In celebration of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday (gosh that makes me feel old!), I listened to a lot of songs in my Dylan collection and confirmed what I had long suspected – that Dylan is fine blues artist, with a deep sense of and respect for the blues tradition.
Look through the canon and you’ll find versions of traditional blues songs, new songs that are out-and-out blues in form, songs that are blues-infused, and some that are clearly not musically blues, but nevertheless have a blues lyrical content (and on occasions, title).
The blues slips through throughout his long career, but is most evident in his very early work and then the latter albums, from Time Out of Mind onwards. But can a wealthy white guy really be said to be a bluesman? Of course, Dylan wasn’t always wealthy and paid his dues as a homeless, penniless young musician before things took off for him. But that’s a debate I’ll leave you to think about if you read Adam Gussow’s book Whose Blues? All I’ll say here is that from the beginning of his career until now, Dylan has drunk deeply at the well of the blues tradition and has done his bit in rehearsing that tradition over the years, through performing traditional songs and his own compositions. And he’s proved to be a thoroughly able exponent of the blues – in his own idiosyncratic, characteristic way.
We’ve selected 12 of Dylan’s blues songs for you to enjoy.
First, six traditional blues songs:
From Dylan’s 2nd album, The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, the song was first recorded in1928 by Bo Carter, and then by the Mississippi Sheiks in 1930 (turning Corina into Sweet Alberta). Many other early blues artists recorded it, including Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Joe Turner, Mississippi John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb, as well as jazz artists and exponents of Western Swing. Dylan’s version borrows from Robert Johnson’s Stones in My Passageway, including the lyrics, “I got a bird that whistles, I got a bird that sings.”
Fixin’ to Die
Dylan’s first eponymously titled album, released in 1962 features mostly folk and blues standards as well as two Dylan originals. Fixin’ to Die is a song by Delta blues musician Bukka White, recorded in 1940. The song reflected White’s experience in the notorious Parchman prison in Mississippi, where he “got to wondering how a man feels when he dies.” Dylan’s version changes the melody and adds some lyrics.
See That My Grave is Kept Clean
Another song that appeared on Bob’s debut album. It was first recorded by Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1927 and 1928 and became his most famous. Dylan manages to keep the rather sombre nature of the topic in his version, possibly more so than even Blind Lemon. The song has been recorded by a host of artists, including excellent versions by B B King and Mavis Staples.
Stack a Lee
Dylan’s version appears on his 1993 album World Gone Wrong, a raw sounding collection of traditional folk songs, which was critically acclaimed and won a Grammy for Traditional Folk Album. The song is known in a number of variants – Stagger Lee and Stagolee amongst them – and is a traditional song about the murder of Billy Lyons by “Stag” Lee Shelton in St. Louis in 1895. It was first recorded in 1923 by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. Shelton, nicknamed Stag because he had no friends, and Lyons were members of the St. Louis underground. They got into dispute over Lyons’s hat one evening while drinking and Shelton shot Lyons, and was subsequently convicted of his murder. The song celebrating this unsavoury incident has been recorded by many artists over the years, with Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 version often considered the definitive one.
Frankie and Albert
The song appears on Dylan’s 1992 album, Good As I Been to You, another album made up entirely of folk and blues songs and Dylan’s first entirely solo, acoustic album since Another Side of Bob Dylan in 1964. Rolling Stone viewed it as positively as “a passionate, at times almost ragged piece of work.” Frankie and Albert, again, was inspired by real life, the story of a woman killing her unfaithful lover. There have been hundreds of recordings of the song, starting from as early as 1912, including versions by Elvis and Johnny Cash. Dylan’s version features some nifty acoustic guitar work and some lovely vocal phrasing.
Rollin’ and Tumblin’
Dylan’s version of this old blues standard song is on his 2006 Modern Times album. Dylan had come into a rich vein of form starting from the 1997 Time Out of Mind, which was to continue right until the present, with a number of well-received, critically acclaimed and enjoyable albums. It reached No.1 in the album charts in the US and was ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Dylan’s version of Rollin’ and Tumblin’ follows Muddy Waters’ famous version, which had taken the tune from Robert Johnson’s If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day. Dylan’s version gives a rockabilly feel to the song and has some nice slide guitar along with his increasingly croaking vocals.
We might also have included Dylan’s versions of Blind Boy Fuller’s Step It Up and Go and the Mississippi Sheiks Sitting on Top of the World, but let’s choose another half dozen of Dylan’s own blues songs.
Dylan’s Own Blues Songs
Everything is Broken
Dylan’s 1989 album, Oh Mercy, produced by Daniel Lanois, after a couple of poorly received albums, was viewed as a return to form, with Dylan himself claiming, “There’s some magical about this record.” Everything is Broken is rife with blues sentiment, with Dylan bemoaning the state of the world, with everything broken, from kitchen implements to bodies to treaties. The final lines, “Hound dog howling, bull frog croaking, Everything is broken” echo the empty, hollowness of a broken world. It’s been described as a Louisiana, swamp blues, and the reverb-drenched guitar work, with a simple three chord blues structure, matches the near-despondency of the lyrics.
The Levee’s Gonna Break
Another one from 2006’s Modern Times. It’s a straight 12 bar blues based on When the Levee Breaks by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie from 1929. The song references the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, a hugely destructive river flood that inundated 27,000 square miles up to a depth of 30 feet and displaced 200,000 African Americans from their homes, forcing them to live in relief camps or migrate north. Dylan uses only a few lines from the original song, with the rest his own. Interesting note: the line “Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones” probably comes from Ovid’s Tristia, Book 4: “there’s barely enough skin to cover my bones.”
The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar
The song was recorded in 1980, but not included in the first version of Shot of Love in 1981. It appeared on the vinyl version of the album and in all subsequent versions released. Both Rolling Stone and the Guardian hailed it as one of Dylan’s best songs. It’s a brilliant piece of blues rock and the November 13, 1980 performance from San Francisco, which is included in the Trouble No More Bootleg release, features Carlos Santana on guitar with a couple of blistering solos and Dylan as intense as you’re likely to hear him, in enigmatic prophet mode, speaking of a world of chaos, madness, war and misunderstanding. The song is a powerful one – “a fiery piece of molten fury” [album liner notes] and the repetitive blues riff drives home the prophet’s urgent message. [For more on this song, click here]
Lonesome Day Blues
This is a straight 12 bar blues song from 2001’s Love and Theft. In Bob Dylan All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track, authors Margotin and Guesdon call it an exemplary blues performance – it “demonstrates how easily (he) can sing the genre. His voice takes on the atmosphere of Muddy Waters’ electric period. The support of his musicians is extraordinary.” It’s a good ‘un, all right!
Beyond Here Lies Nothing
From 2009’s Together Through Life, the song’s title is a quotation from the ancient Roman poet, Ovid. It was for nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Solo in 2010. There’s a nice loose feel to the arrangement, with judicious use of horns, and Dylan’s vocal performance is very cool.
From Dylan’s highly acclaimed Rough and Rowdy Ways from 2020, an album that proved Dylan’s staying power and his song writing mastery had not diminished. The music on False Prophet is based on Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s 1954 Sun Records single If Lovin’ Is Believin’ and features some nice guitar work by Dylan’s long-time guitarist, Charlie Sexton. The song is rather enigmatic, with Dylan claiming to be “no false prophet” kind of echoing here previous denials of being the cultural prophet that many had set him up to be over the years. Notwithstanding what he has said or sung, Dylan has proved himself to be a prophetic voice, whether it has been pointing to the broken nature of the world and its injustices or the broken nature of individuals, with the hope that can come through faith.
We’ve left out no end of fine songs, including: Man in the Long Black Coat, Ain’t talking, Trouble, Shot of Love, High Water, Jolene, Shake Shake Mama, It’s all Good, World Gone Wrong, Black Crow Blues, Gotta Serve Somebody. Go check them out, if you’re not familiar with them.
But we’ll finish with a song that claims to be a blues song, but isn’t really. But it’s one of my favourite Dylan songs, so here it is, from his Modern Times album.
Working Man Blues #2