By Tony Attwood
Previously in this series
- A song is like a painting, you can’t see it all if you’re standing too close
- All directions at once: how Dylan’s lyrics empower those who wish to be empowered
To the best of my knowledge, Bob Dylan wrote five songs in 1959 and 1960 that of which we have clear details, and we can be fairly sure that they were his compositions. In 1961 he wrote another nine songs.
So these two years were Dylan’s formative moments as a song writer, and it is interesting to see what he was writing about at the very start. Here’s the list of songs with the subject matter in brackets.
- When I got troubles (blues but with hope for the future… maybe)
- I got a new girl (love, but maybe she’s two-timing me)
- One eyed jacks (blues)
- Bonnie Why’d You Cut My Hair (humour)
- Talking Hugh Brown (humour)
- Song to Woodie (Travelling on, remembering those who have gone before)
- Talkin New York (Talking blues, humour)
- Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues.(Talking blues, humour)
- Talkin Folk Lore Centre Blues (Talking blues, humour)
- Talkin Hava Negeilah blues (Talking blues, humour)
- Man on the street (Tragedy of life, the lack of humanity in urban communities)
- Hard times in New York Town (satire on urban life)
- On Wisconsin (lyrics only, date within the year not certain; the drifter going home)
- I was young when I left home (tragedy of the lonesome traveller)
The following year was the year in which Dylan truly exploded onto the music scene with compositions ranging from now largely forgotten works of sublime genius such as “Ballad for a Friend” through to songs that marked him as far more than a blues and talking blues singer, “Blowing in the Wind”, “Don’t think twice,” “Hard Rain”, “Hollis Brown,” etc etc.
The extraordinary thing is that that year of explosion – 1962 – was not just a year of writing at least 36 songs (an extraordinary number given the quality of longevity of the works), but it is also extraordinary given the huge variety of the writing. For we need to recall that 1962 was not just the year of writing “Hard Rain” but also Tomorrow is a long time – which if you have not heard it for a long time you might want to divert from this piece for a moment and play it. The moments we are considering in this piece are those that were the prelude to the big time arrival of the artist whose work we have been celebrating ever since.
Thus my point here is not that there was nothing of particular note in 1960/61 but rather that there is little to prepare us for what happened in 1962.
Here is the list of the topics of the 1960/61 songs, taken from the listing above…
- Moving on: 4
- Talking blues (humour): 4
- Blues: 2
- Humour: 2
- Love: 1
- Tragedy of modern life: 1
These classifications are contentious of course because a “moving on” song can also be heard as a blues etc etc. But they are provided to give us at least the start of a grid concerning what Bob was writing about.
And my point here, as exemplified by the use of the phrase “Travelling in all directions at once,” is that from the earliest moment, even before he exploded onto the music scene as a fully formed genius the following year, at a time when Dylan’s music was restricted to the forms others had invented before him, he had mastered the musical forms that he knew from his life in New York.
Bob Dylan didn’t do anything much to develop or change the talking blues (although if Talkin’ Hava Negeilah blues was an original thought, then he most certainly added an extra layer of humour to the humour normally found in the talking blues) and the songs of “moving on” are the classics of the type of music Bob really enjoyed and valued. So at this moment in his life, before he started writing the songs which gave him his worldwide fame, Bob aged 20 was already utterly embedded in the tradition of the blues and popular music.
But… there is sitting in the midst of these derived song formats, something quite remarkable and unexpected: “Man on the Street”
Musically it is not particularly advanced, but this lyrical concept of observing tragedy and doing nothing about it is incredibly poignant, and not so often heard. The blues singers had tragedy in their own lives, and they sang about that. Some urged us to fight against the system, join the trade union, work for a better world for all working people. But this song, which is in my opinion, the bedrock of a major strand of Dylan’s work across the years, gave us the tragedy of one man whom Dylan observed to have been trapped in contemporary society. Musically it draws on the Almanac Singers which included Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and it sets out the inequalities and dehumanisation of contemporary urban life, but now the singer outside of the situation. It just is. This is the world we inhabit.
My point is also that Dylan’s stance on humanity is there from the very start, before he wrote any of his songs that have remained famous. And I think this point is important because we see Dylan’s consciousness about the poor and disadvantaged (which found such a powerful expression in Hollis Brown a year later) here from the very start.
Yet at the same time he was writing humour, and although the humour in music became far less important across the years for Dylan – it never vanished completely. But the tragedy of life, the notion of moving on, and thoughts about love… these themes all grew from this early moment.
If we listen today to “Man on the Street” we hear no moralising; it is as if Bob was painting the scene. There is no comment, for none is needed. The dehumanising actions of the police officer say it all.
Indeed much of the music of these two early years would not mark Bob Dylan out from tens of thousands of other musicians trying to get a gig – “When I got troubles” falls into that category; a piece of writing in a standard genre. OK in itself but not stand out.
But there are these moments, these fragments that insist that we sit up and take notice. For when we listen to these, our perspective of this young man expands even further. For example…
To me this song is completely overwhelming and outstanding. Dylan was 20 when he wrote this, and what we have is someone who has grasped the essence of the “moving on” genre utterly perfectly, not just in the lyrics, melody and accompaniment, but the entire deeper essence of the song. We know it can’t possibly be true, and yet everything about the song makes us feel that it is. If it was sung by a gnarled 50+ man we would absolutely believe it.
Thus for me what happened in these two introductory years, was that Bob Dylan accumulated every ounce of knowledge and background he could, he developed his guitar and singing style, listened to every scrap of music he could find, and opened the doorway to a lifetime of songwriting.
The power of this song is shown by the fact that it has since been taken in two directions. as it has stayed with the public consciousness by being reinterpreted. Just listen to this …
And I would urge you to listen to this all the way through, there are some wonderful moments throughout, all of which spring from the song Dylan wrote aged 20, when he cannot possibly have experienced all that he is expressing with such feeling and emotion. Plus if you can take more, I would urge you to stay with the video, because it moves on to a second version by “Big Thief” that is also extremely informative and illuminating in its interpretation. That version does not include Dylan of course, but it shows that at this early stage in his writing career he was writing pieces that others could re-interpret.
Now it can be argued here that all Dylan did was to take another composer’s song and re-work it. In this case the song is “500 Miles” by Bobby Bare, which in turn came from a Hedy West song written in 1961. Before that there was the folk song “900 miles” and the fiddle song “Train 45”. In short the young, inexperienced Bob Dylan was able to join in that process of writing and re-writing and did so in a way that was not just another version of an old song, but a re-write which made a real mark on the landscape. It turned what we had into another much more powerful song.
Thus my point here is not that Bob Dylan copied and adapted the music – in fact lots of people do that. Every 12 bar blues is an adaptation of someone else’s work for example. But rather I argue that the result that Dylan produced was one of great subtlety and beauty which is remarkable for a 20 year old singer songwriter and which was part of the foundations of what happened later.
The issue of where the song came from is, for me (and of course I am only writing about my reaction here, and offering it in case it is of any interest to you) is secondary. Dylan has adapted and changed a traditional tune and created something new and quite stunning out of it. Others also did. He did it more powerfully, and more engagingly.
And as a side note this is my answer to the people who often complain that Dylan is a plagiarist. It never bothers me because if plagiarism instantly leads to beautiful and wonderful pieces of music, I would sooner have the beautiful and wonderful piece of music than never have it written because of arguments about legalities. If the work is “borrowed” ok, pay the originator, but let’s have the art.
So this was Dylan, 1959 to 1961. A talent waiting to explode upon the public, but already showing us elements of what we might expect. “Man on the Street” and “I was young when I left home” gave anyone who cared to listen at that moment, clues as to what Dylan could do, and thankfully he continued and then delivered.
His influences at this point are very clear. The music of Guthrie, the talking blues and the notion that songs can be funny, the awareness of the degradation that urban life brings to the poor, and above all, I think, a sense of exploration. A sense of wanting to explore what this world has, and I mean this both in terms of its music and in terms of it people and its society. Everything I hear in this collection of 14 songs written across two years at the very start of his career shows me a man who had his eyes wide open.
There is a mention of his Jewish roots here, but there is no religious belief, no feeling of the all-powerfulness of God, any more than there is a feeling that many of the folk singers in the first part of the 20th century saw capitalism as evil. “Man on the street” does not blame capitalism per se, it doesn’t blame anyone or anything. It observes and leaves us to draw our own conclusions.
What we do have here are the roots of Dylan, the songwriter. And I think they are important, for when someone suggests that all (or most) of Dylan’s songs relate to one particular subject or issue, I feel it is handy to turn back and look at the early days to see if we can find any sign of that in the early sketches. Indeed such an activity is worth undertaking whether one looks at a painter or an actor or a novelist or any other type of creative person.
This was Bob’s base point. After this, Bob was ready to tell us what the world is. He didn’t often tell us what to do about it. But he did tell us what it looked like, and as we shall see in the next episode he did that with a vengeance.
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