Elston Gunn, or Bob Dylan, is unarguably the best songwriter of all time. Now, in my mind I finish the post here, however, after having a related conversation with my dad recently I have more to say (later).
A question first: do you know how many songs Bob Dylan has written?…it’s almost like that jelly bean guessing game except I’m not going to give you a jar of Bob Dylan tracks if you guess right.
The answer? 1,437,998.
I actually have no idea how many tracks Dylan has written, nor does it matter. Which brings me to my real question: what is Bob Dylan’s best written song?
The answer for me: Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream. (listen carefully).
This track can be found seven tunes deep on his 1965 classic Bringing It All Back Home along with other notable tunes such as Maggie’s Farm, Subterranean Homesick Blues and It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. What distinguishes it from the rest is the narration of what seems to be a dream Dylan has had.
” ‘I think I’ll call it America’ I said as we hit land. I took a deep breath, I fell down, I could not stand. Captain Arab he started writing up some deeds, he said, ‘Let’s set up a fort and start buying a place with beads.’ Just then this cop comes down the street crazy as a loon, he throw us all in jail for carryin’ harpoons.”
The song begins in a foreshadowing moment for Dylan as he strums an acoustic guitar (something he did famously in his earlier years) before stopping and laughing about something us as listeners never really find out. When he resumes moments later the song is no longer acoustic, but electric, which ironically mimics his legendary change from acoustic style to electric the same year (’65). That’s my guess as to why he was laughing.
From what I have seen in his biography, Dylan is very well read. So it is no surprise that within the song’s lyrics are a few familiar references from the book “Moby Dick”, including Captain Arab (Ahab from Moby Dick), a whale and a crew carrying harpoons. The rest of lyrics seem to spew from Dylan’s brain in a nonsensical whirlwind, describing things that could only occur in one’s mind. Here is an example using my favorite stretch of lyrics:
“Well the last I heard of Arab he was stuck on a whale, that was married to the deputy sheriff of the jail. But the funniest thing was when I was leavin’ a bay, I saw three ships sailin’ they were all heading my way. I asked the captain what his name was, and why he didn’t drive a truck. He said his name was Columbus and I just said ‘good luck’.”
In retrospect, I also don’t know if the song is supposed to make sense to anyone but Dylan (if that). I do know that in a sea of songs all written and sung the same way perhaps writing songs using a different part of your brain is the key to truly great song writing.
((By no means is this a clear cut victor in the almost bottomless pit of Bob Dylan’s catalogue, so I encourage anyone interested in Dylan’s writing and delivery to keep listening. Start with songs from his classic albums: Highway 61 Revisited, Blood on the Tracks and Blonde on Blonde.))