The Voice of Bob Dylan
Whenever the subject of great singers comes up, I always put forward Bob Dylan. I know perfectly well that most people react with amazement at the very idea that Bob can sing and I admit that there is an element of mischief in my suggestion.

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan

Not entirely, however. It has always been my contention that Dylan deserves recognition for his singing as well as his songs, lyrics and guitar (actually, I consider his harmonica playing to be exceptional too but that's another subject). There is a quality to his voice that makes it completely distinct from all others - no argument so far, I think.

But he is also great in the same way that Segovia, the master classical guitarist, is greater than his pupil, John Williams. Segovia's playing is full of passion and emotion, whereas John is all perfection and clarity and yet somehow empty. And Bob Dylan, particularly in his early years, before he became a caricature of himself, is a vocalist in the same way as Segovia is a guitarist - he's about feeling.

Many of Bob's songs can only be performed by himself, they are so personal. But even those with many cover versions are still best performed by Dylan. Even the much-lauded All Along the Watchtower as covered by Jimi Hendrix is used merely as a vehicle for Jimi's guitar playing; he adds nothing to the meaning or emotion of the song.

As an example, take this brief clip of Bob singing Desolation Row in the sixties. I have chosen it specifically because the voice is very clear in this recording and not drowned by the backing music. Note how Bob's strange phrasing and jagged delivery actually focuses us on the words he sings - and we cannot then turn away for those words, apparently meaningless, draw us on to hear more. To some extent, he sets us a puzzle (what the heck is he talking about) but, in the very act of listening, we hear the passion through Bob's voice that actually provides the meaning - barely grasped, it's true, yet meaning nonetheless.

This, surely, is a master at work, barely conscious of what he wants to say but managing to communicate through his voice feelings that are beyond mere reason. Essentially, it's a cry from the heart and Bob's voice is ideal to convey it. Combine that voice with the harmonica wails that Bob punctuates so many of his songs with, and the effect is complete. He reaches us at a far deeper level than any of the recognized great singers can.

And that is what I want from a singer, to hear how he feels about what he's singing. This hitting the note perfectly with fine precision is all very well but a different thing entirely from what Bob does. If the great singers are musical instruments in the orchestra, Bob is the man in the balcony yelling his frustration.

Here is one more early recording, notable in its clarity through digital remastering, with Bob singing one of those songs that only he could do: It's Alright Ma.

And finally, a later song performed with that master of the lead guitar, Mark Knopfler. This one is perhaps more about Knopfler than Dylan as it typifies the humility of the man, never taking center stage, content to add his subtle riffs at the appropriate moments and no more. But both are doing what they do best.


I ... almost agree.

I think of Bob Dylan in the same way that I think of Diane Warren. If you don't think you know who Diane Warren is, read here:

Better yet, just turn on the radio and flick the dial. Without reading a single playlist, I assure you without a trace of doubt in my mind that a song she wrote is playing somewhere on your radio dial, right this instant.

Her songwriting catalog is gigantic, and entirely recorded and performed by others. The difference between Dylan and Warren, however, is that we actually get to hear Dylan perform. Not that Diane doesn't perform herself, and in fact, she has to shop her songs by recording them herself, and has a room that is a disgusting mess of C-10 cassettes which are all unpolished songs that she may submit someday.

I don't know if Bob Dylan recorded and performed his music with the intent to shop his songs to others, but considering the folk music scene he was coming from, I think he expects his songs to be covered, ad infinitum. In order to sell his music, he must perform melodramatically; otherwise I'm pretty sure The Byrds would have covered "Turn--" er... Hendrix would have covered "If I Had a Hammer" instead.

I think the growing concern though, is that it is very difficult to get your music true international attention unless your singing is spot-on perfect and absolutely sterile, at least if you intend to make pop music. The resurgence of junk like American/Pop Idol and Eurovision and all that have compounded it even moreso.

Returning to the subject, Bob Dylan is ... decent at harmonica. He uses a little too much first position, but he knows what he's doing with it, and I can respect that.
Date Added: 21/08/2007

I love that - I ... almost agree. Nicest way to say, "What a load of ..." I've ever heard! ;)

I read about Diane Warren and you're right, Chunter, she has an amazing list of songs to her credit - definitely one of the most famous people I've never heard of. Searching on YouTube, I found plenty of her songs by her being performed by other artists but nothing in which she actually sings. Closest I got was her playing the piano while Patti LaBelle sang.

I have not really thought about whether Dylan wrote his songs with a view to their being performed by others. They seem a bit too personal for that. It is certainly true that plenty of artists have covered his songs, whether that was the intent or not.

It is an interesting idea that he added melodrama to his style to attract more attention, however. Again, I'm not sure that I can believe that was the original intent. That was one reason why I used old clips in the piece - to demonstrate how much more natural his singing was originally. These days he sounds like Bob Dylan trying to be Bob Dylan, with exaggerated emphasis and overblown inflection.

The funny thing is that I think he really did sing that way quite naturally in the early days and the clue is in the few love songs that he wrote. We would expect him to at least try for a more honey-tongued approach for these but no, that's still the same raspy, nasal Dylan voice, as homely and ragged as an old coat, yet somehow wringing meaning from the words without being gooey. I just can't believe it's done to sell his songs to other singers.

I agree with you about the perfected and plasticized production of modern pop, however. I suppose it's inevitable, when we have sound studios that can smooth every wrinkle that we should use those facilities. It gives a sterility of sound to the songs and is one good reason for us hankering back to the days when music was a more immediate and involving art.

As for the harmonica, I'm no musician so I don't really know what you mean when you say "a little too much first position"; All I know is the effect the sound has on me and my fumbling attempts to explain to myself the process by which it does that. ;)
Date Added: 22/08/2007

I had to go somewhere before I typed the above, but now that I've had a little time to research, I'd like to show you Bob Dylan's opposite: an English, piano playing man whose songs are absolutely brilliant when placed into the capable hands of others but when sold in his own name, or sung himself, they just don't seem to work for most people: Tony Banks.

A song he sings himself, look at how uneasy he seems, trying to have fun in a video set:

Nik Kershaw singing:

Wang Chung's Jack Hues singing:

Marillion's Fish (Derrick Dick) singing:

And for final contrast, if you haven't figured out who Tony Banks is, Phil Collins singing:

Why do most people know who Bob Dylan is, but not who Tony Banks is? Tony Banks' stuff only seems to work best through someone else's filter. It's not that Bob Dylan didn't have The Band too, but he applies the right kind of edge when he must perform his own songs alone, whereas I take to assumption that Tony Banks has always trusted his bandmates and singers to apply emotion where he can't when first sharing the songs with them.
Date Added: 24/08/2007

A very full answer, Chunter, and one that introduced me to Tony Banks as well. I was never a great fan of Genesis so that's my excuse for not having heard of him before.

It's an interesting subject - famous people we've never heard of - and reminds me of someone that you might know very well but is almost unknown outside the world of musicians. It's a long subject, however, and I think I must put it up as a post rather than a comment. Watch this space!
Date Added: 24/08/2007

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