Bob Dylan Songwriting Technique

Over the next few months we will be sharing with you the key moments when the songwriting greats broke through, and found their voice. We’ll start with an appropriate place to begin – with some Bob Dylan songwriting techniques.

Even someone seemingly as radical as Bob Dylan had songwriting predecessors – one of the nice lessons of Bob Dylan’s self penned Chronicles (you’ll be able to purchase the book here soon). It is full of little insights into his songwriting process, including learning to look at the newspapers “objectively” (not from your own preconceptions and biases), and use that renewed insight of the world as material.

Dylan’s own personal songwriting breakthrough happened after quite a logical, effort-ridden process. Already inspired by Woodie Guthrie, Bob Dylan had taken on the mantle of the everyman, and saw himself on the side of the underdog, sermonizing like Guthrie, if necessary.

Dylan already had a debt to Hank Williams, and also to old British folk ballads, and to the old English ballads as collected by Child. He had been schooled in these in Minneapolis by an English professor at the University.

“I could rattle off all these songs without comment as if all the wise and poetic words were mine and mine alone. The songs had beautiful melodies and were filled with everyday leading players like barbers and servants, mistresses and soldiers, sailors, farmhands and factory girls….”

Indeed, these basic structures from folk music formed the very backbone of Dylan’s music. Bob Dylan’s first album contained no less than eleven cover songs, so covering material helped ground his songs in the structures and techniques of the great work behind him. It also let him innovate, using the tricks and structures he had learned. Writing for Leeds Music for money, Dylan was forced to come up with music on the spot. “I didn’t have many songs, but I was making up some compositions on the spot, rearranging verses to old blues ballads, adding an original line here or there, anything that came into my mind—slapping a title on it…. I would make things up on the spot all based on folk music structure….” About the old song, “Sixteen Tons,” he says: “You could write twenty or more songs off that one melody by slightly altering it.”

Dylan had also gained Robert Johnson’s insights into the dark turns a soul must explore to become oneself. Johnson had also given rough blues form structure, and also allowed Dylan the permission -or sense of freedom and strength – to write the types of lines that he would’ve otherwise self-censored.

“I copied Johnson’s words down on scraps of paper so I could more closely examine the lyrics and patterns, the construction of his old-style lines and the free association that he used….”

However, it required a third, equally formative influence to take Dylan from simplistic moralist, into the true and complex voice that was to change music forever, and that came from European writing then filling New York bohemian life in the early 1960′s, in plays and poetry.

Dylan became blown away by the song “Pirate Jenny” from the Threepenny Opera (iTunes/ Amzon link soon) – later he would callit the greatest song ever written. He had heard it through his girlfriend of the time’s connection with the theater, which provoked Dylan to want to create music that would be important in 100 years’ time, not merely 2 or 5. “Big medicine in the lyrics” says Dylan of “Pirate Jenny” in Chronicles. In trying to find out what made the song tick, Dylan forensically took the song apart, analysing it bit by bit (much as kindred spirit beat writer Jack Kerouac did with the novels of Dostoyevsky).

“It was the form, the free verse association, the structure and disregard for the known certainty of melodic patterns to make it seriously matter, give it its cutting edge. It also has the ideal chorus for the lyrics. I wanted to figure out how to manipulate and control this particular structure and form.”

It was the clarity and simplicity of the individual parts – but enigmatic nature of the whole – that impressed Dylan. Dylan most closely drew from “Pirate Jenny” with the song “When the Ship Comes In”. In actual fact, it was the whole suite of songs by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill that were important, enabling Dylan to create the framework for a world where he could express almost anything. Indeed, Brecht had even written “Song of the Moldau,” featuring the lyrics “Times are a-changing. The last shall be the first/The last shall be the first.”

Through Brecht, “I could see that the type of songs I was leaning towards singing didn’t exist and I began playing with the form, trying to grasp it — trying to make a song that transcended the information in it, the character and plot.” The Brecht songs “were like folk songs in nature, but unlike folk songs, too, because they were sophisticated.”

This European angle to songwriting opened up a much more experimental Dylan, which was above seeing the world in terms of black and white, wrong and right. And while it didn’t produce fruit straight away, this greater complexity was the missing ingredient Dylan lacked. They allowed Dylan to become increasingly personal, ambigous, and gave a complicated view of the central characters of his songs, a surreal landscape where his personal ambitions could be achieved.

Another prompting into inhabiting not only other methods – but also other human beings (indeed, seeing the connectiveness between human beings) came from Dylan reading Arthur Rimbaud’s line, Je est un autre,

“which translates into ‘I is someone else.’ When I read those words the bells went off. It made perfect sense. I wished someone would have mentioned that to me earlier.”

You can read more about the songs that inspired Dylan here.



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