The sound of his voice has been compared to “hog calling,” described as an abrasive whine. Pop critic Stephen Holden once wrote that “his voice jerked upward in a spasmodic shriek, as though he had just sucked in a mouthful of helium. Weird half-yodels, yips, cracked sobs and gravelly mutterings embellished every other phrase.”
And yet, as we celebrate Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday today, May 24,2011, we salute an icon of American music. Can he really be 70?
It seems only yesterday that he burst onto the music scene with an eclectic style combining a unique mix of country music, blues, and rock. He brought together elements from the Popular Front of the 1930’s–musician/composers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger–and beat poets like Allen Ginsberg. And of course Elvis. You hear their influence in his signature songs of protest written and sung during the urban folk revival of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Sean Wilentz’s fascinating recent book Bob Dylan in America sheds new light on a whole web of such associations.
The power of Dylan’s lyrics, and the ways they have uncannily articulated major ideas of our times, is evident from an unlikely source: they have been cited 186 times in court filings and scholarly legal publications–almost three times as often as The Beatles (74) or Bruce Springsteen (69). A law professor, combing legal databases, discovered that even conservative justices of the Supreme Court like Bob Dylan’s words. Chief Justice John Roberts quoted, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose” from “Like a Rolling Stone,” in one of his opinions. Even Justice Antonin Scalia is on record as having cited, “The times they are a-changin'” to prove his point.
For us, the most transcendent and timeless Dylan song of all is the 1962 classic “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which is filled with cosmic images. Lyrics and music match perfectly. Listen to the three successive stanzas made up of three questions each, all beginning with the insistent words: “How many…?” They build in intensity and specificity, only to end each time in the ambiguous, almost anti-climactic statement, “the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.” This refrain is sung to a gently descending melodic line that suggests a quiet recognition of what should be painfully obvious to everyone.
We are happy to bring you Bob Dylan’s original 1963 recording of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” in his own unique voice. As a bonus we also give you a video of what is perhaps the most famous cover (pop version) of the song as originally sung by Peter, Paul and Mary.
Btw, in a provocative article in today’s New York Times, a writer suggests that our musical tastes are formed when we’re about 14. He notes that Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Aretha Franklin, Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed, Carole King, Brian Wilson, Joan Baez, George Clinton all turned 14 around the same time.
Where were you, musically, when you were 14? Where are you now?