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His Zombie Bullfrog Holler
December 16, 2012 9:52 PM   Subscribe

What does Bob Dylan's voice sound like? Opinions differ (possible understatement alert) . But that hasn't stopped people from trying to explain how to listen to Bob Dylan (previously on Metafilter). But what happens when Dylan's voice is held up to an academic's magnifying glass? Or amplifier, as the metaphorical case may be? University of Chicago professor of music Steven Rings, a proponent of a branch of music theory known as transformational theory and author of Tonality And Transformation (in-depth review), offers one such perspective in his lecture Here's Your Throat Back, Thanks for the Loan: On Dylan's Voices (runtime 41:50)
posted by Perko (96 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
What does Bob Dylan's voice sound like?

A friction-drive toy car being incessantly revved against the floor.
posted by Decani at 9:56 PM on December 16, 2012 [8 favorites]


now for the sequel, "Why Jakob Dylan Has a Better Voice Than Dad But Nobody Listens to the Wallflowers"
posted by nicebookrack at 9:58 PM on December 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


What does Bob Dylan's voice sound like?

Like Kooly the Bear tightroping over Shark Mountain.
posted by Nomyte at 9:59 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


What does Bob Dylan's voice sound like?

Scooby-Doo.
posted by asperity at 10:00 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


The question "what does Bob Dylan's voice sound like" is like the question "what color is a chameleon"? Dylan has had hundreds of different voices over the course of his career.
posted by yoink at 10:02 PM on December 16, 2012 [8 favorites]


I love the way the comments are answering this question in a meme-like fashion. You guys truly know how to capture Dylan's thin wild mercury sound.
posted by Perko at 10:05 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Why Jakob Dylan Has a Better Voice Than Dad But Nobody Listens to the Wallflowers"

Oh, that's unfair. Jakob's Seeing Things is one of the better albums of recent memory. He's a great musician in his own right, and deserves his place outside his father's shadow.

I'm a fan of Bob's voice, myself. Like A Rolling Stone's lyric is just spot on. Some people hear it flat but he sings it flat in all the right ways, intentionally. It works perfectly.
posted by jimmythefish at 10:15 PM on December 16, 2012


What does Bob Dylan's voice sound like?

Like the clatter of trash can lids in the alley as A.J. Weberman disappears into the morning fog. Sometimes a lid hits an alley cat. That performance charts.
posted by maudlin at 10:15 PM on December 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


I cannot listen to Dylan. It is actively painful. I have perfect pitch, and he cannot stay in tune. (I can't listen to Jagger for the same reason. I loved Freddie Mercury, because he was always right on the button.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:19 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


What does Bob Dylan's voice sound like?

Like the cosmic negation of Celine Dion's. And that is a very, very good thing.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:19 PM on December 16, 2012 [9 favorites]


I have perfect pitch

When anyone says this I want to give them a wedgie in front of 2nd period band class.
posted by jimmythefish at 10:22 PM on December 16, 2012 [28 favorites]


I cannot listen to Dylan. It is actively painful. I have perfect pitch, and he cannot stay in tune.

"In tune" (in the way that that term is generally understood) is such a narrow little corner of the world's music. I'm genuinely curious how your perfect pitch ears respond to all manner of, say, non-Western vocalizing. Singers from Africa, China, Southeast Asia, India, Mongolia? But even closer to home, how about Delta blues singers, or Cajun singers? Or, say, European singers outside the classical tradition, like Bulgarian or other east European singers? Gypsies?

It must be kind of devastating to not be able to enjoy untempered singing, I would imagine.

I'm really interested in this phenomenon.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:27 PM on December 16, 2012 [32 favorites]


But what is he grillin?
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 10:27 PM on December 16, 2012


But what is he grillin?

Other than his larynx?
posted by Perko at 10:29 PM on December 16, 2012


I can't listen to Jagger for the same reason

Jagger, in his prime (which lasted a pretty long time, may not always have been staying on the note, but he was always singing exactly what he intended to be singing.
posted by yoink at 10:38 PM on December 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


good enough for The Man in Black, good enough for me
posted by philip-random at 10:46 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Dylan once described his own voice as sounding like a lovesick coyote.

It's better than that, but yeah.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 10:49 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


What does Bob Dylan's voice sound like?

like sand + glue
posted by philip-random at 10:56 PM on December 16, 2012 [9 favorites]


What does Bob Dylan's voice sound like?

God! A red nugget, a fat egg under a dog!
posted by alex_skazat at 10:59 PM on December 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


Perfect pitch is being able to name notes. A good sense of relative pitch is what tells you one thing is out of tune with another. People with perfect pitch often don't have very good relative pitch.

flapjax at midnight, music from India at least is arguably more "in tune" than western music. Untempered means in tune.
posted by iotic at 11:18 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


music from India at least is arguably more "in tune" than western music.

Tuning systems are human constructs that reflect human aesthetics, and they vary from culture to culture. Can't imagine how, then, one could argue that one system is "more in tune" than another.

Untempered means in tune.

This is a novel definition. I'd like to hear you defend it!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:26 PM on December 16, 2012 [8 favorites]


Obligatory link to the Boomhauer-Dylan clip.
posted by twoleftfeet at 11:31 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was also a little bugged by the snaps back at the perfect pitch comment (as well as the notion that blues or Indian music or gamelon are "untempered")

I'd guess that these various non-Western-classical musics do not bother Chocolate Pickle like Dylan or Jagger, but I'd be curious to hear if I'm right. (I have "ok" pitch, meaning I can often sing a C correctly, although I think that's gotten rusty.)

I like that Mercury has come up in two very different lights in this discussion.

On preview, I'm sure iotic just meant "out of tune"
posted by spbmp at 11:33 PM on December 16, 2012


flapjax at midnight - Many tuning systems, including Indian ragas and Western scales, are not arbitrary but are based on the mathematical harmonics in a plucked string or resonating column of air, which occur at integer multiples of the fundamental frequency of any note.

The major third of a scale is exactly in tune with the fifth harmonic in Indian music, whereas in western music it is tempered to allow modulation between keys. These things are certain and not open to interpretation, and those are the explanations for my point above.
posted by iotic at 11:35 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Untempered means in tune.

This is a novel definition. I'd like to hear you defend it!


Here's a link. "temperament is a system of tuning which slightly compromises the pure intervals of just intonation". Not a novel definition, the definition.

Actually Indian music is slightly (less than Western though) tempered by this definition. That's another derail though.

Regarding Bob Dylan, he's always seemed ok tuning-wise, to me.
posted by iotic at 11:49 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Dylan, at his best, sounds like the Old Weird America - distilled, amplified, distorted, reconstituted in stereo. Singing in the night to chase the dark away, to keep warm. Dylan at his best proves why the Byrds with their warm honey harmonies and careful on-key melodies will never be able to explain accurately the
sensation of finding that your weariness amazes you, you're branded on your feet.

Dylan at his best is the perfect pitch of a certain rich vein of American folklore. And it's why his nasal off-key yearning voice is incomparable.
posted by gompa at 11:51 PM on December 16, 2012 [23 favorites]


I have perfect pitch

That may be, but it has nothing to do with why you like Queen and not Dylan. That "perfect" pitch is a discrete biological condition which makes listening to "out of tune" (theres really no such thing in the abstract, only your particular cultural tuning system and modal system) music somehow especially hard or painful at a neurocognitive level is an old wives' tale. There is no such thing as absolute tuning. You may have absolute pitch, but you'd be fine adjusting it to any tonal context if so.

You just don't like dissonance. It's cool.

Dylan does not sing "flat" consistently either. He just sings without vibrato.
posted by spitbull at 11:59 PM on December 16, 2012 [9 favorites]


It's like broken voices on broken phones
posted by KokuRyu at 12:04 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Seriously, Lay Off Bob Dylan's Voice
posted by KokuRyu at 12:04 AM on December 17, 2012


The Dylan I can do without is the Nashville Skyline singer.
posted by pracowity at 12:06 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Dylan I can do without is the Nashville Skyline singer.

Really? I really like the album, mostly because some its songs are on Greatest Hits Vol. 2, my first introduction to Dylan. It blew my mind when I listened to it in my early twenties (I had discounted Dylan as an annoying folkie who turned into a dinosaur with a mumbling nasal).

A previous tenant had left it behind in the house I was renting. It's been close to twenty years now, and while a lot of the music I listened to in the 90's and during my early twenties has faded, Dylan has stayed with me.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:11 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


C. Pickle
I have perfect pitch
Flappy
"In tune" (in the way that that term is generally understood) is such a narrow little corner of the world's music.
Iotic
Untempered means in tune.
Flappy
This is a novel definition. I'd like to hear you defend it!
Iotic
"temperament is a system of tuning which slightly compromises the pure intervals of just intonation". Not a novel definition, the definition.

Such a much better spat than recent, depressing threads.

EARWAR!!! Bring it on!
popcorn, where's my popcorn?
posted by qinn at 12:19 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Singer's Voice Changes as He Ages. Film at 11 (45 mins of it)!
posted by OHenryPacey at 12:22 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't know what the hell kinda pitch I have, but I'm a good enough musician that I can tell when a voice or an instrument is "out of tune" with the rest of the band, and sometimes it can be grating or off-putting.

That said, Bob Dylan's voice has never bothered me. A little funny sounding at first, but not so bad as some folks like to loudly proclaim. Seems like just another way to be cool by complaining about something that is otherwise universally acclaimed and loved. If you don't like it you don't like it, fair enough. But when someone starts actively promoting to other people just how bloody much they don't like it, well...I'm gonna call shenanigans on that.

Speaking of singing off-pitch on purpose, I've always been a big fan of the Desafinado style. Maybe it's just an acquired taste, like Wagnerian opera or really dark beer. Again, if it floats your boat, great! If it doesn't, I don't think either position points to an ABSOLUTE inferiority of either creator or consumer in that regard. Yeesh. We are, after all, talking about aesthetics and culture which are by their very nature relative.

Also, while I would agree with iotic's description about some notions regarding tuning being beyond sonic dispute one could still make a fairly reasonable argument that even a pure digital tone, by the time it actually gets to a given ear, is no longer pure or even digital for that matter.
posted by Doleful Creature at 12:23 AM on December 17, 2012


What does Bob Dylan's voice sound like?

Like a Tuvan throat singer fellating a didgeridoo
posted by hal9k at 12:31 AM on December 17, 2012


I think one of the problem's with Bob Dylan's voice (and its interesting how its tone changed from early to Nashville Skyline), is the cultural impact it had. Nothing like 2nd rate unconscious imitation to make the problem worse.
posted by C.A.S. at 1:40 AM on December 17, 2012


And not enough is made how how much of that voice might come from knocking off Woody Guthrie in his early career
posted by C.A.S. at 1:41 AM on December 17, 2012


What does Bob Dylan's voice sound like?

Like some old timer who's sung in smoky bars and poured whiskey down his throat and spent nights in cheap cathouses or the gutter till his voice has gone; like some guy ground down by life and hardship to the flinty core; like some guy who can't sing any more but can't not sing because he doesn't know how to quit and will never quit until they box him up.

Not that that remotely describes Bob Dylan, but that's what he sounds like.
posted by Segundus at 2:00 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Bob Dylan's voice, at this point in time, is a goof. Has been for about 20 years. I'm convinced he purposely sings as badly, yet close enough to pitch, as he can. Does he need critical acclaim at this point in his career and life? No. Does he need the money? No. I think it's all his idea of a joke, frankly- to see how bad he can sound, yet continue to earn praise and positive reviews from critics and audiences.
posted by GreyFoxVT at 2:29 AM on December 17, 2012


Bob Dylan's voice, at this point in time, is a goof.

I actually don't think that's true. I think his tone is something he's played with quite a lot over the years, sometimes for laughs.; I think his voice has at this point been ravaged by heavy smoking for years and years, as well as a relentless touring schedule. I think these are two different things. Anyone who listens to a lot of Dylan bootlegs can pretty much track the change in his voice. It is true that he has kind of always wanted to sound like he sounds now, insofar as the singers and players he seems to most admire, Charley Patton e.g., sound like he does now.

I was also a little bugged by the snaps back at the perfect pitch comment

The perfect pitch comment was annoying because it implied that but for a certain lack of "perfection," others would also find Dylan odious. It's akin to "Is this something I would have to own a TV to understand?" in the annals of disparagement.
posted by OmieWise at 2:47 AM on December 17, 2012 [7 favorites]


Look, while Dylan certainly likes fucking with people's expectations, I have no patience for the argument that he's goofing around so badly with his voice that only starstruck critics and simpleminded fans fail to see how objectively bad it really, truly is.

Here's some recorded performances from the past twenty years. You may or may not like the quality of Dylan's voice, but the old guy is connecting emotionally with his material even though his voice is getting more and more worn.

Things Have Changed

When The Deal Goes Down

Duquesne Whistle
(OK, this one is goofy. Goofy can be good. Goofy does not mean that we're all being taken for a ride here. And I sincerely, unironically love this one, too, and not only because Dylan is totally sporting Iggy's hair in the video.)
posted by maudlin at 2:50 AM on December 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


"temperament is a system of tuning which slightly compromises the pure intervals of just intonation". Not a novel definition, the definition.

OK, now I see what you mean by "in tune" You're saying that Just Intonation is, by dint of its pure mathematical relationships, the only tuning system which is actually "in tune". And from that scientific perspective, I wouldn't disagree. However, you'll be hard pressed to find many folks around (at least in the 'Western world') who will tell you that Harry Partch's music sounds "in tune" to them. Whereas almost everyone would say that Bach's Well Tempered Clavier sounds "in tune". The compromises of equal temperament are exactly what a vast majority of people have come to consider to constitute "in tune".

So, I've been referring to tuning systems and perceptions of *in tune-ness* as they apply to people: people making music and listening to music made with the various tuning systems that they have come up with in order to make music which is satisfying to them. Which is virtually never Just Intonation.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:51 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


> "Which is virtually never Just Intonation."

Huh? The even-tempered scale is kind of a kludgy hack which has only existed for a few hundred years even in Western music. It's by far the exception rather than the rule.
posted by kyrademon at 5:01 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


“No, I really like his voice,” she said. “It’s like a kid standing at the window watching the rain.”
posted by edgeways at 5:06 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


You're saying that Just Intonation is, by dint of its pure mathematical relationships, the only tuning system which is actually "in tune".

Not quite. It's not just mathematics. Everyone in the world agrees when two notes in unison are in tune. Also octave tuning is universal I think. I suspect also near-universal is the sensation of when a perfect fifth or major third are in tune. These are all because of the simplest consonances of harmonics. And western music - equal temperament - is a departure from this pretty much universal natural tuning sense. Your example - Bach - did not use equal temperament. It is said that singers and string quartets will tend towards just major chords if not accompanied by a piano. It's why guitars are hard to tune "by ear". It's why piano tuning is difficult full stop - as any piano tuner will tell you, the job involves tuning strings precisely out of tune to get the temperament.

I wouldn't get so picky about it, but it annoys me when people think of equal temperament as "natural" or intuitive and Indian music as "microtonal", having "quarter tones" etc. In fact it's the other way round. Indian tuning is natural and pretty much the way anyone would tune if staying in key, and equal temperament is highly unnatural and unintuitive. No-one would tune especially major thirds that way by ear.
posted by iotic at 5:31 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Bob Dylan's voice is one of my oldest friends. He's changed (we both have), but he's still Bob.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:40 AM on December 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


Huh? The even-tempered scale is kind of a kludgy hack which has only existed for a few hundred years even in Western music. It's by far the exception rather than the rule.

Sigh. Read all of my comments in this thread, please. And think more carefully about what I'm actually saying. I'm aware of the history of equal temperament. I'm aware that it is the exception, in terms of global music history, at least until relatively modern times. That should be apparent from what I've already said upthread. But we're talking about Just Intonation, here, which is not some sort of standard operating procedure of tuning systems around the world. Tuning systems all around the world mess around with the intervals and "beats" in all sorts of ways.

By the way, it's kind of ironic that you make a big deal about equal temperament being only a few hundred years old. Perhaps you should consider that, essentially, the only people working directly and consciously with Just Intonation are Western composers in the field modern music. 20th/21st century. And all coming out of the classical tradition, to one extent or another.

I wouldn't get so picky about it, but it annoys me when people think of equal temperament as "natural" or intuitive and Indian music as "microtonal", having "quarter tones" etc.

For the record, I never said anything like that.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:41 AM on December 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


Dylan's voice sounds like is the acoustic version of outsider art.
posted by peacay at 6:01 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Octave, perfect fifth yes (although there is a venerable debate about that). Major third? No way, practically a western invention. Many scale systems have neutral thirds.

This debate is at least as old as Ellis and Helmholtz. There is no such thing as music that is "in tune" in an absolute sense, which is why people who claim their "perfect pitch" makes listening to something impossible are experiencing a psychosomatic sensation.

Believe me, I sometimes have to teach quarter tone based systems like maqam to classes full of ever so talented music majors who have been raised on equal tempered piano based music.

Besides, I've actually seen student work that used spectral analysis on Dylan's voice. He sings as in tune as most singers of his era. But the lack of vibrato is perceived as "flatness" by many people, because you're so used to a singer's pitch changing rapidly own the space of each single note.
posted by spitbull at 6:01 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, and to me, Nashville Skyline is by FAR Dylan's greatest record.

Any of y'all ever listened to Dylan's biggest vocal inspirations, Bascom Lamar Lunsford and Woodie Guthrie? Dylan didn't invent that.
posted by spitbull at 6:04 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Any of y'all ever listened to Dylan's biggest vocal inspirations, Bascom Lamar Lunsford and Woodie Guthrie? Dylan didn't invent that.

You bet. I'd throw Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb into that bag of Dylan vocal influences as well.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:06 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, and to me, Nashville Skyline is by FAR Dylan's greatest record.

I would've said pretty much the same thing up until Time Out of Mind.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:06 AM on December 17, 2012


Surely. Dylan was trying to sound like a cross between an Appalachian ballad singer and a country blues singer, quite self-consciously so.
posted by spitbull at 6:08 AM on December 17, 2012



Best recent scholarship on Dylan's singing:

Bickford, Tyler
Music of poetry and poetry of song: Expressivity and grammar in vocal performance. Ethnomusicology 51/3 (Fall 2007).

Get it free here.


He's got a lot of other good stuff too.
posted by spitbull at 6:12 AM on December 17, 2012


Can't stand him. His voice sounds like marmite smells. And Bono, him too, only Jaegermeister. And Neil Young: horrible; like cherry Chloraseptic. In fact half of all "alternative" vocalists, too. All I ask is to be able to understand what you're saying, maybe that you'll show some respect to the words by not grossly mangling them on their way out your pie hole. Foeh.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:13 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm a Tom Waits fan. This talk about how weird Bob Dylan sounds seems kind of...quaint.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:13 AM on December 17, 2012 [8 favorites]


How can you guys pick one Dylan album, when there's also Blonde on Blonde, Blood On the Tracks, (the woefully under-appreciated) Infidels...
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:18 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


The question "what does Bob Dylan's voice sound like" is like the question "what color is a chameleon"? Dylan has had hundreds of different voices over the course of his career.

Addressed in the first 2 minutes of the video, if you bothered to watch.
posted by swift at 6:27 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


flapjax at midnite, the very article you link to, among other things, notes that "[Just Intonation] is the tuning practice of a great many musical cultures worldwide, both ancient and modern", that "musicians often approach just intonation either by accident or design because it is much easier to find (and hear) a point of stability than a point of calculated instability", and that "most a cappella ensembles naturally tend toward just intonation because of the comfort of its stability".

But maybe none of that contradicts what you're trying to say, because at this point I honestly have no idea what point you're trying to make. Very possibly that is my failing rather than yours.
posted by kyrademon at 6:33 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Dylan's unconventional (for radio) voice was an important part of his shtick. He was trying to sound nothing like a smooth crooner trying to impress easily impressable chicks, and a lot like one common man with a message to the other common men and women. A conservatory-trained singing voice, like a nice suit and a slick haircut and shiny shoes, would have made him seem less authentic to his audience, the people who freaked when he went electric.
posted by pracowity at 6:35 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


"...he cannot stay in tune."

To each their own. And it's a fair enough approach.

I would suggest that Bob's voice is more or less a character, and that that character differs from album to album, although there is an underlying foundation to it which changes over time. If he's creating a different persona for each work, what is 'musically correct' becomes less important. He's singing what the song demands emotionally, or as part of the larger musicological tradition, not necessarily what is technically correct.

Listening to music for technical proficiency is just one approach. But there's a lot more out there, stuff which may be technically horrible, but is some of the most powerful and beautiful music you will ever hear.
posted by Capt. Renault at 6:35 AM on December 17, 2012


All I ask is to be able to understand what you're saying

Dylan has never seemed all that hard to understand to me. In fact, that's a pretty unusual complaint to make about about Dylan's voice.
posted by yoink at 6:35 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Addressed in the first 2 minutes of the video, if you bothered to watch.

Jolly good. However, my comment was addressed to the question as posed in the FPP--a question that many participants in the thread were attempting to answer directly.
posted by yoink at 6:38 AM on December 17, 2012


Yep, point taken.
posted by swift at 6:43 AM on December 17, 2012


Oh boy, the equal temperament argument! My understanding of our status re harmonic overtones (and spitbull, especially, correct me if I'm wrong on any of this) is that we do indeed have a tendency to gravitate to such frequency relationships barring the intrusion of other factors, which may have something to do with the fact that the human voice is one such instrument whose overtones are harmonic. That preference, though, as with most things human, is easily overridden, and moreover the characteristic features of most musical systems aren't directly implied by the initial condition that they use just intonation (tell me how you might derive the Hindustani Todi thaat from first principles, for example). So, there's simply no definition of a "natural" or "unnatural" tuning system that isn't laden down with cultural assumptions, which is another point in favor of not taking an essentialist position on the matter.

But the most compelling argument against the idea of small integer ratio frequency relationships being "natural" in my mind is the dissonant octave, a wonderful demonstration by William Sethares, a music theorist and author of Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale. In that first link to challoct.mp3, you hear a tone with inharmonic overtones being played against another tone with a similar spectrum whose fundamental is one octave higher, and it sounds brutal, while the simultaneous sounding of two tones whose fundamentals are separated by a minor ninth sounds relatively euphonious. So it's not too hard to imagine that a culture that had settled early on on a set of instruments whose harmonics make just intonation intervals sound awful might tend away from just intonation entirely, and I can't imagine on what basis I would call that unnatural.

Also Bob Dylan's voice is aces and my relative pitch is none too shabby so I'm thinking there are better foundations for criticism of the man's sound.
posted by invitapriore at 7:03 AM on December 17, 2012 [7 favorites]


Guys, I know it's a long video, but I was rather naively hoping the video content itself would drive the discussion a bit more, or at least be referenced in arguments, opinions, etc. Wishful thinking, I know. I probably should have attempted a summary of the lecture in the "more inside" section, but this was my first Metafilter post & was sheepishly attempting to reduce criticism on my post. But here goes....

Rings reaches his thesis statement of sorts at roughly 24:00 to 26:30 when he summarizes his previous investigations of Bob Dylan's different "sounds":

"...it's almost as though when Dylan is bending his efforts most strongly to imitate others that he sounds most like himself."

He then goes on to investigate spectrographs of Dylan's voice, & surmises that Dylan now probably has the voice he always wanted-- the rough, gravelly voice of old (in every sense of the word) delta bluesmen & the ilk.

But please, talk amongst yourselves, & feel free to keep saying what Dylan sounds like.
posted by Perko at 7:21 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


That "perfect" pitch is a discrete biological condition which makes listening to "out of tune" (theres really no such thing in the abstract, only your particular cultural tuning system and modal system) music somehow especially hard or painful at a neurocognitive level is an old wives' tale.

Having lived with a perfect pitcher, I'm not sure I would wish that condition on anyone. It is also co-morbid with OCD, anxiety, and neurosis of various kinds. They are often seen as having super-acuity but tests show no more than normal hearing, just much more attentive reactions. Things like a fly buzzing around in between proper pitches would drive her nuts: "B.. C.. B... C... Ahhh! Make up your mind!"

But she could, for instance, still enjoy Chet Baker's flat notes for what they are: intentionally flat.

And for all anyone knows now, perfect pitch is indeed a discrete biological condition.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:23 AM on December 17, 2012


The thing about Dylan's voice is that it doesn't matter if it's "in tune", what matters is that it's expressing something, which his voice does very well. The Minnesota flatness of his pitch lets him communicate a lot with very slight turns, and for a storyteller, that's paramount. Listening to Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts, I understood what it must have been like to hear a recital by a Greek poet of Homer's era, when it was standard for epic stories to be sung over a repetitive musical figure the better to emphasize shifts in meter.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:25 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


"...it's almost as though when Dylan is bending his efforts most strongly to imitate others that he sounds most like himself."

Huh, you've just reminded me of a tangential funny bit - I'd look for a video clip, except I can't at work; when they were recording "We Are The World" and the time came for Dylan's solo, apparently Quincy Jones and Lione Richie and whoever else was in charge felt that Dylan's singing didn't sound "Dylan-y" enough, and they told him to sing like he usually sang stuff. And Dylan didn't know what they meant. So Stevie Wonder did a Bob Dylan imitation to show him what they meant.

There is footage of this, I have seen it with my eyes.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:47 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'd love for the haters in this thread to list a couple of their favourite singers. It seems only fair.

And if you hate Bob Dylan or his voice, and dredge up examples from his 1960's output, it's quite obvious you have no idea what you are talking about, and are just hating for the fun of it.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:53 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd love for the haters in this thread to list a couple of their favourite singers. It seems only fair.

They probably only listen to songs about robots written by cash registers.
posted by entropicamericana at 8:01 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


They probably only listen to songs about robots written by cash registers.

Not a Dylan hater, but would totally probably love songs about robots written by cash registers. A lot.

I love music threads here a lot because no matter how much I think I know, I'm always impressed.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:24 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here you go, EmpressCallipygyos-- Bob Dylan Rehearses "We Are The World". I'm familiar with that clip-- definitely provides key insight to Dylan's voice-- not to mention hilarious.
posted by Perko at 8:47 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


This talk about how weird Bob Dylan sounds seems kind of...quaint... I'm a Tom Waits fan.

Captain Beefheart sings Hoagy Carmichael while punching an old filing cabinet.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:57 AM on December 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


There are hints on some of his ballads that Dylan could sing clearly and tunefully if he really wanted to, but he just doesn't feel like it.

This also applies to Tom Waits, who has a decent natural sense of pitch that he often intentionally deviates from.

On the other hand, I'm not sure Chet Baker could have sung straight if he wanted to. But I still like listening to him. It's wrong, but in an interesting way.
posted by ovvl at 9:05 AM on December 17, 2012


There are hints on some of his ballads that Dylan could sing clearly and tunefully if he really wanted to, but he just doesn't feel like it. This also applies to Tom Waits, who has a decent natural sense of pitch that he often intentionally deviates from.

This brings up a good point - who says that "clearly and tunefully" is better? As Perko points out, Dylan sounds a lot like the old rough-voiced bluesmen he listened to as a kid, and that style of singing is fantastic too. And Tom Waits - he actually cultivates as many different sounds for his own voice as he can do; he once observed of the myriad styles he sings in by saying his voice was "a full-assault weapon". Sometimes he's trying to sound like a Weimar German cabaret singer, sometimes he's also like a blues guy; sometimes he's country-n-western, sometimes Tin Pan Alley, and sometimes he's trying to sound like that weird guy in every small town who lives in a tin shack out by the junkyard and uses old TIME-LIFE magazines from the '30s as wallpaper.

And the thing is, all those sounds are also beautiful. The cracked and crazy, the rough beaten-down blues, the drunken excess of the cabaret - they all are part of music as well. And sometimes the broken voice works better - if you don't believe me, take a listen to Tom's original recording of Anywhere I Lay My Head, and then listen to Scarlett Johansson's cover.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:29 AM on December 17, 2012


who says that "clearly and tunefully" is better?

To that point, there's an excellent anecdote in the lecture. When Sam Cooke played Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" for the frst time for Bobby Womack, Womack said he didn't get it. Cook replied, "From now on, it's not going to be about how pretty the voice is. It's going to be about believing that the voice is telling the truth." Cooke then wrote one of the most beautiful songs ever (in my opinion, of course), "Change Gonna Come.". Now that's what I'd call the best of all worlds.

And, for the sake of comparison, here's Cooke's cover of "Blowin' in the Wind"
posted by Perko at 10:18 AM on December 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


On "Tempest", there is one song - Pay In Blood - where Dylan's voice is so obviously blown it's comical. It's like he gargling in some parts of the song.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:23 AM on December 17, 2012


A lot of people like the duets of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong although their singing voices are very different. Although I like each of them individually, I was disappoined by the combination and I have trouble saying exactly why. I like Dylan's voice most of the time too, but I wonder if I should seek out performances where he sings with others. Might be funny, might be jarring, might be beautiful.
posted by wobh at 10:38 AM on December 17, 2012


I wonder if I should seek out performances where he sings with others.

Regardless of where you stand on Dylan's voice, I think there's little disagreement that Dylan is a nightmarish duet partner. Here's Dylan singing "Crazy Love" with Van Morrison --& that's Dylan BEHAVING in a duet! Duetting Dylan seems to bring out the ornery competitiveness that seem to be highlighted in a lot of Dylan documentaries.
posted by Perko at 10:43 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


On "Tempest", there is one song - Pay In Blood - where Dylan's voice is so obviously blown it's comical. It's like he gargling in some parts of the song.

And yet "Pay In Blood" is probably my favorite song on that album.
posted by eustacescrubb at 11:26 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Regardless of where you stand on Dylan's voice, I think there's little disagreement that Dylan is a nightmarish duet partner

One of the few instances where this is not the case is U2's "Love Rescue Me" which Dylan co-wrote with Bono, and for which Dylan sings the harmony vocal during the chorus. I was always amazing at how good Dylan's Bono impression is in that song - he sort of out-Bonos Bono, and so it was really interesting to hear the part of the linked lecture where Professor Rings discusses the emergence of Dylan's signature voice as being a result of Dylan trying to sound like other singers.
posted by eustacescrubb at 11:34 AM on December 17, 2012


Dylan's voice is incredibly expressive. For example, nobody conveys surly the way he did in Desolation Row with the lines,
When you asked me how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke

posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:24 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I happen to love both Freddy Mercury (at times anyway) and Bob Dylan -- it all depends on context.

There was certainly a time in the mid-80s where I found pretty much all of Dylan's vocalizing insufferable, and lately, most of the live stuff I hear feels pretty weak. But there have been moments when he's not just sufferable, I can't imagine a better voice for a particular tune. Knockin On Heaven's Door for starters. In fact, pretty much anything he did between 1972-76. Which me gets me to that other thread that Perko linked to, and something I said there ...

>

I'm reminded of some of the stuff that Allen Ginsberg had to say about Dylan (the writer/singer/performer/scientist) back around the time of Blood On The Tracks. A quick big of googling reveals this discussion ...

Allen was awed by what he heard. Dylan's lyrics
and vocal phrasing were in top form, as fresh and gripping and courageous
as any of the Dylan songs Ginsberg had heard. Allen was particularly
impressed with "Idiot Wind," Dylan's excoriating attack on hypocrisy and
mindless stupidity. "His genius intuition's become scientific art," Allen
gushed in a lengthy journal entry that examined the song line by line.
Dylan had beaten Ginsberg at his own game: He had found a way to introduce
elements of meditation into his music. This is what Allen hoped to
accomplish in his poetry, and he had to congratulate Dylan for showing him
a practical way of doing it. "What an unexpected victory for Dylan and
the generations whose consciousness he carries forward into common sense,"
he wrote. "I want to see the words written out on the page, in stanzas,
divided by pauses and breaths, into dependent droop'd symmetries."

posted by philip-random at 5:52 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites +] [!]
posted by philip-random at 12:36 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Be a funny old world if we liked all the same things.
posted by edgeways at 1:41 PM on December 17, 2012


>What does Bob Dylan's voice sound like?

A friction-drive toy car being incessantly revved against the floor.
posted by Decani at 9:56 PM on December 16 [7 favorites +] [!]


Dylan thread : Decani :: Obama thread : joebeese
posted by anazgnos at 2:48 PM on December 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


All I ask is to be able to understand what you're saying, maybe that you'll show some respect to the words by not grossly mangling them on their way out your pie hole. Foeh.

Bloody hell, you might as well take Astral Weeks and throw it in the fire, then. Along with a ton of other essential albums, most of which I can't even remember right now. Trout Mask Replica? Swordfishtrombones? Let Love In? Nevermind? The list is endless.
posted by blucevalo at 2:57 PM on December 17, 2012


Allen was particularly
impressed with "Idiot Wind," Dylan's excoriating attack on hypocrisy and
mindless stupidity.


Wait? What? I always imagined that song as a being sung to an estranged lover/wife/spouse. While I don't necessarily think the album is about his marriage, it is definitely about a failing marriage.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:01 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


"We're idiots, babe. It's a wonder we can even feed ourselves"
posted by KokuRyu at 3:02 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Actually, his duets with Joan Baez (who, on her own I really don't like very much at all, but that's just personal taste) on the Rolling Thunder tour were astonishingly good. But I'd be the first to chalk that up to Baez's very, very tight musical empathy with Dylan. They go way back and all.

But also, he and Emmylou Harris (what a great singer) on the album Desire are a really fine duo. Oh Sister and Mozambique, really tight and satisfying dueting there...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:42 PM on December 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


"Idiot Wind," Dylan's excoriating attack on hypocrisy and
mindless stupidity.

Wait? What? I always imagined that song as a being sung to an estranged lover/wife/spouse.


When you're writing lyrics like Picasso is painting images, meanings have a way of multiplying. As an agitated sixteen year old, I had no doubt it was about politics -- the idiot wind being that thing that blew whenever the likes of Richard Nixon opened his mouth. As a heartbroken + demolished thirty year old, it was me and the ex-love of my life, two perfect idiots.

Either way, this is great ... and the first time I ever heard the song (ABC TV special - HARD RAIN)
posted by philip-random at 4:48 PM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Captain Beefheart sings Hoagy Carmichael while punching an old filing cabinet.

Actually, one of my favorite descriptions of his voice made it onto Wikipedia: "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, then hung in a smokehouse for a couple months, and then taken outside and run over with a car."

But he possibly made that kind of thing up: one of his session musicians once reported that an actual instruction Tom gave in the studio once was "play this like a midget's bar mitzvah."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:08 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Either way, this is great ... and the first time I ever heard the song

I like that new interpretation, but I never liked Howie Wyeth on drums for the Rolling Thunder Review.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:42 PM on December 17, 2012


Dylan's voice is incredibly expressive. For example, nobody conveys surly the way he did in Desolation Row with the lines,...

This is one of my favourite songs, and it tends to come around on the geetar a lot when drinking with the right folks, and those are the particular lines where a sort of feedback loop of parodic derision develops over time, getting it less right with each rendition, never having actually done it quite properly in the first place.

(I also bet that in some mouldy old Uncle Bob notebook there's a yet-unheard tune with the same drop-C-of-the-apocalypse-in-the-sense-of-revealing-ageless-resonant-noise-information tuning that features the very phrase "Zombie Bullfrog Holler".)
posted by kengraham at 7:04 PM on December 17, 2012


"And the rest is history. After that, Bob supernovaed, and now he's just a sad old prune..."

The zombie bullfrog holler, as rendered by the precarious immediate aluminum Venetian-blind shout: y'all are welcome.
posted by kengraham at 7:13 PM on December 17, 2012


His voice is the voice of a kid from Minnesota who loved and wanted to pick up and carry on from where Woody Guthrie left off.

He WAS the Woody Guthrie of the '60s and FWIW, Woody didn't exactly have a God-given beautiful voice either.

I imagine Dylan could have gone in many directions with his voice...he was young, had a great voice and was in good health. But he was a messenger and his message was often very gritty and real just like Woody's were.

Dylan had to create a vocal style that wasn't so hokey as to be dismissed, and there was a lot of hokey-ass shit going on back then...but he couldn't do a "pop" thing either.

He had to hit a middle ground. He had to stand out while at the same time sound kind of average and all-American and easy to relate to, just like Woody before him.

He nailed it when he was a kid, stuck with it and now he's an ICON. Rock it Brother Bob!
posted by snsranch at 7:33 PM on December 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


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