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
In 1975, Dylan took up the cause of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a black boxer serving a life sentence for a 1966 triple murder. “I recognised the fact that here was a brother,” Carter said of Dylan, who visited him in jail. Dylan would organise two benefit concerts, and with theatre director Jacques Levy, he wrote ”˜Hurricane,’ a roaring declaration of the boxer’s innocence. The song opens like a film script (“Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night”), and ends more than eight minutes later with Carter in jail. The attention Dylan called to Carter helped win him a retrial, but he was convicted again. Then, in 1985, that conviction was overturned. In 1988, all murder charges against him were dropped.
40. I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine
John Wesley Harding (1967)
This deliciously ambiguous hymn riffs on the opening line of ”˜Joe Hill,’ a folk standard about a labour organiser and songwriter who was executed (and probably framed) for a double murder. Dylan replaces folkie certainty with layered complexity: St Augustine is a martyr, but the narrator places himself “amongst the ones/That put him out to death,” and it’s never clear if we should sympathise with Augustine or Dylan or anyone at all. What we do know for sure is Dylan’s tattered, slightly out-of-tune intensity. It’s an earnest gesture of faith in something that he doesn’t quite understand.
41. I’ll Keep It With Mine
Dylan cut ”˜I’ll Keep it with Mine’ in 1965 but didn’t release it until years later ”“ and has never played it live. That didn’t stop others from falling in love with the song, a ballad of friendship whose 1965 version features a sweet, plaintive vocal. “It’s hypnotic ”“ just Dylan and piano,” says Cameron Crowe, “and his vocal is kind of heroic.” (The song has been covered by Judy Collins, Nico and Fairport Convention.) “Maybe it didn’t sound like a record to me,” said Dylan, talking about shelved recordings like ”˜I’ll Keep It With Mine.’ But he was still philosophical about this particular song’s appeal: “If people like it, they like it.”
42. I Threw It All Away
Nashville Skyline (1969)
After seven years of Dylan songs that were wildly original, it was a shock to hear him plunge into straightforward Tin Pan Alley-style song structure, and even more of a shock to hear his hyper-articulate cowboy mouth murmuring lines like “Love is all there is, it makes the world go ’round.” Turns out he was great at straight-faced country rock, too: The song’s regretful lyrics suggest that it is an apologia for the sharp left turn Dylan’s career had taken, from the hard-touring, reluctant pop oracle to a clean-cut homebody who longed to be a part of the Nashville machine.
43. Gotta Serve Somebody
Slow Train Coming (1979)
By SinÃ©ad O’Connor
I was about 13 when my older brother Joseph brought home Slow Train Coming, and it just completely blew my mind. People say ”“ and I hope it’s not true ”“ that Dylan doesn’t stand by that record. It’s a staggering album for anyone to make, but especially him. The song that killed me most was ”˜Gotta Serve Somebody.’ Living in a Catholic family in Ireland, the only religious music we had ever heard was just awful stuff ”“ so incredibly boring. For that song to come out in Ireland at that time was life-changing. He wasn’t giving a lecture or pointing to a congregation and telling them what to do. There was a sexuality, almost, in the sound of the guitar and the other instruments. And the lyrics are brilliant ”“ what he’s saying is that whatever you’re going to do with your life, you’re fucked if you don’t stand for something. I quite like that, as a lesson from a master teacher on how to be an artist and also, I suppose, on how to live your life. What he’s saying is, “Don’t just get into your bed and curl up under the covers. You have to get the fuck up.”
44. Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again
Blonde on Blonde (1966)
“Oh, mama, can this really be the end?” Dylan moans over and over in this desperate, seven-minute epic. Dylan drives the Nashville session pros through verse after verse of surreal blues imagery, and the band sounds inspired by the challenge. The mood is all sex, drugs, temptation and paranoia. Despite the poetic abstraction, Dylan delivers one of Blonde on Blonde’s most sensual vocals.