I Threw It All Away: Dylan Shows His Scars
“One thing that’s certain you will surely be a hurtin’ if you throw it all away.” — Bob Dylan
“The characteristics that I have pointed out in Dylan’s protest songs continue through the years in his other kinds of songs. Dylan allows no easy-listening bystanders: he draws a listener into a song, often by mean of pronouns and other bland-looking words that acquire meaning in performance.”
~Betsy Bowden, Performed Literature
One of the books I’ve been reading this past several weeks is Betsy Bowden’s Performed Literature while repeatedly absorbing Dylan’s Bootleg Series album (#10), Another Self Portrait. Bowden’s premise is that people who consider Dylan a great songwriter and lyricist/poet are missing the true greatness Dylan brought to this generation. Hence the title of the book, Performed Literature. It’s not just the words, but the way he delivers the words that impact listeners so profoundly.
This is not to suggest that the lyrics alone don’t have power. “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” is an incredible contribution to literature as well as music history. As has been repeated many times over, a whole song could be written about each line in that singular seismic earth-shaker. But those who have been most attentive recognize something incredible happens each time he performs it and it is in the moment, the performance, that he breathes into the song new life, and sometimes new meanings.
What Bowden so forcefully explains is that the “how” of Dylan’s delivery is what makes the lyrics come so alive. And I fully concur. Yes, the Byrds and other artists translated Dylan’s lyrics for their various pop audiences, but that only served to draw attention to the original source. The lyrics they shared worked for the moment, but Dylan’s heartfelt interpretations of his own, and others’, lyrics take these songs to another plane.
What has continually grabbed me most deeply is the rawness, the emotionally charged quality he so vividly conveys in the manner he delivers his lyrics in so many of his songs. Whether rage (“Idiot Wind”), contempt (“Positively Fourth Street”), longing (“Where Are You Tonight?”) or tenderness (“Sign…