What Can Writers Learn From Songwriters? Bob Dylan

A couple of weeks ago, I asked the question, “What can the great songwriter’s lyrics teach us about writing?” and I used Bruce Springsteen as an example. This week I want to look at one of the greatest songwriters of all time: Bob Dylan.

There are, of course, as many sides to Dylan as there are albums. There’s the traditional “rhyming couplet Dylan”, from the bizarre and almost child-like imagery of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”:

“Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don’t wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don’t wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don’t work
‘Cause the vandals took the handles”

to the deep symbolism of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (both songs taken from the same album):

“Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred”

But there’s also the “expansive song lyric Dylan”, in songs that oftentimes come across more as short stories than actual songs. One of the most famous examples of this is the song “Hurricane” about the boxer Rubin Carter who was imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit:

“Pistols shots ring out in the barroom night
Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall
She sees the bartender in a pool of blood
Cries out ‘My God they killed them all’”

Another example is the song “Tangled up in Blue”:

“She was working in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer
I just kept looking at her side of her face
In the spotlight so clear”

Both of these songs read less like the brief snatches of imagery that we get in normal song lyrics and more like a fully-fledged story, filled with characterisation, plot, and attention to detail. Dylan has touched on this in interviews:

“What I do that a lot of other writers don’t do is take a concept and line I really want to get into a song and if I can’t figure out for the life of me how to simplify it, I’ll just take it all, lock, stock and barrel, and figure out how to sing it so it fits the rhyming scheme. I would prefer to do that rather than bust it down or lose it because I can’t rhyme it.”

Writers who want to write tight and concise short stories, where every word matters, could do a lot worse than read the lyrics to these two songs, amongst others.

The most striking thing about Dylan is the way he never gives you the next line you think he will. No matter what you think is coming next, it never is. It’s in this way that Dylan can teach a writer a lot about the use of similes and metaphor. Dylan is never one to go for the easy metaphor. If a writer was to try to think of a metaphor for crying (as in “crying like a …”), what might they use? Here’s the metaphor Dylan uses in “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”:

“Yonder stands your orphan with his gun
Crying like a fire in the sun”

Or how to describe someone who has been beaten down and is at the end of their tether? Here’s how Dylan does it in “Shelter from the Storm”:

“I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail,
Poisoned in the bushes and blown out on the trail,
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn.”

Once again, he never goes for the obvious metaphor or image. You think you know the image he’s going to use, but he always uses something different. Finally, I’ll finish on perhaps my favourite Dylan line, one that I think shows just how extraordinary his use of imagery and metaphor is. From the song, “Visions of Johanna”, one simple line that tells us everything we need to know about the person he is describing:

“The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face”

(Image: Click the pic for credits)

6 thoughts on “What Can Writers Learn From Songwriters? Bob Dylan

  1. I love Dylan, he and so many other gifted musicians are true poets:
    “Bow down to her on Sunday, salute her when her birthday comes…and for Christmas give her a gun.”

    He’s on my iPod along with Cohen and Van Ronk and so many others including….D. Flynn!

  2. This is a great post Derek. Its content is excellent for writers. I’m always worried that what I write is no different to anything else I could read by someone else. The stereotypical metaphors, images come to mind first for the obvious reasons.

    I haven’t listened to Dylan “properly” in years so I need to revisit him I think and read his lyrics, paying attention to form, metaphors, similes, etc.

    Thanks Derek.

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