Last month Bob Dylan spoke at a benefit in his honour, organised by the MusiCares Foundation, an offshoot of the organisation that puts on the annual Grammy awards which provides medical care for musicians in need. They were honouring Bob Dylan as their Person of the Year, and, unusually, he spoke at length about the formative influences on his music.

Here are some extracts from a sometimes rambling, but consistently interesting speech in which he spoke about the debt he owes to others.

I’m glad for my songs to be honoured like this. But you know, they didn’t get here by themselves. It’s been a long road and it’s taken a lot of doing. These songs of mine, I think of as mystery plays, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far. They were on the fringes then, and I think they’re on the fringes now. And they sound like they’ve been travelling on hard ground. […]

I have to mention some of the early artists who recorded my songs very, very early, without having to be asked. Just something they felt about them that was right for them. I’ve got to say thank you to Peter, Paul and Mary, who I knew all separately before they ever became a group. I didn’t even think of myself as writing songs for others to sing but it was starting to happen and it couldn’t have happened to, or with, a better group. They took a song of mine that had been recorded before that was buried on one of my records and turned it into a hit song. Not the way I would have done it – they straightened it out. But since then, hundreds of people have recorded it and I don’t think that would have happened if it wasn’t for them. They definitely started something for me. […]

Oh, and can’t forget Jimi Hendrix. I actually saw Jimi Hendrix perform when he was in a band called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames – something like that. And Jimi didn’t even sing. He was just the guitar player. After he became famous, he took some small songs of mine that nobody paid any attention to and pumped them up into the outer limits of the stratosphere and turned them all into classics. I have to thank Jimi, too. I wish he was here. […]

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Joan Baez. She was the queen of folk music then and now. She took a liking to my songs and brought me with her to play concerts, where she had crowds of thousands of people enthralled with her beauty and voice. People would say, “What are you doing with that ragtag scrubby-looking waif?” And she’d tell everybody in no uncertain terms, “Now you better be quiet and listen to the songs.” We even played a few of them together. Joan Baez is as tough-minded as they come. Loyal, free minded and fiercely independent. Nobody can tell her what to do if she doesn’t want to do it. I learned a lot of things from her. A woman of devastating honesty. And for her kind of love and devotion, I could never pay that back.

These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. Contrary to what Lou Levy said, there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock & roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music.

I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them, back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone. For three or four years, all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffee-houses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once.

If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me – “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.” If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.

Big Bill Broonzy had a song called “Key to the Highway.” “I’ve got a key to the highway / I’m booked and I’m bound to go / Gonna leave here runnin’ because walking is most too slow.”

I sang that a lot. If you sing that a lot, you just might write,
Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose
Welfare Department they wouldn’t give him no clothes
He asked poor Howard where can I go
Howard said there’s only one place I know
Sam said tell me quick man I got to run
Howard just pointed with his gun
And said that way down on Highway 61

You’d have written that too if you’d sang “Key to the Highway” as much as me.

“Roll the cotton down, aw, yeah, roll the cotton down / Ten dollars a day is a white man’s pay / Roll the cotton down/A dollar a day is the black man’s pay / Roll the cotton down.” If you sang that song as many times as me, you’d be writing “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” too.

If you’d had listened to the Robert Johnson singing, “Better come in my kitchen, ’cause it’s gonna be raining out doors,” as many time as I listened to it, sometime later you just might write, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.”

I sang a lot of “come all you” songs. There’s plenty of them. There’s way too many to be counted. […] If you sung all these “come all ye” songs all the time like I did, you’d be writing, “Come gather ’round people where ever you roam, admit that the waters around you have grown / Accept that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone / If your time to you is worth saving / And you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone / The times they are a-changing.”

You’d have written that too. There’s nothing secret about it. You just do it subliminally and unconsciously, because that’s all enough, and that’s all you know. That was all that was dear to me. They were the only kinds of songs that made sense. “When you go down to Deep Ellum keep your money in your socks / Women on Deep Ellum put you on the rocks.” Sing that song for a while and you just might come up with, “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Easter time too / And your gravity’s down and negativity don’t pull you through / Don’t put on any airs / When you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue / They got some hungry women there / And they really make a mess outta you.”

All these songs are connected. Don’t be fooled. I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way. It’s just different, saying the same thing. I didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary. Well you know, I just thought I was doing something natural, but right from the start, my songs were divisive for some reason. They divided people. I never knew why. Some got angered, others loved them. Didn’t know why my songs had detractors and supporters. A strange environment to have to throw your songs into, but I did it anyway.

Last thing I thought of was who cared about what song I was writing. I was just writing them. I didn’t think I was doing anything different. I thought I was just extending the line. Maybe a little bit unruly, but I was just elaborating on situations. Maybe hard to pin down, but so what? A lot of people are hard to pin down and you’ve just got to bear it. In a sense everything evened itself out. […]

Traditional rock and roll, we’re talking about that. It’s all about rhythm. Johnny Cash said it best: “Get rhythm. Get rhythm when you get the blues.” Very few rock and roll bands today play with rhythm. They don’t know what it is. Rock & roll is a combination of blues, and it’s a strange thing made up of two parts. A lot of people don’t know this, but the blues, which is an American music, is not what you think it is. It’s a combination of Arabic violins and Strauss waltzes working it out. But it’s true.

The other half of rock & roll has got to be hillbilly. And that’s a derogatory term, but it ought not to be. That’s a term that includes the Delmore Brothers, Stanley Brothers, Roscoe Holcomb, Git Tanner and the Skillet Lickers… groups like that. Moonshine gone berserk. Fast cars on dirt roads. That’s the kind of combination that makes up rock & roll, and it can’t be cooked up in a science laboratory or a studio.

You have to have the right kind of rhythm to play this kind of music. If you can’t hardly play the blues, and you don’t have the hillbilly feeling, you’re not really playing rock & roll. It might be something else, but it’s not that. You can fake it, but you can’t make it.

Critics have said that I’ve made a career out of confounding expectations. Really? Because that’s all I do? That’s how I think about it. Confounding expectations. Like I stay up late at night thinking about how to do it. “What do you do for a living, man?” “Oh, I confound expectations.” You’re going to get a job, the man says, “What do you do?” “Oh, confound expectations. And the man says, “Well, we already have that spot filled. Call us back. Or don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Confounding expectations. I don’t even know what that means or who has time for it. […]

The Blackwood Brothers have been talking to me about making a record together. That might confound expectations, but it shouldn’t. Of course it would be a gospel album. I don’t think it would be anything out of the ordinary for me. Not a bit. One of the songs I’m thinking about singing is “Stand By Me” with the Blackwood Brothers. Not “Stand By Me” the pop song. No. The real “Stand By Me.”

The real one goes like this:

When the storm of life is raging / Stand by me / When the storm of life is raging / Stand by me / When the world is tossing me / Like a ship upon the sea / Thou who rulest wind and water / Stand by me

In the midst of tribulation / Stand by me / In the midst of tribulation / Stand by me / When the hosts of hell assail / And my strength begins to fail / Thou whomever lost a battle / Stand by me

In the midst of faults and failures / Stand by me / In the midst of faults and failures / Stand by me / When I do the best I can / And my friends don’t understand/ Thou who knowest all about me / Stand by me

That’s the song. I like it better than the pop song. If I record one by that name, that’s going to be the one. I’m also thinking of recording a song, not for that album, though – a song called “Oh Lord, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” But I don’t know, it might be good on the gospel album too.

Anyway, I’m proud to be here tonight for MusiCares. I’m honored to have all these artists singing my songs. There’s nothing like that. Great artists. Who all know how to sing the truth, and you can hear it in their voices. I’m proud to be here tonight for MusiCares. I think a lot of this organization. They’ve helped many people. Many musicians who have contributed a lot to our culture. I’d like to personally thank them for what they did for a friend of mine, Billy Lee Riley. A friend of mine who they helped for six years when he was down and couldn’t work. Billy was a Sun rock and roll artist.

He was a true original. He did it all; played, sang and wrote. He would have been a bigger star but Jerry Lee came along. And you know what happens when someone like that comes along. You kind of have to take a step back. You just don’t stand a chance.

So Billy became what is known in the industry – a condescending term, by the way – as a one-hit wonder. But sometimes, just sometimes, once in a while, a one-hit wonder can make a more powerful impact than a recording star who’s got 20 or 30 hits behind him.

And Billy’s hit song was called “Red Hot,” and it was red hot. It could blast you out of your skull and make you feel happy about it. Change your life. He did it with power and style and grace. You won’t find him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s not there. Metallica is. Abba is. Mamas and the Papas – I know they’re in there. Jefferson Airplane, Alice Cooper, Steely Dan – I’ve got nothing against Metal, Soft Rock, Hard Rock, Psychedelic Pop. I got nothing against any of that stuff. But after all, it is called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Billy Lee Riley is not there. Yet. And it’s taking too long.

I’d see him a couple times a year and we’d always spent time together and he was on a rockabilly festival nostalgia circuit, and we’d cross paths now and again. We’d always spend time together. He was a hero of mine. I’d heard “Red Hot.” I must have been only 15 or 16 when I did and it’s impressed me to this day. I never grow tired of listening to it. Never got tired of watching Billy Lee perform, either. We spent time together just talking and playing into the night. He was a deep, truthful man. He wasn’t bitter or nostalgic. He just accepted it. He knew where he had come from and he was content with who he was.

And then one day he got sick. And like my friend John Mellencamp would sing – because John sang some truth today – one day you get sick and you don’t get better. That’s from a song of his called “Life is Short Even on Its Longest Days.” It’s one of the better songs of the last few years, actually. I ain’t lying. And I ain’t lying when I tell you that MusiCares paid for my friend’s doctor bills, mortgage and gave him spending money. They were able to at least make his life comfortable, tolerable to the end. That is something that can’t be repaid. Any organization that would do that would have to have my blessing.

I’m going to get out of here now. I’m going to put an egg in my shoe and beat it. I probably left out a lot of people and said too much about some. But that’s OK. Like the spiritual song, ‘I’m still just crossing over Jordan too.’ Let’s hope we meet again. Sometime. And we will, if, like Hank Williams says, “the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.”

Bonus feature

More Dylan

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7 thoughts on “Dylan’s American music history lecture – illustrated

      1. A simple idea, perhaps but, as usual, a beautiful, thoughtful execution that is much appreciated. I just collect songs to sing and rarely have time to delve into their history. Glad that Dylan gave his mentor and lover, Joan Baez, the shout-out she deserves.

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