As mentioned last week, I am beginning a weeks-long series focusing on specific and practical suggestions for improving the quality of songwriting for the Church. (See last week’s post for answers to four understandable objections that might arise from this effort.) The suggestions come from interviews compiled by Paul Zollo in his mammoth tome Songwriters on Songwriting.
I’ll begin with one of the most influential songwriters of the past 60 years, and my personal favorite pop-rock artist, Bob Dylan. I confess, I came late to this party; I couldn’t get past his voice, and I didn’t know much of his work since he wasn’t a hit-making machine on AM Top 40 radio, which served as the soundtrack of my youth in the 70’s. It wasn’t until I had been teaching a history of rock and roll class at Judson University for a few years that I decided I had to find out why so many people I respected couldn’t praise Dylan’s art enough. I picked up supreme Dylanologist Paul Williams’ Watching the River Flow: Observations on Bob Dylan’s Art-in-Progress, 1965-1995, which included a lengthy mini-book about Dylan’s late 70’s conversion to Christianity, handled very respectfully even though Williams wasn’t a believer. That did it; I was hooked, much to the amusement or chagrin of any who view anything other than bel canto singing to be unworthy of scholarly attention.
Giving only three examples of Dylan’s mastery is painful, but I’m not going to break the rules on the first post. Here’s what I consider to be the pièce de résistance of his oeuvre, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” from the amazing acoustic side of the album Bringing It All Back Home. (The others on that side are the equally masterful “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Gates of Eden,” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” the latter one of a couple of emphatic kiss-offs Dylan gave to those–especially the insufferably earnest Greenwich Village folk-music-revival enthusiasts–who had anointed him the “Voice of the Generation.”) “It’s Alright, Ma” features some of Dylan’s most oft-quoted lines: “He not busy being born is busy dying”; “Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked”; and “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” Each verse’s complex rhyme scheme is ridiculously structured (AAAAABCCCCCBDDDDDBEEB), and the descending bass notes support the overall tension-and-release harmonic structure beautifully.
Dylan is notorious for leaving great material on the cutting room floor, the most famous example being “Blind Willie McTell,” an homage to the great bluesman that inexplicably didn’t make the grade for the Infidels album but finally made an official appearance on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3: Rare and Unreleased (1961-1991). Here’s another song with a delicious descending bass line that fuels an interesting chord progression.
Unlike most of the others to follow in this series, Dylan professed a fervent faith in Christ and recorded three significantly overt gospel albums (and always has used biblical allusions in his songs both before and after his “Christian trilogy”). The best-received of the lot was Slow Train Coming, which is in many Dylan fans’ estimation his best-sounding album ever, courtesy, in large part, of producer Jerry Wexler, of Atlantic Records’ fame. That said, I like Saved even better–its lyrics more devotional and its music more gritty and less polished. (The final album is Shot of Love.) “In the Garden,” which details aspects of Christ’s Passion, comes from Saved and features one of Dylan’s most interesting harmonic constructions. (Recognize Tom Petty in the background?)
Moving on to the Zollo interview. . . .
Dylan, a noted musical sponge, on studying chords:
Do you like jazz? It never hurts to learn as many chords as you can. All kinds. Sometimes it will change the inflection of a whole song, a straight chord or, say, an augmented seventh chord.
On keyboard keys vs. guitar keys:
So there are songs that, even with the piano, which is the dominant sound if you’re playing in the black keys–why else would you play in that key except to have the dominant piano sound?–the songs that go into those keys right from the piano, they sound different. They sound deeper. . . . Everything sounds deeper in those black keys.
On combatting writer’s block by trying songs in a different key:
There’s a bunch of ways you can get out of [a writer’s-block rut on a particular song]. You can make yourself get out of it by changing key. . . . Just take the whole thing and change key, keeping the same melody. And see if that brings you any place. More times than not, that will take you down the road.
Others in this series will have more to say, and I’ll have less to say about them (making more application for cwm songwriting), but Dylan is special, and I’m extra passionate in his case, having myself been an unbeliever for so long. If this post turns even one or two uninitiated toward exploration of Dylan’s canon, I’ll be pleased. (He has that much to offer on so many levels, especially if we subscribe to the notion that all truth is God’s truth.) Send me a note if you’d like a few thoughts on where to start . . . or come visit my class this fall, when I’ll do an entire three-hour session on Dylan.
The Lord be with you!