Term Paper, 2015
17 Pages, Grade: 1,3
2. The voice as the means of expressing true personality
2.1. The perception of Dylan by public and himself in terms of his voice
2.2. Dylan’s voice - using the example of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”
2.3. The value of Dylan’s singing and its effects in “Blood on the Tracks”
5. Works Cited
This term paper will generally deal with Bob Dylan who is commonly known as the “voice of his generation” (Cf. Winkler 2001: 48). More precisely, I want to examine the voice literally with regard to his performance and attitudes. I decided to cover this topic because I find it interesting that Dylan has been such a successful singer for decades and at the same time portrays a mystery whose personality even today is not comprehended entirely where especially the manifold usage of his voice contributes to. It is said that writing about Bob Dylan without moving his voice into centre space would be a contradiction in terms. His voice provides the centre of his art and the core of its unsteady and fragile identity. As a consequence, an absence of the voice also means the same for his identity in every respect. A voiceless Dylan pictures an image of death at least a phantom (Cf. Richard Klein 2006: 52, translation: NF).
This view shows very well that Dylan is a singer who is strongly defined by means of his voice. The voice is on the one hand meant to be an expedient, a medium of interpretation, a servant of the work, an organ of technique and an impression of the soul. On the other hand, with regard to the mental level, it is also a medium of ineradicable individuality, an impression of the gender and a boundary phenomenon between body and spirit that cannot be subordinated to a “rational subject” (Cf. 2006: 52, translation: NF). In terms of Bob Dylan this view comes true as his the input of voice plays an important role with regard to his performance on stage, relationship towards his audience and identity. He is the first singer where pronunciation and articulation hold a constitutive significance (Cf. 2006: 109, translation: NF).
For this reason, in this term paper I will first have a closer look on Bob Dylan’s public image, the different ways he used his voice and the peoples’ perception with regard to that. After that I will present an analysis of Dylan’s voice by using the song “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” as an example. The last part of the paper’s body will be another analysis, this time in view of the album “Blood on the Tracks” which is said to be Dylan’s greatest work though it also has deficiencies. In the end I will draw a conclusion on the role of Bob Dylan’s voice concerning his identity as an individual, singer and performer.
There is nobody who is said to have affected the development of rock music and song poetry for so long over the years and as strong as Bob Dylan. With a multifaceted and endlessly variable personal style in terms of traditions of popular music, literature and film, he has created an artistic form of expression with unforeseeable impact by bringing out around forty to fifty albums, films and collections of poems and prose. He is poet, storyteller, composer, singer, filmmaker and besides an amateurish illustrator. His comprehensive oeuvre has become part of world culture. In a conflation of music, poetry and performance he has a sure feeling for cadences, phrasing and timing with a voice of an incomparable expressiveness and mutability which made him visualising the orally magical sources of art in a time of a technologically globalised modern era. Hereby, Dylan is said to have not only one voice but many voices (Cf. Heinrich Detering 2007: 12-13, translation: NF) and the drafts of his image of himself and the world, which are characterised by contradictions, maintain in a changing manifestation with regard to both, the art and the artist (Cf. 2007: 14, translation: NF).
Exploring Bob Dylan as a songwriter one has to examine every aspect of who he is as an artist, a cultural figure and a human being. His songs are the very heart of the matter, which means they are “the foundation on which his aesthetic reputation rests and the fuel for the symbolic identities and roles that he has at various points ambitiously sought, gotten entrapped by, desperately attempted to escape, and manipulated to his own benefit.” (Anthony Decurtis 2009: 42) Over decades Dylan has been perceived as a shape-shifter which has as much to do with the type of songs he has written as with his sound, look, subjects, the quality of his voice and his attitude. Here, one has to conclude that the song is the thing (Cf. 2009: 42). Dylan is regarded as a “performing artist”. That means he has always aimed at the beyond of a performance. Nevertheless, he has an obsession for the stage which he once named as the only place where he could be happy. At the same time, the specific, constitutional dynamic of the music is affected. This dynamic causes the fact that Dylan is not able to fulfil himself at the studio and on tape. It includes his quelling performative authenticity interacting with the special art of transforming and the usage and change of masks. Only when looking at the mixture of role playing and mark of authenticity, Dylan becomes comprehensible. There is no singer like him who has “changed” his voice over time frequently and performed a real palette of vocal identities (Cf. Richard Klein 2006: 14, translation: NF). His voice appearing in masks means on the one hand that it shows up by hiding away. On the other hand, that masquerade does not accomplish beyond what we call “authentic”. It is part of Dylan to admit and perform authenticity but in a mediated and broken way which is characterised by stylisation. Moreover, he revises with regard to the situation, yet as a matter of provocation (Cf. 2006: 53, translation: NF). Dylan does not see the way of reaching the truth of a voice as being directly accessible without any indirections. Therefore, he needs that mask to be “himself” or rather to find out who he is. As a consequence, the common idea that singing means to express oneself immediately is completely beyond the pale in terms of Bob Dylan. For him there is no expression and performing without deceiving and misleading (Cf. 2006: 53-54, translation: NF).
In contrast to Dylan there is Frank Sinatra who, in his opinion, is an example of the few singers who sing without any masks by appearing with the truth about the things in his voice right from the start. Here, Dylan realises that stylisation and truth belong together instead of being separated. One orientates itself towards the other which again becomes evident through the other one. Singing without any masks like Sinatra did is to Dylan no plea for a singer’s direct authenticity towards the audience but instead a hint at the secret goal of his own work. However, in case of Dylan himself, the masks depict a vanishing point beyond themselves. Vice versa, the “truth about the things” comes up by technical mediations, vicariousness and a dimming voice (Cf. 2006: 54-55, translation: NF). This truth though does not refer to the truth about the singer, his soul, subjectivity and ego. When at a concert the young Bob Dylan states that he wears his Bob Dylan mask as it is Halloween he does it for the same reason later when observing that Sinatra sang without any mask (Cf. 2006: 55, translation: NF). Both cases deal with the problem of directing the interest from the singer to the song and from the person to the things which he addresses and leaves behind. Dylan sees Sinatra as a singer without masks because he settles his singing strictly beyond the social images and perceptions. He does not talk about Sinatra as the “darling of god’s own country” but as a voice which indicates a discrete distance to the world in which it raises and articulates the sense and materiality of language. All in all, Dylan’s music stays inaccessible as long as one treats the interplay of mask and authenticity like an alternative with those two parts being mutually exclusive (Cf. 2006: 56, translation: NF).
In the following I will show up different peoples’ views on Bob Dylan’s way of performing and deploying his voice.
In 1981 Ulrich Greiner stated that the voice was a prodigy. Neither did he sing out of the head nor intuitively. It was like his voice was singing, roughly and hoarsely first, then again gently and deeply, muttering and murmuring here and reedy and grasping there. At the same time, Dylan did not sing from music like thousand other singers but he broke the sounds, extended and squashed them. So to say, he forgot that a given song was waiting for someone to be sung and instead spoke, shouted, masticated and tore up the melody. (Cf. 2006: 60, translation: NF).
Ted Gaier speaks of Dylan’s voice in a biographic tone, stating that how he said something was more important than what he actually said. He referred to a muttering bleating that obscures melodies but still conveys urgency which offers the guarantee that someone is in earnest right here. (Cf. 2006: 60, translation: NF).
Jean-Martin Büttner refers to the erotic element in Dylan’s voice by saying that there are people who hear a voice out of time talking to them like an unknown friend in an affectionate, intimate and nearly temptingly manner but there others who feel like there is someone singing at an open grave. Here, the question is if these two points of views are contradictory. Concerning that a comment of Thomas Steinfeld might cause doubt. He said that Bob Dylan rarely sings his melodies on to the end. Instead he grinds over them, starts to talk and phrases against the beat and rhythm. He opens a room between melody and voice causing a distance which is so awkward that as a consequence the melody seems to be a precious but unreachable good behind the singing (Cf. 2006: 61, translation: NF).
What all these opinions have in common is that the speakers see Dylan as a singer who does not sing in a conventional way. He rather plays with the songs by performing a role-play with his authenticity and masks. This enables him to show a lot of different facilities without revealing too much. As a consequence, the aspect of misleading is a way to find out who he is for both, himself and the audience.
It is not possible to tie Bob Dylan’s voice down to one characteristic as it lacks in a manifest presence. You can describe its significance accurately because it works with many facets when you hear him singing live, on bootleg or on the radio; however, it is rarely the case that it sounds a way you are able to declare it Dylan’s. Recognising him first starts when one knows which song exactly is being sung. On the one hand, the cussedness is specific. The sound of the voice lies in the fact that it does not exist. It only exists like masks do which one wears in order to emphasise a face’s characteristic even more. On the other hand, Dylan arranges the songs by his voice in emerging their significance. As a consequence, he runs the risk of being a singer foundering on his own song. That is why in case of Dylan it is important to do research on the whole thing instead of details (Cf. Dierks 2007: 143, translation: NF).
The described manner can be made clear especially in terms of the song “A Hard Rain’s Gonna A-Fall” which is a song that Dylan handles in a singular way. Here, he risks to founder in order to save the song though (Cf. 2007: 143-144, translation: NF). The song had always been difficult for both, him and his audience, as Dylan created various interpretations which made it unrecognisable at one point. This involves a willingness to gamble with the audience’s relationship to the song and so to his success (Cf. 2007: 144, translation: NF).
The first time Dylan shocked the audience with the song was 1962 at the Gaslight Café in New York (Cf. 2007: 144, translation: NF). It’s definitely an example of Dylan’s ability to try out using masks in order to emphasise particular voice type. Hereby, the relation between the voice and the lyrics makes sense of the voice arranging the song by intensifying textual punch lines, then alter again and cutting off semantic coherences. Alternately, the voice stands for itself which means that the song and the voice are featured separately. The lyrics are obscure and there are parallels to the bible which creates some kind of apocalyptic shape and makes it even harder to discern a shining light (Cf. 2007: 148, translation: NF). They give the impression of a horror scenario and you feel like tumbling from one catastrophe to another in the stanzas. With regard to that it is interesting that this impression gets attenuated by the relation between voice and lyrics; consequently, Dylan’s voice has a special effect. He does not act as a rock star because he does not like performing at all.
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