BOB DYLAN: Shoes for Everyone

“I’ve made shoes for everyone, even you, and I still go barefoot.”

— Bob Dylan, “I and I.”


"It could be called arsenic music, or perhaps Phaedra music."

Questions & Answers with BOB DYLAN

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Today’s question for Bob comes courtesy of Bluerailroad editor Paul Zollo’s own 1992 SongTalk inteview, reprinted in Songwriters On Songwriting [Da Capo] and Bob Dylan:The Essential Interviews [Rolling Stone], which was called “the best Bob Dylan interview in history” by David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, and “the best Dylan interview ever, although even it fails to penetrate the mysteries of Mr Dylan,” by the New York Times.

PAUL ZOLLO: When you sit down to write a song, do you choose a musical key that will fit the song? Or do you change keys while writing?

BOB DYLAN: Yeah. Yeah. Maybe like in the middle of the thing.

There are ways you can get out of whatever you have gotten into. You want to get out of it. But the thing to do as soon as you’ve gotten into it is to realize you must get out of it. And unless you get out of it quickly and effortlessly, there’s no use staying in it. It will just drag you down. You could be spending years writing the same song, telling the same story, doing the same thing.

So once you involve youself in it, once you have accidentally slipped into it, the thing to do it to get out. So your primary impulse is only going to take you so far.

But then you might think, well, you know, is this one of those things where it’s all just going to come? And then all of a sudden you start thinking, what’s happening now? Oh there’s a story here. And when my mind starts to get into it, that’s trouble right away. That’s usually big trouble. And as far as never seeing this thing again.

There’s a bunch of ways you can get out of that. You can make yourself get out of it by changing key. That’s one way. Just take the whole thing and change the key, keeping the same melody. And see if that brings you any place. More times than not, that will take you down the road. Somewhere.

And then if that fails, and that will run out, too, you can always go back to where you were to start. It won’t work twice, it only works once. Then you go back to where you started. Yeah, because anything you do in A, it’s going to be a different song in G. While you’re writing it, anyway.  There’s too many wide passing notes in G [on guitar] not to influence your writing, unless you’re playing barre chords.

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Courtesy of Elizabeth Hartwick from Coventry, Connecticut:

You’re famous for being the guy who turned the Beatles onto pot. When did you first try it?

DYLAN: Grass was everywhere in the clubs. It was always there in the jazz clubs and in the folk-music clubs. There was just grass and it was available to musicians in those days. And in coffeehouses way back in Minneapolis. That’s where I first came into contact with it, I’m sure. I forget when or where, really.

Being a musician means – depending on how far you go – getting to the depths of where you are at. And most any musician would try anything to get to those depths, because playing music is an immediate thing- as opposed to putting paint on a canvas, which is a calculated thing.

Your spirit flies when you are playing music. So, with music, you tend to look deeper and deeper inside yourself to find the music. That’s why, I guess, grass was around those clubs. I know the whole scene has changed now; I mean, pot is almost a legal thing. But in the old days, it was just for a few people.

Did psychedelics have a similar effect on you?

DYLAN: No. Psychedelics never influenced me. I don’t know, I think Timothy Leary had a lot to do with driving the last nails into the coffin of that New York scene. When psychedelics happened, everything became irrelevant. Because that had nothing to do with making music or writing poems or trying to really find yourself in that day and age.

People were deluded into thinking they were something that they weren’t: birds, airplanes, fire hydrants, whatever. People were walking around thinking they were stars.

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What inspired the sound you were going for when you started playing electric?

DYLAN: Those were exciting times. We were doing it before anybody knew we would – or could. We didn’t know what it was going to turn out to be. Nobody thought of it as folk-rock at the time. There were some people involved in it like The Byrds, and I remember Sonny and Cher and the Turtles and the early Rascals. It began coming out on the radio. I mean, I had a couple of hits in a row. That was the most I ever had in a row- two. The top ten was filled with that kind of sound-the Beatles, too-and it was exciting, those days were exciting.

It was the sound of the streets. It still is. I symbolically hear that sound wherever I am.  That ethereal twilight light, you know. It’s the sound of the street with the sunrays, the sun shining down at a particular time, on a particular type of building. A particular type of people walking on a particular type of street. It’s an outdoor sound that drifts even into open windows that you can hear. The sound of bells and distant railroad trains and arguments in apartments and the clinking of silverware and knives and forks and beating with leather straps. It’s all-it’s all there. Just lack of a jackhammer, you know. Yeah, no jackhammer sounds, no airplane sounds. All pretty natural sounds. It’s water, you know water trickling down a brook. It’s light flowing. Usually it’s the crack of dawn. Music filters out to me in the crack of dawn.

You get a little spacy when you’ve been up all night, so you don’t really have the power to form it. But that’s the sound I’m trying to get across. I’m not just up there re-creating old blues tunes or trying to invent some surrealistic rhapsody. It’s the sound and the words. Words don’t interfere with it. They –  they – punctuate it. You know, they give it purpose. [Pause] And all the ideas for my songs, all the influences, all come out of that. All the influences, all the feelings, all the ideas come from that.

I’m not doing it to see how good I can sound, or how perfect the melody can be, or how intricate the details can be woven or how perfectly written something can be. I don’t care about those things. I care about the sound.

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             BLUERAILROAD: When I first interviewed you, you said the world doesn’t need any new songs, that if nobody ever wrote another song, we’d be fine cause there are already enough songs. Tom Petty told me you told him that as well, and that’s it was just a joke. Since then, you’ve written almost a hundred new songs yourself – is that because you do feel the world needs some new songs?

             BOB DYLAN:  Well, the songs are a funny thing. If I didn’t have the recording contract and I didn’t have to fulfill a certain amount of records, I don’t really know if I’d write another song as long as I lived. I’m just content enough to play just anything I know. But seeing as how I do have this contract, I figure my oblisgation is to fill it, not in just recording songs, but the best songs I can possibly record. Believe me, I look around. I don’t care if I record my own songs, but I sometimes can’t find enough songs to put on an album, so then I’ve got to do it all with my songs.

The song has to be of a certain quality for me to sing and put on a record. One aspect it would have to have is that it didn’t repeat itself. I shy away from those kind of songs that repeat phrases, bars and verses, bridges… so right there it leaves out about nine-tenths of all the contemporary material being written, and the folk songs are just about the only ones that don’t… the narrative ones, or the ones with a chorus like “Ruben’s Train.” I don’t know, maybe then too I’m too lazy to look hard enough.

By yourself, you’re written more than enough songs for the lifetime of one songwriter. If a songwriter writes one great and lasting song in his life, that is enough – and you’ve written hundreds. Yet you don’t go out in concerts and just sing them the way you recorded them – which many in the audience would love. Instead you do something new every night, and often change songs dramatically.

It’s a very fine line you have to walk to stay in touch with something once you’ve created it. Either it holds up for you or it doesn’t. A lot of artists say, “I can’t sing those old songs anymore,” and I can understand it because you’re no longer the same person who wrote those songs.

However, you really are still that person some place deep down. You don’t really get that out of your system. So, you can still sing them if you can get in touch with the person you were when you wrote the songs. I don’t think I can sit down now and write “It’s Alright Ma” again. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. But I can still sing it. And I’m glad I’ve written it.


In this episode, Mr. Dylan answers a question sent in from Marie Leaf, a registered nurse in Gore, Oklahoma.

             MARIE LEAF: Are you a happy person? You look relaxed and happy in all your photos.

             BOB DYLAN: Happiness is not on my list of priorities. I just deal with day-to-day things. If I’m happy, I’m happy – and if I’m not, I don’t know the difference. Knowing that you are the person you were put on this earth to be – that’s much more important than just being happy.

It’s not happiness and unhappiness, it’s either blessed or unblessed. As the Bible says, “Blessed is the man who walkest not in the counsel of the ungodly.” Happiness isn’t on the road to anything. Happiness is the road.

I was at a restaurant. I looked at the menu, then I looked at my wife. The one thing about her that I always loved was that she was never one of those people who thinks that someone else is the answer to their happiness. Me or anybody else. She’s always had her own built-in happiness.

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Do you feel that switching from folk to folk-rock has improved you as a performer?

BOB DYLAN:  I’m not interested in myself as a performer. Performers are people who perform for other people. Unlike actors, I know what I’m saying. It’s very simple in my mind. It doesn’t matter what kind of audience reaction this whole thing gets. What happens on the stage is straight. It doesn’t expect any rewards or fines from any kind of outside agitators. It’s ultra-simple, and would exist whether anybody was looking or not.

As far as folk and folk-rock are concerned, it doesn’t matter what kind of nasty names people invent for the music. It could be called arsenic music, or perhaps Phaedra music. I don’t think that such a word as folk-rock has anything to do with it. And folk music is a word I can’t use. Folk music is a bunch of fat people. I have to think of all of this as traditional music. Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death. There’s nobody that going to kill traditional music. All these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans and turn into angels – they’re not going to die. It’s all those paranoid people who think that someone’s going to come and take away their toilet paper – they’re going to die. Songs like “Which Side Are You On?” and “And I Love You, Porgy” – they’re not folk music songs; they’re political songs. They’re already dead.  Obviously, death is not very universally accepted. I mean, you’d think that the traditional music people could gather from their songs that mystery – just plain simple mystery – is a fact, a traditional fact.

I listen to the old ballads; but I wouldn’t go to a party and listen to the old ballads. I could give you descriptive detail of what they do to me, but some people would probably think my imagination had gone mad. It strikes me funny that people actually have the gall to think that I have some kind of fantastic imagination. It gets very lonesome. But anyway, traditional music is too unreal to die. It doesn’t need to be protected. Nobody’s going to get hurt. In that music is the only true, valid death you can feel today off a record player. But like anything else in great demand, people try to own it. It has to do with a purity thing. I think its meaninglessness is holy. Everybody knows that I’m not a folk singer.

" is the only true, valid death you can feel today off a record player."
“…music is the only true, valid death you can feel today off a record player.”

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16 thoughts on “BOB DYLAN: Shoes for Everyone

  1. Thank you for this great feature. I first listened to Bob Dylan when I was a teenager, and I’ve recently gone back to listening to some of his early songs. Is it possible to put dates on the questions and answers? It would also be interesting for the reader to learn how you know him.

  2. The comments about how to relate to one’s previous work really ring true for me. As a former busker, I respect the need to change one’s own material. It’s a horrible feeling to get bored with your own songs. Moreover, it improves one’s musicianship to vary the stuff that has cycled through the brain too long. Singing the songs just as people have heard them may make an audience feel secure in their knowledge of a song they love. But moving beyond that familiarity is the birthplace of “theme and variations.” Nicely said, Bob.

  3. Wow!

    Sheer wonderstuff there! Bob is such a sagatcious soul. What would we do without him?

    A ghost of ‘electricity howls through the bones of his words. Let’s just thank our lucky stars that Zimmy still has contractual obligations to continue writing, as every song of his is like a little world ( And in Bob’s case, it’s NEVER a World Gone Wrong!).

    Bless You Paul, for keeping this stuff coming. And Thank You Bob! I never take your artistry for granted. The world is a better, more colorful place, for your courting of The Muse.

  4. As far as I’m concerned, Bob Dylan has created the greatest music of his career during the past 12 years.

    Protest singer my ass.

    Thanks Bob.

  5. “Folk music is a bunch of fat people?” That doesn’t say anything. It’s just a mean thing to say. It’s a bigot thing to say. I saw him perform once. The stadium kept the audience from entering until show time. Then, as we all stood outside, we heard music coming from inside. Slowly, we realized that it was live music, and that it was Bob. He was playing to empty seats. We all finally got in and tried to enjoy the show. During intermission, he pulled the same stunt when everyone left to go to the bathroom and get beverages. That’s the way I’ll always remember Bob.

    1. Folk Music Fat People is an apt description. The hard core traditionalists who can’t accept anything that isn’t old and performed exactly as written. New music and reinterpretations of older music don’t register with them; it doesn’t garner their seal of approval. They demand that anybody performing an old song do it exactly as it was first written or recorded. But no real musician does anything the same way twice. The Fat people can’t see beyond 1852. They’ve become water logged; fat; the living dead. You should see Bob perform more than once cause every show is different. Bob’s alive. After about 20 times you’ll start to get it, maybe. It’s worth the effort. Also check out Elvis Costello’s “Get Happy.” Just sad? Get happy! 🙂

  6. So, the idea is to take a bunch of old bob quotes and pretend that they are answers to reader questions? I guess that’s OK. Like another poster, I’d like to be reminded of where the quotes first arose.

    1. rcarolinian: Thank you for asking. Well, the idea is not to take old stuff, but toi celebrate the timeless greatness – wisdom, if you will, insight, humor, dignity – of his words. Much of what I quote is from my own (Paul Zollo) interview with him, and the others from books in which my work appears, so I feel it’s okay – what Bob says matters no matter when he said it, and is always interesting. So like the way he celebrates poetry from Timrod, or dialogue from all film noirs, or Ferlinghetti cadences, in his own work – i freely forward these answers he’s given to questions. Though he wrote that the answers are blowing in the wind, I know he doesn’t object to those of us who delight in gathering these answers, like unlike fallen leaves caught up in winter gusts like geese, and displaying them here, in a nice frame I built myself.

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