Bob Dylan Reveals The Inspiration Behind His Songwriting Mastery

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Bob Dylan is considered by many, including Crazy4Rock and Rolling Stone, as the best songwriter of all time.

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan in 1961 (photo via Rolling Stone)

One thing many people don’t know is the “how” behind Bob Dylan’s songs. Well, when Dylan accepted an award from MusiCares, he revealed how he created his biggest hits.

“…They didn’t get here by themselves,” he said. “It’s been a long road and it’s taken a lot of doing.”

He likened his songs to a great mystery or Shakespeare’s plays.

“These songs didn’t come out of thin air,” he said. “I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. …It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock ‘n’ roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music.”

He goes one step further and said he wrote songs, taking directly from those traditional songs. Some might call what Dylan did plagiarism, like Joni Mitchell.

Joni Mitchell
From left: Joni Mitchell, Roger Mcguinn, Bob Dylan (photo via American Songwriter)

According to Dylan, those old songs were basically his teacher.

“I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs,” he said. “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.”

He listened to only folk standards for a period of a few years. He let them invade every part of himself.

“I went to sleep singing folk songs,” he said. “I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals — I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once.”

He said traditional folk songs inspired the songs he wrote. His music and traditional folk music are blood brothers.

“All these songs are connected,” he said. “Don’t be fooled. I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way. It’s just different, saying the same thing. I didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary.”

It may have seem ordinary at the time, but his songs ended up standing out among all the other music of his time and future generations.

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Caleb Murphy is a musician who writes about music. His writing appears in Consequence Of Sound, Pittsburgh City Paper, and some other cool places. He blogs about music at calebjmurphy.com.
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