Was Dylan the Gutenberg of Rock and Roll?

Ed Newman

Proposed: What Hemingway did for literature, what Duchamp did for art, what Gutenberg did for communication, Bob Dylan did for rock and roll. Before Hemingway, prose was flowery, prodigious, and generously wordy. Hemingway’s words were efficient, potent jabs, uppercuts and right hooks. In Our Time changed everything. Duchamp’s Readymades and conceptual work so split open the possibilities of art that it took decades for the art scene to comprehend the liberation from constraints that he’d unleashed. Gutenberg’s historical achievement needs no explanation.

By the 1990’s Dylan had been the most re-recorded songwriter in modern times.  His songs have appeared in conjunction with nearly 250 Hollywood films and TV series, more than anyone I know of other than pro score composers like John Williams and Ennio Morricone. From Poor Little Rich Girl (1965) and Easy Rider (1968) to Henry Poole Is Here (2008) and The Help (2010), Dylan’s music has been used to bring home just the right mood and moment in so many varieties of film and television scenes. In light of the global reach of Hollywood, in a culture that is increasingly splintered, Dylan’s influence is a fluid thread that permeates all media forms.

His awards are nearly countless. He’s been nominated for nearly 30 Grammy’s and awarded nine. Six of his recordings have been inducted to the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 1988 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with five of his songs being listed among the most influential of all time. His song “Things Have Changed” earned him an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2000 as he approached his 60th birthday while showing no signs of slowing down. From his Tom Paine Award in 1963 to Presidential Medal of Honor in 2014 his entire career has been one of recognition and honors, not to mention inspiration and influence.

These factoids are not what make Dylan important though. They’re just aftereffects and byproducts. John Bushey, host of the KUMD program Highway 61 Revisited for near two decades, had this to say about Minnesota’s native son. “I think you have to look to the early 60’s and the time that Dylan happened to come along. He began writing these incredible lyrics and songs pertaining to the changing times; civil rights, social issues, and songs with a political slant. His unique lyrical style influenced many musicians and attracted a much larger following to many of these causes.” After being influenced by Dylan, popular groups like the Byrds, Peter Paul and Mary, and the Beatles changed what they were doing to bring this “new” music to a broader audience. Bushey affirms, “This can never be taken from Bob Dylan.  His poetic, multi-dimensional ability with words helped bring about a new form of music.”

Don Dass, who was instrumental in the creation of Duluth’s Bob Dylan Way Cultural Pathway (along with the late St. Louis County Commissioner Steve O’Neil, Mayor Don Ness and a host of others), adds this layer to the argument for Dylan’s significance. “His music, throughout his long career and many changes of style and direction, has always spoken to the truth, if not the literal truth itself. I think he was always authentic when others were phony, always true to himself when others were willing to bend in any direction to succeed. He succeeded almost by not caring about success, was cool by not caring about being cool.”

As for me, I’ve spent more time thinking about Dylan’s significance than I ought to, but it has been a recurring meditation for so very long now because understanding Dylan’s influence is one of the keys to unlocking some of my own struggle to understand my personal experiences coming of age in the Sixties. It wasn’t just the music, and it wasn’t just the poetry of his lyrics. I credit Lee Marshall’s book Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star for giving me a new understanding of Dylan’s pivotal role in our culture. Marshall’s insightful explorations opened my eyes to new vistas regarding what Dylan achieved.

One idea that Marshall proposes and defends, which I had not recognized before but rings true as I probe it, is that “rock” A.D. (After Dylan) is not the same as the rock ‘n roll that preceded Dylan’s emergence on the scene.

To illustrate this point, ask yourself this: Why is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland? Answer: It was there that the label “rock and roll” was coined. There were many disc jockeys of the time taken up in the euphoric new sound, which was a blend of African-American rhythms and blues while borrowing from traditions of cowboy music, jazz, country and folk. The key thing, though, was making music kids could dance to. Just like man gave names to all the animals, disc jockey Alan Freed coined a name for this new phenomenon.

Before Dylan, rock ‘n roll was about making music you could dance to. When Dylan emerged from the constraints of folk, where he was unquestionably a star, he welded a new sensibility to this established music form. Here’s how Lee Marshall explains it: “Dylan is the foundational figure in rock culture. Dylan’s shift to electric music brought to the mainstream the political authority and communal links of his folk past while his song-writing skills offered the exemplar of what could be achieved artistically within the new form.” 

And it wasn’t “going electric” that was the significant thing in and of itself. Elvis, Chuck Berry and a host of others had been there for some time, obviously. What’s different is that rock ‘n roll was about dance parties; Dylan brought to it a new seriousness, a new sensibility.  

As Marshall explains: “Rock emerged in the mid-sixties as a way of stratifying mainstream musical consumption, as a means of creating higher and lower levels of popular music.... Rather than merely assuming a difference in quality between serious/classical music and light/popular music, rock functions to differentiate between serious, worthwhile popular music (rock) and trivial, lightweight popular music (pop).”

When Dylan went electric he served as catalyst for the formation of this new type of music.

The natural rebuttal to this argument would be that it was the Beatles or the British Invasion that changed rock and roll. But what was it that transformed the Beatles from cheery-faced mop-top boppers into the young men who really did, for a while, rule the world? And when? When you lay their careers side by side in a timeline, Dylan’s achievements in 1965 reverberated everywhere. Bringing It All Back Home was released in March. In June he wrote and recorded “Like a Rolling Stone”. In July he plugged in and went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, and in August released Highway 61 Revisited. These latter events have been considered by some to be the pivot point of rock history.

In 1965 the Beatles were still making love songs and foot-tappers. Everything they did climbed the pop charts like monkeys. Even in late fall they were still churning out songs like “Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey”, “Boys” and “Roll Over Beethoven”. That year the movie Help, as a follow up to Hard Day’s Night, placed them squarely in the center of a well-established Hollywood pattern to capitalize on youth heroes for commercial gain, as it had done previously with Elvis. The Fab Four were definitely a sensation, but in a manner wholly other than Dylan. The Beatles were commercially hot. Dylan was cool.   

Hence, Marshall declares, “My argument is that Dylan was the first real Rock Star. His razor-sharp hipness in 1965 and the strung out excesses of 1966 laid down the prototype for his new social role. Some of the substance of Dylan’s new star-image was rooted in his public persona developed as a folk star but his image in 1965-6 is a clearly different type of star-image.”  A prototype of things to come.

It was more than the music, more than the lyrics, more than the Greenwich Village scene he emerged from. One sentence on page 93 says it all: “In 1965, Bob Dylan was the coolest person on the planet.”

Everything has to be taken in context. Impressionable young people who lived through the Kennedy assassination experienced the first of multiple emotional concussions that included the escalating Viet Nam conflict, social justice issues, riots in the streets, assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King. The smiling faces on billboards and laugh tracks on sitcoms did little to assuage the confusion and pain a large portion of this generation was carrying.

Then you hear a haunting song with lyrics like this:

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed
Graveyards, false gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough, what else can you show me?

And it speaks to you. Because if your thought dreams could be seen, they’d probably put your head in a guillotine, too. “But it’s all right, ma. It’s life and life only.”

Dylan sang words that resonated, and in so doing liberated other songwriters outside the confines of the folk scene where such songs had a lengthy history. Many voices followed, rising up to grapple with these times as they were changing. This liberation is Dylan’s legacy.

Was Dylan the Guternberg of rock and roll? At the end of the day, does it matter? That Dylan made a difference is undeniable.