On Tuesday 24th of May the legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan turned 75. I am sure that this man has inspired many singer-songwriters (me included) with his intricate lyrics and simple melodies. Today I am going to write about what the infamous Dylan's song "Blowin in the wind" has taught me about songwriting.
Bob claims he wrote this song in about 10 minutes in April 1962. The lyrics were set to the melody of a folk song called "No More Auction Block". He performed a two verse version of the song that same evening at the nightclub Gerde's Folk City in Greenwich. In this first performance, he had not yet memorized the lyrics and couldn’t read his own handwriting. He made up some of the lyrics as he went along.
Since then, the song has been covered hundreds of times by numerous artists including Joan Baez, Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke and Dolly Parton. Dylan himself has since performed this song an incredible 1358 times.
So how did a young songwriter who had only written handful of songs up until this time end up writing a song, in about 10 minutes, that is number 14 on Rolling Stones list of the 500 greatest songs ever?
Here are 6 things that I learned from his example:
1. You don’t have to formally study songwriting to write a good song. I don’t know about you but I tend to get bogged down in studying all the time instead of writing all the time. I do believe that the more you study the art of songwriting the better you will technically become as a songwriter but if you are spending ALL your time studying instead of writing then you are doing yourself a disservice. Communities like FAWM (February Album Writing Month) where you write 15 songs in the short month of February and 50/90 (where you write 50 songs in three months) can help you get over yourself and just start writing. Lots! There was one guy on FAWM this year, Arthur Rossi, who wrote over 100 sets of lyrics in the month of February. These were picked up and recorded by various collaborators (I wrote the music for and recorded three of Arthur's lyrics). Who knows what may grow from these 100 seeds.
2. The song does not have to be a song-writing masterpiece to be a hit. You don’t have to analyse every word and every rhyme to make sure it is perfect. Have a look at the structure of “Blowin' in the wind”. 3 versus, 3 choruses. A total of 186 words. No bridge. No real hook, (that I can detect). No fancy rhymes, "man/sand/banned", "sea/free/see" and "sky/cry/die". Repetition of a word at the end of a non-rhyming line, "exist". Repetition of the same sounding word of the instead of a rhyme, "sea/see".
3. When the muse strikes it strikes, be ready for it. Be ready to write it down and most importantly, be ready to PERFORM it (even before it is totally perfect). This is a big one for me. I tend to record the song very quickly (so that I don’t forget the melody!) but I usually wait a while before I perform it. There are some songs that I have written that I have never performed. I also find that the longer I put off performing a song, the harder it is to resurrect it at a later stage. Maybe I need to get going on performing my new songs straight away. In this way I can get an immediate reaction and make any changes I need to while the song is still fresh.
4. Be generous. Whenever you get an opportunity, get other people to cover your song. At the time of writing “Blowin’ in the wind”, Dylan was not well known. Peter Paul and Mary covered the song in 1963 and this was one of the factors that thrust him forwards in his illustrious career in becoming the purported greatest song-writer of our time. Don’t hoard your songs. Be generous and your generosity will come back to you tenfold.
5. Write about universal concepts that everyone can relate to. Although Dylan might not like to hear this song described as a "protest" song (because according to him "I don't write no protest songs"), the song has been described as an anthem of the 1960s civil rights movement, it's first line is offered as the "Ultimate Question in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, it has been included as poetry in a high-school English textbook in Sri Lanka and protestors in the Iraq war are using it as their anthem rather than creating a new one.
6. It is "okay" to use other songs as inspiration. This “inspiration” falls into two camps, the chord progression and the melody. A chord progression cannot be copyrighted. It is okay to take a chord progression of any song you like (copyrighted or not) and work your own melody over this chord progression. Secondly, where a song is public domain you can also use the actual melody line. Note that you cannot use the melody of a copyrighted song. You should always be upfront about where you have used other songs for inspiration.
These points may be contentious, (especially point number 6) and I welcome any comments in this regard.
Now, just to get down and write that one hit song!
Photograph from History in Pictures
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