Bob Dylan is one of the most important and influential songwriters in modern musical history. His career spans six decades and he shows no sign of stopping. Dylan is more than a musician and songwriter, though. He was the voice of the counterculture in the sixties. His socially conscious lyrics still stir the spirits of those who want to see a change in the world decades after he originally penned them.
Today is Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday. To celebrate, we’re going to look back on some of his best songs and biggest hits. So, join us as we step back in time, turn on some tunes, and travel through a landscape of folk, country, and blues that only a master songsmith could create.
“All Along the Watchtower” – John Wesley Harding (1967)
If you’ve ever listened to classic rock radio, you’ve heard this song. There’s no doubt about it. However, you probably heard Jimi Hendrix’s version. That cut of the song came out one year after Bob Dylan dropped John Wesley Harding. While the cover is amazing. Jimi’s guitar work is, as usual, flawless, there’s something to be said about the original. Dylan’s arrangement of the song is haunting.
The first lines conjure medieval scenery. It sets up for a long and sprawling ballad. Two characters, the Joker and the Thief discuss the confusion in the world around them and an escape. It could be a metaphorical escape from the rigid society in which they find themselves. On the other hand, it could be a literal escape from bondage within the castle. Next, we hear that the princes and ladies are scuttling about nervously as two riders approach. Then, the song ends. The listener is left to construct the rest of the narrative. The imagery and mystery that this song creates have made it one of Bob Dylan’s most enduring tunes, even if many people are more familiar with the cover.
“Tangled Up in Blue” – Blood on the Tracks (1975)
“Tangled Up in Blue,” is a song that Bob Dylan has said “Took him ten years to live and two years to write,” according to Songfacts. It’s also a very personal song. This was Dylan’s way of talking about the past fifteen or so years. The wave of the counterculture on which he was riding crested and receded. On top of that, his marriage was falling apart. The whole album is Dylan dealing with pain. However, this song puts a finer point on things.
“Rainy Day Women ♯12 & 35” – Blonde on Blonde (1966): One of Bob Dylan’s Most Misunderstood Songs
This is another one of those songs that are inescapable if your radio dial hovers around the classic rock station. However, if you’re not really into Bob Dylan, you may not recognize it by the title. You’d definitely recognize the one-line refrain, though, “Everybody must get stoned.”
The jazzy brass band and the refrain of the song make many think that Bob Dylan is singing about the necessity of partaking in the Devil’s lettuce. However, that’s not the case. He’s not talking about getting high. He’s using the Biblical form of stoning as a metaphor. The song is about how it seems like no matter what you’re trying to do, the world at large is trying to grind you down. If you think about his audience and the time period, that makes more sense.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” – Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
The beautiful thing about Bob Dylan’s work is that it is so poetic. The poetic nature of his lyrics leaves them up to interpretation. What is the song about? That’s all up to you. Many people have tried to tack meanings onto this song. Because it was released in the mid-sixties and Dylan was a hippie folk singer, several people have said that it’s about drugs. That seems a little too on the nose, really.
It is more likely that “Mr. Tambourine Man,” is a commentary on the role and life of a musician. The opening verse sees the singer asking the titular character to play a song for them. If he does so, the narrator will follow them. It could be “Play something that resonates with me and you’ll have a fan for life.” On the other hand, it could be a commentary on how much inspiration listeners draw from music. Either way, it’s a great song. The meaning behind his lyrics is up to you.
“Murder Most Foul” Bob Dylan’s First Number One Hit (2020)
Many people have said that Bob Dylan is the best songwriter in the world. Not everyone agrees on this, of course. However, most can agree that he’s near the top of the list. Be that as it may, Dylan never landed a song at the top of the Billboard charts. That is, until April of last year.
“Murder Most Foul,” is Bob Dylan’s examination of the assassination of JFK. It’s a piano tune with lyrics that are at the same time surreal and historical. The track is nearly seventeen minutes long. The average chart-topper usually comes in at under five minutes. Dylan, on the other hand, put this lengthy impressionist historical ballad at the top of the Rock Digital Song Sales Chart.