Bob Dylan is a great singer.

Bob Dylan Thinks His Singing Should Be As Lauded As His “Poetry.” He’s Right.

Bob Dylan Thinks His Singing Should Be As Lauded As His “Poetry.” He’s Right.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
March 30 2017 5:55 AM

Bob Dylan Is a Great Singer

The Nobel laureate thinks we should laud his singing as much as his “poetry.” He’s right.

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Doug Griffin/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan performs on July 4, 1978, at the Pavillon de Paris.

Pierre Guillaud/AFP/Getty Images

A couple of years ago, a 73-year-old Bob Dylan proved he could still put a twist in his own tale by putting out an album of American Songbook standards, Shadows in the Night. Taken as Dylan’s improbable tribute to Frank Sinatra, it was acclaimed equally for being well-done and for having been done at all.

Last year, he put out another, Fallen Angels, to more subdued applause. In late January, he announced yet another volume due out this week, a three-disc set titled Triplicate. Even to many devotees on Dylan-fan message boards, it was beginning to seem like a good joke taken too far. A fair number responded, in effect, by echoing Greil Marcus’ Rolling Stone review of Dylan’s 1970 mostly-covers album Self-Portrait: “What is this shit?” The fans wanted new works by the songwriter, the poet, the now–Nobel Laureate in Literature, not more croaky renditions of Tin Pan Alley classics.

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This week, Triplicate arrives. I think it’s gorgeous: better than Angels, not quite as good song-for-song as Shadows, but a more luxurious immersion, with more left-field song choices and a subtle thematic arc. Still, we must ask what this shit is. Given that Dylan is an endlessly canny/inscrutable cultural chess player, there’s no way not to read it as a move, and especially as a post-Nobel move.

Around the time Shadows in the Night was coming out, Dylan made a complaint in a notoriously cantankerous speech, accepting another award, from the MusiCares foundation. It was about people who insult his voice.

Critics have been giving me a hard time since Day One. Critics say I can’t sing. I croak. Sound like a frog. Why don’t critics say that same thing about Tom Waits? Critics say my voice is shot. That I have no voice. [Why] don’t they say those things about Leonard Cohen? Why do I get special treatment? Critics say I can’t carry a tune and I talk my way through a song. Really? I’ve never heard that said about Lou Reed. Why does he get to go scot-free? … Slur my words, got no diction. Have you people ever listened to Charley Patton or Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters? … “Why me, Lord?” I would say that to myself.

There are answers to Dylan’s rhetorical questions about singers who would mostly predecease him, including that Waits, Cohen, and Reed all emerged after him, when Dylan had already blown the locks off of pop vocalizing, so they could slip in. And Patton, Johnson, and Waters, blues geniuses who lived earlier, had never been granted mainstream entry until the likes of Dylan and the Rolling Stones had whitelisted them. But when Dylan speaks, you have to ignore the literal sense and go for the supersense of it, which is that, true, Dylan is talked about as a lousy singer who got by on his writing, one whose songs are better when others sing them. He got famous, after all, being covered by the likes of Joan Baez; the Byrds; Sonny and Cher; and Peter, Paul and Mary.

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Moderate fans say it, shrugging that they like him anyway. Haters say, eminently reasonably, that they “can’t stand his voice,” its nasal honk and its disdainful drawl. Maybe you say it. The faithful reply, with outrage, that (to caricature mildly) Dylan’s voice channels mystical forces from the beyond, and anyone who cannot tell that is an idiot dupe of the mass media. An Esquire writer went so far on the occasion of Dylan’s 75th birthday last year as to claim that “Bob Dylan Is the Greatest American Singer of All Time.

In any reality that encompasses Billie Holiday, the Stanley Brothers, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and George Jones, among others, Bob Dylan is by no goddamn measure the greatest American singer. His instrument doesn’t have that kind of richness and flexibility. To suggest otherwise is the kind of specious nonsense that makes it impossible for normal people to talk to Bob Dylan fans.

But here’s the thing. Bob Dylan is a great singer, or at least a great vocalist. He’s a more significant and striking one than most of the countless performers who have covered or been influenced by him, and it’s as integral to his art as any other aspect is. Certainly more than his melodies, for instance, which are as often as not cribbed and adapted from other sources, however inventively. (Part of the reason he “mangles” them live is that he’s not so attached.) More importantly, I’d put it that his delivery of his songs is as crucial as the lyrics, which from listening to these standards albums you’d have to be kind of obtuse to say don’t have any equals in the works of Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Oscar Hammerstein II, Carolyn Leigh, Ted Koehler, or Sammy Cahn, not to mention Cole Porter (a wordsmith he pointedly does not touch). With these standards albums, Dylan’s intention is to serve notice that he wants Dylan the singer recognized as much as the so-called poet.

In fact, when Dylan first came to New York in the early 1960s, it was his voice that people praised. When he played for his folk-singing hero Woody Guthrie in his hospital room in 1961, Guthrie reportedly remarked, “That boy’s got a voice. Maybe he won’t make it with his writing” (!) “but he can sing it, he can really sing it.” And even among critics, the “hard time” about his singing wasn’t, as Dylan claimed at MusiCares, “from Day One.” The New York Times writer Robert Shelton, in his liner notes for Dylan’s first album (mostly of covers) in 1962, called him “one of the most compelling white blues singers ever recorded.” Dylan himself, in 1961, told an interviewer that what he sang was “a lot of old jazz songs, sentimental cowboy songs, Top 40 hit-parade stuff”—not a portrait anyone would recognize immediately as Bob Dylan, although by now it all checks out.

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And yet, by 1963, Shelton had revised his opinion to say that Dylan’s voice “is small and homely, rough but ready to serve the purpose of displaying his songs.” And Time that same year wrote, “at its very best, his voice sounds as if it were drifting over the walls of a tuberculosis sanitarium—but that’s part of the charm.”

As Elijah Wald (to whom I’m indebted for most of those quotes) argued in his 2015 book Dylan Goes Electric!, what really had happened was a change in the story people wanted to tell: Demoting Dylan’s singing and other gifts as an entertainer became a guarantee of his authenticity as a writer. In his recordings, you can hear Dylan going along with that. His vocals on his pivotal “protest” album, The Times They Are a-Changin’, are to me the dullest of his career, adopting a more earnest, white-collegiate tone of oratory to put across stories and messages more than music. Even when he tries to break with that persona on Another Side of Bob Dylan, several songs are hampered by the pious speechifying habits he’s acquired amid his activist peers. (I don’t want to blame Joan Baez, but …) That remains somewhat true of the verbally dazzling but orally conservative acoustic side of Bringing It All Back Home. “Going electric” meant, as much as anything, Dylan getting back to the talking, shouting, growling, and yelping blues and country stylings he’d been exploring earlier on, but with a new set of arcane visions much more his own—which helped him escape the near-blackfaced and, let’s say, hick-faced vocal mannerisms of his immature years.

In his high mid-1960s style, on Highway 61 Revisited and especially Blonde on Blonde (where he was able to bring some of the gentler contours back), Dylan was the first mainstream American star ever to sing with not just humor but real postwar Mad-magazinestyle withering sarcasm. He could stress and distress syllables in ways that threw them into doubt, and to keep the listener at a quizzical or wounded distance. This is where he becomes the godparent of punk rock.

He also drew on both blues and jazz to apply staccato or legato phrasing—clipped notes and elongated ones—that could compress or stretch time at will, against the patterns of a song’s given rhythm. He would lag behind the beat, like Billie Holiday or more recently Willie Nelson (whose standards albums are part of the inspiration for Dylan’s own), or rush ahead and force it to hang on for dear life. The latter was one way he pushed forward his heritage from 1950s rock ’n’ roll, from early idols of his such as the equally fast-narrating Chuck Berry; that cohort of innovators usually hit hard on the beat, even at their wildest. It’s not a difference of quality, but it is a difference of kind, probably coming more from beat-poet hipster spiel than from any musical source.

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What’s more, where previous singers usually applied one rhythmic approach or another to a given number, Dylan would mix them unexpectedly, almost like a film editor splicing together contrasting shots. Lots of literary and art-minded critics have noted the crosscut effect of his juxtapositions of images in his lyrics, but it’s a more total sensory experience, and that is mostly in his voice (as well as in the mirroring “wild mercury sound” of his many skilled backing players).

Later, his constant revision of the tunes, tempos, and emotional tones of his songs in live performance also downgraded the centrality of the “text” in favor of in-the-moment interpretation. If it’s about “sincerity,” as some defenders plead, a search for truth, those truths can only be provisional, filling and draining songs as they come and go. That the words themselves often seem like a blend of a few central ideas and stream-of-consciousness free association creates more space for all this interplay, though it means some of them read less well on the page.

As Dylan wrote in his own liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited, “the songs on this specific record are not so much songs but rather exercises in tonal breath control.” Typically, he was and wasn’t kidding. He reiterated the notion in an interview in 1984:

When I do whatever it is I’m doing, there is rhythm involved and there is phrasing involved. And that’s where it all balances out, in the rhythm of it and the phrasing of it. It’s not in the lyrics. People think it’s in the lyrics, maybe on the records it’s in the lyrics, but in a live show it’s not all in the lyrics, it’s in the phrasing and the dynamics and the rhythm.
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When Dylan writes more structured, crafted songs, he usually softens his tone and rounds his timbre (as on Nashville Skyline or Blood on the Tracks), which reinforces how much his seemingly out-of-control moments are deliberate. The plummy “Nashville Skyline voice” that startled listeners in the late ’60s is reportedly present on some homemade tapes dating to before Dylan left his home state of Minnesota for New York, suggesting that he always could have sung more sweetly if he’d wanted to. And he’s done it intermittently since.

So, within the limits of his physiognomy—which have certainly become harsher with age and reckless living—it only makes sense to think that at any given moment Dylan is sounding the way he pleases. For all his bends and dodges, he is seldom out of time or out of tune, except in his most shambling live shows (and those do happen). If you don’t like what he’s doing, it’s probably not because he’s helpless to do otherwise, but because he’s doing it to you. There’s an inherent sadism to his art, one that arguably both the listener and the artist submit to. Even the rasp and burr of his late voice, several keen listeners have noticed, is very much like a more genuine copy of the old-bluesman timbre he pretentiously affected as a young man. It’s almost like this is what he’s been aiming toward. Dislike him for that, but not for what he “can’t” do.

In 2017 terms, I’m reminded of the way people—sometimes including me—bristle at the rap styles of artists such as Drake, Young Thug, or Future. (Kanye West stands at the hinge point here.) They rap and rap-sing in ways that aren’t “good” rapping on older-school terms, so older listeners tend to react by thinking they “can’t rap.” Likewise, Dylan has repeatedly thrown his voice up against the boundaries of the done thing, including standards he set for himself in the first place. So many of his organic techniques seem like his own analog-age version of applying extreme Auto-Tune, that cybernetic extension of the voice that makes it at once inhuman and extra-human.

The musicological lexicon to outline all these effects seems unfortunately thin, partly because that kind of study was until not long ago much too married to reading scores rather than performances. Timbre—tone of voice, rather than notes and rhythms—remains an elusive object of description. Some researchers have resorted to spectrographic voice analysis to ferret it out (which I’m not learned enough to grasp), as in this 1997 master’s thesis by Michael Daley, about Dylan’s way of mixing speech and song.*

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Another spectrogram-using academic is Steven Rings, but you don’t need the readouts to follow his expeditions through decades’ worth of performances of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” as well as his more general work on Dylan’s multiple voices and “ventriloquisms.”* Rings follows characteristics such as Dylan’s “escape tones” (when he follows rapid-fire “recitative” lines with a kind of tossed-off sigh on a final word or line, conveying scorn or exhaustion or bafflement) and his familiar “upspeak” or “upbark” (his tendency to suddenly jump up the scale, whether melodically or with a kind of bray, every few syllables), the latter being the go-to for anybody’s half-assed Dylan imitation. (“There’s a CHOICE we’re maa-KIN’/ We’re savin’ our own lives/ It’s true we make a betta day/ Just YOU and ME!”)

Rings cleverly scouts the ways those tics key into songs’ meanings, for example in the variety of ways Dylan twists and emphasizes the phrase “a foreign sound in your ear” in “It’s Alright, Ma” to insert a tone or harmony that actually has been alien to the song’s patterns till that line. (Rings is my source for a few other quotes and insights here, too.)

What’s more, I can’t explain—and haven’t found anybody who can—the long passage in Dylan’s 2004 memoir in which he waxes on about the “techniques” he discovered in the late 1980s that restored his vocal confidence. Though from a Shadows-through-Triplicate viewpoint, it’s intriguing that he says he picked them up from hearing an old jazz singer in California.

Questers for those hermetic secrets can be grateful that Dylan is perhaps the most-documented live performer ever. Personally, there are only so many multi-disc sets I want to comb through, but still I seldom enjoy hearing Dylan being covered as much as hearing him do a song himself. In fact, as his songs got stronger in the mid-1960s, he sometimes worried that he was writing himself out of business, because they were becoming unsingable by anyone else. Take “Like a Rolling Stone,” for instance, which has to be grandfathered in as the peak performance of his career on every level. Aside from Jimi Hendrix, who could really cover that song? (Here, by the way, is what has to be the absolute worst version, from the staggeringly ill-advised 2006 Broadway jukebox musical of Dylan songs choreographed by Twyla Tharp.)

Even gifted artists rarely outdo him. The Byrds’ covers of Dylan were key to the invention of folk-rock, but while the shimmer of their “Mr. Tambourine Man” still catapults the original out of its bohemian garret into a brighter jingle-jangle morning, their “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” misunderstands something essential, namely the weariness. Not that there aren’t gems, but the rote stylizations of the countless Dylan tribute albums in the world could push any tired tune into a coma.

Dylan himself has always preferred to call himself a singer above any other label. In the speech he sent to be read at the Nobel ceremony, he demurred that he’s always been too busy with matters like “Is this song in the right key?” to fuss about whether his work is “literature.”

The standards projects help reframe him in the canon where he’d rather compete. The biggest surprise is how light Dylan’s interpretive touch is. He sings the songs as straight and as prettily as he can, with nowhere near the liberties he takes with his own (less harmonically complex) material, or has in the past with folk and blues. As he says in the unstoppably fascinating interview he released this week on his website, with veteran music writer Bill Flanagan:

These songs are cold and clear-sighted, there is a direct realism in them, faith in ordinary life just like in early rock and roll. … You don’t want to be spitting the words out in a crude way. That would be unthinkable. The emphasis is different and there is no reason to force the vernacular.

Covers albums always have been mile markers in Dylan’s career. His first, self-titled 1962 album consisted mostly of his takes on the old folk and blues songs he and others had been playing in Greenwich Village clubs. Then, after his run of 1960s brilliance had run aground with his Woodstock retreat, it was Self-Portrait, the double-album of old and contemporary tunes, including the standard “Blue Moon,” on Elvis’ template. Listening to that quite pleasantly eccentric collection now, Marcus’ “What is this shit?” reaction seems out of proportion, but you have to remember that Dylan had never put out an album of such modest ambition before; fans would later get used to worse. But its title seemed like another way for Dylan to question whether writing or music was his core. Again in the early 1990s, he put out two albums of old folk and blues songs (going back even to Stephen Foster’s minstrel-era “Hard Times”), to renew himself when the well was running dry.

Dylan had a trio of albums in the late 1990s through the mid-2000s that people loved as much as anything since the mid-1970s, before his evangelical-Christian phase (though those albums included some terrific singing too). But the needle settled back to merely respectful for his last two sets of originals, Together Through Life and Tempest. So along with Triplicate’s own many virtues, there’s the mystery of what shift it might be setting us up for, if anything.

If nothing else, thinking about Dylan the singer is refreshing, compared to more than five decades of verbiage about Dylan the “poet.” Critics gravitate there because words beget words, and when it comes to his singing, fewer of us know what the hell we’re talking about. Take his intriguing phrase to Flanagan, “force the vernacular”—is that what his harder style is meant to do? How could we unpack that? Likewise, most of the press has gone along with the PR–supplied idea that Shadows was Dylan’s homage to Sinatra (even if to mock it). The two definitely admired each other, but few of us inclined to write about Dylan know the swing-era jazz-singing tradition well enough to propose better comparisons. Nine songs from Triplicate, for instance, have also been recorded by Billie Holiday, and it’s always struck me that the distinctive way she mixed speech and song was more relevant to Dylan’s style.

In fact, something he said about Holiday long ago feels like the ideal conclusion here. Oddly, it comes from the self-same Greil Marcus 1970 Self-Portrait review as “What is this shit?” I’ve never been able to find a corroborating source, and it’s a little too perfect to be true. But that would be just like Dylan, wouldn’t it?

“Not all great poets—like Wallace Stevens—are great singers,” he said, according to Marcus. “But a great singer—like Billie Holiday—is always a great poet.”

I’m not fool enough to figure that will settle the matter. But it ought to.

Escape Tones: Dylan Sings
25 (mostly lesser-known) Dylan highlights, 1962-2015

Here is a highly condensed playlist of distinctive Dylan vocal performances, in rough chronological order. For the sake of hearing him more freshly, it leaves out most of the “classics” (though in the mid-1960s, what wasn’t?). Fans often name the early nonalbum “Moonshiner” as a track they’ll use to show skeptics that Dylan had pipes. On “Highway 51 Blues,” you almost hear Dylan “going electric” with nothing but his larynx. “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” is an especially entertaining exercise in the Woody Guthrie–inspired talking-blues form that Dylan later imported into rock singing. “One More Cup of Coffee,” from 1976’s Desire, has Dylan attempting a most uncharacteristic melisma, supposedly inspired by a visit to a “gypsy” music festival. And live cuts such as “Romance in Durango” and “Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine)” just find him cutting really, really loose. Overall they’re funny, wistful, angry, strange, and in the case of “Pay in Blood,” kind of death-metal. But beautiful.

*Correction, March 30, 2017: This article originally misidentified academic Steven Rings as Charles Rings. (Return.) It also misspelled musicologist Michael Daley’s last name. (Return.)