3 Songwriting Lessons I Learned from Bob Dylan
When I was young I told my dad that I wanted to be a songwriter. Being a practically minded person he looked at me and told me a story about how he used to like Bob Dylan until he heard Bob say something about how he didn’t believe in anything he wrote and that he was never going to change the world. That was the first time in my life I realized that I didn’t really care what my dad thought. He was jaded and beaten down by life. He said I was naive. I would rather be naive and hopeful than give up on a better world. And so, like Bob, I became quite anti-authoritative. I’m not sure there is a lesson there, but that was my experience and it shaped me and my outlook on the world and therefore my songwriting.
The other “lesson” I learned from Bob may not even be something that he said or did. I heard that he said somewhere, sometime, that there were only five original songs and the rest were just variations of those songs. For example, how many songs are there about love? Love being the number one song topic in all of history. Ironically, the second most common song subject is heartbreak. Whoever said the quote about originality is not important. What is relevant is that if you write songs you are going to end up borrowing ideas from other songs. It’s just the way it is. Have you ever heard the phrase, “steal like an artist?” I’m not talking outright plagiarism (or sampling). I’m talking about what I call, “take what you like, and leave the rest”. Here’s a confession, my song “Dig a Hole” is the same chord structure as “Both Hands” by Ani DiFranco. There is no shame in taking things from songs you like and putting your own twist on them.
The other thing I often hear when talking about Bob Dylan’s music is the phrase “Three Chords and the Truth”. Often times simpler is better. Especially if you have a strong message, you don’t want to clutter it up with a bunch of complex chord changes and avant-garde colorations. I’ve heard some great songs that had only one chord. Don’t dumb it down, but don’t make it unnecessarily complicated.
Okay, so there is a fourth thing that I thought of whilst writing this down. Ask yourself this question, and answer honestly. Do you like the sound of your own voice? I know that it took me a long time to be able to listen to a recording of myself singing and not cringe! Songwriting isn’t about that. Songwriting my friends, is about your message. Bob Dylan himself knows that he has a terribly uniques style of singing, but that never stopped him. He owned it and the world admired him for it. If you love to write and “can’t” sing another option is to find someone who can and have them sing for you. There is no shame in that.
Well, Bob. Thanks for all the free wisdom you inadvertently bestowed on the world. Check out some quotes by Bob and a very interesting interview below:
Bob Dylan Quotes:
“All I can do is be me, whoever that is”
“If you want to keep your memories, you first have to live them.”
“Don't criticize what you can't understand.”
“I consider myself a poet first and a musician second.”
“You just don’t wake up one day and decide that you need to write songs.”
“The harmonica is the world's best-selling musical instrument. You're welcome.”