Ask Bob Dylan where his song ideas come from, and you’re likely to get his famous response, “I’m just a song and dance man.” But in his 2015 acceptance speech as Person of the Year at MusiCares, Dylan was forthcoming about his musical influences. You can read the full transcript of his talk here:
Dylan has reportedly said of himself, “I’m no melodist,” but he knows a good song when he hears one. As a young man, he sought out and absorbed thousands of recordings of old folk songs and blues tunes, and learned to play them. He allowed the melodies and chord changes to percolate around inside of his head for a while until they were ready to pour out through his fingertips. The resulting brew was fresh and strong, blending old musical ideas with new lyrics and passions at just the right moment in time. I can listen to Bob Dylan any time of day, especially when I’m feeling scattered and in need of “grounding“ – no pun intended. (Seriously, Bob Dylan’s music once helped me get through a mild panic attack. I feel like I can depend on the guy to cut through the crap in life and take me to a place that’s real.)
Then there’s Paul McCartney, who woke up with the entire melody for “Yesterday” in his head. He just had to stumble out of bed and get to his piano to find out what the chords were. Luckily for us, he wrote them down before he forgot them. The first three notes of the melody invoked in his mind the words “scrambled eggs”… until he brilliantly thought of changing the opening line to “yesterday…”. And, as we all know, the rest was “over easy.”
The other day, my sister Sue asked me who inspired my song “Sweet Sixteen” (track 6 on “Twisted”). She thought it was a secret high school crush that I’d never told her about. I honestly replied that I had just made the whole thing up. I wish I had a more interesting story, but the way I write songs is probably more like the Paul McCartney method than the Bob Dylan method. Sometimes I wake up with – or drive around with -- a bit of a melody in my head, which I try to remember and write down. I try to match it up with some chords. Then, if I’m lucky, something about the chords or rhythm will evoke a line. Whatever rhymes with that line ends up scribbled in the margins. Pretty soon I’ve got a rough sketch, which more often than not has no basis in reality. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
On the other hand, it was passion that preceded melody when I wrote “More Than Luck” (track 2 on “Twisted”). “More Than Luck” was inspired by a political issue (girls’ and women’s rights to education). Somehow, my strong desire to write a song with a message transcended my usual songwriting blocks, and the lyrics, melody, and chords all coalesced. It helped that I took my song to a songwriter’s club where it was discussed and critiqued. From there, the lyrics were changed a tiny bit, resulting in a more vague, yet perhaps more universal theme encompassing anyone who is down on their luck and either needs to take action on their own, or to have someone in their corner if they cannot.
So that’s your episode of “Behind the Music” for today. Any questions?