Five amazingly personal songs by Bob Dylan

Dylan wrote a lot about everything and almost all of it turned to greatness.

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We’ve tackled love, and stories, and politics – three primary prongs of Bob Dylan’s songwriting. But Dylan has a lot more outstanding creations that don’t neatly fit into those categories. I’m calling them “personal” songs, but really, that is just a catchall for everything else. “Five great ‘everything else’ songs” doesn’t roll off the tongue very well, so “personal” it is.

I didn’t set out to choose songs representative of eras in Dylan’s long career. But it worked out that way a little bit due to the way he has changed as a songwriter. For instance, he has written political songs throughout his entire career, but he did it more early on. Consequently, the political songs list leaned on those early albums.

The reverse is true with today’s list. Dylan has written personal songs – songs about his feelings about life and death and the nature of man (divorced from love and politics) for sixty-plus years. But I believe he has written more songs – and perhaps better songs – in this vein later in life. So today’s list tilts toward later Dylan to a greater degree than any of the earlier lists.

Five fantastically excellent songs from Bob Dylan

If you basically tuned him out after Desire in 1976, maybe this list isn’t for you. Or maybe you’ll find a couple of songs worth your attention that you didn’t know about. Only one way to find out. Read on.

“HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED” (1965)

“God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son, -- Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on.”

Was there ever a better opening couplet? Complete with a siren whistle to create the carnival atmosphere, Dylan takes us through a veritable Felliniesque assortment of oddballs and ne’er-do-wells like Georgia Sam and Mack the Finger. There are kings and there are wars and a thousand telephones that won’t ring.

Does it mean anything? Your guess is as good as mine. I see it as a fantastically elaborate way of saying people come in all shapes and sizes and have all kinds of bizarre problems. And for each one of us, there is a mythical Highway 61 lurking just past what we understand as reality, where all those strangers gather together for a party.

There’s no harmonica here – the whistle took care of that. Just galloping drums, pounding pianos, and stabbing guitars driving it all ahead at a breakneck pace. PJ Harvey – when she was still fronting her band – recorded an explosive version in 1993. It is mostly drums and odd modulation – a fairly perfect way to treat the song.