To say that Bob Dylan is a legend minimizes the influence he has had on multiple genres of music, including rock, folk, and pop. Throughout the years, dozens of music publications have continued to dissect Dylan word by word, pulling his music and lyrics apart in search of greater truths.
In fact, it’s the latter that often receives the bulk of the attention. Though his compositions have also stood the test of time, there’s something particularly alluring about his wordsmithery. That’s because Dylan is also a poet and mystic, some would argue, just as much as he is a musician. Not only have his words continued to inspire generation after generation of musicians, but they’ve also become an unending source of study.
As Dylan evolved from a politically motivated protest singer into a more exciting and riveting pop performer, he introduced dozens of unique ideas and perspectives. As his evolution culminated in the folk-country Bob Dylan so many know and love, he’d already left an immovable influence on the world of entertainment.
Let’s cover a few of his most enduring lyrical themes, starting with the concept of winning and losing in life.
Wandering & Searching
One of Dylan’s greatest progressions as an artist began during the mid-1960s. Though he’d often focused on political themes before then, his lyrics began to take a more measured approach to life and philosophy. In other words, he became a bit more introverted, focused on telling stories and parables. One particular song, a studio outtake, delves deep into this theme.
In it, he describes a poker player named Willie, who sticks to the road, wandering from town to town. And while this might seem like an old tale, it’s actually still something that happens today. Online satellite tournaments allow remote poker players to enter real-life poker competitions. In fact, top players might even travel to a destination like Barcelona in order to make their name at the tables.
Just like in the 1960s when Dylan penned his song, these players must balance the demands of their skill with their interest in wandering the world and making their name. It touches on the deeply human theme of searching out places where we belong—even if that’s simply in a room of fellow poker pros.
Brewing a Modern Folk Tale
The story of rambling Willie is also a great example of Dylan’s interest in modernizing and providing context to folk tales. But his greatest example is through ‘All Along the Watchtower’, which brings an almost biblical perspective to life’s trials.
Though Dylan tells this story through the perspective of a joker and a thief, it ends on a haunting note that sees two riders approach amid howling wind.
But what are these lyrics actually about? Like most folk tales, the truth is hidden amid imagery. In this case, the watchtower, the joker, the thief, and the approaching gales hint at the unknown. They touch on themes of interpersonal dynamics during times of change or even upheaval. Interestingly enough, they also touch on the cyclical nature of storytelling—are the two riders at the end actually the thief and the joker, come to start the story again?
We’ve skipped over Dylan’s political phase in this article to focus on his more esoteric contributions to lyrics. Overwhelmingly, Dylan’s specialty has been remembered as a type of introverted reflection, which pairs well with folk lyrics. But he’s also known for his ability to recognize his own evolution and growth as an artist.
In ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, Dylan starts to situate himself as the primary observer in his lyrics. Rather than telling stories, he’s immortalizing his own experience and growth as a musician. In this song, he begins to mull on the nature of fame and high society. He shares his reflections on what it’s like to have made it—but still feel alienated from those who surround him and uphold his celebrity. Though this type of introverted reflection will contribute to his incredible feats as a folk musician, it starts with a highly relatable impression of what it’s like to be up at the top, which many remember as a form of ominous self-reflection.