I like lists.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said in his essay, “Nature,” “The wise man shows his wisdom in separation, in gradation, and his scale of creatures and of merits, is as wide as nature. The foolish have no range in their scale, but suppose every man is as every other man. What is not good they call the worst, and what is not hateful, they call the best.” I use this quote often to defend myself when I admit that I am constantly refining my list of Top 100 Favorite Movies (Shaun’s Top Movies List) or something similar. So, if you ask me what my favorite something is, I’m going to produce a list. And it’s going to be an agonizing process, a life or death process, a process that’s going to require every scrap of mental energy I can put into it to make it as definitive as possible so that someone can’t misconstrue my opinions at all.

They have clinics for people like me.

But they’re too expensive, so here’s my Top 10 Favorite Bob Dylan Songs (That Are Probably Not Your Favorite So There):

10: Who Killed Davey Moore? (Bootleg Series, Vol. 1)

Why It Made the List: Bob Dylan isn’t just a song writer, he’s a storyteller. If you watch this video, you’ll see that this song isn’t really a song so much as a poem with a little guitar in the background telling the story of a boxer who was killed in the ring and trying to find the blame. The audience doesn’t sing along, they don’t clap or cheer, they sit there and they listen. Daddy’s talking, and the children are hanging on his every words. When they react, they react to what’s happening in the story, not to a sweet guitar lick or because he said the name of the town their in.

Dylan has a lot of songs that are stories, but I like this one particularly well because of the ambiguity. He says in the first few lines, “Not I…Don’t point your finger at me.” And that’s just it – It’s not a finger pointing song, and it seems to just be saying that sometimes shit happens: “It was destiny, it was God’s will.” You want to spend your time pointing fingers when something goes horribly wrong, but in the end we all just have to do what’s got to be done and hope for the best.

9. Shelter from the Storm (Hard Rain)

Why It Made the List: This version of the song is powered so much more by testosterone than the studio track. Instead of another acoustic ballad of a drifter, it’s made into a stadium anthem with harmonizing guitars and loud, electric jamming that reminds me of The Allman Brothers Band or some other southern rock group. Dylan works well with his bandmates on stage in this version, and I think his forceful vocals add a cool urgency to the story. The strong bassline gives it a slight note of cheekiness to it; a driving rhythm that adds a sexual tone: “I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail, / Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail, / Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn. / “Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.” That’s what she said.

8. In the Summertime (Shot of Love)

Why It Made the List: This is on one of his Christian albums, so you would assume that Dylan’s intended message was that about his relationship with God. But, this song, I feel, could applicable to any significant relationship that may not have lasted as long as you wanted it to. I find the past tense verbs in the lyrics place a sort of melancholic nostalgia (melancholgia?) in the song: “In the summertime when you were with me.” This is more than just a summer fling; This is a significant relationship that even in its fleeting moments left such an impression it made time seem irrelevant: “I was in your presence for and hour or so / Or was it a day? I truly don’t know.” And even though it had to end, the effect he carries with him: “It’s a part of me now, it’s been cherished and saved, / It’ll be with me unto the grave / And then unto eternity.”

Even the tone of the musical arrangement is very melancholgic, possessing a quality of quiet contentment with the present, even while longing to recapture that which has past. (I also find it funny they misspelled ‘Dilan’ in the video. Ah, YouTube…)

7. I Shall Be Free No.10 (Another Side of Bob Dylan)

Why It Made the List: It’s very simple: this song is ludicrous. It sounds like he was making it up as he went along. I would like to think he was, because there are several other versions of this same song on the Bootleg Series albums with different words. Like, “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”:

Or, my favorite of the three, “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues,” based on the merit that it’s the silliest:

I can’t really say much on it other than that. They just make me laugh. One line might hit a little close to home – “My arms and legs were broken…my feet were splintered…My head was cracked…Couldn’t walk…couldn’t talk…smell, feel…couldn’t see…didn’t know where I was…I was bald…quite lucky to be alive, though!”

6. Girl From the North Country w. Johnny Cash (Nashville Skyline)

Why It Made the List: I’ll tell you why I prefer this version over the original version from Freewheelin’ – It’s all on Johnny. This version is adapted to the country rhythm, and I think it fits the story of the song better. It has a plodding rhythm, like you would be singing this song as you’re riding your horse off into the sunset, leaving behind you a similar message to “If You See Her, Say Hello.” It’s a similar feeling I get from “In the Summertime,” in that there’s that one you can’t be with, but you can’t let go of the time you did have: “Remember me to one who lives there / For she once was a true love of mine.”

It’s a very cowboy sentiment. Willie Nelson once wrote in his song, “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” “Cowboys are special, with their own brand of misery / From being alone too long.” Some are not a fan of Dylan’s nasaly vocals on this album, but I actually don’t mind them that much. And I think they mesh well with Johnny’s. Dylan’s voice is notoriously bad for meshing with just anyone on a duet, and even though Johnny and Dylan tried to do a whole album together, this was the only song they felt was good enough to be released. I’m glad they did, because they both seem, in Willie’s words, “Slowly in search of / And one step in back of / Themselves and their slow moving dreams.”

5. Lay Lady Lay (Hard Rain)

Why It Made the List: Another track from Hard Rain – I prefer this version to the Nashville Skyline version for two reasons: One, I do prefer the stretching of the pace of the song. It makes it feel a little more like seduction, and less like moping. I feel the Skyline version has a little bit more of a sadness to it, like he’s been deprived, and a little bit like he’s begging. This version is cool. Two, the nasaly vocals are absent here. This was recorded 7 years after Skyline, and he’s moved past that phase. The nasaly voice only added to the qualities I mentioned before, and here Dylan seems like he’s much more in command. There are other songs I have on my list for melancholgia, but this is the one that feels like it’s more when he’s at the top of his game.

4. I Feel a Change Coming On (Together Through Life)

Why It Made the List: Well, first, I should say I couldn’t find a video of Bob doing this song. It’s a full band piece, accordians et al., but I find this really lovely acoustic cover by some dude on YouTube named rollingthunder2007, and I’m going to give him mad props for this jam. He puts the soul in the song, and even though he may look like my 6th Grade Math teacher, my brother is taking it to it. For Those About to Rock, We Salute You, rollingthunder2007.

I love this song because I think it speaks of a fundamental truth in humanity that Dylan embodies: change. When being taken to the Gray Havens to die, Bilbo says, “I’m quite ready for another adventure.” Dylan thinks the same way. It’s an opprotunity for something new, and no matter how much life has changed to this point, he’s still not ready stop evolving. And the song has a touch of that meloncholgia to it, too, because he doesn’t want to go alone. God Bless Ya, Bob.

3. Going to Acapulco (The Basement Tapes)

Why It Made the List: This song isn’t about the lyrics, totally, for me. It’s another song that sounds, to me, like I’m on the back of a pony, drifting through the desert, hoping for something better, and all you can do is dream about warm beaches and a warm heart waiting on you when you get there. Can’t figure out how to change anything, so you just go along the way you’ve been going along, and fight it uphill as you go: “Well, sometime you know when the well breaks down / I just go pump on it some.” There’s a quiet resignation in the mournful vocals. It sounds like they’re tired, but they’re not ready to drop yet for the night.

2. River Theme (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid)

Why It Made the List: I would probably put the entire soundtrack to Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in this one spot, but I narrowed it down to my favorite piece from the album. It’s a drifting song. It’s a riding song. It’s filled with that melancholgia I’ve been talking so much about. Dylan didn’t even need to use words to convey its story; just a chorus of soft notes and calm, country acoustics to evoke an entire scene in your mind. The sun’s setting, and it’s time to be moseying along.

1. Forever Young (continued) (Planet Waves)

Why It’s My Favorite: There’s a lot of bullshit in life; I suppose you got to let it roll off your back. Keep fighting it, and don’t let it turn you into an old man. Keep the ideals. Keep the faith. “May your heart always be joyful. May your song always be sung.” It sounds like a prayer.

I prefer the B-Side version simply for the liveliness. It sounds more like a sermon than a lullaby. It sounds like he’s trying to get the pulpit fired up, not put his kids to bed. The guitar riffs to open up the song make me want to get up and sing along. It makes me want to dance. It makes me want to pick up my guitar and play. I love the soft, quiet, chill tunes just as much – but in the end, I love rock and roll, and that needs a little bit of electiricity and something to pump your fists to.

Keep on rockin’ in the free world,

Shaun

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~ by shibadou on December 4, 2009.

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