How Bob Dylan Wrote the Second Great American Songbook

How Bob Dylan Wrote the Second Great American Songbook

How Bob Dylan Wrote the Second Great American Songbook

The sale of the singer-songwriter’s catalogue is a reminder of his massive cultural legacy.


Bob Dylan takes great pains to detail just how inimical to popular taste his music was when he first started performing in the late 1950s and early ’60s. “I had no song in my repertoire for commercial radio anyway,” Dylan writes in the first—and to date only—volume of his memoirs, Chronicles: Volume One (2004). “Songs about debauched bootleggers, mothers that drowned their own children, Cadillacs that only got five miles to the gallon, floods, union hall fires, darkness and cadavers at the bottom of the rivers weren’t for radiophiles. There was nothing easygoing about the folk songs I sang. They weren’t friendly or ripe with mellowness. They didn’t come gently to the shore. I guess you could say they weren’t commercial.”

Knowing their limited popular appeal, Dylan sold his first songs for a pittance, busking in hole-in-the wall dives in Greenwich Village so he could collect a share of the basket and cutting a deal with Lou Levy of Leeds Music Publishing for a meager advance. “I had just signed a contract with Leeds Music giving it the right to publish my songs, not that there was any great deal to hammer out,” Dylan recalls of his first deal. “I hadn’t written much. Lou advanced me a hundred dollars against future royalties to sign the paper and that was fine with me.”

Six decades later, Dylan has more than a 600 songs to his name—almost all of which, until recently, he owned. One of the few exceptions were those early songs knitted up by Leeds Music. But earlier this week The New York Times reported that Dylan had sold his entire catalogue lock-stock-and-barrel to Universal Music for an estimated $300 million. (The seven songs Dylan sold to Leeds Music had been purchased by Universal long ago in a separate deal).

The idea that one corporation could own all of Dylan’s work seems almost sacrilegious, as if Disney could possess the copyright on the Bible or you had to pay royalties to sing one of the traditional songs anthologized in the Child Ballads.

But it’s rank sentimentalism to ignore the fact that Dylan has always worked in the domain of commercial music—even as he stretched the definition of what commercial music is. Dylan has for decades been willing to license his songs for advertisements.

More importantly, when dealing with music as pervasively influential as Dylan’s catalogue, the whole idea of ownership is ambiguous. As Amanda Petrusich of The New Yorker notes, “Sixty years after his recording début, Dylan’s best-known and most resonant songs (‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’,’ ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’) are now so intensely and inextricably interwoven into the American experience that the question of ‘ownership’ almost seems moot.” She adds, “Universal may have secured certain legal and financial privileges when it comes to Dylan’s catalogue. But I’d venture that the songs belong to everyone who has claimed them.”

Dylan’s music has never belonged to Dylan alone. A company like Universal music desires Dylan’s catalogue not just because it expects there will continue to be an audience for his songs, but also because of the many other musicians who want to perform them.

The New York Times notes that “Dylan’s songs have been recorded more than 6,000 times,” according to Universal. By some estimates, this makes Dylan second only to the Beatles. Many of these covers are as famous or more famous than Dylan’s own renditions, notably Jimi Hendrix’s high-voltage version of “All Along the Watchtower” or Joan Baez’s piercing and plaintive “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

The paradox of Dylan is that his own quirky voice is so singular that it gives permission to other musicians to take up his songs. Because Dylan’s voice isn’t classically perfect in the mode of Frank Sinatra or Celine Dion, it always feels like there is room for multiple interpretations of a Dylan number.

Musicologists often refer to the “Great American Songbook”—the shifting canon of great popular songs from Broadway and Tin Pan Alley during the early 20th century. Part of the miracle of Dylan is that he’s given us a second Great American Songbook, the product not of a tradition but of one musician.

But then an essential part of Dylan’s artistry has always come from the way he’s channeled traditions larger then himself. What makes him a folk musician is not just the songs he sings but the way he’s listened to the whole body of American song and British folk song and incorporated them into his own work (e.g., his wholesale adaptation of the classic ballad “Lord Randall” into “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”)

In Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan repeatedly expresses affinity for all sorts of musicians. He recalls whiling away the hours in the Folklore Center on MacDougal Street where he eagerly pored over “extinct song folios of every type—sea shanties, Civil War songs, cowboy songs, songs of lament, church house songs, anti-Jim Crow songs, [and] union songs.”

Dylan also expresses fellow feeling for commercial singers like Ricky Nelson: “Ricky’s talent was very accessible to me. I felt we had a lot in common. In a few years’ time he’d record some of my songs, make them sound like they were his own, like he’d written them himself.”

Dylan also remembers hunting up and down the record dial in the hopes of finding a new Roy Orbison recording. Orbison, Dylan enthuses, “transcended all the genres—folk, country, rock and roll or just about anything. His stuff mixed all the styles and some that hadn’t even been invented yet. He could sound mean and nasty on one line and then sing in a falsetto voice like Frankie Valli in the next. With Roy, you didn’t know if you were listening to mariachi or opera.”

It says something about Dylan’s ever shifting and quicksilver persona that the best way he’s figured out how to write about himself is by describing other musicians. As great a musician as he is, he also realizes that he’s part of a much larger line of singers, some he’s learned from—and many who have borrowed a tune or two from him.

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