From the mid-60s and into the 1970s especially, a new trend in music journalism ramped up into high gear. It was the only one that would rival the whole “will the Beatles get back together?” question that helped to mark those times. That question was: who is the next Bob Dylan?
During the course of his career Bob Dylan took a lot of risks; going electric, changing his voice from time to time, quitting the touring treadmill for almost a decade, and making records that people didn’t expect him to make. And he’s still doing it today – Christmas In The Heart, anyone? That most of these risks tended to pay off was beside the point.
But, during the eighteen months that everyone had to wait as Bob recovered from his motorcycle accident in late 1966, maybe the label, the fans, and the press perhaps realized that putting all their eggs in one basket was the riskiest move of all. As a result, a lot of performers would be tagged with the whole “Next Dylan” or “New Bob Dylan” labels, despite the fact that Dylan himself was still very much in his prime.
Maybe this was because it was just a safer bet to hang one’s hopes on a new artist just starting out, than on one who continually made himself a moving target. In some respects, the comparisons were meant to be complimentary to these new artists. But, as some of these artists evolved, audiences began to see that they weren’t the next anyone, other than themselves – original voices. This is how it should be.
But, who were these artists? Well, here’s a selection of 10 who are standouts for me in the Who Is The Next Bob Dylan? stakes. Some are big names, as big as Dylan is by now. Others can be called ‘cult artists’, albeit ones with respectable back catalogues of their own. So, judge for yourself to see whether or not the Next Dylan tag applies to any or all of them. And decide too whether or not the passage of time makes the comparison a fair one, or completely absurd.
Due to his use of acoustic guitar and harmonica (and maybe because he wore po’boy caps), Scottish songwriter Donovan Leitch, or just Donovan as he became known, was named “Britain’s answer to Bob Dylan” in 1965. This was around the time Dylan was plugging in on his Bringing It All Back Home album, and sneakily wandering away from his Woody Guthrie heir apparent persona. But, Donovan was more the pop star than Dylan ever would be, and that’s where he would score his success with “Mellow Yellow” and “Sunshine Superman”.
The famous song-off filmed by D.A Pennebaker on Dylan’s tour of England, during which he laid Donovan low by playing his then-new songs “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” that year showed the differences between the one performer and the other. Where one made a career in folk-pop and breezily psychedelic and appealing pop singles, the other walked away with the honoured, and ultimately burdensome “Voice Of A Generation” title, without a thought to crafting songs aimed at the singles charts.
Recommended listening: “Catch The Wind”
Gordon Lightfoot is another out-of-towner “Next Dylan” hailing from Orillia Ontario here in Canada, and having border jumped to the States by the late ’50s, eventually to find his way to New York City to play many of the same folk music venues Dylan had played. The two men even shared management under Albert Grossman, with his name further attached to Dylan’s due to Lightfoot’s early hit in a cover version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”.
But, Lightfoot was no Dylanesque also-ran. His hand in songwriting is unique. Eventually, many people would seek out Lightfoot’s material to cover, including Elvis Presley who recorded his version of Lightfoot’s “For Loving Me”. Even Dylan himself would cover “Early Morning Rain” on 1970’s Self Portrait, and invite Lightfoot to join some select Canadian dates of The Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975. The two remain friends, with a mutual respect between them as singular songwriters.
Recommended listening: “Ribbon of Darkness”
3. Randy Newman
This comparison in the Who Is The Next Bob Dylan? stakes makes some sense. But, when thought of on the other hand, it makes no sense at all. Newman has a distinctive sounding voice, diverging from the expectations of what a “good” voice actually sounds like on a pop record. Dylan helped to establish this precedent, of course.
Newman also became known early on as a writer of topical material that provoked moral discussion without taking sides in the context of the story, letting the listener make up their own minds. This was also an early artistic stream in which Dylan trolled, with “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” being a good example.
But, Newman followed a much different musical template from very early on, bypassing folk music, and certainly folk-rock, and instead connecting with a Louisiana R&B and trad jazz vibe very often wrapped in sumptuous string arrangements. In addition, Newman’s songwriting tack was more about giving voice to unreliable narrators for satirical effect on social issues, rather than dealing in metaphor and imagery open to interpretation. Like Dylan’s, Randy Newman’s is a unique and non-traditional voice. But it is one that is to be compared with no one – even Dylan.
Recommended Listening: “Louisiana 1927”
Hailing from North Carolina, Loudon Wainwright III found himself at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. It was here he saw and was inspired by a 22-year old Bob Dylan, by then an up and coming star. By the time Wainwright himself had become a songwriter with a deal on Atlantic records by the early ’70s, he found himself tagged with that pesky “Next Bob Dylan” millstone. This could be because Wainwright, much like Dylan, was able to infuse humour into acoustic-based country-folk and folk-rock music.
True to this satirical and humourous edge as a songwriter, Wainwright would cut “Talkin’ New Bob Dylan” in response to that tag by the early ’90s on his album History. This is an affectionate tribute to Bob, and a blatant jab at the whole Next-Bob trend after decades of establishing a voice all of his own.
Recommended listening: “Talking New Bob Dylan”
5. John Prine
Prine came out of the Chicago folk scene, rather than from the ones in New York City. But, that didn’t stop critics from hailing him as, well, you know. When Prine’s debut self-titled album came out in 1971, Dylan was relatively quiet. He’d provided no follow-up to New Morning, which was his last record until his Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid soundtrack appeared in 1973. This was quite a gap for the times.
There were some similarities in terms of quality where John Prine’s work and Dylan’s was concerned. But, if Prine followed any songwriting template, it was the one set by country artists that preceded Dylan’s work, particularly Hank Williams, Sr., who is a hero to Dylan as much as he is to Prine. Yet, Prine adds his own flavour to that established tradition, with dark humour and unexpected musical turns that make his work distinct. Once again, the comparisons ceased to apply once the listener dug deeper.
Recommended Listening: “Sam Stone”
6. David Blue
The Greenich Village folk scene of the 1960s is the most direct connection between Rhode Island born David Blue (neé Stuart David Cohen) and Dylan. Blue debuted on record in 1966, just a month after Dylan’s mysterious motorcycle accident. This was a time when no one knew if they’d hear a note from Dylan ever again, since the extent of his injuries was not made public. But, the two men were never rivals; they were friends, with their work often compared due to their shared origins.
Despite his first album being instantly lumped into comparisons with Dylan, David Blue would go on to establish his own voice on ensuing albums into the ’70s, pulling in a number of other influences as well as that of his friend Dylan. His material would be covered by The Eagles, who covered his “Outlaw Man” on their Desperado album.
This was proof positive that Blue was something of a singular songwriter in his own right. Unfortunately, David Blue wouldn’t get a chance to build on his distinct style of songwriting beyond 1982, when Blue died of a heart attack at the young age of 41.
Recommended Listening: “The Ballad of Jennifer Lee”
Of course, this comparison makes less immediate sense now, since both Dylan and Springsteen have very well established and distinct audiences of their own. Each artist has explored vastly different musical territory since their debuts, with only a few common touches by 2013.
Yet, when Springsteen auditioned for legendary Columbia Records A&R man John Hammond in 1972, just more than one full decade after Dylan had done the same, it was Springsteen’s scope of songwriting, and his seeming ease at evoking compelling characters and landscapes in his lyrics, that made the comparison one to consider.
There were differences between the two artists even then, of course. Springsteen had forged a photo-negative stylistic path to Dylan in that he started off very plugged in, paying his dues playing rock and R&B in an ensemble setting, only later to branch out as a lone singer-songwriter armed only with acoustic guitar and rough-hewn, idiosyncratic voice. Sure, Dylan played rock n roll just starting out before he embraced folk music. But, Springsteen had an established modus operandi around amps, and built himself up accordingly.
But, it could be that the sheer ambition and clear love of language in many of Springsteen’s early songs that can still be looked upon as something John Hammond could have seen as being a common spark in the work of both men.
Recommended Listening: “Incident on 57th Street”
Another New York state resident tagged with the dubious honour of the New Bob Dylan was singer-songwriter Elliott Murphy. Murphy traded in guitar and harmonica textures, as well as the lyrically rich approach to narrative which is common to everyone on this list.
On his 1973 debut Aquashow, he certainly hits on that mid-60s Dylan vibe, with humming B3 Hammond organ, a folk-rock flavoured arrangement, and lyrics that are packed into each verse. This was what many a Dylan fan hoped the man himself would come up with by 1973, with Rolling Stone reviewer Paul Nelson declaring it “the best Dylan since 1968”.
Yet, on further listening, it’s Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground, and to my ears even David Bowie that also seems evident in Murphy’s work as much as Dylan. These musical ingredients allowed Murphy to shake off that very limiting, if complimentary, new Bob Dylan tag.
Going indie after departing from a major label in the early ’80s, he continues his performing and recording career today. Murphy later expanded on his songwriting to become a music writer, and a novelist. I suppose that’s a Dylanesque quality as well; book writin’!
Recommended Listening: “Last of the Rock Stars“
After coming to New York City from Meridian, MS and playing for coins in Grand Central Station, singer-songwriter Steve Forbert debuted in 1978 on Alive On Arrival. It was after his debut that the good old “The Next Dylan” rhetoric began to circulate. His follow-up in 1979’s Jackrabbit Slim, and the radio hit “Romeo’s Tune”, seemed to be in alignment with the hype.
The key to the Dylan comparison was that the two men shared a similar vocal timbre, with Forbert delivering a sort of back-to-basics, man with an acoustic guitar approach that was becoming less common by the late 1970s, yet still associated with Dylan.
Even if he didn’t scale the heights of the elder songwriter, Forbert managed to build up an audience of his own, and with a unique voice. He’d never taken the Dylan comparison seriously anyway, concentrating on building up a consistent and unique body of work instead. His acclaimed album Streets of This Town was produced by Garry Tallent, Bruce Springsteen’s bass player. New Dylans and their friends stick together, I guess. Steve Forbert has a new record out as of November 2012 – Over With You.
Recommended Listening: “Search Your Heart”
10. Dan Bern
Dan Bern was saddled with comparisons to Dylan, even though he’d established himself as a prolific songwriter with an often quirky and unique worldview. Much like Loudon Wainwright III had done, he decided to poke some fun at the whole “New Bob Dylan” thing with his 1997 tune “Talkin’ Woody, Bob, Bruce, and Dan Blues”, a song about the ultimately absurd idea of one artist taking the place of another.
It’s an affectionate retelling of the story of Dylan’s visiting Woody Guthrie in hospital, and then expanding that story to Dan’s fictional (?) visit to Bruce Springsteen too, another New Dylan alumnus, in the hopes of inheriting the mantle of The Boss.
Ultimately by this time in the late ’90s, the idea of finding a new Dylan, or a new Springsteen, was old hat anyway. Bern knew that as well as anyone. Dylan himself was enjoying a resurgence, putting out Time Out Of Mind, and winning an Oscar for his song “Things Have Changed” that brought him into the spotlight again after a time in the wilderness.
By the time Bern recorded his tune, everyone knew that Dylan was irreplaceable, just like any great artist is. Bern’s song just went to underscore the point in a whimsical way.
Recommended Listening: “Talkin’ Woody, Bob, Bruce, and Dan Blues”
The artists that were associated with Dylan, usually emerging during periods when His Bobness was either unavailable or pursuing a non-conformist path that critics couldn’t really understand, ultimately had their own paths to explore. Some had more commercial success than others. Every one of them here forged lasting careers, and built unique catalogues and audiences. And that’s the ultimate connection between them, and the guy in whose footsteps they were supposed to be following; they are a part of a vital musical continuum.
And even if the comparisons are now out of date, the importance of that artistic continuity is now even more important. When they are gone, there will be no more Dylans, or Springsteens, or any other name you see here. But, their work is genetic material that will pass on beyond each of them, living on in the work of others.
Maybe that’s what drove this thing from the beginning. It’s our hunger for immortality at work again.