Junebug versus Hurricane

Ring Them Bells: Bob Dylan’s Bloody Voice
the mountains are filled with lost sheep

the mountains are filled with lost sheep

Ring Them Bells

Taylor Black


A few nights ago, out making the late-night media rounds in support of his new solo record, Nick Jonas was asked to comment on his recent participation in the latest “We Are the World” project, a re-hashed version of Michael Jackson’s production by the same name from 1985.  Aside from to-be-expected remarks about what an honor it was to be involved in all this, Jonas described a few of the differences and similarities between the 2010 and ’85 versions and noted that it made sense that rapper Lil Wayne had been given the part originally assigned to Bob Dylan, since, apparently, as we all know: “Bob Dylan can’t sing.”  Now, while I’ll admit, that out of all the members of Jonas Brothers, and probably all the teeny-boppers out there right now, Nick is the one I’d probably most like to meet up with in a back-alley and do dirty things to, this was still a nasty thing to say.

One bitchy response I could make to Mr. Jonas is that he’s the one that can’t sing.  I can only say that I know what his face looks like and can’t really conjure up his sound.  But, I won’t go there.  Further, I really would not like this entry to devolve into some high-handed reprimand of Mr. Jonas.  Yet, I do feel the need to intervene—especially considering that the subject of Dylan’s voice—singing or otherwise—has always been one of great controversy and misunderstanding.   From comments about Dylan’s songs from his early, Woody Guthrie years (the ‘60s) constituting the voice, or the conscience of his generation all the way to more recent complaints about the moans and groans that he likes to call music—people just can’t seem to get it.    So, in my own humble, imperious way, I’d like to take advantage of this little incident as a chance to set the record straight on the power of and the purity in Bob Dylan’s voice.  There is a charismatic component to his music.  His songs are only objects, moments in time, vehicles for his voice, which, like a holy ghost, inhabits them.  His singing raises them up, brings them to life.

But what does all this mean?  What is, or is there even, a fair way to qualify a voice?  To describe its depth, color or texture in a meaningful way?  I want to think of some of the ways in which to characterize a voice as rich, of how a color voice might sound.  To be honest, though, phrases like “he can or can’t sing” seem kind of empty to me.  Even something like: “they can’t see it,” or “…can’t hear it,” seems tricky, too vapidly self-referential.  Of course, there is the whole concept of Synaesthesia to borrow from when characterizing the various capacities of music and sound to instigate visceral feelings—and to paint pictures.  But, still, like Jonas’ comment, and even my initial defenses of Dylan’s voice, the logic behind and characterizing Synaesthesia seems to be too subjective to really mean anything and, on the other hand, too objective and confident in how it considers individual feelings work.  I mean, what does it mean to see sound or to hear color in music? Aren’t all emotions, affective responses—especially to music—a combination of sensations?  Are we really so sure we have a handle on our emotions as discrete entities, logical concepts?  These kinds of statements are comparative without being associative, descriptive without being creative—they’re just too scattered for me to consider.  They’re too complicated, not pure enough for me, they don’t seem to be really listening to music’s magic.

There’s a line in a song from Dylan’s album Together Through Life, released in the summer of 2009, that has always stuck in my head by itself, out of context from the rest of the song: “Some people they tell me//I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice.”  Obviously there’s a biblical reference here that I learned in Sunday School the blood of the lamb—meaning the body and the spirit of Christ—that Dylan is telling us he’s got down deep in his soul, emanating from the sounds he makes and the music he creates.  So, lest I be accused of taking an ironic approach to Dylan’s religiosity or not saying what I mean, I will admit that there’s something to his voice that’s different, more inspired and more complex since his conversion to Christianity sometime in the late seventies.  I prefer his contemporary work not only because I think it is always improving, but also because it’s the only way to approach Dylan musically.  His songs and his voice alike are “good,” rich and powerful because they’re still at work.   Like faith and wonder themselves, this voice of his is always changing, never fully complete and full of human triumph, failure and doubt.

Much to the dismay of many of his most faithful fans and critics, his songs too never seem to sound the same more than once.  They are events in and of themselves, beholden to their power to effect and communicate in the present and future.  They don’t rehash the past.  They’re not owned by the past and yet somehow they are overflowing with and steeped in the blood of American musical and literary history.  The kind of power and focus that Dylan puts into the singing of his songs, as well as the total devotion he seems to have to them, seems evangelic to me.  The reason why I, and so many other people, treat Dylan with a kind religious awe is the same reason so many people go out their way to criticize and dismiss him—his songs and his voice have affected them, moved them to speak.

In my last two pieces I have also addressed the magical power of the voice and of song.  With respect to Emmylou Harris’ “Red Dirt Girl,” I ruminated on the cathartic, living power of the voice that memorializes death; in my response to Lucinda Williams’ “Pineola,” I drew out the ways in which the sounds of mourning carry haunting powers with them as they dissipate into the earth and echo up to she sky.  So, while both of these songs have dealt with the ways songs cast spells on life and on the living, there is passion in Dylan’s voice that works more like a prayer, that brings something that feels like dreaming into existence.  His songs are offerings, he lays them down for us, His voice falls down like roses at our feet.

Although I can’t really explain it in discrete musical or even affective terms, this evangelical zeal that I hear and that I’m describing in Dylan’s voice—especially of late—can be translated, in a certain way, to its focused musicality.  First of all, there’s an organic component to his recorded voice that not only transports me to the event of recording the song, but also the bodily expression of it.   Listening to, for instance, something like “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” or “Ain’t Talkin’,” from his more recent albums, and you can sense, hear and feel the saliva—the blood—rising out of Dylan’s mangled throat into the microphone as he makes he brings his songs to life. He sounds like a needle scratching over a vinyl disc, the rut and friction of pure pre-digital sound, somewhere between tickling and stabbing the words that emerge from his lips onto his faithful listeners.  He sounds like he’s got all the thorns and the flowers of all time locked inside his throat.  Even though, in my old age, my relationship to (the idea of) God has been bruised and battered, worn out and sucked dry I believe when I’m listening to Dylan.  At least until the song’s over.

There’s also a way in which the feeling and the history of a song are all clear when I listen to Dylan.  On the one hand, his “blood of the land” line refers to the musical and social traditions that he has placed his songs in that themselves become reborn through him.  On the other, his songs never sound the same more than once.  His delivery is always in the moment, always emotionally accurate and truthful; the charismatic nature of Dylan’s voice is to convey these feelings, to infect listeners with them. There’s the endless, pulsating weariness of songs like “High Lands,” loneliness and geographical emptiness in “Thunder on the Mountain” and isolated abjection in “Love Sick” that gets expressed in me even before I’ve comprehended lyrical content or context.  To say he sings with blood in his voice is to say that his voice is alive, breathing, pulsating.  The enigmatic strength of songs, indeed of Dylan songs, lies in their ability to draw listeners in, to possess and to live in them.

Listen to recordings of “Ring Them Bells,” the song that has itself been ringing in my ears as I sit here and write this, and you’ll hear how Dylan makes his voice an instrument of praise and of song.  During the musical interludes preceding the final few verses of the song the pedal steel comes in and plays the melody that Dylan’s been singing up until that moment.  If, by that moment, you are as lost in the music as I become listening to it—you will forget that Dylan’s voice has stopped ringing, that the sound of the pedal steel isn’t really him.  Like his voice (and also his harmonica in different songs), it is pure musical expression.  In the end, whether or not you, or young Mr. Jonas, are able to hear what I hear, to see what I see, I would like to close by saying that Dylan’s voice is beautiful because it is something he’s authored himself.  It’s no use wondering whether or not Bob Dylan can sing, it only matters that he does.  His voice is already ringing off the stony walls of the bell tower and echoing across the hills and valleys, always changing and forever in debt to the music it calls forth.


8 Comments so far
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Good stuff on Dylan. I’m always skeptical of the cliche amateur music critic judgment of Dylan (“great songwriter, but of course he can’t sing”). On “We Are the World,” Greil Marcus’ classic review is well worth revisiting: http://eightiesclub.tripod.com/id140.htm

Comment by pauly

Thanks for the comment and the link, Paul.

On another note, something I thought you might be interested in:



Comment by junebugvshurricane

“you can sense, hear and feel the saliva—the blood—rising out of Dylan’s mangled throat into the microphone as he makes he brings his songs to life. He sounds like a needle scratching over a vinyl disc, the rut and friction of pure pre-digital sound…He sounds like he’s got all the thorns and the flowers of all time locked inside his throat.”

Mmmm, yes! And listen to you talk about magic and offerings.

Comment by Oli

‘The world is full of people with sweet voices who can’t sing. Bob Dylan does not have one of those voices but he is a great singer. Singing is about phrasing and Dylan is a master phraser’.
Martin Carthy, English folksinger, many years ago.

Comment by Phil

Thanks for that article. I agree with you 100%.

Comment by paul flynn

and may I add that never have I heard a more griping, and idiosyncratic, harmonica player. Again, it’s not about technique. But whether Bobby D is wailing into a melody or sliding through arpeggio/chord series, he makes rhythm, repetition, and raw sound over into something whose power I can only describe as physiological. Like being brainwashed into sound.

And is there any way on the blog to link to relevant videos/recordings?

Comment by Kadji

Haha. “gripping”

Comment by Kadji

100% agree. There are many examples. One for all is the song “Cross the Green Mountain”. Just switch off the lights in your room, wear headphones and listen carefully to this song: Dylan’s voice emerges as the voice of history, of sufferings, from the times out of mind, universal, eternal. Every single syllable is perfect. NOBODY ELSE can sing like this. Certainly don’t you, Mr. Jonas!

Comment by Brunocat

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