Bob Dylan: A Tribute

Bob Dylan: A Tribute
Brian Zahnd

Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’
I was layin’ in bed
Wond’rin’ if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red

That’s how it began. Early one morning when I was fifteen I woke to “Tangled Up In Blue” on the radio. At that time my music obsessions were rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Blue Öyster Cult, ZZ Top; I wasn’t into singer-songwriter music — it wasn’t heavy enough for me. I was only vaguely aware of Bob Dylan; I knew “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Lay Lady Lay.” That was about it. But as I listened to the song in a half-dream state I was mesmerized by the meter and effortless rhymes of Dylan’s poetry.

I lived with them on Montague Street
In a basement down the stairs
There was music in the cafés at night
And revolution in the air

I believe it was that morning in 1975 that my love for artistic language was born, and I know that was the moment I became a Bob Dylan fan. For over forty-six years BZ (Bobby Zimmerman) has been a constant companion, providing the soundtrack for my life. If I were to listen to all the records, CDs, and digital files of Dylan albums and live bootlegs that I have, it would take weeks of 24-7 listening.

Yes, I’m a hardcore fan. I didn’t choose to become a hardcore fan, it just happened. It’s more like an addiction, but an addiction that has been nothing but good for me. I respect the kind of hardcore fandom you see among enthusiasts of Dylan, The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, U2, Metallica, etc. A deep dive into an artist’s work makes it that much more enjoyable. Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s really a choice you make, it just happens. I’m grateful that Dylan’s art captured my heart at a young age.

Dylan is an artist that you come to on his own terms. He isn’t going to try to get you to like what he does — either you get it or you don’t. True art doesn’t come to you, you go to it. Twice during his career Dylan has endured tours where he was constantly booed — when he went electric and when he went Christian. During his first electric tour in 1965, Levon Helm, Dylan’s drummer, quit the tour midway because he couldn’t stand the constant acrimony from the crowd. But Dylan remained true to himself and his art.

The courage to reinvent himself regardless of whether or not it’s popular is part of what makes Dylan so fascinating and may explain why more biographies have been written about him than any other performing artist. I have about thirty of them, but hundreds have been written. Dylan himself has written one memoir, Chronicles, a work for which he received a Pulitzer Prize. It’s a quirky blend of memoir, history, and autobiographical fiction.

Peri has asked me what I’ll do when Bob Dylan dies. I’ve answered, “I’ll cry, take the day off, listen to his music, and write a tribute piece.” Well, today is Dylan’s eightieth birthday. And for all I know, Dylan may live to be a hundred. So I thought today would be a good day to write my tribute to Mr. Tambourine Man.

Though you might hear laughin’, spinnin’, swingin’ madly across the sun
It’s not aimed at anyone, it’s just escapin’ on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin’
And if you hear vague traces of skippin’ reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn’t pay it any mind
It’s just a shadow you’re seein’ that he’s chasing

Of course, Dylan doesn’t need me or anyone else to write a tribute to establish the greatness of his genius — that’s long since been settled. You give Grammys to great recording artists (Dylan has eighteen), but you give Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature — an honor he received in 2016. You don’t compare Dylan to the Beatles, you compare Dylan to Shakespeare.

One of the things I love about Dylan’s songs are the seeming effortlessness in his rhymes. The rhymes never come across as contrived; it always feels like Dylan is saying exactly what he wants to say and it just happens to rhyme. Here’s one among hundreds of my favorites.

The Greek is quickly headin’ for the second floor
She passes him on the spiral staircase
Thinkin’ he’s the Soviet Ambassador

Rhyming headin’ for the second floor with the Soviet Ambassador. That’s nice.

And it’s not just the rhyming verse — Dylan’s artistic use of language is apparent without the rhyming couplet. Consider this line from “Visions of Johanna.”

The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face

Or is there are more intriguing opening line to a song than the opening line of “All Along the Watchtower”?

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief

As for those who trot out the tired trope that “Dylan can’t sing,” I just remind them that Dylan has won the Grammy for “Best Male Vocal Performance.” Twice. No, Dylan doesn’t sing “pretty” according to pop music convention; he sings as an artist expressing deep passion. Just listen to this live performance of “Cold Irons Bound.” and you’ll see what I mean.

I get the feeling that the same people who say Dylan can’t sing would say Van Gogh can’t paint, because his style doesn’t conform to realism. (By the way, Dylan is also a painter.)

What Dylan has done with his 73 albums (39 studio albums) is to create a complete geography. His nearly 600 songs take us to hundreds of places, from Acapulco to Aberdeen to Amarillo; from 56th and Wabasha to the St. James Hotel; from Carbondale to Cannery Row; from London to gay Paree; from New Orleans to Jerusalem; from the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol; from the Bowery slums to Brooklyn State Hospital; from the Red River shore and down the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee and all those rebel rivers; from way down in Key West to a dark day in Dallas; and of course, out on Highway 61; he’s stayed a day too long in Mississippi; when he was in Missouri they would not let him be; he’s been stuck in Mobile with the Memphis blues, had a romance in Durango, sipped white rum in a Portugal bar, and told us if we see her, say hello, she might be in Tangier.

And then there’s the enormous cast of characters. Here are just a few: Sweet Marie, Angelina, Tom Paine, Mr. Jones, Hollis Brown, Blind Willie McTell, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Hattie Carroll, St. Augustine, John Wesley Harding, Isis, Lenny Bruce, Queen Jane, Mona Lisa, Dr. Filth, Maggie and her farm, Einstein disguised as Robin Hood, Prince Phillip at the home of the blues, Cain and Abel, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, Jesse James and Robert Ford, Othello and Desdemona, Mr. Jinx and Miss Lucy, Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts, and of course, Sara, the Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.

Dylan’s world with its myriad of places and countless characters is a morally intelligible world. It’s a place where sin is set forth for what it is. Consider the third verse of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” — a song about the true story of a black barmaid beaten to death with a cane by a wealthy white tobacco farmer.

Hattie Carroll was a maid of the kitchen
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children
Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn’t even talk to the people at the table
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level
Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane
That sailed through the air and came down through the room
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle
And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger

Do you see it? Dylan, who never has any trouble rhyming, ends three lines in a row with table. But what he’s really saying is, Able, Able, Able, lay slain by a Cain.

But Dylan’s lyrical world is also a world where redemption is possible, even for Cain. Consider the first verse of the exquisitely beautiful “Every Grain of Sand.”

In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed
There’s a dyin’ voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair
Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break
In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand

The entire song is an ode to grace and redemption. I once ministered to a man broken by sin and shame by picking up my guitar and singing “Every Grain of Sand.” It was the best counsel I could give to this wounded soul in that moment.

I could go on and on, but let me just share three brief stories from my near half-century with Dylan’s music.

During the summer of 1979 we began to hear rumors that Bob Dylan had become a believer and was recording a Christian album. (I can’t remember how we heard rumors before the internet, but we did.) This excited me to no end. On the day the new album was released I was at Musicland as soon as it opened. Standing in the store looking at Slow Train Coming I thought, “the front cover looks like a man carrying a cross and the back cover looks like Dylan standing under a cross…but I’m probably getting carried away.” I bought the album, rushed to the Catacombs (the Jesus Movement coffeehouse I was leading), put it on the turntable, and listened to nine unambiguous songs of Christian faith. I wept for joy. It’s a fantastic album. Side A of Slow Train Coming is among Dylan’s best work.

In 1997 Dylan won the Grammy for Album of the Year for Time out of Mind. From my first listen I loved this dark, brooding, deeply thoughtful record. This is not the brash poetry of youth; this is the reflective poetry of an artist on the edge of old age. In “Like A Rolling Stone” a twenty-four-year-old Dylan says,

When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose

But in “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” a fifty-six-year-old Dylan says,

When you think you’ve lost everything
You find out you can always lose a little more

The later lyric is much closer to the truth. About ten years after Time out of Mind was released, I went through a long and difficult period of my life. During that troubled season I took comfort in the melancholy songs of Time out of Mind. I learned “Not Dark Yet” on guitar, and many was the time I sang that song by myself to help exorcise the pain. Sometimes a suffering soul needs the kind of therapy only lamentation can provide, and that’s what I found in songs from Time out of Mind.

I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

On March 27, 2020, during the early dark days of Covid quarantine, Bob Dylan unexpectedly released a new song — the seventeen-minute epic, “Murder Most Foul.” It was his first original song since 2012. I was aware of this new song within the first minutes of its midnight-release, and I listened to it for over an hour — four listens. The song is something of a requiem for America told through the lens of the assassination of President Kennedy while referencing seventy-five songs. Dylan imagines President Kennedy requesting Wolfman Jack to play various songs of Americana while he dies from the assassin’s bullet.

What’s New Pussycat – wha’d I say
I said the soul of a nation been torn away
It’s beginning to go down into a slow decay
And that it’s thirty-six hours past judgment day
Wolfman Jack, he’s speaking in tongues
He’s going on and on at the top of his lungs
Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack
Play it for me in my long Cadillac
Play that Only The Good Die Young
Take me to the place where Tom Dooley was hung

“Murder Most Foul” ends with Dylan referencing a seventy-fifth song — his own song.

Play Marchin’ Through Georgia and Dumbarton’s Drums
Play Darkness and death will come when it comes
Play Love Me or Leave Me by the great Bud Powell
Play the Blood-Stained Banner – play Murder Most Foul

After listening to it four times, I crawled into bed and whispered to Peri, “Bob Dylan just released a new song and it’s awesome.” And it is. It was the right song for the right moment, and it was met with universal acclaim. “Murder Most Foul” was Dylan’s first song to top the Billboard charts. The man who wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Like a Rolling Stone” in his twenties, had his first #1 hit at age seventy-nine. That’s so Dylan.

People ask me if I’ve ever met him. No. Dylan is famously inaccessible. Even his friend George Harrison once quipped, “You can ring up Bob for years and never get through.” I don’t need to meet Bob Dylan, having his music is enough. If I ever did meet him, I would just say thank you.

So Bob, on your eightieth birthday, thanks for all the music.

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young

Happy Birthday, Bob.

From another,


(Here’s a Spotify playlist of the 56 Dylan songs I mention in this piece.)