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Idiot Wind

Listening to Bob Dylan

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

I was going to write another column this week about downtown Knoxville and how ridiculous so much of the so-called "discussion" of it is and how tired I am of this childish "We're going to pack up our big shiny balls and go home" ploy by developers Worsham and Watkins and who exactly is attorney Tom McAdams working for these days anyway and why oh why does our city have to wait so breathlessly on our famously fickle mayor...

But frankly, I'm kind of sick of all that. Aren't you?

So I'm going to write about Bob Dylan. Why? Because this is my column, and I say so. (Please note that I am not requesting any taxpayer subsidy for my use of this space, and that no exercise of eminent domain or unconstitutional funding schemes were required for its acquisition.)

Bob Dylan turned 60 this week, and there's been a predictable wave of tributes and analysis and retrospectives and so forth. But I couldn't help noticing that, except for some puzzled mentions, nobody really talked about one of Dylan's most important contributions to American music: his singing.

I understand why, of course. That reedy, nasal, jarring voice, part sneer and part howl, has always been the dividing line between people who "get" Dylan and people who don't, between those who will allow that "he's written some really good songs" and those who consider him one of the greatest artists of the past century. And so it often goes unexplored and unexplained, either tolerated or venerated but not much examined.

So what is it with his singing? What is he up to? What's it all about?

Well, I've been listening to him for years, and I'm still trying to get a handle on it. When I was a kid, Dylan was the one major element of my dad's record collection that I resisted. I loved the Beatles; I sang along with Simon and Garfunkel; I jumped around my bedroom to The Who; I listened with a sense of daring and danger to the Rolling Stones, who seemed steeped in dark and mysterious adult things. But Dylan? He looked weird. More to the point, he sounded weird. "He can't sing," I would say to my dad, and my dad would just say something along the lines of "You'll understand it someday."

I don't know if that's quite true; Dylan to me seems like someone you don't understand so much as live with, constantly revisiting and rediscovering. But the voice does make more sense to me now. It's the kind of voice I think Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg were looking for, a fundamentally American construction drawn from the country's deeply twined and contradictory roots.

He started out as a folk singer, more an imitator than an innovator, working squarely in white traditions drawn from European balladry and squeezed through the Appalachian hills. But once Dylan mastered that idiom—and he did master it, like no one else—he expanded it. When he went "electric," he plugged in more than his guitar. His singing opened up and got rangier and deeper, his phrasing started incorporating blues rhythms and textures. He didn't just want to be Woody Guthrie or Dock Boggs anymore; he wanted to be Howlin' Wolf, too.

I remember seeing an Esquire magazine list of the all-time greatest blues singers several years ago. Dylan was the only white singer on the list, which was exactly right. People talk about Elvis combining white singing with black music, but that's not really true. Elvis liked the feel of R&B, and he got the bump and grind, but he softened it in the process. Dylan softened nothing, not the white mountain whine or the black Delta moan. He's not comfortable to listen to, and he's not trying to be. He's the sound of cultural tectonic plates shifting and colliding, throwing up mountain ranges where they meet.

That a Jewish kid from northern Minnesota could so completely internalize the great ragged musics of the nation, and that he did it at a time when the people and places that produced them were disappearing and assimilating into the great TV monoculture, is what, as much as anything, makes Dylan a great and uniquely American artist. His voice reaches from end to end of the 20th century, echoing where we've been and calling to us from somewhere up ahead.

I saw him play at Chilhowee Park a few weeks ago. He sounded loose and confident and playful. The stage was full of great musicians. But there was no instrument anywhere to match the one Dylan has carried with him, inside his chest and throat and lungs, for 60 years.

May 24, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 21
© 2001 Metro Pulse