Bob Dylan Knows in Singing the Highway Dust is All Over; or, The Tunes They are a-changin’

The oven bird, the icebox batty, the kitchen nook warbler – Bob Dylan can sing. Dylan’s voice blasted into the room on our old tin can speakers, that voice rising falsetto like a broken water heater then falling basso profundo like a coal car slowing for some hobo, a Sinatra nightmare, a barker in a carnie show, a crier of the street court. What do you think voices inside burning bushes sound like – Bing Crosby? But Dylan could do that too, as he showed on Nashville Skyline and the critically despised Self-Portrait album. But the voice of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, with the harmonica – a train wreck between the ears. But listeners may not value that kind of wake up call, a noogie across the ears, so they say Dylan can’t sing; but what do you want to hear in a song? He’s singing songs here, not soap or perfume ads, not elevator rides (“The yellow curb is for the loading and unloading of passengers only: no parking”). Dylan’s voice? It was electric before he ever plugged in. Dry location use only. Other types of fuses may burst. Put a nickel in your ear and a quarter in the machine. Dylan’s voice today? A slowly melting high voltage fuse. Like Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird,” Dylan “knows in singing not to sing,” and the “highway dust is over all,” and for that itinerate weary hobo, the dust is all over.

From a 2006 Guardian review of Dylan’s Modern Times: “Here are the kind of jazzy songs that would count as mild-mannered crooning if they were performed by Bing Crosby, but which invariably take on a slightly unsettling air when subjected to Dylan’s catarrhal death rattle.”

But the tunes they are a-changin’: check out Ben Sidran’s 2009 jazz covered Dylan, “Dylan Different.”

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