Bob Dylan is a legend, an American treasure, and obviously an American original. On Friday night he was awarded a Person of the Year award from MusiCares, an organization that helps music people in need. In accepting the award he gave a 30-minute speech, something Dylan just doesn’t do. If you are a fan of popular music of the last century, you will want to read the transcription of the entire speech.
Dylan clearly understands that as revolutionary as his music was in many ways, he was simply standing on the shoulders of many others who had come before. This humility was mixed with a certain pride in what he was able to accomplish, probably not a bad combination for any artist. As C. S. Lewis argues, and as Dylan clearly understands, all art is derivative; there is really no such thing as pure originality:
These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. Contrary to what Lou Levy said, there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock ‘n’ roll, and traditional big-band swing orchestra music.
I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.
For three or four years all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere: clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing, and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once.
If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me—”John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.”
If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.
Well, probably not. But as I said, Dylan has humility. And he is deeply conservative. The past, be it in music or any other human endeavor, is something to be studied and learned from, cherished as a depository of the human struggle with existence, its joys and sorrows, its tragedies and triumphs. One of the reasons for Dylan’s greatness is that he knows this and it has informed his entire career, a career, by the way, that is not slowing down in the least.
His latest work proves my point. If you haven’t heard: believe it or not, his latest and recently released 36th studio album is a collection of covers of pop standard songs that Frank Sinatra made famous. As usual, expect the unexpected from Bob Dylan. And expect excellence.