The 70 Greatest Dylan Songs
To celebrate Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday on May 24, we asked the world’s foremost
Dylan experts to pick his best songs. Plus: Appreciations by Bono, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jim James, Lucinda Williams, Lenny Kravitz, Chris Martin and many more
2. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)
The greatest protest song by the greatest protest songwriter of his time: a seven-minute epic that warns against a coming apocalypse while cataloguing horrific visions ”“ gun-toting children, a tree dripping blood ”“ with the wide-eyed fervour of John the Revelator. “Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song,” Dylan said at that time. “But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs, so I put all I could into this one.”
The threat of nuclear war was in the air at the time, as other songs from the Freewheelin’ sessions ”“ including ”˜Talkin’ World War III Blues’ and the anti-fallout-shelter rant ”˜Let Me Die in My Footsteps’ ”“ make clear. But this rain was abstract rather than literal. “It’s not the fallout rain,” Dylan said. “I just mean some sort of end that’s just gotta happen.”
”˜A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ ”“ that “a-gonna” was the young Dylan’s Woody Guthrie fixation popping out again ”“ began life as a poem, which Dylan likely banged out on a typewriter owned by his buddy (and fellow Greenwich Village dweller) Wavy Gravy. Dylan debuted the song at Carnegie Hall in September 1962, when he was part of a folk-heavy bill in which each act got 10 minutes: “Bob raised his hand and said, ”˜What am I supposed to do? One of my songs is 10 minutes long,’” said Pete Seeger, the concert’s organiser.
”˜A Hard Rain’ is the first public instance of Dylan grappling with the End of Days, a topic that would come to dominate his work. But the tumbling verses of ”˜A Hard Rain’ culminate not in catastrophe, but in Dylan describing his task as an artist: to sing out against darkness wherever he sees it ”“ to “tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it” until his lungs burst. “It’s beyond genius,” says the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir. “I think the heavens opened and something channelled through him.”
3. Tangled Up in Blue
Blood on the Tracks (1975)
“[This song] took me 10 years to live, and two years to write,” Dylan often said before playing ”˜Tangled Up in Blue’ in concert. His marriage was crumbling in 1974 as he wrote what would become the opener on Blood on the Tracks and his most personal examination of hurt and nostalgia. Dylan’s lyrical shifts in perspective, between confession and critique, and his acute references to the Sixties experience evoked a decade of both utopian and broken promise. His plaintive vocal and the fresh-air picking of the Minneapolis session players, organised by his brother, David Zimmerman, hearkened to an earlier pathos: the frank heartbreak and spiritual restoration in Appalachian balladry. Dylan has played this song many different ways live but rarely strays from the perfect crossroads of this recording, where emotional truths meet the everlasting comfort of the American folk song.
4. Just Like a Woman
Blonde on Blonde (1966)
Dylan’s finest ballad is not a love song. ”˜Just Like a Woman’ is a complex portrait of adoration and disappointment, written as vengeance but sung as regret. Dylan never revealed a specific inspiration for the woman indicted. (Dylanologists often cite Andy Warhol’s star-crossed protÃ©gÃ©e Edie Sedgwick.) But the song is more about his own turbulent lessons in romance ”“ the giving, taking and leaving. It is also Dylan’s first great country-rock performance. Dylan was making thunder and headlines onstage that year with the Hawks, but he cut this song with Nashville session cats who heard and heightened his tangle of rapture and despair. “There’s a lifetime of listening in these details,” songwriter Jimmy Webb said. “I still marvel at what an absolutely stunning piece of writing it is.”
5. All Along the Watchtower
John Wesley Harding (1967)
You could say that jokes and theft are the twin poles of Dylan’s art, and this 12-line masterpiece about a joker (who believes he’s being robbed) and a thief (who thinks everything’s a joke) penetrates straight to the core of his work. ”˜Watchtower’ is among Dylan’s most haunting tunes: Built around an austere arrangement and Dylan’s spooked croon, it starts out like a ballad that’s going to go on for a long while. But as soon as the joker and the thief get their opening statements, the song ends with an ominous image ”“ two riders approaching ”“ leaving listeners to fill in the blanks.
Jimi Hendrix’s definitive reading of ”˜Watchtower’ is one of the few Dylan covers that has permanently affected the way Dylan himself plays the song. Hendrix started recording his cover within weeks of John Wesley Harding’s release, fleshing out the song into something stunningly intense. “He played [my songs] the way I would have done them if I was him,” Dylan later said of Hendrix.
6. I Shall Be Released
Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II (1971)
With its simple, evocative tale of a prisoner yearning for freedom, this rock hymn was part of a conscious effort by Dylan to move away from the sprawling imagery of his mid-Sixties masterpieces. “In ’68 [Dylan told]”¦ me how he was writing shorter lines, with every line meaning something,” Allen Ginsberg once said. “And from that time came some of the stuff”¦ like ”˜I Shall Be Released’”¦ There was to be no wasted language, no wasted breath.”
The result was one of Dylan’s best-loved songs, first cut during the 1967 Basement Tapes sessions with the Band. The rough church of the organ and guitar frame Dylan’s urgent nasal prayer, until Richard Manuel’s keening harmony illuminates the chorus, like sunlight pouring through a stained-glass window. Years later, in the mid-Eighties, David Crosby sang that chorus to himself ”“ “Any day now, any day now/I shall be released” ”“ in his Texas prison cell, as he served nine months on drug and weapon charges. “I wrote it on the wall,” he recalls. “It took me hours. But I did
it. And I remember taking heart from it.”
7. It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
“I don’t know how I got to write those songs,” Dylan said in 2004, apropos of ”˜It’s Alright, Ma.’ “Try to sit down and write something like that. I did it once, and I can do other things now. But I can’t do that.”
Written in Woodstock in the summer of 1964, while his folk-scene compadres Joan Baez and Mimi and Richard FariÃ±a were Dylan’s houseguests, ”˜It’s Alright, Ma’ is a transition from the politically minded lyrics that had briefly been Dylan’s stock in trade to a broader vision of “life, and life only”: Instead of pointing fingers at a particular flaw of culture, the song tears down the entire decrepit thing, declaring that all is vanity and hypocrisy and phony propaganda.
On a purely technical level, ”˜It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ is dazzling, with an incredibly complicated rhyme scheme and a melody that barrels along on two notes until the flourish at the end of each verse. The lyrics incorporate nods to Arthur Koestler (author of Darkness at Noon), the Book of Ecclesiastes and even Dylan’s beloved Elvis Presley (the title is just a hair shy of Presley’s line “That’s all right, now, Mama”). It’s always been a tricky song for Dylan to sing ”“ a snapshot of a particular moment in his artistic development, a jewel that he’s lucky enough to own rather than a machine whose workings he understands from having built it. Talking about ”˜It’s Alright, Ma’ in 1980, he described the difficulty of getting “in touch with the person you were when you wrote the songs”¦ but I can still sing it, and I’m glad I’ve written it.”