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Why is Bob Dylan the Most Influential Singer-Songwriter of the 20th Century?


Bob Dylan


There are some artists that we consider the greatest in their respective art forms: Picasso in visual art, Harold Bloom in criticism, Ingmar Bergman in film, Gabrielle Bell in the graphic novel, and of course other people and artists whose names invoke in their passionate audiences a kind of reverence that admits into it aspects of the legendary and breathless: Leonardo Da Vinci, Plato, Beethoven, etc. Bob Dylan belongs in this category of artists, because he has no peer as a singer-songwriter, and really never did. Of all the people who wrote and performed music and emerged from the 60s, like Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell or even Leonard Cohen, who I think comes close behind Dylan as the most important singer-songwriter after him, or Lou Reed, or Bruce Springsteen, or Neil Young - they are all Dylan's children, and their music can best be interpreted as ways that they individuated from his work.


Perhaps this sounds frightening, to place this much authority in one figure, but authority is needed to keep families together, in some sense, and people need traditions to fight against to find their voices. Usually when any human being sits on a chair on a stage with an acoustic guitar, let alone a guitar and a harmonica, inevitably, no matter what, people will think immediately of Dylan. His image, his music, his melodies, are seared into the public imagination in a way that approximates something of the stature of Robin Hood, of that form of grandeur and imagination and goodness and courage and fearlessness and merit. He changed, single-handedly, a music tradition that was not what it was when he came upon the scene, and now, when we look back upon his work, we can see that he effectively razed it, changed it, transmuted it, understood it so deeply, with such canniness and originality, that he is the Shakespeare of singer-songwriters, and therefore the Shakespeare of any artist interested in music, from rappers to guitar players to crooners to metal-screamers to banjo pluckers to emo-goth-keeners to genre-bending musical explorers.


We live in an age of hybridity. Rap is one form, combining beats with forms of speech-song (that themselves hearken back to Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and perhaps forms of chanting in religion, like davening or reading Torah in Judaism); the graphic novel is another (combining image with text and narration); and hybridity itself is not something new but more emphasized now because of the speed with which the Internet allows access to as many art forms as we could possible imagine, and therefore giving the imagination an unprecedented chance to combine - consciously and, even more so, unconsciously - the myriad forms of art at our fingertips into new forms that speak to the coming generations in ways that help them feel seen, understood, and validated, and that allow them to channel their own lives and stories and thoughts and feelings into forms of expression that give voice to things like anger, or violence, or hatred in safe ways that can heal through representation rather than harm through history.


There is something about hybridity that lends itself to hyphenation, the combining of unlike things, and therefore the nature of metaphor, and hyphenation is something we find in neologisms - made up words - or portmanteaus, from ancient terms like "amidships" or "ring-giver" in Seamus Heaney's amazing translation of that great poem, but also identities: think of Jewish-American or African-American, for example. Hyphenation therefore - its metaphorical nature - is not only at the heart of our cultural moment because of the qualities of hybridity currently operating in our culture, but also in some sense to America, which is a country of immigrants, (aside from the "Native-Americans"), and therefore of hyphenated peoples. All people are hyphenations, meaning all people combine divergent elements, and I think the least interesting people are the ones who try to cover this up, but everyone combines different ratios of man and woman, for example, or sadism and masochism, or fear and trembling, or judgment and compassion, and when we begin to think more sophisticatedly, we begin to recognize that thought itself is a matter of emphases, and therefore antithetical.


To hyphenate is to accept, or learn to accept, because to hyphenate is to try and navigate a personal journey into assimilation, not in the sense of losing the core of one's identity, but of assimilating cultural material into one's identity in such a way as to forge an identity, a life, a personhood, while retaining that acorn of self that makes one a durable person over time, with a strong character. And this process is incredibly difficult, because it is something we have to face and deal with every day. If you are Black, and wherever you go people call you the "n" word, then how does this shape your relationship with your own tradition? Would it make you ashamed to listen to someone like Louis Armstrong, for example, or would you embrace his music because it spoke for you in a way that another artist did not? And then what would the emphases be between one's commitment to one's own community, and one's commitment to the world at large? If one desires peace, wouldn't that necessitate the world at large? But if one's desires understanding, wouldn't that necessitate understanding one's community first?


The point is that shame plays a role in how we become who we are, how we live our lives, and therefore a role in our relationship to the traditions that shape our cultures and histories and biographies. And art is no different, since what emerges from the greatest works are successful forms of hyphenation, of people who learn how to love in the most mature ways possible while also expanding their imaginative abilities in the process.


Bob Dylan is our greatest example in 20th century American music of the most generous and courageous acts of hyphenation, and we have seen nothing like this since Walt Whitman in poetry. He assimilated folk into his own identity, rock n'roll, country, gospel, and some aspects of swing and jazz, and he made them his own, meaning he did not play something derivative, that referred to these genres of music in weak ways, but rather understood them at such deep levels that he shook the foundations of music in a way that we still do not totally understand. He is both Hermes and a leper, Jewish and Black, and he does not have any peers in the art form at the top of which he perches like a pigeon whistling. Like Shakespeare, we need to listen to him and understand him if we have any hope of producing music in this country that not only reaches as many people as possible, but also helps people feel seen and understood and aids them in understanding life in as mature a way as possible. Therefore, when we listen to songs like "Seven Curses," or covers of "Easy and Slow" or "Moonshiner," or "Like a Rolling Stone," or "Sign on the Cross," or " Ain't Talkin," we enter into a dimension that is timeless, as if one were not engaging with tradition but listening to the voice of tradition itself.

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