Bob Dylan’s Voice

(I wrote this about four years ago for a class, and just recently found it.)

Bob Dylan’s voice has often been criticized. It can easily be imitated and is instantly recognizable. Lots of people think that they can imitate Dylan, maybe even singer better than him. The debate over Dylan’s voice has followed him for his entire career, and continues to this day.  When his latest CD “Modern Times”, was released in late August 2006, there were some accusations that his voice was entirely shot.  To be fair, Dylan’s voice today is much more of a smoky old man, than a young protester.

A co-worker once remarked to me that she hates and never listens to Bob Dylan “because of his voice”.  Though she respected him she said, because he is a great songwriter.  That seemed like a contradiction, and a bit of a cop-out.  How could she tell if he was such a great songwriter, if she never listens to him?

People use Bob Dylan’s voice as an excuse for why they don’t listen to him. Dylan’s stature in American music – hell, as an American icon – is so firmly secured that to question his validity is an embarrassment. Because Dylan is so literate and his songs offer so many interpretations Dylan does not necessarily make for easy listening. Many of his songs do not get stuck in your head the way that, say a Beatles song  would.  As result, it’s much easier to say that you don’t like his voice rather than just flatly state that Dylan “fucking sucks”.   It’s easier to say and more acceptable.

It can sometimes be easy too overstate Dylan’s importance and influence on American music.  The man practically changed the whole sonic landscape of what a singular song could be.   Dylan is one of the few lyricists whose words actually look good on paper, and could questionably be categorized as poems. (Though this is constantly up for debate.) Even though his words may look good on paper, and many different emotions are contained within them, like many performers his words take on a new edge when actually sung.

Take, for instance Dylan’s most famous song, “Like a Rolling Stone” which contains the following chorus:

How does it feel?  To be without a home?  To be on your own?  Like a rolling stone?

When sung, “feel” is dragged out to become “feeeeeeeeel” – the song becomes more icy and vicious with that inflection.  You get a sense of his anger and frurstation at the girl whom he is singing to.  At the beginning of  verse, Dylan adds an “Awww” before continuing with the song’s next line, reinforcing the song’s sarcasm and biting edge.

Similarly in “It’s all Over Now Baby Blue” Dylan uses his voice’s limitations to his advantage.  The first two stanzas of each verse are sung in his “normal singing voice”, while the second two are sung in a lower voice.  For the chorus, Dylan returns to his normal voice, creating a chilling and memorable affect.

Like most singers, Dylan puts an emphasis on certain words and phrases in order to make a point.  In  “Baby Blue” one of the best examples might be the word “coincidence” as in, “take what you have gathered from coincidence.”  However, Dylan pronounces coincidence as “co-IN-zid-DENSE”.  The slight variation of the syllables changes the subject entirely and he becomes quite scornful, which perhaps is not so coincidental after all.

Dylan’s catalogue is rich with such examples of this change of syllables and emphasis on certain words.  The point remains that Dylan used his voice’s limitations to his advantage, and by doing that, he changed musical history.

Prior to Dylan’s emerging on the music scene, most singers and musicians had to  have a voice that appealed to a mass audience.  Dylan changed that.  When Dylan met the Beatles in 1965, they were still considered a “pop” group, while Dylan’s status leaned more to that of an artist.  After their meeting, the Beatles’ music and lyrics began to change dramatically as a result.  John Lennon wrote “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” as if it were a Dylan song – it was a change of pace from the Beatles’ previous songs about girls.  Dylan on the other hand, went in the opposite direction and traded his trademark straightforward lyrics, for a more abstract approach.

But it should also be noted that The Beatles, along with other groups, began to change the way they sang around the same.  There were some exceptions prior to Dylan.  (John Lennon practically screams his head off during “Twist and Shout”).  But the Beatles and other groups started moving away from two vocal harmonies to single vocal tracks.  Because Dylan’s voice broke the boundary, other experiments could follow.  Even though the Who claim the stuttering during “My Generation” was a reference to the Mods’ use of speed, it could not have happened without Dylan’s influence.

Since 1965, different vocal styles developed overtime, as a result of various different musical movements such as punk, metal, and even emo. But there is little doubt that these vocal variations could not have existed without Dylan.

To paraphrase one of his most famous lyrics, Dylan never looks back.  This might be a reason why even to this day, he changes the songs entirely live. Sometimes it’s in a different key, sometimes the songs are sung slower – other times it’s so entirely different it becomes hardly recognizable. Other artists tend to duplicate their recorded vocals live to the point of parody.

Why does Dylan decide to change his vocals so much?  Is it because he gets bored? It’s hard to tell.  I think that Dylan realizes that he cannot duplicate his recorded vocals, and instead of trying to, creates something new.  Dylan has always been one to look forward, not back, and this makes sense.  In this way, he uses his voice to give himself and the audience a new way to look at his songs – which, I believe will last forever.

So to anyone who ever says Bob Dylan’s voice “fucking sucks,” – I suggest they check out “Nashville Skyline.”  Because there he actually sings differently than he normally sings, and it sounds much more akin to a normal vocalist.  But the question is – his real voice, or is he putting on yet another mask?  If that’s his real voice, Dylan’s “voice” is even more influential than anything we could possibly imagine.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Bob Dylan’s Voice

  1. James

    Ah, I think it should be ‘without’ a home, not ‘with’ a home, in the lyrics to Like a Rolling Stone.

  2. Pingback: Ultraviolet – Stiff Dylans – Angus,thongs and perfect snogging song :)

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