
Yeah, but… What exactly is a “typical Dylan phrasing and accent”? The “Freewheelin’ Dylan” sang one way, the “Revisited Dylan” another, then came the “Dylan of St. Augustine”, the “Nashville Dylan”, the “Dylan on the Tracks”, the “Saved Dylan”, fast forward to the “Dylan Out of Mind” and then to the “Rough and Rowdy Dylan”… And so many of them in between.
Anyway, we might agree that there is a specific way Bob Dylan sings (and plays) which made him notorious and original in the first place. And obviously anyone who’s ever CONSCIOUSLY heard Dylan sing remembers this iconic voice and style. For better or worse.
A banal fact: after Bob Dylan had been first noticed on the music scene, the music scene was made to accept that gone were the days of sweet voices’ domination. The whole music world was rapidly changin’ – as long as you had something relevant to sing about you could sing it any way you wanted or could. Ugly voices made themselves at home at the recording studios and on stage. And thanks to this unique fact – to the decision Dylan made of going East and starting a professional singer-songwriter career with his own chosen style – we can now indulge in the sloppy Lou Reed, in the gravelly Tom Waits, in the detached Chrissie Hynde, and – who knows? – perhaps also in all the hip-hop scene which would have remained in the ghettoes had the music industry not seen the fact that you could earn lots of bucks on a wise message dressed in not-that-beautiful rendering.
Another banal fact: Dylan could sing beautifully if we want to use that phrase. The Nashville Skyline sessions prove it. He only CHOSE to sing differently. And to play the harmonica in an idiosyncratic way although – as Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet) explained here more than twice – he has been an accomplished harmonica player too (just three songs as examples – It Takes a Lot to Laugh, Pledging My Time and What Can I Do for You?).
Long story short: Dylan WANTED to be different because he KNEW his message would be complete with that nasal voice, strange phrasing (bordering on declamation at times) and apparently chaotic harp playing.
Now, what is a parody and what is its purpose? It’s the adoption of the most relevant elements of somebody else’s style to make them radically discernible – for the fun of it. Fun – serving as irony, satire, caricature or (much more seldom) pure pleasure of imitating someone known.
The parody can be regarded as good if one imitates/impersonates an artist nearly perfectly – and yet on a visible purpose. The aim of a parody is not to pretend one IS the spoofed artist but rather to point out one’s own view of that artist. The ”spoofer” says, “I don’t pretend I’m the artist but I can show you how easy it is to step into the artist’s shoes and pretend you’re the man himself.”
Example: ‘Weird’ Al Yankovic, possibly the most renowned and gifted singers’ impersonator of all times. He does it for the pure fun of it and to strengthen his own reputation as a Parody Master No. 1:
There are plenty of lesser-known/successful/gifted Dylan impersonators who just want to ridicule the artist without any background, deeper message:
Many of them, the Dylan wannabes, even try to imitate Dylan’s looks, taking his 1965/66 image as a model (curly hair, shades, slim pants an s.o. – nothing that nifty, I think).
But you may find cases when a renowned artist tries his or her ways in the Dylan style – and has something to say with it.
Example: when Joan Baez sings Simple Twist of Fate:
– she does not want people to believe she can be a Bob Dylan clone but rather does she wink an eye as if to say, “You know the guy, I surmise, you know we once had a story together, but a simple twist of fate tore us apart, or maybe it was not just a fate…”. And does it in a funny way to make people laugh or smirk.
There’s no doubt Paul Simon has always respected his contemporary to the extreme. It was Bob Dylan, after all, who made it possible for Simon to break through with his own meaningful, wise songs. And yet, even Paul Simon seemed perhaps a bit perplexed when Dylan had started to steer away from the realm of a plainly understood, albeit poetic songs, and opted for cryptic, overloaded with metaphors stream-of-consciousness tales. I don’t know the story behind Simon & Garfunkel’s A Simple Desultory Philippic (or How I Was Robert McNamara’d into Submission) but it seems like a pun to me:
Quite inventive, if a bit naïve nowadays.
Then one parody, for me, is arguably the best (but you may disagree, of course). The author is Frank Zappa and the performer (singing and playing harmonica) is one and only Adrian Belew. It’s from Zappa’s 1979 album Sheik Yerbouti:
What is the purpose of this cute little scene inside the song? ‘Flakes’, as far as I know, are the lazy, incompetent people, living in California in this case. Bob Dylan, whom Zappa had admired a lot in the Sixties (especially for Like a Rolling Stone), became the symbol of a rich artist who once used to give voice to fundamental causes and now, as any other rich Californian, is just having troubles with the ‘flakes’. “He was so much bolder then, he’s mundaner than that now”. Even if it’s not just it’s very clever and does not lampoon Dylan that much. And makes listeners laugh, that’s for sure. A clever one.
Now, one Connor Party recently put their own parody with a serious message but put in a light tone, and doing some justice to the original (although it’s always a question of one’s personal taste):
As we may now see, the parodies may differ. There are good ones, weak ones, ones that make difference and ones that leave you indifferent and unimpressed.
BUT – let me add just one more thought.
Do you have that many, say, Ella Fitzgerald parodies? Or Paul McCartney? Or Sting? Or Eddie Vedder? Or Joni Mitchell? WHO do you parody, if anyone?
A parody, for me, is only possible when the spoofed artist is someone very relevant. Parodying, you somehow immortalize your own admiration or respect (the parodied artist is generally immortal anyway). No other artist makes people all around the world gather and study his/her lyrics immediately after the release of this artist’s new album or song. No other artist triggers off that many discussions over the Internet about his/her songs and possible messages.
But the point is – when you parody a figure of Bob Dylan stature, better try and think of what you want to say through your performance. Fun is too little, in my humble opinion.
Untold Dylan: who we are what we do
Untold Dylan is written by people who want to write for Untold Dylan. It is simply a forum for those interested in the work of the most famous, influential and recognised popular musician and poet of our era, to read about, listen to and express their thoughts on, his lyrics and music.
We welcome articles, contributions and ideas from all our readers. Sadly no one gets paid, but if you are published here, your work will be read by a fairly large number of people across the world, ranging from fans to academics who teach English literature. If you have an idea, or a finished piece send it as a Word file to Tony@schools.co.uk with a note saying that it is for publication on Untold Dylan.
We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with approaching 5000 active members. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page of this site. You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture. Not every index is complete but I do my best.
But what is complete is our index to all the 604 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found, on the A to Z page. I’m proud of that; no one else has found that many songs with that much information. Elsewhere the songs are indexed by theme and by the date of composition. See for example Bob Dylan year by year.