By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

I was thinkin’ ’bout Alicia Keys

Friend of Media Nation Esther, who blogs at Gratuitous Violins, is playing the Washington Post’s “five favorite Dylan songs” game. Poor Esther’s hung up on the early ’60s, but at least she’s narrowed her list down to five. I’m not sure I could do that.

OK, here are five, listed chronologically rather than by preference. I’m not going to submit them to the Post just yet, as I may change my mind:

1. “Tombstone Blues” (“Highway 61 Revisited,” 1965)
2. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (“Highway 61”)
3. “Idiot Wind” (“Blood on the Tracks,” 1975)
4. “Not Dark Yet” (“Time Out of Mind,” 1997)
5. “Thunder on the Mountain” (“Modern Times,” 2006)

So what am I leaving out? A lot, obviously. I’ve ignored Dylan’s entire acoustic period. “Chimes of Freedom,” from “Another Side of Bob Dylan” (1964), might be the best piece of poetry he’s ever written. I agree with Esther that the Bruce Springsteen cover version rocks, but I’ve come to like Dylan’s better.

“You’re a Big Girl Now,” also from “Blood,” has been one of my favorites for years.

“Nettie Moore,” from “Modern Times,” knocks me out every time I hear it, but the wordplay on “Thunder” is vintage Dylan.

And, gee, what about “High Water (for Charley Patton),” from “Love and Theft” (2001)? There has never been a verse in popular music quite like this:

Well, George Lewis told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew
“You can’t open your mind, boys
To every conceivable point of view.”
They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five
Judge says to the High Sheriff,
“I want him dead or alive
Either one, I don’t care.”
High water everywhere

Not sure how original that is, as Dylan in recent years has leaned on his source material a bit too hard. Still, that is an astonishing passage.

What do you think?

Photo (cc) by Thomas Hawk and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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  1. Esther

    Hey Dan, Thanks for the shoutout. I thought you might like to play along!It’s true, I am hung up on the early ’60s! I’ll have to come up with a second, post-1960s list. I was looking up the history behind some of my favorite Dylan songs, and while some of them are derivative, like “Blowin in the Wind,” he still fashioned them into something unique. And really, I think that’s pretty common among American popular songwriters, who’ve always drawn on other traditions.

  2. Howard Owens

    I’m not sure I’d agree with “Dylan in recent years has leaned on his source material a bit too hard” on two fronts.First, nothing recent about it; Second, “too hard” is an overstatement.Dylan has always done what American folk artists have done: borrowed and stolen to forge new creations. Dylan’s early work was full of riffs and references to Charly Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Willie McTell and Leadbelly. Not all of Dylan’s thefts have been lyrical.But none of those giants of early blues were all that original themselves — they just get more credit because their ancestors never got recorded.Same can be said on the Charlie Poole, Jimmie Rodgers, Carter Family side of the folk tradition.Harry Smith’s Folk Anthology is a great thing. I recommend it.More contemporary, today you have Jack White and the Black Keys doing much the same thing.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Howard: I think starting with “Love and Theft” (a caveat emptor title if there ever was one), Dylan went from dropping in references that he hoped people would get to (sometimes) stealing and hoping no one would notice.Then there’s a song like “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” which he knew everyone would recognize as a Muddy Waters song (with a few new verses), yet he slapped a “by Bob Dylan” on it anyway. (Not that it was original with Muddy Waters, either.) So it’s hard to know what Dylan’s thinking.Of course, it’s always hard to know what Dylan’s thinking. That’s the thing about genius.

  4. wrenhunter

    Dan, I agree with some of your choices — but I might substitute the alternate “Idiot Wind” (from Bootleg 2). Seems to ladle out the bitterness more evenly to both parties.For my five, I sorted my Dylan in iTunes by rating. Out of 909 songs, only six have 5 stars (which surprised me). Chronologically, they are:1. “Boots of Spanish Leather” (Times They Are A-Changin’, 1964)2. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (Highway 61 Revisted, 1965)3. “Down in the Flood” (Greatest Hits, Vol. 2)4. “Angelina” (Bootleg 3)5. “High Water (for Charley Patton)” (Love and Theft, 2001)The sixth was “Hurricane”, from Desire. So taking both sets of six, you and I have two in common ;)Also, I am going to see him at Saratoga on the 17th. My third time!P.S. I agree that Dylan has relied more heavily on traditional sources in his last few albums, especially Modern Times. Almost like he’s returning to his beginnings.

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