My father in law introduced me to the music of Bob Dylan. At first, I didn’t understand the appeal. But a few years and several albums later, Dylan has become one of my favorites. I won’t argue with anyone who finds his voice less than appealing, but I will say that he uses it skillfully. There is a reason that people are still intrigued by his music, and his influence on the development of modern music is absolutely incalculable.
In the 60s, Dylan was hailed as a prophet. His simple but enduring lyric caught everyone’s attention: “The times they are a-changin’.” He won the admiration of the hippie generation as well as the thoughtful analysis of Christian thinkers like Francis Schaeffer. This reveals the depth of his musical projects. For a variety of reasons, people were—and still are—interested in what Bob Dylan had to say.
I recently watched the 1965 documentary about Dylan: Don’t Look Back. Dylan’s demeanor throughout the documentary probably wouldn’t surprise anyone. He comes across as a young, talented visionary—confident, beloved, and mysterious. But I was struck by something that Dylan said on the documentary during an interview with Time Magazine:
“I’ve got nothing to say about these things I write. I mean, I just write ‘em. I’m not going to say anything about ‘em. I don’t write ‘em for any reason. There’s no great message.”
Think about the implications of this. A whole generation (and every generation since, to a lesser degree) was enamored with the songs that Dylan was writing, yet he tells a reporter that there’s no great message behind them.
Is it true that everyone is simply looking for something that’s not there when they listen to Dylan’s albums? Could Dylan really have been writing something meaningless that somehow become meaningful to the world around him?
I don’t think so.
Let me be clear: I don’t claim to know Bob Dylan better than he knows himself. But it does seem clear to me that people only engage in artistic endeavors because they feel some compulsion to do so. No one ever wrote a song by accident. Lyrics don’t just happen to rhyme, nor do they fit into song structures or tell stories of their own accord.
It may well be that Dylan wasn’t fully aware of what he was trying to get at by writing those songs. Perhaps he intentionally wrote some things that he considered nonsense. But the artistic enterprise itself draws from something deeper.
Human beings create art in a search for meaning. We know that this world is more meaningful than the bare facts might indicate, so we tell stories, we sing songs, we paint pictures. We adorn our world in an effort to highlight its true significance.
So there is a deep sense of irony in Dylan’s words. Essentially, he was claiming that his search for meaning had no meaning. But perhaps the “great message” behind Dylan’s music was the search itself rather than any answers that he may or may not have discovered in the process.
Dylan eventually converted to Christianity, recorded two albums that were over the top Christian, and generally made a big deal of his faith (he is far more ambiguous now). It is clear that Dylan was expressing a message and attempting to convey meaning through his music at this point in his life.
But it is also clear to me that Dylan was exploring truth and meaning through his pre-1965 recordings as well. I can’t be convinced that songs like “The Times They Are A-Changing,” “Boots of Spanish Leather,” or “When the Ship Comes In” are meaningless. I find them powerful attempts to find and convey meaning.
As Francis Schaeffer would say, try as we might to believe that this world is meaningless, we all know deep down that this world and we ourselves are overwhelmingly meaningful. And when we try to deny this reality with our art, our artistic creations themselves betray the truth of the matter.