Reflection on the Unique Vocal Stylings of Bob Dylan
It is clear that Bob Dylan possesses a distinctive vocal style; his voice is usually quite recognizable and people enjoy parodying his unusual diction and his long, drawn out, sometimes nasal delivery that seems to provoke, cajole, warn or rebuke. As Aidan Day points out below, "The singing voice at once solicits and rebuffs. The gratifications it offers are uncomfortable ones." He speaks of "a distance and an unease involving both singer and listener." This is another way of saying that listening to Dylan may require some effort on our part. Which is a good thing. We are forced to listen closely and pay attention. If it is too easy, it is not worth doing.
Obviously, if a singer wants to establish himself so that people know and recognize his voice instantly, it is not a bad thing to have a very distinctive voice. Dylan has clearly influenced many other singers from Mick Jagger to Mark Knopfler. But Dylan's voice is not something that just happens; it is something that he created consciously. It is certainly not his normal speaking or singing voice. Of course, as the quote below makes clear, he has really sung in many different voices. It may be, though, that he is projecting something with his manner of vocal delivery, something that, along with "the language that he use(s)," is part and parcel of what his music is all about. It is part of the way in which he builds verbal and musical structures in order to impart images and ideas to his listeners. As Paul Williams notes in reference to Dylan's vocal performance on "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," from Bringing It All Back Home:
Here is Dylan's singing at its rawest and most beautiful; it is as though any notion of singing as a technique or a skill has fallen away and instead we have singing as an open window through which another person's presence can be felt, a place for direct contact between two human spirits. There is so much life in this vocal performance it's scary. Dylan says 'a poem is a naked person'; here he demonstrates that no poem is as naked as the sound of a human voice. (Bob Dylan: Performing Artist 1960-1973: The Early Years, pp, 133-34. )
A few pages later, Williams also comments to the effect that when Dylan sings, there are "endless possibilities for beauty and truth that can be coaxed from a seemingly limited construction of rhymed couplets and minor chords." (139)
Dylan's voice and his vocal style may actually force us to reconsider what we think good singling is. Is it a rich, powerful voice? Or is it any voice that captures emotions well and gets them across to the listener? Dylan enthusiast Christopher Ricks makes this point in a recent interview when he says that people may have to reconsider what they mean by good singing. Interestingly, the interviewer starts by saying that he has never really cared for Dylan; he likes his writing but when he hears him sing, it turns him off. Ricks tries to help him out by making a comparison between what Dylan has done for singing to what Marlon Brando did for acting:
One of the things that we may need to redefine may be what people mean by singing. You don't have to be locked into some old idea of singing. A lot of my friends may think that Marlon Brando is a great actor, yet my parents knew that Marlon Brando could not act. They knew that all the more because they would look at John Gielgud and say: "Well, there's a real actor." That is what they meant by acting. I find it wonderful what Gielgud does – but no matter what you think of Brando, he redefined what we mean by acting. That's one sign of genius. You simply have to think again....
I know that some people find his voice repugnant and others find that he's not doing what they understand by singing. But I would like to remind you of that old thought in Wordsworth that you have to create the taste by which you are to be enjoyed. What an artist does is understand people's tastes and – without selling out – accommodate to them. But every now and then there are people – and Picasso was one, Brando was another – who do have to create the taste by which they are enjoyed. Brando was a genius, but the taste was really weird. (http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2008-04-11-ricks-en.html)
Here is what British scholar Aidan Day has to say about Dylan's singing:
...Dylan's lyrics resist containment within the roles often assigned to words, voice and music. 'Cawing, derisive' was Philip Larkin's account of Dylan's voice on the 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited . [Larkin, All What Jazz, 1985, p. 151] It would be possible--taking his career as a whole--to distinguish an extraordinary variety of Dylan's voices, not all of which would be captured by Larkin's description here. But Larkin's adjectives are not only an excellent register of the Highway 61 voice, they also suggest something of the peculiar tonal quality common to nearly all of Dylan's performances. Typically, the voice engages the line of the melody but its simultaneously jarring, atonal separation from the music, together with the relentless subordination of musical elements to the exigencies of verbal order, opens a space which registers a distance and an unease involving both singer and listener. The singing voice at once solicits and rebuffs. The gratifications it offers are uncomfortable ones. It is a pattern of invitation and rejection in which the audience--alienated from easy absorption into the music and denied relaxation--is required to attend closely to the transactions between voice and words. While the voice impinges distinctively on the listener, it simultaneously seeks to refuse an unthinking capitulation to itself and to the sense of what it is singing. It is a pattern which places special demands upon an audience, expecting it to participate actively--and to risk itself--in the play of meaning.
From Aidan Day, Jokerman: Reading the Lyrics of Bob Dylan (Oxford, UK and Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, Ltd., 1988), p. 2.
I find that there is something useful about this notion that Dylan's voice at once invites us in yet jars our sensibilities and repels us as well. It grabs our attention and either forces us to listen or to shut down and be unable to hear what is being sung. For some people, listening to Bob Dylan is just too uncomfortable an experience so they reject doing so. His voice and words are clearly expressing something that is important to the singer. Sometimes the voice and words blend perfectly and holistically; other times, they are at odds and in tension. Robert Cantwell, chronicler of the history of the folk revival in his book, When We Were Good (Harvard University Press, 1996)--refers to Dylan as "the real inventor of punk, brazen, wasted, outrageous, excoriating racists and warmongers and capitalists in the drawling, swearing, muttering, doggerel-ridden songs we adored, and in the elliptic, visionary, lyrical ones that remade our world," (p. 15). Cantwell recalls "the initial shock" he experienced when he first listened to "Dylan's raw and petulant voice..." (p. 45), a reaction many listeners may have had.
The unusual sound and power of his vocals is often enough to turn some listeners off. Perhaps some of these listeners sense the truth lurking beneath the surface of his lyrics and want no part of it. Perhpas it hits too close to home. As Joan Baez alludes onscreen in No Direction Home, some people can either take Dylan or leave him; they are not that impressed. But for those people to whom he speaks, Baez goes on to say, Dylan can take us very deep. She also often used to say something to the effect that Dylan expresses things that we might all be thinking and feeling--but he manages to say them before the thoughts are even fully formed in our minds, and well before we are able to articulate them. So when we hear what he is saying, we recognize it as some inchoate thought that we were just working up to, as well. Dave Van Ronk seems to say something similar, also in No Direction Home, when he alludes to Dylan speaking from the "collective unconscious," a concept associated with psychologist Carl Jung who liked to think in terms of universal archetypes deeply embedded in our consciousness. I think when Bob Dylan was young and learning so much so rapidly, his mind became very open which enabled him to embrace images, thoughts, visions and ideas from everywhere and anywhere.
As Day concludes above, Dylan and his music sometimes place demands on us as listeners, requiring us to participate in the making of meaning. To me, that is a more than satisfactory arrangement. Count me in.
See also this article from January 03, 2010 by Lawrence J. Epstein:
Bob Dylan's Voice
Mark Twain, in a characteristically wry observation, once noted that "Wagner's music is better than it sounds." A comparable comment can be made about Bob Dylan's voice, or, more accurately, his voices. Anyone who, without warning, first listened to Nashville Skyline and thought the vocals were the result of studio engineering knows that like the man himself Dylan's voice shifts identity. Dylan's nasal Midwestern twang lately sounds like a weathered voice that has spoken and sung and battled its way down many miles of sorrow and found, from time to time, some refuges of hope along the way.
I'm writing about Dylan's classic voice, the voice on Freewheelin' through Blonde on Blonde, the voice that made Hibbing famous. It's fair to note that it was Dylan's lyrics that captured the age. But those arresting words would not have had same impact they had if Dylan had not sung them the way he did. I always thought he sang his songs better than all the covers.
Dylan's voice had many elements. The vocal qualities that so shocked Mitch Miller and almost everyone else at CBS Records were Dylan's successful effort to inhabit Woody Guthrie's voice box. The very untutored rawness of the voice with its inherent affront to the sweet, packaged conformity of the 1950s made it the right voice to attack those who made profits from war or wanted to block the way of a new generation.
The vocal elements, though, were only part of the overall voice. The reason so many Dylan covers fail is that the singers mouth the words but lack the ability to transmit their emotional power. George Burns once noted that, "Sincerity is everything. If you can fake that, you've got it made." I want to believe Dylan was sincere as he sang his songs. I believe he was, despite the fact that he sometimes dismissed this idea. But sincere or not he acted as though he was sincere. He was a great actor, that is, either because he believed in the line and could control his voice to make listeners believe he believed, or he could simply mimic and fake passion perfectly.
Beyond the vocal elements and the emotions, Dylan's voice was helped by his phrasing. Particular syllables were emphasized and forced the listener to focus on them. Sometimes the phrases were virtually spoken in a rhythm, like beat poetry or talking blues. Talking blues was developed by Chris Bouchillon who recorded "Talking Blues" in April 1926. The recording director noted that Bouchillon's pleasant voice sounded better when he talked than when he sang, and so the director suggested that Bouchillon talk while he played the guitar. Woody Guthrie made the style popular. In Woody's case, he used talking blues to de-emphasize any beauty in the songs so that listeners could focus on the social and political importance of the words.
Dylan sometimes altered normal word accents. In poetry, such an alteration of the normal word accent is called a wrenched accent. It was common in the folk ballads that made up Dylan's informal education.
Putting vocals, emotion, and phrasing together with incomparable lyrics made Bob Dylan's voice unique in musical history.