February 8, 2015

If you sing "John Henry" as many times as Bob Dylan did, you'd have written "Blowin' in the Wind."

I'm reading the full transcript of Bob Dylan's long, rambling speech at that MusiCares event).
[My] songs didn't come out of thin air. 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.

I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. 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.

For three or four years all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I'd heard it just once.

If you sang "John Henry" as many times as me -- "John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain't nothin' but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I'll die with that hammer in my hand."

If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you'd have written "How many roads must a man walk down?" too.
And if you'd've sung Big Bill Broonzy's "Key to the Highway" — "I've got a key to the highway / I'm booked and I'm bound to go / Gonna leave here runnin' because walking is most too slow" — you'd have written "Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose/Welfare Department they wouldn’t give him no clothes/He asked poor Howard where can I go/Howard said there’s only one place I know/Sam said tell me quick man I got to run/Howard just pointed with his gun/And said that way down on Highway 61."

And "Sail Away Ladies" — "Ain't no use sit 'n cry / You'll be an angel by and by / Sail away, ladies, sail away" — would get you to "Boots of Spanish Leather" — "I'm sailing away my own true love...." And "Roll the Cotton Down" — "Ten dollars a day is a white man's pay / A dollar a day is the black man's pay" — "If you sang that song as many times as me, you'd be writing 'I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more,' too."

So there's the formula. Sing a lot of folk songs, sing enough, until they take a new form and you've got your songs, your Bob Dylan songs. Or, I take it, sing enough Bob Dylan songs, over and over, and out of those will emerge your songs.

Only songs work that way, where you internalize someone else's words so deeply that you develop an instinct for words that yields up new words that count as your words. You can't do that with writing, can you? Maybe with poetry, memorizing it and reciting it over and over. But if you want to write prose, what can you do? You could try the Hunter S. Thompson method:
He used to type out pages from “The Great Gatsby,” just to get the feeling, he said, of what it was like to write that way, and Fitzgerald’s novel was continually on his mind while he was working on “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”....
"You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books," Bob Dylan sang much more than once, but I don't see how you could ever catch onto an instinct to write like F. Scott Fitzgerald by reading all his books (like The Thin Man) or typing out particular pages (like Hunter S. Thompson) or fixating on individual sentences (as we did here on the blog in the old Gatsby project). I think the language you use to write prose is the language of speech, and you picked that up in a way that was even more fundamental and tradition-based than all those folk songs Bob Dylan had to sing to get to his own songs.

You used to be so amused/At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used...

44 comments:

Laslo Spatula said...

I would argue that you can do that with drawing and painting, also: young artists in the museums sketching versions of Masters' artwork to better understand line, for example.

You could even turn it into your own written instructions on how to paint like a specific artist, then go your own direction with the knowledge you have written down.

I think I've seen something like that before.

I am Laslo.

Xmas said...

I suspect that's why art students sit in museums drawing famous pictures in their sketch pads. They are trying to get a feeling for how successful artists create their works.

Ann Althouse said...

"I would argue that you can do that with drawing and painting, also: young artists in the museums sketching versions of Masters' artwork to better understand line, for example."

Yeah, when I went to art school, that wasn't the method of teaching anymore. Everything was supposed to be completely imagined, out of your own mind. But what was in your mind? You've got to get something in their first. I think we thought that by looking at works of art, we'd get the images in there, and those would be useful, but mostly we practiced drawing from life (especially from the nude model). In painting, we were always pulling things out out of thin air... out of whole cloth... to repeat the clich├ęs Bob Dylan thought were worthy of saying.

Ann Althouse said...

I think the artists that are most likely to spend a lot of time copying the work of other artists are comics artists.

I must say that as a young child, I spent a good deal of time drawing the characters of Walter Lanz.

Ann Althouse said...

Wait. Let me spell his name right, and make up for my Lantz lapse with a link.

Laslo Spatula said...

(in the second part of my post i was implying your Klee series: maybe not the method of teaching when you went to art school, but something you found your way towards yourself -- as Dylan found himself after working with his 'teachers')

I am Laslo.

Ann Althouse said...

Wow. That first Walter Lantz video caused YouTube to suggest this racially inappropriate Walter Lantz cartoon from 1941. Racism trigger warning, but interesting if you want a look at what was in mainstream pop culture the year we entered WWII.

Bob R said...

I hear a lot of young bands playing "originals." You don't need to know a lot of combinatorics to know that there are only so many ways they can combine the three licks they know to make a 2 minute pop song. There is documentation of the Beatles playing over 300 cover songs before they successfully wrote their own.

On the plus side, if you are learning music today, you can find all the songs the Beatles covered and all the folk songs Dylan sang out there on the internet. Lyrics, chords, tab, YouTube lessons. So it's really easy to build up the immense vocabulary that they had. On the other hand, you can get that vocabulary without the intense yearning ambition and curiosity that those guys had. The vocabulary is important, but it's not enough.

Laslo Spatula said...

Not 'prose' writing, but I would also point out stand-up comics often start by mimicking a successful prior comedian: early Eddie Murphy from Richard Pryor, early Bill Hicks from Sam Kinison, early Denis Leary from Bill Hicks, Dane Cook from Denis Leary, among others. It is how the boat gets rowed.

I am Laslo

Bob R said...

"interesting if you want a look at what was in mainstream pop culture the year we entered WWII." People who say race relations are worse now than in the past have short memories. (And your memory doesn't have to go back to 1941 to find other counterexamples.)

Laslo Spatula said...

In honor of Dylan and Bruce Jenner both being in the news:

He takes just like a woman.
He makes love just like a woman.
And then he aches just like a woman.
But he brakes just like a little girl.

I am Laslo.

Bob Boyd said...

There are countless ambitious young commenters out there right now typing "cucumber in the ass" over and over again.

Guildofcannonballs said...

Reminds me of how I imitated the great heroin junkies of my youth until one day I realized, I was the one teaching the next generations how to the flick the needle to get rid of air bubbles, burn the end of the needle with a lighter to kill hep C and HIV, and find a pleasent vein to reliably tap into.

Life's cycle as circle.

Laslo Spatula said...

"If you sing "John Henry" as many times as Bob Dylan did, you'd have written "Blowin' in the Wind.""
This brings to mind the sometimes-complaint that, over the years, Dylan doesn't perform his songs in the same way he used to (generally meaning the recording).
As Dylan plays "Highway 61" as many times as he has done you could say that he himself has actually written/performed 'new' songs that just happen to use (most) of the lyrics he originally wrote.

As an aside: Jack White performing Dylan's "Isis". Cross-pollination of artist honeybees.

I am Laslo.

chickelit said...

Imitation is the sincerest of flattery.

But to qualify as art there must be a further inventive step.

I recently rewatched an old documentary about The Who. They were quite explicit about how they evolved -- first as a very good cover band. It wasn't until they put out some original material that they came into their own. Even then, early on, Townshend admits that "I Can't Explain" was inspired by The Kinks' "You Really Got Me." The same for the Rolling Stones. Jagger and Richards' "The Last Time" was the first hit that they wrote alone, but nowadays they dismiss it as being derivative.

So there's this pattern: first, imitation; second, imitation with a new inspiration making it non-obvious imitation, followed by full-on originality.

Sharc said...

"interesting if you want a look at what was in mainstream pop culture the year we entered WWII."

Yes, very interesting. Sure, plenty (in fact, nearly all of them) of the classic race stereotypes among the Lazytowners.

But it's also notable that the heroine personified the absolute sophistication of being an urban black from Harlem, compared the the southern, countrified (and darker) blacks she was educating. Although hypersexualized (plenty of animation added to keep her extra translucent below the waist and extra wobbly on top), she is represented as attractive, completely human, and self-confident. Racism in the 1940s was complicated and often overlapped with stereotypical commentary about North vs. South, City vs. Country, and rich vs. poor.

m stone said...

So there's the formula. Sing a lot of folk songs, sing enough, until they take a new form and you've got your songs, your Bob Dylan songs.

No formula and a former budding artist should know that. The repetition only leads to poor imitations. Dylan has never been accused of that to my knowledge.

I can't speak to artists from experience, but most writers read prolifically, for inspiration and ideas and technique. The writer's product may not be original, but the composition of different proven elements along with the "X factor" often lead to success and satisfaction. Thompson agonized over his work and we saw the end result of his life. Dylan has a pretty healthy view of his craft.

m stone said...

Laslo understands: cross-pollination

traditionalguy said...

Reading the transcript touched me. My love for Dylan is deep. And that wouldn't happen because he sang other songs before he wrote his songs his way.

chickelit said...

m stone wrote: Dylan has a pretty healthy view of his craft.

Yet I wonder how different any of this is from the largely forgotten steps of apprentice, journeyman, and master in all trade craft.

Greg Hlatky said...

I am utterly uninterested in Bob Dylan.

chickelit said...

Ann Althouse said...Wow. That first Walter Lantz video caused YouTube to suggest this racially inappropriate Walter Lantz cartoon from 1941. Racism trigger warning, but interesting if you want a look at what was in mainstream pop culture the year we entered WWII.

Disney's "Dumbo" was from the same year, 1941. I speculated that this scene inspired R. Crumb's "Keep On Truckin'" Crumb watched Disney and drew a lot as a kid, according to Terry Zwigoff

Writ Small said...

Lots of famous people explain Dylan in Scorsese's "No Direction Home," and those explanations tend to the elaborate and sophisticated. Scorsese intercuts interviews with Dylan himself who comes across evasive and annoyed when asked to expand on the other's interpretations.

Dylan is now - finally - opening up on what it takes to do his craft, and process of creation is far, far simpler than the effect his art has had on all of those listeners.

Dylan famously recoiled from the 60's protest movement for which he himself provided much of the music and whose many members expected Dylan to become an active leader of. I now imagine Dylan saying to himself back then, "can't they see it's only art?"

Goju said...

God said to Abraham; "Kill me a son."
Abe said; "Man you must be puttin me on."
God said: "No.'
Abe said: Whoa."
God said: "You do what you want, but when you see me comin you better run."
Abe said: "Where you want this killin done."
God said: "Out on Highway 61."

Oso Negro said...

A most startling example of the phenomenon is laid out perfectly in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Vincent Van Gogh works as an art dealer, takes up painting at 27, copies the artists of his day, and then breaks out in three short years to create a body of work that STILL delights people more than anything that asshole Picasso did.

Jupiter said...

This is bullshit. Dylan writes complex songs full of vivid images and suggestive but ultimately opaque fragments of speech. "You rode on your chrome horse with your diplomat, who carried on his shoulder a siamese cat...

We're supposed to believe he got that from listening to She'll be Comin' Round The Mountain? Nonsense. It may be that Dylan has no idea where his songs come from. Or maybe he is just shining us on.

LYNNDH said...

Wished you would have had a link to Big Bill. But then I am lazy this morning.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

To state the obvious: any one of seven billion other people could sing "John Henry" from now till doomsday and never be able to write "Blowin in the Wind." And you can be sure he knows it.

Anne Freedman said...

The Thin Man was written by Dashiell Hammett

Pettifogger said...

Anne Freedman beat me to it. I'm a Hammett fan.

John henry said...

I am John Henry and i want to know why Bob Dylan is so obsessed with me.

That boy ain't right.

I've not been obsessed with him since the 60s.

He could at least send me some royalties.

John Henry
The real one

Laslo Spatula said...

Sing a Led Zepplin song a hundred times and eventually you'll write a Muddy Waters song. I think.

I am Laslo.

Gary Rosen said...

"But he brakes just like a little girl"

Thread-winner. Not just this thread. Every thread on every blog ever.

Gary Rosen said...

"I am utterly uninterested in Bob Dylan"

I guess that explains why you posted this. Would have helped if you didn't say "utterly".

Laslo Spatula said...

Sing a Journey song one hundred times and the patrons at the karaoke bar will kick your whiny ass.

I am Laslo.

Amexpat said...

To state the obvious: any one of seven billion other people could sing "John Henry" from now till doomsday and never be able to write "Blowin in the Wind." And you can be sure he knows it.

Yes he does. I don't think this is false humility on his part. It's boasting of the highest order. He tells a room full of colleagues that there's nothing special to what he does when everyone knows that none of his peers have, or could, come close to achieving what he has done.

William said...

Noel Coward wrote a catchy song called "Sail Away". Dylan refuses to admit the influence of Noel Coward and Cole Porter on his early lyrics.......Was Highway 61 influenced by Route 66?

Laslo Spatula said...

You start with a "Mounds" bar. Now you add only almonds and it is an "Almond Joy." Would Almond Joy be considered a new song of its own, or just a derivative knock-off?

I am Laslo.

Laslo Spatula said...

If you sing Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" you are either in the coolest cover band in the world. Or you really suck. Could be either. And possibly the same.

I am Laslo.

Laslo Spatula said...

"There are countless ambitious young commenters out there right now typing "cucumber in the ass" over and over again."

"Thread-winner. Not just this thread. Every thread on every blog ever."

Bob Boyd and Gary Rosen, you gentlemen have made my day. Thank you.

I am Laslo.

William said...

This whole thing could be a kind of humble brag. If Dylan puts himself in the folk music camp, he makes himself a giant by walking among midgets. Woody Guthrie had a far more interesting bio than Dylan, but, as a songwriter, he had nowhere near the depth and breadth of Dylan's talent......If you put Dylan in the camp of popular music, he's no great shakes. Kern, Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers and then the final flowering of genius in Dylan. That doesn't work......Dylan has considerable talent, but in the genre of popular music he ranks more with Hoagy Carmichael than the others whom I mentioned.

Amexpat said...

If you put Dylan in the camp of popular music, he's no great shakes. Kern, Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers and then the final flowering of genius in Dylan. That doesn't work......Dylan has considerable talent, but in the genre of popular music he ranks more with Hoagy Carmichael than the others whom I mentioned.

Apples and oranges. Different times, different talents. Dylan couldn't write lyrics like Porter or music like Gershwin, but they couldn't do what he did with popular music in mid 60's.

ken in tx said...

I listen to XM/Sirius radio ch-4 everyday.I have heard 'Boogie-Woogie washer Woman' many times, but I have never seen this cartoon before. I associate Walter Lantz with Woody Woodpecker.

I suspect this cartoon would not have been shown in the South where I grew up because it portrays the South in a bad light. Plus Southerners knew better than this stereotype. For anyone who worked really hard, He was said to work harder than a ni**er. The lazy black theme was not current where I lived in Alabama.

BTW, Laslo, Mounds has dark chocolate, Almond Joy has milk chocolate. Please pay attention during your second childhood.

Mitch H. said...

To state the obvious: any one of seven billion other people could sing "John Henry" from now till doomsday and never be able to write "Blowin in the Wind.

Necessary is not synonymous with sufficient. That is to say, the hundred repetitions of "John Henry" was necessary to get him into the mindset to write "Blowin in the Wind", but it was not sufficient in and of itself. All he's saying is that an apprenticeship is necessary to become a journeyman, let alone a master.

(I'm not a huge fan of early Dylan, "Blowing in the Wind" doesn't exactly grab me. Slow Train Coming, on the other hand...)