Dylan's music and lyrics span several decades worth of changes in styles and culture, but somehow his artistry and talent for lyrics seems to stand the test of time and changes in musical tastes.
Folk music was going through a kind of renaissance in the early 1960s in both the rural areas and large urban centres. Old-fashioned folk songs of troubles and struggling and strife seemed to reach the hearts and connect with a younger generation. The heart and stories of folk music were remade anew with Bob Dylan along with several others.
Bob Dylan's first album was more typical of the time. During the 50s and early 60s there were few albums that didn't contain a slew of traditional and/or familiar songs. Even singers who could write were expected to perform a few catchy standards to justifiy the sale of a whole LP containing 40 to 60 minutes of music. As a result, Dylan is often credited with having put out what most people view as the first true 'album' when he released his second effort: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan an LP record almost entirely composed of songs written by Dylan himself.
Many musicians from other genres were quickly inspired by Dylan and immediately began to cover his work in various forms. The songs from Freewheelin' were particularly prone to covers and re-interpretation since they're almost entirely just Dylan singing, playing a little harmonica, and relatively simply strumming on guitar. In the 60s and early 1970s most covers of Bob Dylan's tunes were usually people looking to take Dylan's song ideas out of the folk genre and into some other type of musical style. Young talent like Stevie Wonder interpreted Dylan's in a way that was completely different in the performance sense, but others including Roxy Music found many ways to interpret Dylan songs in their own style, varying from glam rock to country.
The Band and the Electric Dylan
This famously (or infamously) created a situation where Bob Dylan and his new band went on a tour that caused a wave of boo-ing at his shows. Dylan performed the first part of his show with his guitar and harmonica, then after a brief intermission, Dylan strapped on an electric guitar and was backed up by a five-piece band (a group that later became known as The Band). This seemingly sudden switch to electric was used as an excuse for Dylan's folk-fans to shout at him for his perceived betrayal of their favourite form of music in favour of what they viewed as more commercial and more corporately-driven rock show.
The trials and troubles of Bob Dylan and The Band's tour of 1966 is well-documented, both by music writers and reporters and even film-makers. Somehow, despite all of the boos and negativity, all of Dylan's shows managed to sell-out and his album sales only surged higher.
In the end, the popularity of the songs proved that not ony could others re-interpret Dylan's songs, but Dylan showed that he could re-interpret himself. No longer a simple folky, acoustic strummer with a harmonica, Dylan showed that he could think and write songs for a full band, and many of those songs that were so heavily boo-ed are now considered to be classics.
Bob Dylan has inspired many artists, to say the least, but some have been inspired to copy a little too closely to the original. And, by some of those fans with quick mis-association skills, Dylan has mistakenly been attributed some songs not his own. And the reason is obvious.
While Bob Dylan's voice and writing is in itself unique, the quaint wandering-troubadour singing style that he is often associated with is something that has been parodied to the point of charicature. Many have suggested that Bob Dylan's mannerisms and singing style were based on a character that he invented for himself: a rough-and-tumble folk-singer of the type that existed during the depression-era, like Woody Guthrie, riding the rails, perhaps a type of hobo.
Musicians, comedians and many others, including one of his ex-girlfriends Joan Baez, have imitated Dylan's vocal style for their own songs. Baez herself does a version of Hard Rain's Gonna Fall where she imitates Dylan as she sings the final verses.
It seems easy to do a Dylan impression. Put on a curly wig, strum a guitar in a typical folk fashion and do a reasonable imitation of Dylan's style and you might get a few laughs or entertain your friends at a party. If you do it well enough, you might actually be mistaken for a Dylan himself.
Sometimes artists suggest the mistake is unintentional. More likely, these artists are learning from Bob Dylan and using his vocal style to compliment their own songs. Basically, they are an homage to the original artist, not a parody intended to poke fun. They are sometimes called Dylan-esque, but they are NOT actually covers of Dylan material.
The two most famous songs that are NOT Dylan are obviously Catch the Wind by the singer/songwriter Donovan and Stuck in the Middle with You by a band called Stealer's Wheel which featured Gerry Rafferty on lead vocals.
The Less Political Dylan
Though Dylan is obviously well-known for his questioning of authority, and less-than-subtle suggestion that the powers that are in charge are neither the most capable nor the most democratic, or even concerned with the mass of people they seem to rule, Dylan did not spend his entire career writing songs of terrible strife and protest.
Shortly after Dylan went electric many of his more irreverent songs also came to the forefront, including songs like Rainy Day Women, which mimics a sort of old-timey beer drinking song, while confusing two ideas of being 'stoned'.
The truth is that Dylan had written emotional songs, including love songs, all through his career and although he is well known for his political criticism, he has done well to put at least one or two songs that show a softer gentler side of himself on almost every album that he has released.
Dylan's touring stopped abruptly in the late 60s. A motorcycle accident that may or may not have been very serious caused Dylan to take an hiatus from his musical career. During this time he quit touring, quit smoking and rested himself in a house that was reputed to be 'a stone's throw' away from the farm where the original Woodstock festival took place.
Bob Dylan would eventually return to touring and music, but his activism and attendance at protest marches diminished greatly. He has since been known to avoid the public scrutiny of interviews, especially the press-junket type of questioning. He has also avoided extended attention by various media that did not have to do with his actual performances. Some have suggested he had become reclusive, but more likely he has just made himself less available to media of all types.
Troubled Times lead us Back to Bob Dylan
It seems that the re-discovery and re-interpretation of Dylan's songs often comes around during those times of trouble and great change in the world. In the late eighties and early 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the 'Cold War' a wave of bands,including Guns N' Roses, Pearl Jam and others, seemed to re-discover the works of Bob Dylan. And more recently with the ongoing and seemingly endless wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places around the world, people have noticed that Bob Dylan's ideas seem to ring true and transcend their original time and place.The truth is that Dylan was often thought of as the singer/songwriter that could think and write songs beyond his skill-set. He did not have a smooth or pretty or resounding powerful voice. His guitar skills were largely average even by folk standards, and though he was capable at the harmonica, he often removed the instrument, as well as his acoustic guitar to switch to an all electric sound and relied on other skilled musicians to achieve the sound he wanted.
As a result, his songs often had simplistic structures that took on greater importance in collaboration with other artists. They often sounded very different in live performances than they did when recorded in the studio. And his songs also seemed to have a kind of elasticity, capable of stretching and bending itself to many different genres and forms of music when interpreted by other artists.
Somehow, without losing their original power and meaning, Bob Dylan has witten the kind of songs that can be re-written, again and again, as times and styles change.
Then again, it could be the trouble and constant struggle against authorities of the less democratic type that keeps coming around again and again to re-invigorate the same animosity and angst that Dylan has expressed. It could be that what brings us back to Dylan is the same ideas and emotions that made him famous in the early 1960s.