Once upon a time, I was in a study group with several very nice, competent, and helpful people. We always began our sessions with a meal and a discussion about what we were reading, watching, and listening to. We all tended to lean towards enjoying the same stories about mountain climbing tragedies and documentary films covering a wide range of topics. Music is where we parted ways. I was the odd person out when it came time to discuss our plans for an evening devoted to our favorite musicians. My group members were all Bob Dylan fans and I was not. Although I understand Dylan’s significance as a songwriter, I am completely mystified by the scores of people captivated by the quality of his voice or even his stage presence. I have a hard time even looking at the man because he seems so uncomfortable when he’s singing.
When I don’t like a singer’s voice, I have a very difficult time getting past that sound. If the sound doesn’t move me, I can’t even hear the lyrics. With Dylan, I came to an understanding of his significance first through reading history and then through listening to other artists cover his songs. The first time I realized the power of Dylan’s songwriting was when I heard Stevie Wonder’s 1966 cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
“Blowin’ in the Wind” became a tune that I wanted to contemplate; imagine the lives connected to the questioning; reflect on injustice. Sam Cooke covered “Blowin’ in the Wind” at least two years before Stevie Wonder and his version is compelling in a different way and conjures the lives of people most likely to laugh at life’s mysteries.
Even though other artists have given me great respect for Bob Dylan, I still can’t manage to make it to the end of any of his songs that he actually sings; can’t do it.
Again, I think the man can write a song; I do. What I don’t understand is what made him ever think he could sing them? I’m far too distracted by Dylan’s voice to pay attention to the lyrics when he’s singing. Developing an appreciation for Dylan’s songwriting skills required rotating someone else’s vocals into his music so that I could actually hear the lyrics. I accept that this may simply be my limitation or a matter of personal taste, but I’m no less stunned. Dylan’s success, however, as a singer/songwriter helps clarify how some Americans come to believe that their goals are within reach if they work hard and commit to realizing them.
My study group members never actually discussed Dylan’s voice. They talked more about their love for him and noted what they read about him. At the time, some filmmaker was in the process of making a film about Dylan wherein various famous people would stand in for Dylan. I have no idea if this film was ever made, but I was sure to tell my group not to invite me to the screening or any of the events they were staging in celebration of all things Bob Dylan. I’m down with protest, consciousness raising, social commentary, but even with that sincere interest, I couldn’t even see myself at a Bob Dylan party. Despite my expressed wish to be excluded from the party, I fully recognize that Bob Dylan has made a significant contribution to the freedom struggle; so I’m cool with his Medal of Freedom…
but notice, when remarks were offered at the award’s ceremony, not a word was uttered about how that brother could sang. Bob Dylan is one confident brother! I don’t know if confidence in myself would get me that far, but the belief he has in himself is worth admiring.