Bob Dylan- Musical and Literary Genius

Bob Dylan’s influence spreads far and wide across music, culture, and politics. Widely regarded as one of the greatest songwriters of all time, Dylan’s music and lyricism are known for their richness of literary devices, rhyme, wit, and social commentary and have had a “profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by extraordinary poetic power”.  

Robert Shelton wrote in his biography of Bob Dylan that he had a brilliant tendency of “devouring everything he could lay his eyes on” and perhaps that is why his work is an amalgamation of the gospel, country, blues, folk, and rock and roll music that surrounded him while growing up. Not restricted to the musical world, Bob Dylan has myriad poetical influences from varied personalities and works.

"These songs of mine, they're like mystery stories, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far."

 He was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota but changed his name to Robert Dylan in 1962, a homage to the poet Dylan Thomas. Thomas’s powerful lines and strong stances on social issues and also his use of symbolism impacted him. He moved to New York after dropping out of college. There he met poet Allen Ginsberg becoming close friends. Allen Ginsberg was one of the pioneers of the “Beat” movement, a literary movement that was guided by the principles of bringing poetry to the streets with the use of slang.

Dylan took up the improvising features of language and imagery of Beat poetry along with the depiction of everyday life and some of its ridiculousness. Dylan grew with folk music as a child taking influences from Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams and was consequential in bringing the folk genre to the mainstream, and moving beyond, mixing pop music with it, releasing songs such as Blowin’ in the Wind and The Times They are A-Changinas he involved in the Civil Rights Movement in 1963. He went on to “electrify” his music, shocking his audience as he experimented with rock music in 1965.

Source: Rolling Stone

French Poet Arthur Rimbaud’s surrealist works also had a profound impact on Dylan’s artistry. Rimbaud was a 19th-century poet who created his entire works by the age of 21 and ceasing writing thereafter. His poems rejected popular institutions of his days and were known for peculiar juxtapositions of words that made him popular among surrealist poets of the 20th century. Dylan admired the poet’s use of surreal imagery and rejection of established norms. The influences can be seen in the seminal song “Like a Rolling Stone”.

Sometime in the 1970s, Bob Dylan became a born-again Christian, releasing three explicitly religious albums and many songs with Biblical references. His most well-known song “All Along the Watchtower” is drawn from a Book of Isaiah in his “the first biblical rock album” “John Wesley Harding”. Even “Blowin in the Wind” is inspired by stories and phrases found within the Old Testament “Yes, and how many seas must a white dove sail Before she sleeps in the sand?” (Genesis 8:8-11).  

Bob Dylan took on his inspiration and created his own vast body of work that has impacted both musicians and artists alike. His lyrics have been collected in The Complete Annotated Lyrics (edited by Christopher Ricks, Lisa Nemrow, and Julie Nemrow, 2014), Lyrics 1962–2001 (2004), The Definitive Bob Dylan Songbook (2001), and Forever Young (2008), illustrated by Paul Rogers. He also wrote a memoir, Chronicles: Volume One (2001) as well as Tarantula (1971). He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 “For having created new poetic expressions within the great American song Tradition” becoming the first musician to win the most prolific award in literary history.

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Written By: Aakriti Bhandari

Editor and Team Lead: Ashutosh Sharma

Sources for the article:

https://teachrock.org/wp-content/uploads/Handout-1-Dylans-Literary-Inspirations.pdf

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_Dylan

https://jewlscholar.mtsu.edu/bitstream/handle/mtsu/3976/3042217.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-37645503

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Bob-Dylan-American-musician

About The Author(s)

Chemistry major with self-proclaimed good taste in Books and Music.

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Aakriti Bhandari
Part time literature major and a full time K-pop enthusiast.
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