Listening to Bob Dylan

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Pub Date 14 Sep 2021 | Archive Date 01 Dec 2021

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Venerated for his lyrics, Bob Dylan in fact is a songwriting musician with a unique mastery of merging his words with music and performance. Larry Starr cuts through pretention and myth to provide a refreshingly holistic appreciation of Dylan's music. Ranging from celebrated classics to less familiar compositions, Starr invites readers to reinvigorate their listening experiences by sharing his own—sometimes approaching a song from a fresh perspective, sometimes reeling in surprise at discoveries found in well-known favorites. Starr breaks down often-overlooked aspects of the works, from Dylan's many vocal styles to his evocative harmonica playing to his choices as a composer. The result is a guide that allows listeners to follow their own passionate love of music into hearing these songs—and personal favorites—in new ways.

Reader-friendly and revealing, Listening to Bob Dylan encourages hardcore fans and Dylan-curious seekers alike to rediscover the music legend.

Venerated for his lyrics, Bob Dylan in fact is a songwriting musician with a unique mastery of merging his words with music and performance. Larry Starr cuts through pretention and myth to provide a...

Advance Praise

“In this fresh and expansive book, Starr invites us to reach beyond the Nobel-winning lyrics and finally hear the brilliance of Dylan's work as a performer, arranger, composer, and vocal stylist. Each chapter is a lively, accessible masterclass that will make you return again to even the most familiar songs with a sense of wonder and surprise.”--Sean Latham, editor of The World of Bob Dylan

“Larry Starr’s Listening to Bob Dylan is a refreshing addition to the ever-growing literature about Bob Dylan. Unlike most books on the subject, which tend toward extensive biography, exhaustive lyrical analysis, or trivia-based one-upmanship, Starr takes a relatively novel tack: he approaches Dylan as a musician. Drawing upon his decades of popular music study and pedagogy, Starr deftly navigates Dylan’s six-decade career in a manner that is both informative and accessible, but most of all it is a pure joy to read.”--Mark A. Davidson, Archives Director, The Bob Dylan Archive

“In this fresh and expansive book, Starr invites us to reach beyond the Nobel-winning lyrics and finally hear the brilliance of Dylan's work as a performer, arranger, composer, and vocal stylist...

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ISBN 9780252086021
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Featured Reviews

I enjoyed reading this a lot, the author really showed the genius of Bob Dylan. I have always been impressed with Dylan's lyrics but this book showed me that Dylan is just as masterful at using the music to tell his stories. The parts on his voice and his use of harmonica were particularly good.

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As a fan who has seen Dylan live in concert 4 times over the last 4 decades, after reading this book I consider myself a novice. So unless you have an already deep appreciation for Dylan, you may struggle to get through this work. For me, I never knew there were so many angles with which to consider Dylan's catalog. When does the harmonica come in? What is it paired with? Is it in response to lyrics? What kind of poetry does Dylan use? What tone - is he crooning or using rhythm to drive home a point? Rhythm in general, back-ground vocals, minor key, song structure? So many ways to analyze Dylan's music and make observation of the changes over the years. The best way to read this book is with a streaming service (or the real thing) at hand to listen about the tune you are reading about and learning from. So go deep, learn new observations and start listening to Bob Dylan. This book is scheduled for a September 14, 2021 release. An advance digital copy was made available in exchange for a review without any obligation of favorable summary.

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In this book, the author reviews the studio albums of Bob Dylan with relevant asides to concerts and published lyrics, etc. The focus is on instrumentation (harmonica and guitar mostly), vocal styles, lyrical content and music theory. The music theory part is accessible to the non-musician fan and illustrative of the development of Dylan's style and song structure. This guided listening surveys the Dylan discography all the way to Rough And Rowdy Ways (2020). We live at a time when anyone can use a streaming service or some digital platform can take in this discography without time-consuming retail searching. For anyone already familiar or looking to explore the Dylan songbook, this is a thorough, enthusiastic, and enlightening framework to approach that impressive body of work.

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I have read numerous books on Bob Dylan. He is an important part of the landscape that is America in the 20th-21st century. For many he is a complete enigma. This book helps the reader (listener) navigate Dylan’s body of work and come out with a deeper understanding of and appreciation for this master’s contributions to the world in which w live.

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Listening to Bob Dylan
by Larry Starr Emeritus Professor of Music History
Published by University of Illinois Press. Non –fiction.

Bob Dylan’s six-decade career is easily in the same Pop-Cultural league as Elvis Presley - in terms of him being universally well known and ridiculously talented.
This singer-songwriter, author and visual artist does have one up on Elvis - Bob scored a well deserved Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition".

This fantastic new look at Dylan's music is a very clever, but in no way pretentious book. Every moment you read this book is a continuous expansion of interesting Bob musical knowledge and it's quite addictive. One of Dylan's favourite novels is 'Moby Dick' by Herman Melville, interestingly this book is also about a quest to capture a moment with a Titian, but there are no harpoons called for here, only headphones.

Professor Starr describes Dylan as a musical shapeshifter, as he explores the singer's many voices and ways of expressing himself through song. Then the reader travels through detailed chapters on the iconic Dylan harmonica, the famous acoustic to electric moment and explorations of his structural compositions in the genres of Folk, Rock and Blues.

Bob's lifelong passion for performing live and his clever myriad of growling and eccentric vocal manipulations, which includes silence as a powerful space in his songs, are vibrant reading. This book is not a list of tour dates, birth dates, session times or album titles – it's a book that encourages you to listen to the songs with fresh ears and enjoy these powerful Nobel Prize-worthy and important songs in all their layered glory.

Miranda, Y reviewer.

4 stars.

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This is quite an astonishing book. As a teenager in the 1960s, I grew up with a backdrop of Dylan’s early work as part of my musical likes. I bought a few of his albums, I enjoyed his clever lyrics and protests but I didn’t give his work much further thought. I confess surprise to his Nobel award, but this book has given me an insight into a comp,ex works of lyric, rhythm, musical structure and much more that I’d never considered.

Some parts for lay reader are quite detailed, but very rewarding. I have half a dozen albums on my iPod and the beauty of this exploration of his work is that it’s regenerated my interest in his songs and I’ve listened to them in a way that I haven’t done before. Ive gained so much and learned a great deal along the way.

Larry Starr writes with an engaging energy which draws the reader in to the subject and even some of the more complex ideas are explained well. Overall, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this and I’m revisiting numerous tracks with a totally fresh ear. Who knew that harmonica phrasing could be so crucial!

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy via Netgalley.

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Listening to Bob Dylan
author: Larry Starr
University of Illinois Press

Starr shares his love, knowledge, and impressions of Bob Dylan's musical talents in this comprehensive book showcasing Dylan as a vocalist, instrumentalist, songwriter, and composer. Larry Starr, emeritus professor of music history at the University of Washington, has taught courses on the topic of popular music all through his career in academics. The book is detailed, well researched and reflective of Starr's deep connections to Dylan's music.
The topic of Bob Dylan's musicianship is the central focus, as Starr delves into the variety and evolvement of his musical styles as a folksinger, bluesman, rocker, and also crooner. Starr's writing is detailed and deep as he covers Dylan's lyrics, musical compositions, arrangements, and performances. He examines his live performances, albums, and musical instruments including interesting and enlightening thoughts on his harmonica playing.
Music lovers will appreciate Starr's inclusion on aspects of rhythm, pitch, melody and harmony. Having heard Bob Dylan live in concert twice, I have gained greater insight into his musicianship from Starr's excellent new book.
Thank you to Net Galley and University of Illinois Press for the advance reader's copy and opportunity to provide my unbiased review.
#ListeningtoBobDylan #NetGalley

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When I see a new Dylan book on the market, I can’t resist. It’s why I’ve been to see the bard of Duluth cough 25 times cough. The same way I can’t resist his concerts and most importantly his music. I love him as an artist.

Another Dylan book, I hear you say. What can it possibly say that isn’t contained in any of the books on the shelf pictured (there’s also a few titles missing)? This one is about ‘musical appreciation’ though, as the author explains, it’s as much about gratitude for the mans art. And this book is an especially welcome release so soon after Dylan’s excellent ‘Shadow Kingdom - the early songs of Bob Dylan’ performance where he re-interpreted some of his classic repertoire (though as a curveball he did give us one from 1989).

One of the earlier sections focuses on Dylans various vocal identities - he’s a Gospel singing, blues singing, country crooning rock folksinger, as we all know. There’s so many different voices, and I did enjoy this. How he uses his harmonica was another interesting chapter.

The parts I didn’t particularly find interesting were those that were completely over my head as a non musician. Sliding Scales, musical forms, minor and major keys - completely at sea with these. No matter how hard I tried, my eyes glazed over and I hurried through some of these passages, which are described in quite academic terms, though I should say the author goes out of his way to remove presumption in using these terms - technical terms are explained in context. Something I did do however, which really helped throughout the book, was play the song in question, to help with my understanding - we all have ears, after all I really enjoyed the fact that the book is up to date - it even references Dylan’s most recent album, the excellent ‘Rough and Rowdy ways.’ I think unfortunately I just don’t have enough of a technical appreciation of the nuts and bolts of composition to understand this. If you are a musician and do know something of these terms, I suspect you’ll enjoy these sections. It’s my loss, but I hope at a later date to return to some of these sections, take them slowly and try to appreciate them a bit more.

There’s so much for the Dylan fan to appreciate in this book and many will no doubt lap it up. From his use of female backing singers, instrumentation, strumming versus finger picking, and one of my particular favourites, Dylan’s use of the Oom Pa Pa waltz beat.

The best section for me was the final one, and the reason I love Dylan so much - a focus on the artist as a live performer. Recently there’s been a law of diminishing returns when it comes to Dylan live, as his sets have become fairly stable on tour. Gone are the days when setlist constantly changed and you could hear a song performed completely differently on two successive nights (it may even have went from a rocker to an Oom Pa Pa waltz). There was always something astonishing about hearing Dylan playing with these songs - it felt like they are in a constant state of flux. It must be like watching Picasso paint. There is no finished form. Larry Starr really shines here, documenting the musical shape shifter, and it took me an age to finish this chapter, as I played the different versions whilst reading. With a drink (I started out with Burgundy, but didn’t hit the harder stuff.) Perfect for the Dylan fanatic. Three different version of ‘You’re a big girl now’, how his phrasing changes, the performance of a love song in public on the ‘Hard Rain’ album. Fascinating stuff. And just to finish, a look at a number of songs in their totality - in terms of lyrics, composition, performance and arrangement. Like I say, my favourite section and it took me a very enjoyable evening to work my way through them.

Some of this book was over my head, not the authors fault. I felt like the author displays a deep understanding of Dylan and it comes across as a meticulously reseached book. It’s probably not for the casual fan, but I don’t think it’s aimed at them. If it seems serious, it’s because the study of Dylan’s work is a serious field, as shown by my bookshelf. I’ve certainly read books on the subject that have been more reverential. I found much to enjoy in it and if you’re a big Dylan fan, you will too. A lot of Dylan books are reference books, for fans to lift when they need to - or they can read straight through, like I did with this one. I will purchase a hard copy as it’s another addition to my Dylan library that I will no doubt reach for in the future.

Thank you to Netgalley for the ARC

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A different approach to the usual biographies or college theses. The author looks at Dylan as a musician and as the greatest living U.S. musical historian (musicologist?). Starr digs deep into this area. He also considers arrangement skills, musicianship, reinvention of his own songs and of course, the lyrics. Interesting book.

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Larry Starr, emeritus professor of music history at the University of Washington, has written a thoughtful and though-provoking book on the music and lyrics of Bob Dylan. I enjoyed the book but realised some time into it that I was having a hard time distinguishing the theme of one chapter from another. What he does is to write about Dylan's songs; he is not interested in Dylan's personal life or biography, only in the songs, and he directs us to some of the surprising things about them, making us hear them afresh.

Here he is on Like a Rolling Stone: "In terms of both music and lyrics, the opening idea could have ended with "in your prime." With "didn't you?" that opening idea becomes a question rather than a statement, and the melody line is left hanging in the air just as the aggressive question in the lyrics aims a metaphoric poison arrow."

Personally I enjoy picking the songs apart, and I also like the combination of musical and lyrical comment; some studies focus overly on the words, missing out much of what makes Dylan a great songwriter and performer. I also like the freshness of the content: Starr spends some time on Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan's latest album, and is by no means stuck in the sixties and seventies.

I like the songs he chooses and enjoy the commentary, but I did find the book just a little meandering (it is not a long book, only 128 pages or so). There is a chapter on Bob Dylan in Live Performance that I wish were longer; my own view is that Dylan is a performer by nature and even the studio songs are an effort to catch a fleeting moment when musicians, Dylan's singing, and the songs themselves, come together like magic.

If you liked Michael Gray's Song and Dance Man you will probably like this: Starr's approach has a lot in common with Gray's though Starr is more up to date. If you are the kind of person who just wants to enjoy the music and not think about it too much, the book is likely not for you!

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An in-depth look at Bob Dylan, the singer, composer, arranger, performer, musician etc. The author has written an easy to read look at all aspects of Bob Dylan’s music from all parts of his career. Chapters range from his singing styles, the use of harmonica, song construction, instrumentation and performances. I enjoyed it most when I knew the song well, if I didn’t know it, I went and listened to it! Definitely an interesting read.

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