Women on Bob Dylan

From musician Suzanne Vega to film-maker Carol Morley, six women artists salute the genius of Dylan

Suzanne Vega, singer-songwriter: I see goddesses and queens and women revered in his music

I am thrilled for Bob Dylan and I think its very appropriate that hes being praised for the literary excellence of his work. The citation credits him with having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition and thats exactly what hes done. Hes not being honoured as a musician but for the depth and breadth of his vision and the eloquence of the language with which he expresses it. He has every literary device in his songs: character, narrative, style.


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Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

Take A Hard Rains a-Gonna Fall: there are so many images there. I saw a white ladder all covered with water theres something very mysterious about that image and its so effective just to have it with no explanation. In the same song you have I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children those lines are so prophetic, especially in America today. Weve had horrific incidents where toddlers in the back seat have picked up a gun and shot one of their parents. So every time I see one of these terrible gun shootings, I think of that.

Dylan was a big influence for me. He opened up this incredible, imaginary world. I was nine or 10 when I first heard Mr Tambourine Man and I had a vision of him dancing beneath a diamond sky with one hand waving free. It sounded so beautiful, so free. I thought thats a world I want to be in.

My mother always thought that Dylan was somewhat misogynistic, but I dont see that. I see a whole range of female characters in his music from goddesses and queens and women revered and then also women used, abused. I would love it if other songwriters who had a similar literary bent could win the Nobel prize. Like Lucinda Williams. She has a literary dimension to her work that elevates the form out of just being a pop song to something with so much more depth.

Kathryn Williams, singer-songwriter: Theres a simplicity and an honesty to his songs

Its a massive, joyous feeling to see someone I admire so much achieve this. Bob Dylan has marked so many pivotal times in my life; he has inspired me and introduced me to different artists, whether its Woody Guthrie or Dylan Thomas. My mum and dad were fans, so his albums have been with me through the years, as I was turning from a child into an adult. I used to work in a bar called Pilgrim in Liverpool and Id put Lay Lady Lay on the jukebox every morning when I was cleaning the bar and this gorgeous, treacly, chocolatey voice would just seep into me.

Photograph: Gary Calton for the Observer
Im at a writers retreat at the moment and we had been talking about Bob Dylan even before the news. [Singer-songwriter] Polly Paulusma was saying that what people forget with lyrics is the triangulation: theres the lyric, the music and the voice.

Performance poetry can work in a similar way, but on paper it might not have the same strength. Ive got a book of Dylans lyrics and whenever I read them its not in my formal internal book voice, I hear his voice and character and intonation and the way he bends words to the music.

All the people who are being snobby and saying its ridiculous for a folk artist to be awarded this need to have a rethink: I mean, Homer, all of his stuff was song. There have been so many profound writers through time who could transcend lyric, music and voice into a different form.

Theres a simplicity and an honesty in lots of Dylans songs, like The only thing I knew how to do / Was to keep on keepin on like a bird that flew on Tangled Up in Blue. Where on Just Like a Woman he sings When we meet again / Introduced as friends / Please dont let on that you knew me when / I was hungry and it was your world: the first bit could be any sort of love song, then he just blasts it away and lifts it to a different level. And he does that sort of thing all the time.

I dont know if I would want to meet my hero: when it comes to his treatment of women, like the Joan Baez stuff, sometimes it does my head in. I think its that same troubling situation as you can feel with Picasso, or Jack Kerouac, being on the road and leaving women on the journey. Its a really hard thing because its that meeting of an artist with their personality.

Elizabeth Peyton, painter: Like David Bowie, he defies any kind of label

It really wasnt easy for me to like his music. Kind of like smoking, it doesnt taste so great at first. But then during a tough time he suddenly made so much sense to me and, Im sure like many other people can say, he really helped me. I think Todd Haynes said something like Bob Dylan is there when you need him.

Photograph: Gabriela Maj/Getty Images

When I had the eureka Dylan moment it was because he symbolised someone who was just trying to be honest in his work and let that take him, move him, transform him. His integrity as an artist is very inspiring. I admire anyone who tries to make art directly about a topical situation, to transform it into something poetic. I started drawing him around 2007 and made some still lives. I made an artist book using my pictures of him.

I think him winning this prize makes a lot of sense. It doesnt seem strange to me that a song writer has received the Nobel prize for literature. People have been wandering the earth with string instruments and songs for a few thousand years its a perfect, compact, way to contain art: feeling, time, history. I would have thought in 2016 we would be a bit beyond finding this strange, but perhaps Donald Trump is bringing all Americans down in the eyes of the world. Anyway, like David Bowie, Bob Dylan defies any kind of label.

Carol Morley, film-maker: I was influenced by Dylan without even realising

When I was an eight-year-old, I found a scrap of paper in my older brothers room, with words neatly written on it: Its life and life only. These words seemed dramatic and intense and puzzling. I spent a long time thinking about them and they remained with me for years. A few years ago I told a friend about the impact theyd had on me, and she smiled knowingly and told me that they came from a Bob Dylan song Its Alright Ma, (Im only Bleeding). I was surprised but happy that Id been influenced by Dylan, without even realising. I even integrated those words into my 1960s set film The Falling, with Maisie Williamss defiant character saying in response to her best friend thinking she may be pregnant: Its life and life only.


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Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

I think its great that a lyricist has won for literature, as lyricists make such a brilliant and important contribution to most of our lives. Though I have to admit to often mishearing songs and making the words my own. It was not until fairly recently I found out that what I heard as, Lay across my big brass band and thought of as some kind of euphemism for male genitals was in fact, Lay across my big brass bed.

When I think about Bob Dylan I immediately think of Cate Blanchett, who did a magnificent portrayal of him in Todd Hayness Im Not There. In my fantasy counterculture world, it would be wonderful if Cate went and collected the Nobel prize on Bob Dylans behalf. That there are no women included in this years prizes, and that statistically since the origin of the award there is a lack of acknowledgment for those that arent white men, doesnt surprise me. As Dylan said: The masters make the rules.

Dylan totally deserves this. And it is quite brilliant that it has happened now, when weve got four weeks to go [until the US election].

I was never much one for poetry but for lyrics, completely. When I first heard Blowin in the Wind it was [played by] a friend of mine at art school who played guitar and I asked him to teach me the chords for Blowin in the Wind. This was in 1964 and he wouldnt because he thought that a girl shouldnt be singing a Bob Dylan song! But it was the rest of the Freewheelin Bob Dylan album that really caught me and educated me. I was 19 and it probably gave me my first real thoughts about civil rights and about war. It was hugely important. Its very tempting to think that no music now could be as potent or affecting as those few years in the mid-60s. But then thats obviously because I lived through them.

Theres so much music to listen to now its very hard to pick out something that is as clear as Bob Dylans words were then. And such a massive amount of words. How could he have found so many words? The lyrics that have been going through my head today are from Oxford Town: Oxford Town in the afternoon/ Everybody singing a sorrowful tune/ Two men died neath the Mississippi moon/ Somebody better investigate soon. Still now, thats so relevant: somebody better investigate soon.

Jessica Staveley-Taylor, musician, The Staves: He tells stories and you believe them straight away

Bob Dylan feels like something that has always been there hes got a theory that the songs have already been written and hes just channelling that energy. Blowin in the Wind almost feels like a hymn, not a pop song written by a man whos still alive. When there are political events, people are still singing his old protest songs.


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Photograph: Gary Calton for the Observer

No ones really doing songs like that any more. As a guitar player some of the first songs I learned were his because he can write a song with just three chords. Hes kind of the anti-folk musician in some ways: hes not a hugely proficient guitar player, some people would argue he cant sing I dont agree, but hes obviously got a very distinctive vocal style.

Ive heard some secondhand stories about Dylan from people who have worked with him and it sounds like hes quite tricky. You dont hear Oh hes such a sweetheart, doing loads of charity work. I dont think anyone really knows him and I think thats deliberate: he created this character maybe not in as extreme a way as someone like Bowie but it ties in with how he takes on personas in his songwriting.

Theres this song of his, I Was Young When I Left Home, which is the story of a young man who left home and possibly comes from an autobiographical place, but it feels like an old song from 300 years ago or something. He does that so well: he tells stories and you believe them straight away.

And from the archive: Bob Dylan on tour, by Angela Carter, 1966

Performing, hes nothing but a shadow to look at, thin and black-clad and linear, a Beardsley hobgoblin. The little pointy face, so white it is almost blue in the spotlight, is shadowed by a baroque mound of curls. His gestures are harsh, angular and sketchy insolent, asexual, frequently reminiscent of those of the Scarlet Hex Witch of the comic books. He seems at times to be sending up the overtly sexual writhings of the English pop stars of the new wave (ie Jagger).

Photograph: Jane Bown for the Observer
Bang, bang, drums, organ, amplified guitar. He does a black and white devil dance clutching a black and white amplified guitar and you can hardly hear a word hes singing. Maybe this is part of the plot. But its all right, ma, hes only howling. Thus Bob Dylan, erstwhile Wonder Kid of Protest, demonstrated to packed and baffled theatres up and down the British Isles that he is approaching an artistic maturity of a most unexpected kind. Once, he was embraced by innocent liberals as a folk singer whose songs (The Times They Are a-Changing, Masters of War, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll) pointed committed youths way to an understanding of the 20th-century predicament. And this predicament might be solved just by singing them. It was a comfort. People like comforts. But maybe comfort doesnt finally help all that much.

Dylan is no longer comfortable. The fat-cheeked, Huck Finn-capped youth of the early records who dealt in idealism and excruciating do-it-yourself romantic imagery (white doves, mountains, seas, rainbows and, for Gods sake, clowns) has grown up into the first ever all-electronic, all existential rocknroll singer. Hes singing for Kafka, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky and all the boys down home on Desolation Row.



figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Bob Dylan on his 1966 tour of Britain. DA Pennebaker is in the background filming the documentary Dont Look Back. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

His singing is exceedingly stylised. He never hits a note true. He chews vowels like ju-jubes. He cries like a wolf (or like Howlin Wolf). But what matters most is the songs. Which now have a tough urgency, a strained sense of critical involvement with 20th-century America and a kind of moral satire that is akin to Dean Swift and William Burroughs. Certainly, hes still got a long way to go on a peculiarly harsh and unrewarding path; but his beginnings are spectacular. The best of the songs on his latest all-electric LP, Highway 61 Revisited, songs such as Like a Rolling Stone and Ballad of a Thin Man, have a mature savagery and a scary kind of wit that is new and extraordinary in music of mass appeal.

He has become a prophet of chaos and those who once accepted him as a blue-denim Messiah of a Brotherhood future once the times had changed may sense a personal betrayal. If not, then not. He attempted to pacify the old fans by doing the first half of his concerts in this country with acoustic guitar and mouth organ. As a matter of fact, Desolation Row sounds pretty silly without a beat backing and he seemed curiously apathetic and a bit lonely, all by himself on stage.

At Cardiff, the audience greeted the opening lines of Mr Tambourine Man with relieved recognition and a round of applause; he did not even give a thin smile in return but threw the song away as if he wished he could throw his harmonica after it. No introductions, no nothing. He scrambled through the troubadour of song bit.

He began to jerk into life when the group came on in the second half and the noise bit began. This Dylan is clanging and vulgar, neon and plastic and, at the same time, blackly, bleakly romantic. And exhilarating, akin to reading The Dunciad or a strip cartoon version of Wuthering Heights while riding a roller coaster.

Dylan is a phenomenon. He never used to be. The smug outrage of the I hate Time magazine attitudes of his early songs was easy and shallow, but there are no easy answers, no easy imagery. Hes on his own (like a rolling stone or like a Rolling Stone) and what happens now should be best of all. London Magazine, 1966

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/oct/16/women-artists-on-bob-dylan-nobel-prize

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