Opinion

The Canadian Bob Dylan

It’s Bob Dylan‘s seventieth birthday, and we’re going to celebrate this American cultural landmark in true Canadian underdog fashion: by claiming some of the limelight for ourselves.

That’s right: the man who is arguably the greatest American songwriter, is (perhaps paradoxically) also in important ways, a kind of Canadian.

Here’s why we think Bob Dylan is one of us:

1. He’s a northern boy from a northern state, just shy of the Canadian border. There are pictures of young Robert Zimmerman playing hockey. Familiarity with the mighty Lake Superior, the long, sometimes deadly winter, and the vast boreal forest had to be formative influences for this young man who “felt like he never came from anywhere.”

2. The legendary Highway 61, that runs by Dylan’s childhood home in Hibbing, then follows the old trading routes down to the Mississipi and along its length to New Orleans, begins (or ends) in Thunder Bay. That north-south connection is of immense symbolic importance to Dylan’s work.

3. Growing up in a place defined by its northern remoteness, Dylan’s connection to the wider world was the radio; without deeply defining cultural traditions around him, he absorbed a wide swath of influences that later made their way into his songwriting. The same could be argued for his Canadian peers: Ian & Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen among them.

4. Speaking of which, all of those artists were important and lasting influences on Dylan.

Friendly rivalry with Ian Tyson was responsible for Tyson writing “Four Strong Winds” as a riposte to “Blowing in the Wind” in the Greenwich Village days. Gordon Lightfoot is Bob Dylan’s favourite songwriter. Neil Young, arguably his closest artistic contemporary, grew up in Winnipeg in a midwestern ethos similar to that of Dylan’s childhood – perhaps the reason Bob paid a spontaneous visit to Young’s childhood home a few years back.  Dylan has had important friendships with Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, too.

5. Which brings up the fact that Bob Dylan knows -and frequently draws on- Canadian material.

Dylan put Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” on his Self Portrait album, a statement in itself.  He has also frequently performed the less well-known Lightfoot tune “I’m Not Supposed to Care” live. Cohen’s most famous song, “Hallelujah,” was obscure until versions by John Cale and especially Jeff Buckley catapulted it to fame in the ’90s. Before that time, it was kept alive by Bob Dylan, as an encore in his live shows.

But it’s not just about the blockbusters: Dylan’s also covered “Canadee-i-o,” a Canadian folk song few Canadians even knew, and he’s spun songs by the likes of Canadian indie icon Ron Sexsmith on his radio show.

6. Songs and songwriting aside, one of Dylan’s biggest artistic achievements is his contribution to the creation of a sound: namely, that of folk-rock. But he didn’t do so single-handedly: by definition, he needed a band; or, to be more accurate, The Band.

The collaboration between Dylan and the former Hawks that began on Yonge Street, led to the infamous electric tour of England, and produced Music From Big Pink and The Basement Tapes, was among the most fertile in rock history.  All but one of The Band were Canadian, and the characteristic ease with which they mixed rock, country, folk, blues and soul has remained an influential element both in Dylan’s sound, and in the Canadian songwriting tradition to this day.

7. After The Band, perhaps the most important collaboration in Dylan’s career is the work he’s done with iconic Canadian producer Daniel Lanois. It can’t be coincidence that Dylan devotes a big chunk of his autobiography, Chronicles Volume One, to the process of creating his “comeback album” Oh Mercy with Lanois in New Orleans.

While most of Dylan’s most identifiable songs were recorded in the sixties and early seventies, many connaissieurs would argue that his Lanois productions, including the 1997 triple Grammy winner Time Out of Mind, are among his very best work.

There you have it: seven reasons why seventy-year-old Bob Dylan could, at the very least, pass for a Canadian.

Happy Birthday, eh Bob?

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7 comments

  1. avatar
    Paul Corby 24 May, 2011 at 15:46

    His lyrical storm of consciousness was amplified out of the “spontaneous bop prosody” of Allen Ginsberg, who came to it through that other great Canadian, Jack Kerouac. Given David’s genealogy, I am all for calling him a second-generation Canadian.

  2. avatar
    Richard Flohil 24 May, 2011 at 17:06

    OK, can’t we offer him Honorary Citizenship or something? Boy, I recall the Yorkville days when all the young singers would line up outside Sam’s on Yonge Street to get the new Dylan album the day it was released, so’s they could learn at least two songs to put in their sets that evening… More recently, my dear friend Roxanne Potvin wanted to learn a Dylan song, so she picked It’s All Right Ma I’m Only Bleeding, which is long and complex and even the chorus changes every time. Listening to her fumble her way through it, I gently suggested that Lay Lady Lay would be an easier song to perform….

  3. avatar
    Joanne Crabtree 24 May, 2011 at 20:42

    Richard, I was one of those young performers. I was on tour out west in the spring/summer of 1963 and landed in Winnipeg the day Freewheelin’ was released. I took a taxi from the airport to the record store downtown, grabbed the album, took the taxi to the Marlborough Hotel, tuned up my guitar and set about learning Bob Dylan’s Dream and Don’t Think Twice, both of which I sang in my show at the Fourth Dimension that night … without a cheat sheet. Gotta love adrenaline!

  4. avatar
    reverend ken ramsden 24 May, 2011 at 22:35

    A few decades ago, Bob Dylan met the great Toronto based Canadian bluesman named Paul James whose continued friendship and musical association has had strong influence on Bobs stage demeanour. Paul James is often a musical guest on Dylans Canadian tour dates, and yes…gentle reader…Paul James is the reason Dylan uses those rock moves on stage – copying almost to a ‘T’ JPaul James patent stance and gestures. I won’t be totally surprised if Bob soon starts playing his guitar behind his back, a trick that our Paul likes to use while playing one-handed and simultaneously quaffing a -Canadian- beer. This particular trick takes years of practice, and likely doesn’t work as well with Budweiser, so it is my opinion that if Bob Dylan wishes to learn that particular technique from Paul…he will have to move to Toronto…and become a real Canadian!

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