10 Bob Dylan Songs That Are Literary Gems

Whether you think he deserves the highest literary award in the world or not, Bob Dylan‘s influence on generation after generation of music audiences in undeniable. From his early folk days to going electric to embracing Evangelistic Christianity to his latter day comebacks, Dylan the DJ and outright delightful kookiness (the Bob Dylan Christmas Album anyone?), Dylan has been courting controversy and dividing opinion ever since he was a teen.

Bob Dylan: The Song and Dance Man

This point remains irrefutable: Bob Dylan is one of the greatest songwriters who has ever lived. 

Many a writer has come to literature via Dylan’s lyrics. Angry, thoughtful, provocative, he led music away from the 3-minute pop song – mirrored the world he lived in and challenged it, drawing from and building upon a cross-section of musical genres. He raised the game both for music-lovers and the makers of music who came after.

You can read what writers and poets make of Dylan’s fitness to be a Nobel laureate or you can make up your own mind by listening to his songs. But where to start?

In a body of work covering six decades from the early 1960’s onward, it would be impossible to create anything like a definitive Bob Dylan playlist but here’s a ten song primer of lyrics that will burrow into your brain and explode.

Subterranean Homesick Blues

‘Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government
The man in a trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off
Look out kid
It’s somethin’ you did…’

Oh, and extra kudos for having Allen Ginsberg as an extra in the now legendary opening to D.A Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back.

Highway 61 Revisited

‘Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What ?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”‘

From the album of the same name that brought forth the new electric rock’n’roll Dylan and divided his audience – this is the beginning of a less preachy, more FUN Dylan.

Listen to Highway 61 Revisited on Spotify

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

‘While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the President of the United States
Sometimes must have
To stand naked.’

Written in 1965 – still true fifty years on.

Mr. Tambourine Man

‘Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.’

The Times They Are A-Changing

‘Come sailors and congressman please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t blacken the hall
For he who has lost is he who has all
There’s a storm outside and it’s ragin”

Shelter From the Storm

‘Well I’m living in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor’s edge someday I’ll make it mine
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born
“Come in,” she said,
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”‘

Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

‘With your sheets like metal and your belt like lace
And your deck of cards missing the jack and the ace
And your basement clothes and your hollow face
Who among them can think he could outguess you?
With your silhouette when the sunlight dims
Into your eyes where the moonlight swims
And your match-book songs and your gypsy hymns
Who among them would try to impress you?’

Listen to Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands on Spotify

Like a Rolling Stone

‘You’ve gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely,
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
And nobody’s ever taught you how to live out on the street
And now you’re gonna have to get used to it
You said you’d never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And say do you want to make a deal?’

The song that almost started a riot at the Newport Folk Festival, when he “electrified one half of his audience, and electrocuted the other” by abandoning his traditional acoustic sound.

Idiot Wind

‘I noticed at the ceremony, your corrupt ways had finally made you blind
I can’t remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed your eyes don’t look into mine
The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone faced while the building burned
I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees while the springtime turned
Slowly into autumn.’

Visions of Johanna

Saving the best for last:

‘Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when
you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off.’

Still unconvinced? Then I give you the line any writer would kill to have written:

‘The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.’

*mic drop*

Is there a Dylan song or lyric that has special significance to you? Share it in the comments box below.

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