8 Voices of Bob Dylan

Well, it’s May 24th and time to celebrate the birth of Robert Allen Zimmerman,  AKA Bob Dylan, born this day in Duluth Minnesota in 1941.

It has been said, and I think it’s true, that Dylan is an artistic chameleon, and not bound by any one style or persona.  In reading something of his history, constantly dogged as he was to be a ‘voice of a generation’ with all of the glories and burdens that implies, you might be able to understand why he’d make himself a moving target.

But, what comes out at the other end of this struggle against being pigeonholed has nothing to do with the question of which personal identity we as listeners should consider when thinking about Dylan as an artist.  The pressure placed upon him to fill a role has positively affected his own approach to making music.  After all, the only search for identity that really counts is that one which is conducted by the artist himself.

Apart from his revolutionizing modern songwriting, Bob Dylan still manages to divide rooms over the breadth of his talent.  The main sticking point for many?  Well, his voice.  Yet, when I hear this complaint, that “I’d rather hear someone else sing his songs – I don’t like his voice”, my reaction in recent years is to wonder which voice they happen to be talking about.  After all, Bob’s used more than one.

And to express that, and to say “Happy Birthday” too, here are eight distinct voices, by my reckoning, that Dylan has employed over his long career.  Here they are.

Voice 1: “The Young Man in Old Man’s Clothes”

When he cut his first two albums in 1962 and 1963 (Bob Dylan, and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, respectively), Bob was in awe of Woody Guthrie, a man who by that time was hospitalized, and with a rich history of songwriting and poltical activism behind him.

Young Bob, who collected Guthrie’s songs and visited him in the hospital, was to take up his mantle.  Or, it was certainly expected that he should.  Regardless, Bob’s voice at this time was one of a young man attempting to approximate that history, that world-weariness that is so infused in Guthrie’s work. Recommended listening: “I Was Young When I Left Home”

Voice 2: “The Nasal-Voiced Youth”

By 1964-65, Dylan had been well-established as a ‘topical songwriter’ and a key voice in the civil rights movement. But, he’d also made artistic moves away from his place as a folk-singing social critic, and from a subculture that celebrated the old and dusty as opposed to the less black & white to the more unsettling shades of grey of the modern world.

His songs became less folksy and topical, less about Woody Guthrie’s dustbowl and more in tune with the Beat poets.  It was imagery and the sounds of words that became more important than any message expected from him. And his voice changed, too to that of an adenoidal youth, an embrace of his role as a young man who had the ear of a changing culture.  Recommended Listening: “Gates of Eden”

Voice 3: “The Braying Beatnik”

In 1965, Dylan sang “Maggie’s Farm” at the Newport Festival that year, officially refusing to be the folk music Messiah that everyone hoped he’d be.  A part of this assertion was his embrace of electric rock music, which he applied to his two albums that year, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. But when touring England in 1966, playing songs that would eventually appear on the first double album in rock history, he made his arguably most important impact as an artist.

This was done not only by a risk of potentially alienating his folk fan base by going electric with backing band the Hawks, but also by using a new voice that stood without precent in pop music; a braying, undulating, and oddly cadenced instrument that would make a Dylan impression seemingly as easy as falling off a log by unfunny impersonators at parties.  That is, until he changed again. Recommended Listening: “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again”

Voice 4: “The Sepia-Toned Parablist”

Living in Woodstock, New York with his wife and two children, and taking refuge there after an exhausting European tour, Dylan took his motorcycle to the repair shop, following the family car. And he crashed. For the next 18 months, rumours abounded on the severity of his injuries, without word from Dylan or his management.

As it happened, it was just the break he needed, recording his 1968 John Wesley Harding album, as well as participating in informal recording sessions as hosted by the former Hawks, re-christened ‘The Band’, which would later be released in part on 1975’s The Basement Tapes.

His voice here is one who is the teller of tales, mythical parables sung, engaged in creating an overall feel to his music that suggested that it came from an older place beyond the reach of the fickle pop charts.  Recommended Listening: “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”

Voice 5: “The Country Crooner”

By the end of the Sixties, life in Woodstock was becoming more difficult for the Dylans. A former artist’s colony 100 miles outside of New York, it had become too fashionable by half.  Dylan, Van Morrison, the Band, Tim Hardin, and others had made their homes here.  And fans began to converge on the small town, enquiring as to where their heroes may be found.  This created a feeling that a career as a musician and a family man were no longer going to be possible with all of the intrusive idol-worship about.

So, Dylan felt that taking an artistic left turn, once again, was in order.  His answer?  A straight-ahead country record, for one in 1969’s Nashville Skyline.  And later, a collection of half-baked cover songs and fragments put on a double album; 1970’s Self-Portrait.  Was this career suicide? Well, it might have been for another artist.  But, by this time, even Dylan couldn’t camouflage himself for long.

In the meantime, Dylan’s country voice, a low mellifluous tenor no less,  stands as one of his most celebrated artistic choices, even if he’d abandon it soon afterward. Recommended listening: “Lay Lady Lay”.

Voice 6: “The Full-Throated Rock Singer”

In the golden age of the arena show, the early to mid Seventies to be exact, Bob Dylan returned to live shows.  After his 1966 shows, and his motorcycle accident soon after, Dylan hadn’t toured in eight years barring appearances at the Isle of Wight festival and George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh.  But by 1974, he was ready to hit the road again, taking the Band with him.  They cut the live document Before the Flood, and Dylan sang with the gusto of a frontman.

He’d employed a rough-hewn folk-rock voice on cuts like “The Man In Me” on his 1970 New Morning album, on “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” off of the Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid soundtrack, and also on 1974’s Planet Waves (also a record he made with the Band).  But, on this tour, and on the subsequent Rolling Thunder Revue shows in 1975-76, his  balls-out rock voice was in full cry.  Recommended Listening:  “All Along The Watchtower (live)”

Voice 7: “The Elder Statesman”

By the end of the Seventies and into the Eighties, Dylan was decidedly a part of the old guard. He’d divorced from his wife, had overtly embraced Christianity (for a time, at least), and again, changed his voice.   It was his Street Legal album from 1978 that started him on his road to ambitious arrangements, with a voice that became a textured, compact instrument in contrast to this new approach.

Despite being on the outs with modern rock trends, his recording career was as fertile as ever, taking on a smoother, more refined approach to what he wanted in the studio. This period includes what’s known as his ‘gospel’ period, an era which spans 1979’s Slow Train Coming, 1980’s Saved, and 1981’s Shot of Love.

Dylan’s smokey croak of a voice during this period would also span what he himself would call his artistic wilderness.  That is, until he discovered new collaborators, an ancient muse, and yet another voice to sing with.  Recommended Listening: “Blind Willie McTell”.

Voice 8: “The Grizzled  Old Troubadour”

By the early Nineties, with a few misfires behind him, and with two collections of folk song covers, it was thought that Dylan was on his way down and out.  That is until he scored a hit with his 1997 album Time Out of Mind, and later his Oscar-winning song “Things Have Changed”.

The latter half of the decade, and into the Twenty-First Century would prove to be a renaissance for Dylan, a time that seemed ripe for Dylan to step into the role of aged great, figure in fact that mirrored the old folk and blues singers that Dylan himself once worshipped as a young man.

That seems to be how the best musicians operate; they pass the torch along.  And not only would Dylan use this voice of his on his records, he’d also lend his voice to a theme-based radio program appropriately titled Theme Time Radio Hour, which put the folk, pop and R&B of the past in the frame, with sparing references to his contemporaries.  This positioned him as the grand old man of the radio, a dusty-voiced traveler that he’d once imitated as a young man, without the need to imitate any longer.  Recommended Listening: “Ain’t Talkin’ “

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33 comments

  1. There appear so many dum articles Dylan, but this one is very interesting. You made a good point Rob, indeed Dylan’s voice has changed several times during his career and in every period the expression and the feeling which comes across is different. I tried to figure out for myself which voice in the periods you describe I like the best. But that’s a dificicult choice. The voice in every period is so much attached to the songs from that period.
    Thanks!
    Tjeerd

    1. Thanks a lot for comments, and for links too.

      I think you’ve hit on a good point about Dylan addressing the business of singing in line with the songs. So many singers do it the other way around. In this, it’s very hard to separate the voice from those songs, and the eras out of which they come.

      Thanks again!

  2. When people speak of “Dylan’s voice” its all of the one’s mentoined above except the Nashville skyline voice (no5). Dylan’s voice is the nasal out of tune raspy voice. This is the most unique voice in all of the singing voices throughout history. Its not Pavaroti, but then again Celin Dion is also not Pavaroti, nor the Beatles. But yes its at times in live performances so out of tune that one could say he can t sing.

    1. Bob’s concert appearances have been notoriously patchy, it’s true. Luckily, the one time I saw him (in 1997), he was on mostly fine form. He even introduced the band to the crowd!

      As far as a unique voice, that’s hard to argue with. I like distinctive voices. The first Dylan tune I ever heard was “Stuck Inside of Mobile…”. I was a little kid, and I remember thinking that the guy singing was playing a joke on me, that no one would really sing like that. And maybe that’s what Bob actually had in mind. But, being Bob, we’ll never know.

      Thanks for comments!

  3. I really wish people would stop with the Robert Allen Zimmerman mentioning.
    Since he became known to a wider public the man has always been officially named Bob Dylan.
    It is of abslutely no use to mention any other names.

      1. On Theme Time Radio he said he didn’t think it was such a good idea because no matter which way he went he always ended up in the same place. Then he said at least Ray Charles was already there and played Lonely Street.

  4. I get so tired of the “Bob Dylan [or insert multiple other performers' names here] can’t sing” argument. This comes from people raised on the American Idol school of thought re what constitutes good singing. Give me an interesting, rough-around-the-edges, *human* voice any day, over an overly trained and polished one.

    No one interprets Dylan’s songs like the man himself.

    1. Agreed. When you turn singing into a nationally televised horse race, it tends to skew people’s visions about what makes singing such a varied, and subtle art form. It always strikes me that if such yardsticks were applied to Dylan, or to Tom Waits, or Joe Strummer, or Kate Bush, and many others, a lot of great music would have been lost.

      Cheers for comments!

      1. Reminds me of a Peter Sellers sketch about a rock musician manager being interviewed. Upon being asked if he looks for someone “with a nice musical singing voice”, he replies “By Jove yes! First sign of that and out he goes, what!” :-)

  5. I became a fan only about a year ago, after ‘knowing’ of Dylan all my life through my mom’s piano hobby. Wasn’t really familiar with him except as that scratchy-voiced singer, but after I was given the album “Desire,” I was blown away and had to hear more. Now, I love to listen to him and I feel like his songs are accessible even to a really average singer like me, partially because his delivery is so real and sometimes unpolished. His voice as a songwriter is so strong that I can pick out a Dylan song whether he sings it or not. Thanks for the great article – Happy Birthday Mr. Dylan!!

    1. When it comes to Dylan’s voice, I think you’ve hit on something important. That Dylan’s lack of traditional skill as a singer, starting from the early 60s, changed the course of how popular music was approached. Suddenly, not only could one write one’s own material about anything, but one could sing that material with any voice they had. In this, Dylan was very punk rock.

      Thanks for comments, Sara!

      1. To me bob is the best and worst of singers. When hes on there is no one I’d rather listen to.
        And when he’s off, yeah it’s pretty crap. But we still love him for what he stands for. Although that is the Bob that some folk like to label as “Bob Dylan can’t sing for shit!”, he polarizes the audience as all great artists do; a true enigma.

  6. I am reminded of what Bob said to a young lady interviewing him, in Great Britain, I believe, when he explained that he did not have to sing for love; because he knew he was surrounded by love. This was not long after his conversion to Christ experience. Bod would say God is love and that probably had something to do with his statement.

  7. dylan’s bd is really 9 august 1962 when he officially changed his name
    interestingly may 24 is the 144th day of the year
    and on august 9 there are 144 left

    so what of 1962? well 2011- 1962 is 49 years. a jubilee period (check the old testament for that)
    lets see what happens…
    “lthough the future for me is already a thing of the past”

  8. in fact the person that is 69 on may 24th 2010 is

    Shabtai Zisel ben Avraham

    Bob’s Hebrew Name since birth

  9. There’s another voice, which I can only describe as Dylan faking Dylan. You can hear it during the period of 1984-86. In his memoirs, Dylan actually describes the concert in 1987 when he started to develop a new way of singing.

  10. I am curious as to how far Dylan’s varied voices are a matter of artistic choice, and how far they are due to other factors. I remember reading an interview in which he explained his Nashville Skyline voice as the result of giving up smoking – a habit he later resumed, with the result that some writers have attributed his recent vocal deterioration (which only the blindest, or rather deafest, of fans can deny) to emphysema. And of course any voice tends to decline with age – Leonard Cohen’s never-expansive range is down to about half an octave now! Obviously some of Bob’s vocal changes are deliberate, but I believe other factors are also at work.

  11. How was Skyline an escape from Woodstock?

    Why did the camouflage fail? Personal or external reasons? Are you suggesting this is why Self Portrait did not turn out to be career suicide?

    How did his Street Legal voice ‘contrast’ with ‘this new approach’???

    “1979′s Slow Train Coming, 1980′s Saved, and 1981′s Shot of Love.

    You seem to be conflating anachronistically here: in Chronicles, to which you seem to allude, he is talking of the ’86-’87 Petty period, which is rather different from three -Ss period.

    Finally bd’s b/day is not 24 may. More like 17 as per bootleg 1-3 booklet.

    1. Hey Kirk – thanks so much for your detailed attention to my humble piece. Now, let’s see…

      I think Skyline was an escape from truth-seekers who came to get the meaning of life out of Dylan while he was living in Woodstock. I think Skyline was designed as a straight up album, free of hidden meanings – just a solid record of compact songs that are designed to have no importance outside of themselves. Of course, having said that, I think most songwriters would have given their left nut to have written “I Threw It All Away” alone, but there you are. And Self-Portrait was Dylan showing the world that he could hack around, a different take on the above strategy. But, this is what I mean that he couldn’t camoflage himself. He was still Dylan. Everyone was still looking for the angle.

      The contrast in Street Legal I’m talking about is between his voice (smokey, and gruff) and the arrangements, which were ambitious and slick. For me, this contrast is pretty effective.

      As for my ‘anachronistic conflating’, I think you’ll find that I haven’t necessarily connected the artistic wilderness period with his ‘gospel Bob’ records. I suppose when I said ‘this period’ I meant from 1978-1990 or so.

      As for the b-day, you lost me on that one.

      Thanks again for your comments, Kirk! :-)

  12. Excellent article! If great singing is defined as the ability to convey a wide range of emotions by using the voice, then there are very few singers that come close to Bob Dylan. Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Iris Dement and Hank Williams Sr. are a few that come to mind. None of them (w/the possible exception of Iris) possess a conventionally “pretty” voice, but they’re all great singers. Thanks again for posting your piece.

  13. You skipped “Desire”, the album right before the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. In my opinion, his best and it’s really distinctive.

    I still love this article, though. “The Sepia-Toned Parablist”…. so great.

  14. Come on everyone, who doesn’t wish Bob would at least humor us that he cares at all by at least trying to get the song across. His tone, phrasing, and tuning is non existent. I don’t think he knows if it’s 65, 75, whatever when he is on stage singing. Change is good, but what he is doing is a disservice to the music he created. I was at a show once where it took me halfway through the song to figure out it was Mr Tambourine Man he was playing. Bob is better than what he is putting out. It’s like he is tired of giving.

  15. I absolutely love your article. And I show it to people I’m trying to make Dylan converts haha

    But seriously, you’ve done a good job summarizing the changes throughout his career. If you wanted to get more specific though, you totally could.

    I mean just from 62-65, there’s a huge change in his voice. Then in ’66 (presumably because of drug use) he would emphasize words to the extreme and sang with a raspier sort of sound.

    Of course, this requires extensive (and obsessive?) Dylan knowledge, but there are far far more than just 8 voices. But then again, I suppose the 8 voices you listed here are more of a way to show his different stages in his career as well.

    Great job- you’re the only one I’ve found that’s tackled this topic.

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