As our celebration of the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s arrival in New York City winds down, we thought we’d reach out to a bunch of musicians with a simple question: What’s your favorite Dylan song?
Randy Randall, No Age: “Tonight I’ll be staying Here With You” is my favorite Dylan song at the moment. This song comes from his Nashville Skyline record, which is my guilty-pleasure Dylan record. All the songs on this record feel like home to me. My mom had this record on — as well as tons of Stones, Beatles, and more Dylan — all the time when I was growing up. “Tonight I’ll be staying Here With You” is a comforting song to a restless traveler. On long tours, the lines of this song run through my head all the time.
Baby Dee: I love all the songs on Highway 61 Revisited for what I think is the same reason everybody loves things: That was the first I’d ever heard of Dylan’s music. I must have been about 12 years old and my brother had it when he came back from college. It’s funny too because you have to picture a 12-year-old me having to “get used to that funny voice of his.” How weird is that? Ironic in the extreme. My two favorites were “Desolation Row” and “Ballad of a Thin Man.”
At 16, I was a punk rocker, deeply and blindly entrenched in the dogma of ’80s hardcore, therefore harboring no interest in any hippie shit whatsoever. At some record shop, I recall finding a cassette of Highway 61 Revisited in a bargain bin, sans case. I recall glancing at the song titles, and was struck hard by the power and mystery of that series of words: “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” Bought it for like 50 cents, and the whole record promptly kicked my ass, that sloppy mashup of surrealist poetry and “Delta blues” played by white dudes who sounded as if they could barely find their way around their instruments, a beautiful mess not unlike . . . well, punk rock.
Nathan Larson, A Camp: Maybe it’s because that couplet drew me to this album, but to my ears “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” is still a standout track on Highway 61: lurching, majestic, deceptively simple. And vulnerable, unlike the malicious (but still brilliant) “Ballad of a Thin Man.” “It Takes a Lot to Laugh” remains one of my favorite Dylan songs, and marks my discovery of a portal into a broader musical world.
DJ Rekha: “Hurricane” exemplifies what Dylan does so well: tell a complete story. Unlike his early, super-folky stuff, the faster pace and rhythm of this track makes it more listenable to me than classics like “Blowing in the Wind” and “Tangled Up in Blue,” though I love the lyrics of those songs as well. Rappers could take some storytelling lessons from Mr. Zimmerman.
Keren Ann: My Favorite Dylan song is “Boots of Spanish Leather.” One can learn how to live just by listening to this song. The heartbreaking dialog between the one who goes to sea and the one who stays behind is the greatest testimony to true love. I often tried to sit with a guitar and play this song, but no one will ever manage to recreate the emotion that already exists in Dylan’s intimate original recording.
Vincent DiFiore, Cake: “Everything Is Broken” turns my despair into delight. On the one hand, you can’t depend on anything. On the other hand, it’s tremendous to be alive. Whatever it is, it’s going to break. Face it, and carry on.
Exene Cervenka: I was eight, and I came home from Catholic school to find the hi-fi playing but nobody home. I was still holding my lunchbox and my book bag. I stared at the stereo. I was frozen by the lyrics, transformed by the sound of his voice. It was a revolution in my head. It was Bob Dylan singing “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” This is the song I want to sing now, at 55, because oh, people need to hear it again. Sing it now, a thousand singers — people need to hear this song now!
Jon King, Gang of Four: “Highway 61 Revisited.” The song that, aged 11, put my head right. At that age, I’d only heard the pap that filled radio in those days; at school, the big boys played on the art-room record player this album by Bob, and it was like an earthquake. This smart, cool, voice singing a song about something I didn’t understand or decode, but said that the singer was on the side of progress, ideas, creativity, and love, and against the fascists and military-industrialists and creeps and straights and bores. This was where I wanted to be. It was proof that the world had infinite options outside the tedious conformity that was being rammed down everyone’s throats.
The words are unimprovable, playful, and witty, riffing on the cruel story from the King James bible of Abraham prepared to murder his most beloved son by a mean, vicious, and jealous Old Testament God, a text that, almost in itself, makes you run screaming into the arms of the nearest atheist.
John McCauley, Deer Tick: I was pretty late to hop on the Dylan train. My favorite song is “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” the Rolling Thunder Revue version. It kicks the Nashville Skyline version’s ass and showed me how hard Bob can rock.
Nicole Atkins: My favorite Dylan song would have to be “One More Cup of Coffee,” off the album Desire. I love the minor-key harmonies and the Middle Eastern tone of the music. Its a tale of one-sided love and abandonment that is seeping with pain and authority in the vocal. Its beautiful and defeated all at once. Its like a mini heartbreaking movie.
Ian O’Neil, Deer Tick: One of my particular favorites of early bob Dylan is a B-side called “Seven Curses.” Lyrically, it possesses the same dreamlike quality that it does sonically. He seemed to be at his peak in terms of finger picking and very confident vocally. Sounds like a Mississippi John Hurt song. It marches proudly in circles and never lets up.
April Smith: “Mama, You Been on My Mind” is my favorite Dylan song because it’s so simple and honest. He’s not heartbroken about this girl, and he’s not looking to get her back. She keeps getting into his head, and he’s just letting her know that he’s thinking about her. He doesn’t know why, and that’s all there is to it.
Ben Kweller: “Black Crow Blues.” I love Dylan piano songs! This is one of my faves. It’s that f#çk3d-up* psychedelic honky-tonk that only Bob can do.
Bill Janovitz, Buffalo Tom: “Visions of Johanna” is always the first song that comes to me if I have to name a favorite Dylan song. It is a perfect example of the era when everything was just pouring forth from the artist in an almost super-human way, but just before his exhaustion wore him down to the version just before the motorcycle accident that is shown at the end of the Scorcese doc, No Direction Home. It represents an artist at the peak of his powers, with no regard for pop form or formula. It is not even clear how much, if any, editing the songwriter exercised. The words that pour forth mostly seem to depict the nocturnal downtown scene where “heat pipes just cough” in an empty loft. The images are druggy, surreal, impressionistic, the singer trapped as if in a dream with “Louise” while unable to nail down the elusive Johanna, the visions of whom haunt him.
Janka Nabay: I never heard Bob Dylan until my singer, Boshra Saadi, showed me his music. I like Dylan’s love songs, but also political songs, because he was an activist with his art. Dylan is the same as Woody Guthrie, who I know because he made “This Land Is Your Land.” That song is similar to my bubu song “Sabanoh,” which means “We own here, we the people own this land.” I made “Sabanoh” because our country was in the middle of war. Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan — they’re both musicians concerned with government and with their country. My favorite Dylan song is “Blowing in the Wind,” because it will always be remembered as a call for peace. Some say music and government shouldn’t mix, but maybe that is the problem.
Genevieve Gagon, The Heavenly States: “I Threw it All Away” (live version, Hard Rain). Thinking about Bob Dylan means thinking about the word “generation.” He was given the job of being the voice of a generation, or its gadfly, over the task of being a boy, a man, and a songwriter. But in this song, he steps to the mic and rips his heart out in front of you, with man and generation converging. There is no story of he or she. He is as close as he may ever come to you. It’s a soul cleanser after all the richer food of his stories. This song is one reason why it’s so important to take a person not for one of his songs, but for all of them. This one sits inside the body of work that bore it. It’s a kind of song that happens only once for him, and once feels right. Hearing it live on Hard Rain, dirty, husky, and drunken, years after he first recorded it, it’s like the Stones song Jagger couldn’t ever risk writing. It’s a real apparition, a degree zero of loss that won’t later be adorned, and it’s as good for generation 2011 as it was for 1969 and 1976 and all the years between.
Luther Dickinson, North Mississippi Allstars : As a small child fascinated with music, it was “Oxford Town” that blew my mind, because it was written about something so close to home. Growing up in north Mississippi, I had heard firs hand accounts of my father and the fathers of friends showing support to James Meredith as he entered the University of Mississippi, and their frustrations with the madness surrounding the event. “Oxford Town” illustrates the insanely backwards cultural climate and the younger generation’s instinctual, gut yearning for change. “Oxford Town” taught me how powerful folk music can be by using the oral tradition to make folk heroes or villains out of people in the community.
Greg Dulli, Twilight Singers: Bob Dylan’s singing voice on Nashville Skyline was always my favorite, particularly on “I Threw It All Away” and “Lay Lady Lay.” The warmth and reverb are just beautiful and really comforting all these years later. Simple, direct songs about love and attraction, and he sounds as good as Jim Reeves or George Jones to me.
Mike IX Williams, Eyehategod/Arson Anthem : Bob Dylan never really inspired me much really musically, but he did rebelliously. When I was a kid, I’d hear about the electric 1965 Newport Folk Fest, and I was fascinated by the blatant antagonism of Dylan and his band, and the reaction of the pitiful closed-minded hippy-ass folk crowd, it made me realize that music should have the power to be dangerous and doesn’t have to conform to any rules. I do love a lot of his early lyrics and songs and the feelings they elicit, but if I had to pick a Dylan tune to promote it would be “Like a Rolling Stone,” as it’s the song my family picked to play at my outlaw brother’s funeral back in ’78. This may not sound radical nowadays, but back then, in a small-town Southern church no less, the sounds and words emanating from Bob Dylan’s haunting hymn definitely raised an eyebrow or two and steamed more than a few tempers. That song will forever be etched in my mind since then, and holds a special place in my heart.
David Best: “Ballad of a Thin Man” just shades “Lovesick” as my favorite of his songs. Dylan sounds increasingly more petulant and caustic with every descending piano note.
Ben Blackwell, the Dirtbombs: The waltz version of “Like a Rolling Stone” from the Bootleg Series is truly amazing. It’s only 1:36, and it ends before it ever gets started (with Bob sheepishly claiming, “My voice is gone”), but it’s way more poignant and powerful than the released version. It belies any sort of confidence, and instead fully embraces the uncertainty and fear that the lyrics have forever held to me, all austerely presented with just piano, vocals, and harmonica.
Robyn Hitchcock: “Visions of Joanna.” This song began to grow in me when I first heard it at 13 years old. I’d already been softened up by Freewheelin’ and Highway 61. The slightest whiff of Dylan’s voice or harmonica was catnip to me — I was transported to . . . wherever it was that he transported us to, in our millions. Blonde on Blonde was the first “new” Dylan record I heard, once my system had been rewired to receive his voice louder than any other. “Visions Of Johanna” stood out from the barbed, smoky wisdom of the other tracks because it was even more barbed and smoky. The punctuation of Robbie Robertson’s guitar and Al Kooper’s spectral keyboard made it all the more magnetic. The bass and drums kicked it along too, but it was measured and hypnotic, more than one of Dylan’s gleeful rock ‘n’ blues assaults. However, the lyrics (and the way Dylan sang them) were what kept me pinned to the song over the years: They are as sad as they were funny, as despairing as they are angry. A whole emotional world that seems to go in opposite directions at once lies in the cage of that song. I didn’t know the word “transcendent” then, and even that doesn’t sum it up. I would shiver whenever I heard it, and played it into my friends heads and out the other side. It left me with one certainty in life: I had to become a songwriter. Then maybe I could make worlds like that. I’ll never write a song as great as “Visions of Johanna,” but nor will Dylan. He’s already done it. And I’ve had to find my own way to say what I have to say. I may have missed, but it sure gave me something to aim for.