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.
NOTE TO READERS: My book Political Folk Music in America From Its Origins to Bob Dylan will be published on March 16th. For further information see: http://lawrencejepstein.com/folk