Can We Talk About Dylan’s Voice?

Bob Dylan 1978 courtesy of Express/Getty

What is it about Bob Dylan? He defies every expectation of a pop star, and yet packs houses endlessly well into his seventies. His shows are epically frustrating, even to fans; which Bob Dylan are we seeing tonight – the shamanic conjurer who brings chills with every line and tosses off genius licks on the piano or the harmonica for his band to flesh out, or the bizarre mutter-singer who seems to have no interest in his audience, and appears to be practicing an instrument he has never encountered?

His writing style is a mashup of humor so inside no one knows when the jokes are, magical realism, and an old-fashioned sense of form that has more to do with French medieval ballads than it does with typical folk-rock material. Try to find a classic pop-rock song not written by Dylan wherein the last line of each verse is exactly the same, and there is no bridge, no real chorus, and no formal arc to the song, just a long chain of long verses – seriously, let me know if you find it, because Dylan has written dozens of these emulations of old ballad forms.

His singing…well, if you want to end a friendship, I think the order of business is religion, politics, and Bob Dylan’s voice. Nonetheless, I’d like to spend the next two hundred words exploring why Dylan’s voice is awesome and crucial, and clear up a few things in the process. Dylan’s output can be approached in many ways — differing opinions and alternate takes on the history are welcome!

First of all, Bob Dylan does NOT sound like an old blues singer. This is a fallacy spread far and wide in reaction to the rasp he has developed with age. Pre-WWII male blues singers on record sang with a resonant, fully developed tone, and a heap of vibrato. There are vague connections between Dylan and some Delta blues guys, but truly this is a myth which obscures the true history of his style.

If you want to find a true precursor to Dylan, there’s only one place to look: Billie Holiday. Go listen to her version of “Solitude,” and you’ll hear all the swooping, talk-singing eccentricity of Dylan’s way of approaching a line, merged with a smoky vibrato that Dylan never had. There are no recorded precedents for what Holiday did with jazz songs, and like Dylan, her extreme vocal personality forced bands to adapt and find new ways to support the singer.

What Dylan accomplished, among other things, was bringing this kind of wild, deeply personal approach to a line into folk and pop, and his influence transformed the expectations of singers everywhere. It’s an easy joke by Hendrix that Dylan inspired him to sing because if Bob could do it, Jimi could too. This may well be true, but it misses the way rock and folk singers post-Dylan all sing in ways that respond to or account for his output. Springsteen, Tom Petty, Kim Carnes, Johnny Rotten, Billy Idol – these are obvious choices. They all use pitch patterns derived from speech. They all engage some form of deliberate harshness in their vocal production. And their vocal personalities all force their bands to meet them halfway, as Dylan and Holiday did before them (too much to go into here).

So I suggest listening for those traits in the singers you like, and see if you don’t find out pretty quickly that Dylan, love him or hate him, is such a pervasive influence on pop singing that we mostly don’t even notice it anymore.

Ken Hymes

Photo Credit: Bob Dylan circa 1978 courtesy of Express/Getty

PS. While we are talking Bob Dylan, check out our post When Dylan Plugged In and Changed Everything. Or Not. It explores the differing opinions about Dylan’s infamous performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

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30 comments on “Can We Talk About Dylan’s Voice?

  1. Fully agreed, Dylan’s voice is an essential component of what made him who he is. His tone and intonations are way overlooked – this is an artist that can go from the tenderness of Girl of North Country to the vicious snarl of Like a Rolling Stone and to the plaintive story-telling of I Dream I Saw St. Augustine in the blink of an eye. Not to mention the extreme examples, such as his voice change on the whole Nashville Skyline or the incredibly powerful performance of House of Risin’ Sun on the debut.

  2. Blasphemy comparing Dylan’s voice to Billie’s .

  3. His voice was “stuck up in Mobile with the Memphis blues again” , enough said.

  4. I’m a fan of Phil Ochs. His very best political songs are on par with Dylan ‘s. (Dylan resented the competition ). Ochs had a superior voice; He competently sang Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, and had a natural honky tonk vibrato. Could Dylan ever do that?

    • What’s your point? Ochs was a superior singer to Dylan? All subjective. Phil did not have the “soul,” if you will, in his delivery, that Dylan could muster. Phils intonation and timbre were fine, but there was a prominent nasel quality that cannot be overlooked. Regardless, they were different singers because their songwriting was different. They may both have written topical folk-style songs, but Bob’s were more metaphorical compared to Phil’s straightforward declarations. Also, Dylan used melody shapes designed to seduce and envelope the listener. Outside of “Masters of War” Dylan did not suggest conclusions to the problems addresseed in the large open discourse in the Sixties. They were different types of writers and singers. I think in the final analysis Dylan used his voice like an instrument, employing certain shades of color and vowel idiosyncraces that made his large repertoire fascinating to listen to. Sadly, Phil met with a tragic end and he deserves to be remembered and appreciated for his fine body of work.

  5. Scott Fortune

    The accomplishment of Bob Dylan is not in the quality of his voice. You could say that Dylan is one of the most influential American Poets in History. The content of his writing almost single handedly laid the ground rules for Classic Rock. He is the first person in Rock to use a Socially Polictical motif. Every thing in Classic Rock carries this. It’s about recording a feeling or even an attitude as you see it for the moment, right or wrong as long as your honest about you perspective at the moment. That Style and Attitude was carried on by the Rock Culture and more for a few generations that we call Classic Rock!

  6. John Schroeder

    Bob is “The Man”

  7. Bob Dylan’s voice during his vintage years is perfect to his music and message. (Rare is the human voice the same in later years if ever – in any medium.) It’s beautifully expressive and evocative. It’s raw and funky and arresting. Can you imagine it being substantially different and having the same effect? – sitting in the track completely differently? Like a Rolling Stone with someone who sounds more like Elton John? Softer and sweeter? Never!

    As to the musicality of Dylan’s singing you needn’t look any further than Springsteen’s pitiful emulations where he sings terribly flat (grating on the listener in something that amounts to a form of torture) showing a literal tone deafness as to what Dylan was actually doing. Dylan bends the notes, talks the notes, yells the notes – all very expressively and in a way that tells a story – as the real troubadour he is. The way a horn player or Billie Holiday or even Sinatra did. He is not flat, he is hitting the note, the message, the goal, dead on; exactly as intended. Springsteen, misses the notes, the mark and the point with his poor, naive attempt at a true master’s highly personal style. When two of your biggest fans and imitators are John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix, you are a musician’s musician and a singer’s singer. The history books will be as unequivocal about Dylan as they are about those two.

  8. The comparison to Billie Holiday is ludicrous n the face of it, and we’ll let that go as the hypberbolic nonsense it is. Agree, otherwise, that Dylan has done amazing things with his voice, which is, in essence, an awful device to convey a mood.Yet there are wonderful transformations with that voice, when he began writing his own material, his own lyrics. Vowel and voice met and a sound was made, dramatic, effective, beautiful in a new way. His performance of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” at the Newport Folk Festival was riveting, vocally masterful. Nasal, howling, pinched, but asserted, shaped, honed. This wonderful song couldn’t have been performed any more effectively with a so called “better voice”. I would say that Dylan is an especially bad singer, but I would also insist that he is an absolutely brilliant vocalist. No one could dramatize a lyric like he could. What he does with a lyric is something other than render cozy rhymes against assuring melodies as sweetly as possible.

    There is a point in his career, when he eased off topical songs and moved toward more expressive, metaphorical, “poetic” lyrics that his voice became something wholly new in pop music. It’s not far off to maintain that what Dylan did vocally between Another Side of Bob Dylan up through John Wesley Harding literally forced us to reconsider what “good” singing was really was.

    It was Dylan more than anyone else in pop music history who gave license to the singers-of-limited means to take the microphone and create an emotional experience with vocal qualities that were less than perfect. That is fitting for songs that dealt squarely with less than perfect realities, and this an achievement no less profound than any other Dylan has wrought in folk, rock and pop music.

    Dylan, though, was not the first awful rock singer who influenced several generations of pop vocalists that came after him. That honor, in my view, goes to Mick Jagger, who was an international celebrity and heart throb of millions when Dylan was still relatively obscure.Mick Jagger is a vocalist who learned to work brilliantly with the little singing ability God deigned to give him: knowing that he didn’t have the basic equipment to even come close to simulating Muddy Waters or Wilson Pickett, he did something else instead in trying to sing black and black informed music– talk-singing, the whiny, mewling purr, the bull moose grunt, the roar, the grunts and groans, the slurs and little noises , all of which he could orchestrate into amazing, memorable performances. One Plus One(Sympathy for the Devil)Godard’s film of the Stones writing, rehearsing and finally recording the song of the title, is especially good because it captures the irresolute tedium of studio existence (in between Godard’s didactic absurdist sketches attempting to address the conundrum of leftist media figures being used by invisible powers to squelch true revolutionary change). More than that, we see Jagger piecing together his vocal, his mewling reading of the lyrics from the lyric sheet; his voice is awful, in its natural state. But we do witness Jagger getting bolder as the song progresses through the endless stoned jamming, a grunt added here, a raised syllable here, a wavering croon there. Finally, we are at the last take, and Jagger is seen with headphones on, isolated from the others, screaming his head off into a microphone while the instrumental playback pours forth, in what is presumably the final take. Jagger, all irony and self-awareness, created something riveting and for all time with the marginal instrument he was born with, and is part of what I think is a grand tradition of white performers who haven’t a prayer of sounding actually black who none the less molded a style of black-nuanced singing that’s perfectly credible: Mose Allison, Van Morrison, Felix Cavalari (Rascals), Eric Burdon (early Animals), Peter Wolf, late of the under appreciated J.Geils Band.We cannot underestimate Keith Richard’s contribution to Jagger’s success as a vocalist. Someone had to know how to write tunes Jagger could handle, and Keith was just the man to do it. Richard’s guitar work, as well, riffs and attacks and staggers in ways that match Jagger’s strutting and mincing. Writing is everything, as always. Fogarty is obviously influenced by black music, and his voice does simulate an idealized style of southern black patois, but it’s the tunes that make CCR’s music matter. Fogarty is in the same tradition of Chuck Berry in his ability to write short, punchy tunes that have a story to tell, as opposed to a philosophy to impose or a depression to share.

    • Finally found someone who agrees that Mick Jagger has “little singing ability”. Unfortunately I don’t see that his attempts to do something with it were successful. He is whiny with no ability to emote. Dylan is in an all-round class of his own.

  9. Bob’s the Master!

  10. Had always thought that Bob’s vocal deliveryowed s great deal to Woody Guthrie…

  11. Native Son

    Dylan’s vocals are like fingernails on a chalkboard. Haven’t been able to listen to him for years. Rather hear other people’s renditions of his songs. Smokey Robinson he ain’t.

  12. The Bob Dylan of the “Nashville Skyline” to “Blood On The Tracks” era is gone.

  13. I would say his voice and style are closer to Ramblin’ Jack Elliot.

  14. John Shore

    While I think an overall comparison to Billie is a bit of a stretch, I do think that Dylan’s recent voyage into standards most certainly borrows more from Billie’s late sessions than it does from Sinatra’s oeuvre.

  15. Vince Warner

    Gentle On My Mind, Sound Of Silence…

  16. Joseph Goodrich

    I’ve been a rabid fan of of Bob’s for many, many years; but I no longer enjoy listening to him; I think his voice has deteriorated wildly since the early 2000s. He tours incessantly, smokes and drinks and doesn’t take care of himself. His lyrics are drawn from—some would say stolen—a variety of other sources. He deserved the Nobel Prize without doubt, but I ask myself, “You can’t write your own speech? You really have to take it from other, unacknowledged sources?” He’s gotten sloppy and lazy. As much as I love him and his work, I’m no longer the fan I was. None of this is meant to detract from his real accomplishment, which is vast. I’m, simply trying to communicate some of the reasons for current disaffection with an artist I have worshiped for decades.

  17. I’m sick of the comparisons to Phil Ochs.Phil never came close to composing a song as great as “Like a Rolling Stone” and that goes for the rest of the”protest singers”

  18. None of this means anything to Bob, not then, not now, not ever IMHO. He is a natural singer guided by the song content that he wrote. He may have been toying with certain affectations early but I would bet it is mostly unconcious and he is just letting it come through with the lyric content dictating what happens. Always an adventure.

  19. Dylan has a great voice and can hold a note as good as anyone, he’s just totally unique with his phrasing and attitude and can really convey where he’s at.

  20. Dylan’s singing style is a result of his writing style. Most every other songwriter fits the rhythm of the words to fit the music, Dylan is just the opposite, he fits the music and his singing around the words. He also tends to put emphasis in places where most don’t. His talk/singing is his alone, I wouldn’t compare it to anyone else.

  21. Great in the early days but he lost it. Like he quit listening to the producer who said. Quit yelling.

  22. Humberto Trias

    Don’t know why I always feel an obligation to go see him if he’s within a couple of hundred miles from my location. I just do, even knowing there is a great possibility I might just walk out on him, and I have a few times. I was 13 when I came across
    “Another side “ he has never left me since.
    I gave up trying to understand him, I don’t care if his words have any meaning or if his music makes any sense. All I know is what I feel when I get into his music. He is in class all alone, all by himself no one comes near. Yes I accept the fact these days there is no Freewheelin or Blood on the track, not even Nashville. But I still have John Westley. There’s always something different on every album. Some I hate, most I love, but I will never compare him with anyone. He is that kind of an artist, impossible to categorize or classify. Yes these day he is not same. Neither I’m I, are you?
    But I do agree with your assessment of Mick.

  23. TREVOR osborne

    Hurricane was the song that got me into Dylan and It was the vocal sound that was the main attraction. Bob Dylan wouldnt have been Bob Dylan with a conventional singing style

  24. Vince Warner

    Gentle On My Mind

  25. Richard A Olson

    Bob changed his name to Dylan not Englebert Humperdink.

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