Growing up, I spent most of my adolescence exploring the music of my parents’ generation– The Who, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin, to name a few. Although I loved and admired the work of many of these musicians (and still do), there was one who, for a significant period of my teenage years, defined my personality, my existence: Bob Dylan.
What made Bob Dylan so appealing to a 14 year old grunge-girl wannabe? Was it his endearing off-key wailing, crazy hair, and those beautiful, poetic lyrics? Probably. At least that’s what young Jill was thinking at the time. Looking back on that time of my life with the benefit of hindsight and age, I now see the true appeal: Dylan never “sings down” to his listeners. In other words, there’s no condescension, no special membership, no minimum age. All of his words, simple chords, and ragged harmonica accompaniment are laid bare for all to consume. That’s why I was so obsessed with Bob Dylan; his music was made for me…and for you, too.
I’ll be honest and admit that these days I really have to be in a weird mood to dive deep into Dylan’s catalog. Once you step away from mainstream radio staples like “Rainy Day Women #25 & 35” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” you really have to make a conscious effort to become completely immersed in Dylan’s world. A lot of people would call that pretentious, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. Dylan is who he is, and his music will always be ready and waiting for all of us to come and go as we please. While his music is often labeled as democratic and anti-establishment, Dylan has dipped his folk roots into corporate advertising waters. His commercials for Victoria’s Secret, IBM, Apple, etc., have prompted some fans to label him a corporate sell-out (and calling him out for creepily leering at scantily clad young women). Fair point, I suppose, but I think it’s unfair to negate an entire lifetime of work over a few silly commercials.
Another downside to Dylan is that he can really be hit or miss when it comes to his live concerts. In 1994, I convinced my dad to take my best friend and me to a Dylan concert in Chattanooga, Tennessee (my hometown). Although I had extensive knowledge of his music, I was completely confused as to what I was hearing. I couldn’t decipher most of what he was singing or playing, save for a very rushed and mumbling rendition of “Tangled Up in Blue,” a favorite of mine (I found a setlist of that concert online. Wow, I would’ve never figured that out). I imagine Dylan was best in those early live performances when he was at the height of his popularity. Nevertheless, I was disappointed for sure, but nothing compared to the agony my dad was experiencing. A lukewarm fan at best, my dad had blood oozing from his ears. Sorry, Dad. I owe you.
Despite these so-called flaws, Bob Dylan was, and is, the voice of a generation. A generation that witnessed horrors and grave injustices, calling upon peace to change the world for the better…and for everyone. Today, on Bob Dylan’s 75th birthday (and the anniversary of the release of the 1969 album Nashville Skyline), we celebrate his impressive career, while appreciating the voice he lent to an entire generation’s movement for love, peace, and equality.
I’ve compiled a playlist of essential and favorite Bob Dylan songs, including my personal favorites “Lay Lady Lay,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “The Man in Me,” and “Tangled Up in Blue.” If you’re already a Dylan fan, you’ll know why I chose these songs. If you’re a new listener, I hope this playlist serves as a palatable starting course to the veritable banquet that is Bob Dylan’s musical artistry.