What To Suggest To People Who Say That Bob Dylan “Can’t Sing”….

bob-dylan-performing-in-germany-1984-credit-istvan-bajzat-epa

If somebody you know offers the opinion that “Bob Dylan Can’t Sing”, suggest that they listen to these two recordings of the same song, and compare their experiences:

Elvis Presley singing Bob Dylan’s ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’
from the soundtrack of the movie ‘Spinout’, released 1966

Bob Dylan singing his own composition, ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’
from April 12, 1963, concert at New York’s Town Hall, released on Greatest Hits Volume 2 (1971)

Yes, Elvis has the ‘sweeter’ voice, and his version is very pure and smooth. ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’ becomes a soaring love song. It is luscious, and confident. Elvis is in complete control. He floats off and luxuriates in the comfort.
Dylan himself, in a 1969 interview with Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner, called Elvis’s cover “the one recording I treasure the most”, and he may still feel that way.

The experience of hearing Dylan’s own version is something else entirely. Vulnerable, plaintive, complex. It sounds like he’s singing about loss, about something that’s actually unlikely to happen “once again”. (When Elvis says “If..”, it sounds like he’s already there.) Dylan’s version is human, and imperfect. We feel far less confident that we know what’s going on; it’s enigmatic. The song is ‘delivered’ as much as it is ‘sung’. Every word “trembles”.

To paraphrase the other Elvis (Costello), “you don’t listen to Dylan to hear sweet voice singing, you listen to experience the feeling he is singing about.”
Christopher Ricks points out that “song is a triple art, a true compound. And it doesn’t make sense to ask which element of a compound is more “important”: the voice, or the music, or the words..”.
With Dylan, the ‘compound’ becomes more than the sum of the parts, and we experience something that combines emotions and intellect and spirit; something that transmutes, and transcends.

Of course, the experience is very personal, and subjective, and we have to respect that this does not resonate with every listener.
In part, the difference may be because some people prefer their art, prefer their experience of the world, to be as apparently ‘perfect’ as possible. They seek fantasies of purity and perfection, and they like their art to do the same.
Others embrace the imperfection of the world, and prefer art that rolls up its sleeves, immerses itself, and gets dirty in the uncertainty and muddiness of it all.

Regardless of all this, the above example, contrasting Elvis’s fine performance with Dylan’s perfectly imperfect one, may show a few who don’t get it why so many do.
It’s about the humanness in Dylan’s voice.


Anton Scamvougeras
October 2016


Appendix:
There is a special beautiful, symmetrical bonus, about this performance comparison, for those who care to read on:

Note how the written version of the first four lines of this song (confirmed as the current definitive version on bobdylan.com) now read:

If today was not an endless highway
If tonight was not a crooked trail
If tomorrow wasn’t such a long time
Then lonesome would mean nothing to you at all
.

Yet, in the recorded versions above

Elvis sings

If today was not an endless highway
If tonight was not an endless trail
If tomorrow wasn’t such a long time
Then lonesome would mean nothing to me at all

and Dylan sings

If today was not a crooked highway
If tonight was not a crooked trail
If tomorrow wasn’t such a long time
Then lonesome would mean nothing to you at all

Elvis has the ‘endless’ voice, and Dylan the ‘crooked’, and they consciously or unconsciously changed the lyrics to reflect that.

dysconnected.com

Image credit: Dylan performing in Germany 1984 – Istvan Bajzat – EPA

4 thoughts on “What To Suggest To People Who Say That Bob Dylan “Can’t Sing”….

  1. You nailed it. There are many singers with what sound like ‘good’ voices but when you listen, the experience just leaves you feeling empty. On the other hand, there are those who, like Bob, have voices that are not conventionally ‘good’ but who hit you right in the heart. Bob is the best of all.

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  2. Over in England – we had a radio presenter – now deceased – who made it his lifes mission to inform his listeners that Sinatra sang “flat” could not hit a note or carry a tune. There is a comparison here surely?

    When the 2nd Self-Portrait was released a musician said “this man (Dylan) can put a song across like no other” – I think that says it all really.

    There is a recording of Bob singing “Song To Woody” where the vocals and harp are done “straight” and it is really good.

    Perhaps Dylan can “sing” but does not want to?

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