Recently, I was reading a book and the writer kept referring to Bob Dylan. It wasn’t like he was using some Dylan lyrics to make a point in his book or that he was using Dylan as a metaphor for some internal struggle; no, he was just blabbering on and on about how Dylan was his all-time favorite musician. And, to be honest, after reading about Bob Dylan chapter after chapter I was intrigued.
So intrigued that I headed over to Youtube and gave him a listen. Now, many years ago, I had listened to a bit of Dylan as a teenager (think 1970s) and later in college but he never did anything for me. I think it had something to do with the times changing (yes, mentally insert the title of Dylan’s most famous song). In the 70s we were involved in the Vietnam War (early 70s) and after it officially ended in 1975 we were dealing with the aftermath.
Those times were not pleasant in many ways and protest music was all the rage. Dylan fit into that category and, in my mind at least, I couldn’t understand him. I associated Dylan with other artists that were criticizing the war, in which my dad fought, so I saw protest music as unpatriotic, socially upsetting, and a little limp wristed. The drug culture was also ramping up in the 70s and most rock bands, particularly Southern rock bands, were firmly entrenched in the quasi hippie drug culture, which was also a turn-off to me. So, where did that leave me? I was not a Dylan fan.
Never mind that his voice is a little grating on the nerves and he ends every verse on a high note, which sounds like he is putting an abbreviated question mark and exclamation point on the end of each sentence. Very annoying; or at least it was at the time.
But, back to my re-acquaintance with Bob Dylan’s music. I bopped over to Youtube and did a quick search. The first video to come up was a 1964 rendition of “The Times They Are A Changin'” (see below) and perhaps for the first time I strained to really hear the words. Not just the familiar tune and his grating high pitched voice, but the words. It was like I was listening to it for the first time. I googled the lyrics and read them through a couple of times. And it hit me; this guy had something to say (and still does).
I listened to the song on Youtube again. A couple more times. I don’t know what music critics or social commentators say about it but to me Dylan was saying the times will never go back to what they were. You can accept, adapt, or whatever, but you can’t go back. Of course, he was talking about political business-as-usual as much as anything, but I think that applies to everything in life. Relationships develop, sometimes they decay, sometimes they just disappear, but when that happens new relationships appear. Your job changes, your church changes, the country and the world change, but we change too. The only option not available to us is to ‘not change.’
Sure, I listened to a few more of his tunes. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” Blowing in the Wind,” and so on.
Then, I realized what you probably already know. People don’t listen to Bob Dylan because he’s a great singer, they listen to him because he’s a great storyteller. He touches their soul. He says things that feel familiar but we can’t quite put the words to it. His poetry doesn’t sound like poetry and his ache is our ache.
Dylan is a troubadour, a musician storyteller in the finest tradition. He is part folk, part Americana, part everyman. Even when we listen to his songs over and over we tend to find a new nuance to his voice or a phrase or word that has new meaning, even if we are only reminded of something we already know.
So, what is my point? My point is that we are storytellers and we are story consumers. We love stories and we write our own every day. We may not think our stories are worth much because no one is listening to us like Dylan, but we are mistaken. Everyone we come into contact with hears our stories because it is who we are, what we say, how we dress, how we behave in a tense moment. It’s the jokes we tell, the way we treat others, and sometimes, just some times, it’s an actual story we tell.
Over the years I have enjoyed reading the poems of Robert Frost who, in my mind, is possibly the greatest modern American poet. Some literary snobs may not like him as much because he is popular. Supposedly, it is hard to be popular and intellectually meaningful at the same time, but I like his poetry. It is earthy, real, and he can make me feel what he is saying. My voice gets raspy from the cold wetness when reading his poem, “My November Guest.” You know what I mean, and we love stories because they make us feel something.
Today, Bob Dylan has done that for me. Whether I agree with everything he sings is not the point. The fact that he has told me a story that makes me feel something and think something and evaluate my own existence is the point. Why do people listen to Dylan?
Well, it’s not because he is Dylan, it’s because he is a storyteller that has something meaningful to say. It is meaningful because we, at times, feel the same way he does. He is asking us questions or provoking our thoughts in ways that cause us to be reflective and consider our brief journey on this earth. People listen to Dylan because we become Dylan when we listen to him, suddenly introspective and inquisitive.
And that is becoming increasingly important. The reflective person is the person who can navigate the moral catastrophe we seem to live in. The reflective person is the one who not only copes with society but works to change it. I saw a meme recently that said something like, ‘if you think you are too small to make a difference, you’ve never had a conversation with a mosquito.’ Even if you only change one thing, and even if that one thing is small, it still changes someone in some way.
And, you have to be reflective, able to think about where you are, who you are, where you want to be. Things will change anyway, but why not be part of it? Go change something. Today.