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 political 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 precedent 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’ “