What I learned about writing from listening to Bob Dylan
This Saturday night at a St. Pete bar and grill called Harvey’s, I’m playing a three-set gig with my long-time musical friend Dave Scheiber. I have not played in a while, and I have some new gear — a Hammond portable organ, so I went to his house for a brief rehearsal.
Before long we were swapping the vocals in an upbeat version of “Like a Rolling Stone.” For years, we have called this act “Dueling Dylans.”
Bob Dylan just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is great and deserves the honor, but he is not inimitable. In fact, anyone can imitate him. Go ahead, give it a try. Right now. Out loud. Wherever you are, read (or sing) this:
“Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
“In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you.”
We think of great musical artists as distinctive in their genius. But the greatest — and most popular — turn out to be the easiest to imitate: Louis Armstrong, the Andrew Sisters, Elvis, The Beatles, Dylan.
Here is the big lesson. Before you can sing in your own authentic voice, you have to imitate the voice of others. And before you can write in your own authentic voice, you have to imitate the writing voices of others.
The great sportswriter Red Smith made this point when he described the evolution of his writing style from florid to pellucid. He came of age in the era of sportswriters like Grantland Rice, who tended to mythologize the athletes of his day, comparing the Notre Dame backfield to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Smith imitated those moves until he could find his own style, one which was clearer and more direct.
Athletes do the same thing. LeBron James watched Michael Jordan, who watched Julius Erving.
Dylan has his own creative influences, from Woody Guthrie to Dylan Thomas (hence the name) to the surprising professional wrestler Gorgeous George (who also influenced James Brown and Muhammad Ali). George, according to biographer John Capouya, showed young Bobby Zimmerman how you could draw a crowd by re-creating your persona, inspiring a middle-class Jewish kid from Minnesota to become America’s troubadour.
Two years ago, my youngest daughter, Lauren, got married. She is a musical theater major and married Chaz, the bass player for the Hunks of Funk. She was looking for a reading that would combine the themes of love and music, but found nothing that satisfied her. So, I gave it a shot.
To prepare myself, I read a series of Shakespeare sonnets, the early idealized ones to a young patron, and the later earthy ones to the “Dark Lady.” I listened to the voice of those poems, immersed myself in their rhythm and structure, and with the help of Peter Meinke (who happens to be Florida’s poet laureate) came up with this:
(A sonnet for Lauren and Chaz)
Every bride and groom should sing a song
Right before that time they say their words.
He could sing the bass notes deep and strong,
And she could trill the alto like a bird.
But what if he starts croaking like a frog,
And she can only buzz it like a bug?
Would we prefer the howling of a dog
To this unsound cacophony of love?
No, I say, just let the lovers sing!
It need not be in harmony or tune,
It need not turn like gold into a ring
Or squeeze exquisite honey from the moon.
It’s the trying that’s important — hand in hand —
Two voices circled join this wedding band.
I don’t claim to have written like Shakespeare, only to be inspired by his poetic voice.
Back in March, Poynter helped celebrate the centennial of the Pulitzer Prizes with a theater production based on the themes of civil rights, social justice and equality. There were readings and visuals and music, including a gospel choir. Bob Dylan won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, so I knew I wanted to include one of his classic songs.
I chose "The Times They Are a-Changing."
These two stanzas stood out that night — and they stand out today — as a call to the nation:
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.