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
33. Idiot Wind
Blood on the Tracks (1975)
The original version of this Blood on the Tracks centrepiece was a rueful acoustic ballad, but when Dylan rerecorded half of the album at the last minute in Minneapolis, the heavily rewritten ”˜Idiot Wind’ became one of his most scathing, frothing, furious songs ”“ a rant against the woman he married and idiocy itself. “You’re an idiot, babe/It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe,” goes the chorus, and that’s not even as harsh as it gets. Dylan makes sure he’s not spared from blame: “It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves,” he sings in the last line. The live version on Hard Rain ”“ performed with its apparent target, his soon-to-be ex-wife, in the audience ”“ is crueller and even more gloriously raging. Dylan said of the song, “I didn’t feel that one was too personal, but I felt it seemed too personal. Which might be the same thing.”
Sara Dylan was in the studio the day her husband recorded ”˜Isis.’ Her presence was fitting: The song may well be an elaborate allegory of their marriage, separation and brief reunion ”“ re-imagined as the epic quest of a narrator who must trek through icy storms, scale pyramids and rob an ancient grave before winning back his runaway bride, the “mystical child” named Isis. Dylan wrote much of it in an all-night writing session with theatre director Jacques Levy. He was so proud of the lyrics that he presented them to friends at New York club the Other End. “Bob read the lyrics to a bunch of people sitting around the bar and everybody responded,” said Levy. “Everyone gets hooked in that story.” Before long, an incendiary version of ”˜Isis’ became a mainstay of Dylan’s legendary Rolling Thunder Revue. “Here’s a song about marriage,” he once said before playing it. Then, with his face painted white, he’d stalk the stage like a shaman, using only his voice, harmonica, hands and body to tell the song’s tall tale. It was the first time most fans had ever seen him perform in concert without a guitar.
35. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
The Times They Are a-Changin’ (1964)
“It’s a true story, but I changed the reporter’s view,” Dylan said of this chilling murder ballad. Dylan had read a story in Broadside, his favourite folk-music zine, about Hattie Carroll, a black hotel employee and a mother of nine from Baltimore, who died after she was allegedly struck by William Zantzinger, a white tobacco-farm owner. Zantzinger subsequently served six months in jail for manslaughter, though evidence later cast doubt on his guilt.
Zantzinger is certainly guilty in ”˜The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,’ a deceptively gentle-sounding song, in which Dylan tweaked some of the facts of the case while keeping the details thick and vivid (the murder weapon is “a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger”). The result was a compelling story-song that doubled as an indictment of racism and class division. “The pacing is punctuated by that lovely, lilting chorus,” says Tom Morello. “It feels like you’re walking toward her grave.”
36. With God on Our Side
The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964)
By Tom Morello
I may be the last person alive who still believes that Dylan sold out at Newport in 1965 when he went electric. The pressure was on him to lead a movement, something he didn’t sign up for and wasn’t interested in. I think he missed an opportunity to see if there was a ceiling to what music could do to push forward radical politics. But he came close with ”˜With God on Our Side.’ I never knew how politically radical Dylan was until I got The Times They Are A-Changin’. He was 22, but he sounds like he’s 80, like this wizened guy who’s had a long life as a vigilante, croaking out songs of hard truth. But ”˜With God on Our Side’ is not some historical relic. It is a living exposÃ© of war crimes, past, present and future. In the song, Dylan lays bare the hypocrisy of war and unmasks the whitewashing of America’s military ventures. He’s singing about the people who make war, profit by it, and the poor families that send off their children to die. “You don’t count the dead when God’s on your side,” he sings. “And you never ask questions when God’s on your side.” From shock-and-awe to Abu Ghraib, dead civilians to the morass in Afghanistan, those phrases can very much be applied to our exploits today.
37. Maggie’s Farm
Bringing it All Back Home (1965)
The song that announced a reborn Dylan when he opened his debut electric set with it at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, was in fact a folk song: a riff on the evil-boss-man tune ”˜Down on Penny’s Farm.’ In its studio version, ”˜Maggie’ was a swinging country rocker, but the Newport take wasn’t so jolly. Over lacerating guitar, Dylan declared, “I try my best/To be just like I am/But everybody wants you/To be just like them.” His defiant tone later inspired Barack Obama, who cranked the song to steel himself during the 2008 election. “I’ve got probably 30 Dylan songs on my iPod,” he told Rolling Stone. “One of my favourites during the political season is ”˜Maggie’s Farm.’”
38. My Back Pages
Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964)
”˜My Back Pages’ was the sound of the greatest protest singer of the Sixties leaving politics behind ”“ an alternately wistful and sneering ballad in which Dylan recalls his days as a political folkie and pokes fun at his former self-seriousness on the song’s chorus: “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” Dylan promised a break with the past by calling the LP Another Side of Bob Dylan. ”˜My Back Pages’ was his statement of intent. “There aren’t any finger-pointing songs here,” Dylan said of the album. “I don’t want to write for people anymore. You know ”“ be a spokesman.”