I was in a conversation on music the other evening. It centered around the thought that some have said that Bob Dylan is the greatest musician from Minnesota. (Present company excluded, of course.) Prince was either tied with Dylan or a close second. Admittedly there are not a lot of famous musicians of any genre who hail from Minnesota and to compare Dylan and Prince to others is also unfair. But that's not the point of this post.
A couple of the people I was talking with (musicians themselves) were appalled that Dylan and Prince would be considered the greatest Minnesota musicians. Prince's revolution in music and multi-instrument talent was good, but, meh, they didn't like him. No problem with that. Differences in taste are understandable.
But neither of them cared for Bob Dylan, either. To a dyed-in-the-wool Dylan fan that is nothing short of heresy. They were willing to give him being a good songwriter/poet, but musician? Double "meh!" "You can't understand what he's even singing."
As I have said here before about Dylan, it isn't just the words themselves, it is also about how he sings and phrases the words. Even odd and make-no-sense lyrics are part of the music. Dylan uses words and his voice as instruments in and of themselves. The poetry can flow with the music and vice versa, even when you wonder about what it is about being out on "Highway 61." I have to admit that he is not as good at that today as he was in earlier decades, but you can still hear the power of the vocal and verbal instrument in his newer stuff.
Today I was listening to my iPod and "Highway 61 Revisited" came on the shuffle. As I paid attention to it with the discussion the other day on my mind, I noticed even more about the use of the vocals. I realized that it reminded me of a great deal of what Louis Armstrong did with the trumpet and jazz music 100 years ago. Armstrong added extra notes, sliding into or out of the melody, playing with the rhythm in ways that no one else had ever done. In that he invented a whole new way of playing music. Jazz and popular music was forever changed.
Bob Dylan is to vocal folk and rock music what Armstrong was to jazz. He was doing things with his voice that no one was doing. (The Beatles can't be ignored in this process, but the cross-fertilization of Dylan and the Beatles is well documented.) Part of it was admittedly because Dylan was not a great singer like the other pop performers or folk artists. He slid around the notes, he mumbled some words, he added odd harmonies. Often the music itself was relatively simple- it was the combination of simple styles that made the complexity adding to the words. Sometimes it was by mistake, like Al Kooper's iconic organ on "Like a Rolling Stone." It always worked. (Listen to the chorus of that song as well to see Dylan's use of melody and harmony.)
So, for my money, Dylan ranks right up there with Satchmo in the pantheon of music revolutionaries. (Miles Davis, the Beatles and Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash, John Coltrane are in that group, too.) Here are two examples. First, the greatest first step into jazz ever made with Armstrong's "West End Blues." As radical as Dylan with an electric guitar. The opening cadenza? Unique! The grace notes and style- music never before created.
Then one of Dylan's early songs. It has all the form of folk music. It's just Dylan and his guitar and harmonica. Hear the vocals; hear the words. See how they all fit together. "Don't Think Twice It's All Right."