Several weeks ago Bob Dylan was honored as person of the year by a charitable music organization called MusiCares. But it was his acceptance speech that had everyone riveted and mesmerized. From the Billboard article, “Bob Dylan Dazzles MusiCares Gala With Bold Speech”:
Dylan, who often shies away from speaking during his concerts, took the stage at the Los Angeles Convention Center late Friday night after President Carter introduced him with praise that his words "are more precise... and permanent than anything said by a president of the United States."
Onstage, Dylan was in the mood to pay homage. "Right from the start, my songs were divisive," he said, going on to name those who supported him early on: the songwriter Doc Pomus, label owner Sam Philips, Buck Owens and Kris Kristofferson. He also mentioned those who'd been in the opposite corner: Ahmet Ertegun, Leiber and Stoller, Merle Haggard and "the critics" who fault his singing style but, according to Dylan, give a pass to Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed and Dr. John.
It was a speech that Dylan traced his musical heritage and honored his predecessors that influenced him.
Dylan traced the roots of some of his better-known songs to numerous traditional folk songs, noting that his work blossomed from his spending so much time playing the traditional works. "John Henry" begat "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall." Big Bill Broonzy's "Key to the Highway" led to "Highway 61 Revisited." "Roll the Cotton Down" birthed "Maggie's Farm." "The Times They Are A Changin'" is an extension of what Dylan referred as the "come all ye" songs such as "Floyd Collins." From "Deep Elm Blues," a traditional song recorded by blues artists in the 1930s, sprang "Tangled Up in Blue."
"There's nothing secret about it," Dylan said.
Mostly, Dylan wanted to make a singular point about music and great songwriting, whether he was referencing the work of gospel legends the Blackwood Brothers, folk legend Roscoe Holcomb or bluesman Charley Patton. "Voices are not to measured by how pretty they are," Dylan said, quoting Sam Cooke. "They're to be measured by whether they're telling the truth."
Dylan’s speech was supposed to have lasted 35 minutes and while I can find a few clips of it on youtube, apparently the whole speech wasn’t posted. At least not yet. However, the transcript f the speech is posted and it really was a breath taking speech. I urge anyone interested to read here. Here’s a section I found fascinating.
I'm glad for my songs to be honored like this. But you know, they didn't get here by themselves. It's been a long road and it's taken a lot of doing. These songs of mine, I think of as mystery plays, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far. They were on the fringes then, and I think they're on the fringes now. And they sound like they've been traveling on hard ground.
And further down he elaborates:
I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them, back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that's fair game, that everything belongs to everyone. For three or four years all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I'd heard it just once.
If you sang "John Henry" as many times as me -- "John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain't nothin' but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I'll die with that hammer in my hand."If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you'd have written "How many roads must a man walk down?" too.
And he goes on like that tracing early folk and country and western music and connecting them to his songs. It’s absolutely fascinating. I’m not going to give any further examples, so if you have any interest in Dylan’s music or the history of American music, it’s amust read.
While for the most part Dylan showered gratitude in his speech, but every so often he took shots at his critics who claim he can’t sing and can’t play music. Now let me add here that while fior the most part I like Bob Dylan’s music, I too have been critical of his virtuosity. His guitar playing is simple and basic, his vocals are crude, and his harmonica playing is the pits. There are those that claim his songs are poetry, and I bristle at that. His lyrics, if you remove them from the music, do not rise to poetry. Sorry he is not a poet. But he is a great song writer. No one can take that away, and I want to highlight a few of my favorite Dylan songs as an appreciation of the man and his music.
For me “Mr. Tambourine Man” is the prototypical Bob Dylan song.
Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves Let me forget about today until tomorrow.
Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to
Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you.
“Lay Lady Lay” is such a romantic song, and not exactly what you think of when you think of a Bob Dylan song.
Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bedLay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bedWhatever colors you have in your mindI'll show them to you and you'll see them shine.
Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed Stay, lady, stay, stay with your man awhile Until the break of day, let me see you make him smile His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean And you're the best thing that he's ever seen.
And let’s not forget that Bob Dylan had a religious conversion and had a number of religious songs. “Gotta Serve Sombody” is probably his best religious song.
You may be an ambassador to England or FranceYou may like to gamble, you might like to danceYou may be the heavyweight champion of the worldYou may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed You're gonna have to serve somebody, It may be the devil or it may be the Lord But you're gonna have to serve somebody.
And I’ll end with a song with a nice touching song, “Girl from the North Country.” I'll post the entire lyrics of this one.
If you're traveling the north country fairWhere the winds hit heavy on the borderlineRemember me to one who lives thereFor she once was a true love of mine.
If you go when the snowflakes storm When the rivers freeze and summer ends Please see if she has a coat so warm To keep her from the howlin' winds.
Please see if her hair hangs long If it rolls and flows all down her breast Please see for me if her hair's hanging long For that's the way I remember her best.
I'm a-wonderin' if she remembers me at all Many times I've often prayed In the darkness of my night In the brightness of my day.
So if you're travelin' the north country fair Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline Remember me to one who lives there She once was the true love of mine.