I decided to split Dylan’s top ten list into more than one segment because having a musical career spanning five decades tends to produce a multitude of recording material in different genres. This top ten list covers Dylan’s first four albums before going electric. It also includes material found on the Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3, the self-titled Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan. Once again it is not in any particular order.
- Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan 1963)
Allegedly written about Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s girlfriend at the time. Suze had travelled to Italy to study art and Dylan was pining for her in a big way. She told Dylan she wanted to stay in Italy indefinitely, and this song is the product of that decision (Heylin 2000). This is one of my favourite Dylan songs of all time and I still enjoy listening to, and performing it regularly.
- When The Ship Comes In (The Times They Are a-Changin’ 1964)
According to Joan Baez in the documentary No Direction Home, this song was inspired by a run in Dylan had with a hotel clerk. The clerk refused Dylan a room because of his unkempt appearance, sparking Dylan to write one of the first of his many “Fuck You” songs. This is also confirmed by Heylin (2000) in his book Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited. I like this song because I feel it has a very traditional folky feel, reminiscent of Irish folk songs that I heard growing up. I guess the moral of the story is don’t piss off Dylan if you don’t want a song about you written…or maybe you do want to be immortalised in a song, in which case feel free to piss him off.
- My Back Pages (Another Side of Bob Dylan 1964)
“I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”. A song about Dylan’s growing disillusionment with 1960s folk protest movement (Williamson 2006). I think the definitive version of this song can be found on Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration where Roger McGuin, Tom Petty, Neil Young Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and George Harrison take it in turns to perform a verse, culminating in a goosebump-inducing solo from Young.
- It Ain’t Me Babe (Another Side of Bob Dylan 1964)
I think we’ve all been in relationships that have ended because we know we’re not what the other person wants or needs. Although Heylin (2000) argues that this song is about Dylan’s break up with Rotolo, I have in recent years wondered whether this is Dylan’s goodbye song to the 1960s folk protest movement that he was never really a part of but who held him up as a spokesperson for them.
- Mama You’ve Been On My Mind (The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991)
Recorded in 1964, it was another song written about Rotolo and Dylan’s break up (Heylin 2009). The original recording is a simple, slow pleading song. However, I think the better version, performed as a duet with Joan Baez during the Rollin Thunder Revue (1975-1976), can be found on The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue.
- Let Me Die In My Footsteps (The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991)
Recorded in 1962, this song was dropped from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album. According to notes found in the booklet of the Bootleg series in an interview with Dylan, the song was written after Dylan witnessed the construction of a nuclear shelter (Hentoff 1963).
- Blowin’ In The Wind (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan 1963)
Arguably the most famous of Dylan’s songs. It has been covered numerous times by artists, and is probably one of the first songs every acoustic guitarist learns. The questions asked in this song are still very poignant today.
- The Times They Are a-Changin’ (The Times They Are a-Changin 1964)
When fellow musician and music critic Tony Glover read the lines “Come senators, congressman please heed the call”, he turned to Dylan and asked “What is this shit man?”. Apparently Dylan just shrugged and replied, “Well you know it seems to be what people want to hear” (Heylin 2000). This suggests Dylan wrote the song deliberately to be a hit. Whether he believed his own words is a question for debate. In the documentary No Direction Home, Baez states that Dylan wasn’t politically active. This song holds personal memories for me as it was one of only a few songs that I jammed to with my late Uncle David, also keen guitarist and Dylan fan.
- I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) (Anotherside of Bob Dylan 1964)
A song about the morning after the night before. We’ve all been there. There’s not much else to say about this song other than that for some reason it’s a favourite of mine.
- Song to Woody (Bob Dylan 1962)
One of Dylan’s earliest songs was an ode to his songwriting hero Woody Guthrie. It inspired me to write Song to Dylan using a similar, if not, same tune and re-writing the words.
Shameless plug alert: Song to Dylan was released on my debut EP Bludgeoned by the Poetry which can be found on my website.
What are your favourite Dylan songs from the albums mentioned about?
Hentoff, Nat., (1963). The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan original liner notes, from Bauldie, The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3.
Heylin, C., (2000). Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited. Perennial Currents.
Heylin, C. (2009). Revolution In The Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, Volume One: 1957–73. Constable. No Direction Home. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Paramount Pictures, 2005. Film.
Williamson, N., (2006). The Rough Guide to Bob Dylan (2nd ed.). Rough Guides, Ltd.