Voice of con­science

> The clas­sic folk and gospel songs of Bob Dy­lan, coun­ter­cul­ture icon of the 60s, have re­ju­ve­nated US sto­ry­telling

The Sun (Malaysia) - - THE RIGHT READ -

BOB DY­LAN, the sur­prise win­ner of this year’s No­bel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture, be­came an icon of 1960s coun­ter­cul­ture but his voice has reached widely and evoca­tively into the Amer­i­can past.

The au­thor of some of rock’s early an­thems such as The Times They are a-Changin’, Dy­lan tapped clas­sic folk and gospel songs to re-de­fine US forms of sto­ry­telling.

Since early in his ca­reer, the 75-year-old has ex­per­i­mented with the in­ter­sec­tion of the lit­er­ary and the mu­si­cal.

In the words of a New York Times reviewer, who saw the then 21-year-old per­form solo at Town Hall theatre in 1963, “Mr Dy­lan’s words and melodies sparkle with the light of an in­spired poet”.

One of his most cel­e­brated songs, Mr Tam­bourine Man, fea­tures a lit­er­ary char­ac­ter based on a drum­mer Dy­lan knew from the clubs of New York’s Green­wich Vil­lage.

Like a Rolling Stone tore apart pop con­ven­tion by go­ing on for more than six min­utes, with Dy­lan’s steady nar­ra­tion and a touch of R&B in­ter­rupted by the re­frain: “How does it feel?”

“Af­ter writ­ing that, I wasn’t in­ter­ested in writ­ing a novel or a play or any­thing, like I knew like I had too much. I wanted to write songs,” Dy­lan said later.

Deso­la­tion Row, which closed his 1965 al­bum High­way 61 Re­vis­ited, stretched on for more than 11 min­utes and reached into bi­b­li­cal al­lu­sions, while ref­er­enc­ing the grow­ing tu­mult in ur­ban Amer­ica.

The al­bum was part of a mas­sive burst of cre­ativ­ity when in a two-year pe­riod, Dy­lan put out three leg­endary al­bums, with the other two be­ing Bring­ing It All Back Home and Blonde on Blonde.

The star­dom is all a long way from his hum­ble be­gin­nings as Robert Allen Zim­mer­man, born in 1941 in Du­luth, Min­nesota.

He taught him­self to play the har­mon­ica, gui­tar and piano. Cap­ti­vated by the mu­sic of folk singer Woody Guthrie, Zim­mer­man changed his name to Bob Dy­lan – re­port­edly af­ter the Welsh poet Dy­lan Thomas – and be­gan per­form­ing in lo­cal night­clubs.

Af­ter drop­ping out of col­lege, he moved to New York in 1960. His first al­bum con­tained only two orig­i­nal songs, but the 1963 break­through The Free­wheelin’ Bob Dy­lan fea­tured a slew of his own work in­clud­ing the clas­sic, Blowin’ in the Wind.

Armed with a har­mon­ica and an acous­tic gui­tar, Dy­lan con­fronted so­cial in­jus­tice, war and racism, quickly be­com­ing a prom­i­nent civil rights cam­paigner – and record­ing an as­ton­ish­ing 300 songs in his first three years.

His in­ter­est in civil rights has per­sisted, and in 1991, he re­leased Blind Wil­lie McTell, one of the best-known songs of his ca­reer in which Dy­lan re­flects on slav­ery through the story of the blues singer of the same name.

In 1965, Dy­lan also was be­hind a turn­ing point in mu­sic when he went elec­tric at the New­port Folk Fes­ti­val, stun­ning the au­di­ence.

De­spite his mas­sive cul­tural in­flu­ence, he has long won ac­claim in spite of, rather than be­cause of, his voice.

“Crit­ics say I can’t sing. I croak. Sound like a frog,” Dy­lan said last year in an un­ex­pected ca­reer-span­ning speech as he ac­cepted a life­time award at the Gram­mys.

His re­la­tion­ship with crowds bor­ders on in­dif­fer­ent to hos­tile, with Dy­lan stead­fastly re­fus­ing to please audiences by rolling out his hits.

He raised con­tro­versy again when he played in 1985 at the Live Aid con­certs for Ethiopian famine re­lief and told the crowd that he wished “a lit­tle bit” of the money could go to Amer­i­can farm­ers strug­gling to pay their mort­gages.

His quip in­spired Farm Aid, a still-run­ning US fes­ti­val to raise money for farm­ers.

Dy­lan has re­mained ac­tive and tours reg­u­larly.

In 2012, he re­leased an al­bum full of dark tales of the Amer­i­can past called Tem­pest, raising speculation it would be his fi­nale, in an echo of Shake­speare’s last play of the same name.

But Dy­lan has kept up his pro­lific out­put.

Ear­lier this year, he re­leased his 37th stu­dio al­bum, his se­cond in a row devoted to pop stan­dards pop­u­larised by Frank Si­na­tra. – AFP-Relaxnews

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