This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #334: Subterranean Homesick Blues by Bob Dylan.
“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”……Abso-flippin’-lutely!
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” by Bob Dylan is a fantastic song in many respects. It was released in 1965. At that moment in US history, the Times were definitely a-changing. There was a growing sense of unease among many; especially, young people, about having blind faith in government officials, big business, etc., to act as stewards for democracy and the American way of life. Young people began to become “radicalized”; looking for new ways of living with each other, new ways of seeing the world (increasingly, through mind-altering chemicals) and, more than anything else, questioning the right of “the establishment” to exist as they presently did. It was a time of protest and challenges to authority that was captured perfectly by Bob Dylan in “Subterranean Homesick Blues”.
“Johnny’s in the basement,
mixing up the medicine,
I’m on the pavement,
thinking about the government.”
It was, also, a time where Bob Dylan was challenging convention
. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was released on an album called, “Bringing It All Back Home”. What was revolutionary about this album for Dylan (who was already a well known folk/protest singer) was that the entirety of Side #1 of the album were songs backed by an electric rock band. Dylan “going electric” was met with a swift backlash from within the Folk Community. But, Dylan was nothing, if not a forward thinker. He realized that Music, as a idea, was a nebulous, ever-changing, living and breathing entity and, as such, submitting to the arbitrary dictates of society went against the very foundation of musical expression, itself. So, he introduced electric guitars to his inventory of musical skills and, by doing so, invited others to do the same. Thus, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is noteworthy, not just for the content of its lyrics but, also, for the way it broadened the scope of what was musically acceptable in the US at that time.
The song title, itself, comes from a story by Beat poet and author, Jack Kerouac called, “The Subterraneans”. At the time, Dylan was influenced by the Beat Poets such as Kerouac, Allan Ginseberg and so on. The Beat Poets often wrote in short sentences and phrases, using a stream-of consciousness-style of expression. As a writer wannabee, I love the lyrics in this song. Dylan is not just writing mere words here. He has constructed the lyrics and, in particular, the rhyming scheme in an, almost, Shakespearean manner. If you can recall from your High school English classes, William Shakespeare often wrote in a style called “Iambic Pentameter”. Without going into great detail, iambic pentameter is a way of structuring the words contained in verses of a song or poem, lines of dialogue in Drama, etc., in such a way that it results in a certain cadence coming forth when spoken aloud. If you listen carefully to the lyrics to this song, you will quickly detect the sing-songy rhythm. However, the rhyming scheme does not follow the traditional A-A, B-B or A-B, A-B style of rhyming that we are used to. Instead, Dylan has structured his song so that, sometimes, the rhymes come close together, sometimes, they are separated by several lines, sometimes they are at the end of a line, sometimes they occur in the middle but, always, always, always…. they come together to unify the verse and/or thought that he is expressing at the moment. This is an extraordinary feat of writing; with the end result being, an entire song comprised of very short phrases and sentences that weave in and out of each other, like a formal tapestry. Because of the shortness of the lines and the cadence that results, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is often hailed as being the very first Hip-Hop song! If you take a moment and look at any popular, classic Hip-Hop song, you will note a lot of similarities in writing style between it and what Dylan did. Bob Dylan may be a skinny white dude with a nasal voice but, truth be told, he may just have been the original rapper!
The final thing I wish to say about “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is that the video that accompanied the song is famous, too. Back in 1965, there were no such things as music videos. The Beatles and Elvis were just starting to experiment with the making of movie musicals but, neither produced stand-alone videos to support their songs. The video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is one of the very first pure music videos ever! It was made as part of a movie being shot about Dylan’s concert tour. In the background of the video, Beat Poet Allan GInsberg can be seen hanging around.
There is so much to say about the importance of Bob Dylan to Modern Music. I feel that this post is barely scratching the surface. But, if it helps inspire you to check out more of his work then, it will have been a worthwhile endeavour. For now, I will leave you with one of the first Hip Hop songs ever, one of the first music videos ever and one of the first songs of Bob Dylan’s “electric period”, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” by Bob Dylan, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Bob Dylan, can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for continually supporting the best that music has to offer. A link to their wonderful website can be found here.