THE READING ROOM: ‘Listening to Bob Dylan’ Puts Spotlight on the Composition
Will we ever have enough books on Bob Dylan and his music? Every other year, it seems, another thick biography lands on our shelves, filled with exhaustive, and often exhausting, detail. Such books peer under every rock Dylan ever sat upon, turning his song lyrics inside and out, looking to find clues to the songwriter’s genius in isolated words and phrases. Some books explore the relationship of Dylan’s music and philosophy, while others examine the relationship of Dylan’s music with religion. As long as Dylan continues to release new albums, the river of books that ponder his lyrics, his life, and his music will also continue to flow ceaselessly from biographers, critics, and historians.
Musicologist Larry Starr takes a bit of a different approach to Dylan’s music in his appealing book, Listening to Bob Dylan (Illinois). Combining the passion of a fan with the insights of a musicologist, he asks simply: Would we love Dylan’s music even if the songs did not have lyrics? He contends that we too often focus on Dylan simply as wordsmith, a lyricist, and fail to listen to the entire performance of the song: the music, the composition of the melody and harmony, the arranging, the roles of certain instruments. As he puts it in the book, Starr wants to restore “Dylan’s music and performances to the central, essential position they occupy in his output and achievement. The book does not at all neglect the lyrics. Rather, it considers the lyrics as one part of a remarkable whole that is experienced by listening to Dylan’s work.”
Starr devotes chapters to “Bob Dylan as Composer,” in which he discusses Dylan’s melody, harmony, and rhythm and the various musical forms he uses in composing his songs. For example, Starr points out that Dylan often uses a strophic pattern in his songs to embrace the virtues and emphasize the challenges of repetition. Starr points to “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” as an example of such a pattern. “In the music, the first and third phrases are the same, reflecting a pattern in the lyrics established in the first stanza, where the first and third lyrical lines are identical (‘It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe’).”
In another chapter, Starr focuses on the harmonica as Dylan’s “other voice” in his songs. “One other striking connection of Dylan’s harmonica with ‘wind’ in a song’s lyrics may be heard at the very end of the concise and cryptic ‘All Along the Watchtower.’ The harmonica is present from the outset of this performance, but the connection is made only with the final phrase in the lyrics, which is the only time wind is sung (“The wind began to howl”). After this phrase, the harmonica plays a particularly intense coda, focusing on a repeated pitch and its lower neighboring note, as if underlining the words with a kind of musical onomatopoeia. This could imply, in retrospect, that the wind represented by the harmonica has been howling from the beginning of the song.”
Starr also focuses on Dylan’s vocals as an instrument. “Bob Dylan’s vocal mastery is represented not only in his understanding of what to sing and how to sing it. It is reflected also in his understanding of when to withhold his singing voice, in favor of his harmonica or — the ultimate step — in favor of complete, yet eloquent, silence.”
Listening closely to Dylan’s entire musical output, Starr comes to an unsurprising conclusion: “Bob Dylan is a singularly versatile and expressive singer, a man of many voices. He can be a chanting folksinger (‘Masters of War’) or a hectoring rock shouter (‘Like a Rolling Stone’) or a country crooner (‘Lay, Lady, Lay’), and this is just for starters. His voice can shape-shift, chameleon-like, from one track to the next on a single album … As an instrumentalist, he has also elected to use both acoustic and electric guitar in multiple ways. Sometimes he chose the piano over the guitar for certain songs, a choice that decisively influenced the expressive character of those selections; an essential contribution to the unusual dark mood created by ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ … is surely Dylan’s hard-edged piano playing. Bob Dylan’s song lyrics are vividly enhanced, colored, and even tweaked by his musical settings and performances, and vice versa, resulting in complex yet unified examples of the songwriter’s art.”
Listening to Bob Dylan dives deeply into the structure of Dylan’s songs and can sometimes lose the reader in such detail. Overall, though, Starr’s deep passion for helping listeners hear the intricate musical patterns of Dylan’s songs and albums provides the foundation for this out-of-the-ordinary guide to Dylan. The best way to read this book, of course, is to have Dylan’s music playing in the background to hear the patterns and sounds Starr encourages us to hear.