Bob Dylan and Paul Simon “Everything he sings has two meanings”

By Tony Attwood

Thinking of the many different themes we’ve covered on this site over the years it struck me that I don’t think we’ve ever touched on Bob Dylan and Paul Simon playing together.  But I have just been reminded of this video of the 1999 set…

The video takes us through “I Walk the Line”, “Blue Moon of Kentucky”,  “Sound of Silence” and “Forever Young”.

Both artists have a very high regard for each other, as you might expect, and although I am not sure they work together perfectly, it is still a remarkable piece of history to have recorded.

In an interview Paul Simon said  that initially they had tried singing folk songs together using two acoustic guitars, but they realised that what the audience really wanted was to hear the two artists play each other’s songs.   Although “Forever Young” was dropped after this first night performance.

More recently Paul Simon said in an interview, “I usually come in second to Dylan, and I don’t like coming in second.  In the beginning, when we were first signed to Columbia, I really admired Dylan‘s work. ‘The Sound of Silence’ wouldn’t have been written if it weren’t for Dylan. But I left that feeling around The Graduate and ‘Mrs Robinson’. They weren’t folky any more.”

“One of my deficiencies is my voice sounds sincere. I’ve tried to sound ironic. I don’t. I can’t. Dylan, everything he sings has two meanings. He’s telling you the truth and making fun of you at the same time. I sound sincere every time.”

Here is “Knocking on heaven’s door”

Now I must admit that somehow I wanted much more from my two favourite songwriters of all time, although turning “heaven’s door” into “I hear you knocking” does give me an excuse to meander elsewhere.

I recently wrote a piece about Bob Dylan’s use of other people’s materials, and how some commentators like to focus on that issue, suggesting that Dylan is nothing but a copyright thief.   As I tried to point out, the issue is far more complex than most people who commentate on it from outside the industry understand.  Copyright is not an infinite protection as witness the fact that if you decided to write a piece about copyright and use the phrase “Copyright is not an infinite protection” without crediting me, I couldn’t do much about it – other than write a sarcastic piece about how my phrase had been copied.  (And I think that phrase is mine, because I typed it into Google, and no one else seems to have used it).

The reality of what copyright is was mentioned in passing in my little piece, but one thing that struck me at the time but I didn’t really make too much of, is the fact that when people do comment on the re-use of older material in a song by Dylan, they don’t look at the broader context to see if this is  widespread phenomena.

Which brings me back to “I hear you knocking” to which Dylan and Simon refer in this concert.  It is a song that has been used in this way and it does give us a chance to understand Dylan’s reuse of older material in context.

So, onto “I hear you knocking…”

That started out in 1928 with a song by Boodle It Wiggins.

In 1939 Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five recorded the song as “Keep A-Knockin'” but they credited Bert Mays and Perry Bradford as the writers. In 1957 Little Richard recorded it with “R. Penniman” (his real name) as the composer.  But there was presumably a challenge because later versions of the recording have Bert Mays and J. Mayo Williams as songwriters, although not Boodle It Wiggins.  Maybe his lawyers were not on the ball.

All of which gives me an excuse finally to put up a Dave Edmunds recording which got to number 1 in the UK in 1970.

I meander, because somehow with Dylan and Simon, those two utterly magnificent songwriters, on stage together I hoped for something more.  In fact something better.  It was interesting, but not, to my mind, among the highest points of either singer’s careers.

But as I am here I have the opportunity to put up a piece of Paul Simon, just to round this meander off.

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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.



  1. Thank you Tony for both uploads of Bob Dylan with Paul Simon 1999, I like it, because it is rare occasion to see them together at the performance.

  2. Brilliant quote from Robert Hilburn’s biography of Paul Simon:
    ‘It was disarming to see these two largely private figures onstage together trying to find some common ground after their sometimes prickly competition. The harmonies weren’t pristine. Still, they enjoyed the experience, especially the night near the end of the tour when Dylan whispered to Simon near the end of ‘The Sound of Silence,’ ‘On a scale of ten, how do I compare to Artie?’ Paul broke up laughing.’

    Marvellous proof thatDylan’s humour can be self-deprecating.

  3. They’re not really a natural fit, are they? Bob duets better with female voices, he’s rough cut and unpredictable, and Paul’s always been more self-conscious, sophisticated, a little precious, at times. More square than Bob. But it was interesting to see them together. I always feel Simon resents being considered inferior to Bob, but you’d think that’s something he’d be used to by now…

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