The methodology of genius: how Bob Dylan write songs

By Tony Attwood

Many writers are very secretive about how they write, but a few have given us clues across time.  Dylan Thomas, for example, admitted that he could spend all day fretting over which of two words to use at one point in a poem – suggesting two words that many of us might feel could each equally be perfectly good in that specific position.

On the other hand some writers seem just to hit the keyboard or write in the notebook and they are off.  Of course we have seen from the notebooks that lines with Dylan do change during the composition stage and we have multiple examples of him changing the song subsequently as we go.

Indeed some songs such as “Tangled up” have totally transformed themselves over time in a deliberate process of re-working.

But where do those first ideas come from?

We know that Bob Dylan likes to take other people’s work and modify it.  From the earliest days he has reworked old folk songs, and in later life had much fun re-working songs from the 1920s and 1930s.  So that is an obvious source.

And as Larry has pointed out in his articles on the influences of Bob Dylan, we have seen time and again how he has not only taken phrases from songs, but also from the movies, books, poems – any source he can find and he has then welded them together.

Yet we must also hold in mind the fact that Bob Dylan is not a consistent writer.  Because of the level of research done in recording not just the songs that Bob chooses to release on record but also songs that he started and then abandoned – or at least never released formally – we can track his writing year on year.  Indeed if you want to see exactly which songs appear in each year you can use our charts which have pretty much stood  the test of time

But to save you working through each long article, I’m going to look at how the numbers have gone while also noting the mainstream albums of new songs that have followed.

In what follows the number of songs and the themes of those songs relate to the songs being written in that year.  Quite often an album contained songs written the year before.

And also of course this is a summary – most years Dylan explored many themes; the theme summaries relate to main theme or themes s that seemed to occupy Dylan significantly that year.

In these charts the number of songs is of course the total of new songs which have been attributed to Bob Dylan.

Year No of songs Themes Albums
1961 6 Talking blues, poverty
1962 36 Moving on, civil rights, Bob Dylan
1963 29 It’s gone wrong, protest, leaving Freewheelin
1964 20 Sadness, protest, moving on Times they are a changin
1965 29 Disdain, love farewell, observations of people Bringing it all back home; Highway 61
1966 22 The metaphors Blonde on Blonde
1967 77 Experimentation Basement Tapes; John Wesley Harding
1968 1 Lay Lady Lay
1969 14 Country Nashville Skyline

1967 was a bit of an oddity – many of the songs listed come from the Basement Tapes, and of course many of these are one-offs, played through once and never touched again.  In other years such songs would have been played and forgotten, and we’d never have them.  Obviously 1968 was a reaction to that – there was a song (Lay Lady Lay) but it was delivered late and so never made it onto the movie.  The implication is, after all that work in the Basement Bob Dylan found it hard to get back to songwriting again.

Year No of songs Themes Albums
1970 15 Looking out at the world outside Self Portrait; New Morning
1971 4 Myself, the artist
1972 2 Love of a child, film music
1973 14 Love, farewell, moving on Pat Garrett
1974 12 Anger and the randomness of life Planet Waves
1975 17 Observing life and moving on Blood on the Tracks
1976 1 Lost love Desire
1977 7 I’ve moved on and keep on moving
1978 17 The randomness of it all Street Legal
1979 18 Love of Jesus Slow Train

Dylan was exploring the moving on concept at the heart of his music throughout his life thus far, and yet having completed Street Legal he suddenly found himself unsure if this was enough.

What I think we can take from these two decades is that Bob clearly has underlying themes in his writing – the desire to keep on moving on is the most obvious example, but he can be interrupted by lost love (one of the three prime themes of popular music, the other two being dance and love).

Moving on is fine, and so is the randomness of life as an explanation of the world, but when that randomness is combined with something quite different such as the absolute pain of the loss, rather than the moving on being a matter of choice, then that is bound to challenge one’s who perception of the world.

We can see from the level of song writing, Dylan is not a writer who is feels he is compelled to keep writing no matter what.  He is not a man who is always bursting with ideas that have to be set down and recorded.  He is in fact a bound by visions and thoughts of what life is and how the world works, and towards the end of  the 1970s, these visions combined with thoughts about the randomness of life.

So my thought is that the stimulus for Bob’s writing is often what he is thinking about and what is happening in his own life, rather than a drive from outside events.

I hope in the near future to continue this and see if this view can be applied to Bob in later decades.

What else is on the site

You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to the 500+ Dylan compositions reviewed is now on a new page of its own.  You will find it here.  It contains reviews of every Dylan composition that we can find a recording of – if you know of anything we have missed please do write in.

We also have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

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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