It is well-known that I am fond of Bob Dylan. As a Dylan devotee, there is one refrain about the great artist that I have encountered with frustrating regularity. It’s annoying, tedious, and inaccurate. While many Dylan fans likely have similar stories, I think that I bear the brunt of the refrain more than most due to my being a musician. Musicians are often critical, especially when they hear me suggest that Mr. Dylan is worthy of being studied and emulated. I have neither the time nor the energy to respond to every single person who has voiced a snide comment when I express my admiration for Mr. Dylan. I will instead offer one response to the whole lot of them.
STOP SAYING BOB DYLAN CAN’T SING.
He can too sing. On stage too. Not just in studio albums. He can sing on stage.
Bob Dylan Can, In Fact, Sing
It is one thing to not enjoy Mr. Dylan’s singing. That is a preference. It is another to say that he cannot sing. That is wrong.
Mr. Dylan has strong pitch security. He selects keys and structures his songs to fit his voice. There is nothing wrong with building songs around your strengths.
One may not like the fact that Mr. Dylan’s songs do not have the most complicated melodic structures. However, it is important to bear in mind that Mr. Dylan comes from the folk tradition. The emphasis of Mr. Dylan’s art is on lyric writing. Focusing on complex melodies would, in my view, take the focus away from Mr. Dylan’s lyrics.
It is unfortunate that many people who play music cannot listen. Musicians who sling mud at Mr. Dylan instead of studying him and learning from him miss out on appreciating the incredibly high caliber of craftsmanship of Mr. Dylan and the folks he works with.
Bob Dylan is the Master of Delivery
Mr. Dylan is not only a rock-solid singer, he is also master of one of the most important aspects of singing: the delivery.
To listen to Mr. Dylan closely is to hear an intricate and expressive voice. His range of expression allows him to credibly express pain, anger, remorse, glee, and a myriad other emotions. This ability to convey feeling is more valuable to delivering Mr. Dylan’s rich lyrics than having a vast repository of melodic diversity.
In Mr. Dylan’s case, it is not only what he sings, but also how he delivers what he sings. Mr. Dylan’s expressiveness has grown in richness in his later albums.
Some people never worked a day in their life They don’t even know what work means - Bob Dylan's Workingman’s Blues #2
Mr. Dylan’s songs will outlast him. Even when he sings no more, his artfully constructed lyrics will remain. But Mr. Dylan’s art is not only found in his writing. Mr. Dylan has produced singular versions of his songs because of his remarkable ability to deliver complex ideas and emotions.
Only Bob Dylan can deliver his songs in that special way.
Bob Dylan is an Exceptionally Talented Live Performer
Before you write me off, consider that I have watched and listened to countless live performances by Mr. Dylan. One may not enjoy the current iteration of Bob Dylan. But that lack of enjoyment does not change the fact that he is technically sound on stage.
Mr. Dylan embodies the folk tradition. He synthesizes and repackages the works of artists who came before him. Mr. Dylan has experimented throughout his career. In his first album, he emulated a gruff voice in Gospel Plow, a style he would not perfect for many years. Over the years, we have heard Dylan inspired by Guthrie, Cash, and countless others.
Before listeners (including some fans of Mr. Dylan) discount his current live performances, they should ask but one question: Who is Bob Dylan inspired by now?
The Inspirations to Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan has expressed his admiration for many of his contemporaries and the artists of the past. For example, he offered a tribute to Charlie Patton, the early blues legend, in High Water (For Charley Patton), part of his 2001 album, Love and Theft. I discussed that song in some detail in an earlier review of Mr. Dylan’s most important works.
Charley Patton was known for his gruff, percussive singing and delivery. Regarding Patton, Mr. Dylan stated: “If I made records for my own pleasure, I would record only Charley Patton songs.” Mr. Dylan’s drawing inspiration from Charley Patton at the time fit with the ensemble he was working with and his arrangements.
Some critics have opined that Mr. Dylan’s current persona is worn-out, phlegmy, and soulless. I could not disagree more – and Mr. Dylan’s performance in the recently-released Shadow Kingdom show vindicated my assessment.
Mr. Dylan’s “barking,” as some have crudely described his singing, is a choice. As a musician, I have found myself struggling to connect with a song after performing it for a few shows in succession. Mr. Dylan has performed some of his songs more than 2,000 times. I am sympathetic to the challenges that brings.
The Legend Who Never Left
Mr. Dylan turned to Frank Sinatra for inspiration in recent years. Sinatra, like Mr. Dylan, was often accused of not being able to sing by his critics.
I have found Mr. Dylan’s interpretations of Sinatra to be interesting and enjoyable. Furthermore, I noted that he chose to sing in a different way than he usually sings in his Sinatra covers.
I had hoped that Mr. Dylan would take some of the arrangement choices and concepts he applied to Sinatra covers and apply them to his originals. My hopes were fulfilled both in his release of Rough and Rowdy Ways and Shadow Kingdom.
Mr. Dylan has won acclaim for his recent releases. Some have gone as far as to say that “Dylan got some of his voice back!”
Mr. Dylan never lost my voice. He could always sing. Some people have just found a Dylan phase that they enjoy more than others.