Walkin’ down the line

In 2004 Robert Hilburn interviewed Bob Dylan. Here is an excerpt. LA Times:

Dylan leans over and picks up the acoustic guitar. “Well, you have to understand that I’m not a melodist,” he says. “My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or songs or variations of the blues form. “What happens is, I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head…I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds,’ for instance, in my head constantly — while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song.”

He’s slowly strumming the guitar, but it’s hard to pick out the tune. “I wrote in 10 minutes, just put words to an old spiritual, probably something I learned from Carter Family records. That’s the folk music tradition. You use what’s been handed down. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ is probably from an old Scottish folk song…

No, no, no,” Bob Dylan says sharply when asked if aspiring songwriters should learn their craft by studying his albums, which is precisely what thousands have done for decades. “It’s only natural to pattern yourself after someone,” he says, opening a door on a subject that has long been off-limits to reporters: his songwriting process. “If I wanted to be a painter, I might think about trying to be like Van Gogh, or if I was an actor, act like Laurence Olivier. If I was an architect, there’s Frank Gehry.

“But you can’t just copy somebody. If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to. Anyone who wants to be a songwriter should listen to as much folk music as they can, study the form and structure of stuff that has been around for 100 years. I go back to Stephen Foster.”…

“I always admired true artists who were dedicated, so I learned from them,” Dylan says, rocking slowly in the hotel room chair. “Popular culture usually comes to an end very quickly. It gets thrown into the grave. I wanted to do something that stood alongside Rembrandt’s paintings.”…

“To me, Woody Guthrie was the be-all and end-all,” says Dylan…his curly hair still framing his head majestically as it did on album covers four decades ago. “Woody’s songs were about everything at the same time. They were about rich and poor, black and white, the highs and lows of life, the contradictions between what they were teaching in school and what was really happening. He was saying everything in his songs that I felt but didn’t know how to…

“I had read a lot of poetry by the time I wrote a lot of those early songs,” he volunteers. “I was into the hard-core poets. I read them the way some people read Stephen King. I had also seen a lot of it growing up. Poe’s stuff knocked me out in more ways than I could name. Byron and Keats and all those guys. John Donne…

“I’m not that serious a songwriter,” he says, a smile on his lips. “Songs don’t just come to me. They’ll usually brew for a while, and you’ll learn that it’s important to keep the pieces until they are completely formed and glued together…I’m not thinking about what I want to say, I’m just thinking ‘Is this OK for the meter?’ “But there’s an undeniable element of mystery too. “It’s like a ghost is writing a song like that. It gives you the song and it goes away, it goes away. You don’t know what it means. Except the ghost picked me to write the song.”

We’ve never read anything quite like this interview. Tumbling Tumbleweeds morphs into Bob Dylan’s music? Very strange, the creative process. It is also a little strange to contemplate that Bob Dylan turned 69 this year.

2 Responses to “Walkin’ down the line”

  1. bill Says:

    So Dylan was just a confused man that stole most of his “genius works” from others, yet appealed to the disillusioned hippies, even though he couldn’t sing?

    I think we have a dreamer president like that … who was brewed with the politics of socialism. He then patterned his siren songs after his father’s ghost, as mythically portrayed to him by Ayers.

  2. Maggie's Farm Says:

    Saturday morning links

    Bloomberg’s ultimate victory: NYC bans e-cigarettes in indoor public places because they look too much like cigarettes or something Even For Rich Kids, Marriage Matters Bob Dylan talks about how he writes songs Chobani vs. Whole Foods over G

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