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Mr. Tambourine Man

How does he do it? Joan Baez wanted to know.

How does Bob Dylan write such folk classics as “Masters Of War” and “Only A Pawn In Their Game” and “With God On Our Side”? Songs that say what everyone was thinking.

Nobody but nobody in the burgeoning folk-music scene was writing songs of such insight, such intelligence, and such power as Bob Dylan. Dylan was 22-years-old and writing songs with the wisdom of an Old Testament prophet. On top of that, “Blowin’ In the Wind” (as sung by Peter, Paul and Mary) was the number-one song on top-40 radio.

Dylan was not possessed with a great voice, nor did he play guitar or harmonica particularly well. But he had charisma, and his song-writing talent was undeniable. The civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, liberal college professors, beatniks, peaceniks, artists, poets, and folkies everywhere were under his spell. Dylan was their spokesman, their Mr. Tambourine Man.

And that was the problem. Dylan didn’t want to be their Mr. Tambourine Man. Politics and fame had no real attraction for him. He turned down an invitation to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show because they wouldn’t allow him to sing “John Birch Society Blues.” Dylan would have been content to perform in a Greenwich Village Coffee House (where he started) for the rest of his life.

Dylan never followed the herd. He exemplified the dictum: “Talent does what it can; genius does what it must.” Dylan achieved his first blush of fame writing protests songs, and then moved on. He changed from acoustic to electric guitar, added an electric backup band, and wrote more personal songs: “All I Really Want To Do”, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, which other recording artists turned into hit records. The song-writing royalties made him rich.

When Dylan got around to writing his first hit single--”Like A Rolling Stone”--he was living in a 31-room house. Then he went to Nashville and recorded his masterpiece: “Blonde On Blonde.” When protest against the Vietnam War was at its zenith, Dylan was writing songs that sounded as if they had been around for a hundred years. His next album, “John Wesley Harding” changed everything. Bands like the Beatles, the Byrds, and the Rolling Stones responded with albums of simpler and more countrified tunes.

Like several great artists (Picasso comes to mind) Dylan never stopped changing. He wrote love songs (“Nashville Skyline”) and songs about the breakup of his marriage (“Blood On The Tracks). In the late 1970s he became a born-again Christian and recorded three albums of essentially Christian music. Artistically, he never stopped changing.

For the past 20 years Dylan has been on a seemingly endless road trip, performing in large cities and in small towns, here, there, and back again. In 1999 he received his first Grammy Award for the album “Time Out Of Mind.” In 2001, he received an Oscar for his song “Things Have Changed” (for the movie “Wonder Boys”). In 2009, his album “Together Through Life” went number one, making Dylan, at age 67, the oldest artist to top the charts. That same year, he intruded on Andy Williams’ territory with an album of Christmas standards entitled, “Christmas In The Heart.”

How does he do it?

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