Category: Best Songwriters

Best SongwritersSpecials

Best Songwriters of All Time – Bob Dylan

You voted, and here it is, the best songwriters of best time. At Number 2 is Bob Dylan, Josh Adams tells us all…

I could just say that Bob Dylan  rewrote popular music as we know it today, leave it at that, and you’d have a hard time trying to argue with me.  The influence of the American folk icon is so vast that it simply cannot be understated: in the same way that anyone who plays guitar walks the revolutionary path started by Jimi Hendrix, anyone who writes lyrics sets foot on the trail first bravely trodden by Dylan.  But where did a lifetime of lyrics and legend start for a man who, according to U.S President Barack Obama, “redefined what music sounded like”?


Robert Zimmerman was born in Duluth, Minnesota, on May 24th 1941, to a small Jewish family where he was raised on a diet of blues, country and early rock and roll.  After moving away to university, Zimmerman found that the “great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms” of early rock music weren’t enough for him, and he quickly found an interest in folk music, before changing his name to the one we all know today, Bob Dylan, with the influence of poetry, Dylan Thomas in particular, becoming clearer.  When he heard the illustrious Woody Guthrie though, life changed forever for the young folk singer from Minnesota, as he packed his acoustic guitar and headed to New York City to meet his hero in 1961.  By May 1963, aged just twenty two, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” had been released and music had begun to change forever.

“Freewheelin'”, as it has come to be known, was the first notable album in Dylan’s long and renowned career.  The reason for this was the little-known, self-penned, civil-rights-anthem-to-be “Blowin’ In The Wind” that shook the folk world to its core; soon, big names in the scene such as Joan Baez and Pete Sagar began joining him on stage.  “Blowin’ In The Wind”, and its (even better in my opinion) “sequel”, “The Times They Are-A Changin'”, have both been covered hundreds of times throughout the decades and have captured the frustrations of so many oppressed groups in society so well that the songs have eventually become an immortal part of modern culture: there’s not many people out there, including kids and teenagers today, that don’t know at least the chorus or the melody to these songs, and their messages still resonate today with those affected by the austerity-driven Tory government in Britain or the horrific, brutal murders at the hands of the police that have left the black community reeling in America.


After revolutionising songwriting once already with folk music, Bob Dylan decided to do it all again by dragging counterculture to the mainstream and embracing rock music, something that was considered blasphemy back in the 1960s.  It was from here that not only did Dylan become a true songwriting stepping stone, but the archetypal rock star, with his big hair, sunglasses, fashionable clothes, drug use and attitude.  “Bringing It All Back Home” was the first in Dylan’s electric trilogy, with the likes of the hip-hop foreshadowing “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, but it was with “Highway 61 Revisited”, and the infamous 1965 Newport Folk Festival set, and pretty much with every album since, that Robert Zimmerman achieved his legendary status.

“It was like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind” is how Bruce Springsteen described the opening the snare crack to “Like A Rolling Stone”, the first track on “Highway 61 Revisited” and arguably the greatest song ever written – pop music just wouldn’t be the same without its snarling tone and accusative lyrics.  But it’s hard to say what Dylan’s crowning achievement could be – can it really be limited to just one song or album, or do we have to look at his inimitable influence and legacy too?  What about the intellectual ambition, darkness and poetry he brought to big chart singles?  I could ramble on for days about why Bob Dylan is one of if not the greatest songwriter of all time, but I think I’ve rambled enough.  Just think though, without Dylan, the musical style of everyone from the Beatles to the Beastie Boys, from Mumford and Sons to Patti Smith, from Jimi Hendrix to Joni Mitchell, would simply not be the same.  And that’s a scary thought indeed.

Did you vote in the Best Songwriter poll? Let us know what you think in the comments!

image: Paul Townsend under creative commons



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