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Top 5 and Why: Best Bob Dylan Songs

If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important… I don’t have to know what a song means.

All Top 5 and Whys are tough, but this may be the toughest. The point of the Top 5 and Why is to skim the tippy-tops, to point at the high-heights. We could be systematic and rank every single song from 1-10,000, but there are already loads of places like that. The very inspiration for this idea comes from a breathtaking compilation of the systematic and detailed examination of Bob Dylan: All the Songs. Upon revisiting his Nobel Prize speech, and hearing the above quote again, I felt freed up to move as I felt led.

5. Forever Young

Dylan wrote this in Tucson in 1974, thinking about one of his boys and “trying not to be too sentimental. The lines came to me, they were done in a minute…I certainly didn’t intend to write it–I was going for something else, the song wrote itself–naw, you never know what you’re going to write. You never even know if you’re going to make another record, really.”

“Like a Rolling Stone” might be Dylan’s masterpiece, but “Forever Young” is his national anthem. It’s also one of the more accessible of Dylan’s songs. It’s for all children, and the hope that they grow up according to the education they’ve received, and that they’ll be guided by truth.

4. The Times They Are A-Changin’

Written in the fall of 1963, and inspired by old Irish and British ballads. The song expresses a feeling, a collective hope in the midst of social transformation, an invitation to be a part of the change, or to stand by and witness it anyway (“come gather round people wherever you roam / and admit that the waters around you have grown…”). There are biblical echoes as from Revelation 1:3: “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.” Also from Mark 10:31: “But many that are first shall be last; and the last first.”

Less than one month after the recording, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The very next day, Dylan reluctantly gave a concert in New York. The song was the opening for the entire show, and to his great surprise, received a standing ovation. “Something had just gone haywire in the country and they were applauding the song. I couldn’t understand why they were clapping, or why I wrote the song. I couldn’t understand anything. For me, it was just insane.” Here is a beautiful cover by Eric De Kesel.

3. Visions of Johanna

“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?” is arguably one of the most atmospheric opening lines of any popular song ever written. Immediately we are transported into a world of isolation and dislocation.  “We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it.” They say this was written as a response to T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” whose speaker observes the people coming and going discussing Michelangelo, but who remains passive and isolated, “Like a patient etherised upon a table.”

There are three characters: Louise, Johanna, and Little Boy Lost. Each is in search of a home, a real world, a way of talking to each other, a way of being. And in that one simple line, “How can I explain?” Dylan speaks for a disenfranchised generation. They lack the resources, ability, or will to communicate with their parents, university lecturers, elders and betters, and even their contemporaries. Only the visions of Johanna remain. She–the beloved, the mother figure, the source of inspiration–is gone. Here’s a cover of the song by Steve Gunn.

2. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall 

The Cold War was in full swing, and the Berlin Wall was already one year old when Dylan wrote this song in his friend’s basement. The song is always linked to the Cuban Missile Crisis, although it was written in August 1962. It premiered a month before the near-disaster on September 22, 1962. The impact on the audience was immediate. Dave Van Ronk said: “I heard him sing…and I could not even talk about it; I just had to leave the club and walk around for a while. It was unlike anything that had come before it, and it was clearly the beginning of a revolution.”

The sleeve notes include a well-known quote: “Every line in it is actually the start of a whole new song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.” It is a song which, as many have observed, comes from the style of the traditional Anglo-Scottish border ballad “Lord Randal”  which uses the question and answer pattern, “O where ha you been, Lord Randall my son? / And where ha you been my handsome young man?” And yet, it was nothing like Lord Randal in terms of its conceptual embrace, and really nothing like anything else Dylan was writing at the time or would write immediately thereafter, as Tony Attwood details on his Untold Dylan blog. Here’s a gorgeous rendition by Patti Smith.

1. Like a Rolling Stone

You can’t put the genie back in the bottle once it’s released. Not only do the lyrics of the song deal with the revelations of one generation separating from the fake values of the previous generation, but musically it marks a signature turning point for Dylan. Rolling Stone wrote, “No other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time, for all time.” It is also a brilliant arrangement between organ chords and guitar licks wrapping around Dylan’s vocal.

Most impressive was the influence of the song forever after. The critic Paul Wilson says, “Dylan had been famous, had been the center of attention, for a long time. But now the ante was being upped again. He’d become a pop star as well as a folk star…and was, even more than the Beatles, a public symbol of the vast cultural, political, generational changes taking place in the United States and Europe. He was perceived as, and in many ways functioned as, a leader. Paul McCartney said, “It seemed to go on and on forever. It was just beautiful…He showed all of us that it was possible to go a little further.”

In 1988, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bruce Springsteen said: “The first time I heard Bob Dylan, I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind…The way that Elvis freed your body, Dylan freed your mind. And he showed us that just because the music was innately physical, it did not mean that it was anti-intellect. He had the vision and the talent to expand a pop song until it contained the whole world. He invented a new way a pop singer could sound. He broke through the limitations of what a recording artist could achieve, and he changed the face of rock ‘n’ roll forever and ever.”


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