Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty. Three towering figures in the field of songwriting.
Not only have they influenced many others who tread down the same path as theirs, they have truly defined how songwriters embed meaning into their craft, and in turn, shaped how we view music.
Each of these songwriters possess particular traits that make their music greatly unique and even life-changing — Bob Dylan for his wide vocabulary of literary skills, Jackson Browne for his articulate reflections on human nature, and Tom Petty for his simplicity and universality. These traits are immensely valuable and could add a lot of richness to our domain of work, as long as we incorporate them in new and creative ways.
Undoubtedly, just reading this article wouldn’t do their music much justice, and neither does only reading their lyrics will. Just as plays are meant to be acted out, songs are meant to be sung, or to be listened to.
Let’s take a deeper dive into these songwriters and a few of their songs.
Bob Dylan is easily a standard of excellence for many songwriters, and there’s a very, very, very long list of professional artists who have cited him as their influence and/or have covered his songs. And not to mention, he even won the Nobel Prize in Literature back in 2016. To be really fair, it’s hard to pin down just one thing that makes Dylan’s music so good, but one of his utmost assets is his literary skills.
“Even Shakespeare pales in comparison to Bob Dylan,” said Tom Petty in an interview. Dylan is incredibly well-read in literature — This was a man who wrote a 22-page essay on John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath when he was in high school. He set out to create some of the world’s most influential songs, by integrating his solid literary knowledge into his already wide, almost second-nature repertoire of folk music.
Listening to Bob Dylan is a unique experience — It’s not like reading a book, but you get to learn a lot about life. And it’s not about merely listening to music for enticement either, because you’re soaking up every word and note, and deeply ruminating on how they make you feel and what they want you to realize. As Dylan echoed Homer in his Nobel speech, “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”
Ballad of Hollis Brown – Dylan wrote this incredibly haunting song after reading a story in a newspaper about a man who murdered his own family and committed suicide because they could no longer withstand their crippling poverty. Dylan does something amazing in this song, as he doesn’t narrate the story in the same way. Rather, he sings it in a second person narrative, thereby placing us in the protagonist, Hollis Brown’s seat.
With that, we could better empathize with Brown’s despair — We feel the same pangs of loneliness that he feels when there’s no one around to help, and we feel the same desperation as his wife and five children cry because of their excruciating hunger. Unwilling to see them suffer any longer, we stare at our shotgun, contemplating, brooding on it. Until we finally snap out of our hopelessness and fire seven thunderous shots. Even as Brown and his family has gone, the song tells us, “Somewhere in the distance there’s seven new people born” — Indicating that are many more people than we realize who suffer the same afflictions of poverty as theirs.
With God on Our Side – In this song, Dylan replicates what great writers such as Homer and Shakespeare has done, which is that he doesn’t succumb to melodrama. He doesn’t divide his characters into good and evil. Instead, he gives us a fair and wholesome picture of both sides. He invites us to visit wars such as the Spanish-American War, the American Civil War, and the First and Second World Wars, so that we could see that in all of them, both sides fought with the conviction that their cause was just, that their deeds were good. Both sides had “God on their side”.
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall – This could just be Dylan’s scariest song. It paints an apocalyptic picture of the world, and he doesn’t give clear clues as to what might have caused it — In the song’s rich trove of symbolism, for all we know, the cause could be war, racism, or other forms of crisis or injustice — And that makes the song all the more relevant as time passes. The song follows a conversation between a parent and child, as the latter laments on her observations of the world, how she had seen “a highway of diamonds with nobody on it”, heard “the song of a poet who died in the gutter”, and met “a white man who walked a black dog”.
But it’s not just the lyrics that carry a vital message. The song’s oddly repetitive structure of verse-chorus too reflects where we’re going as a society — And that is, nowhere. When we listen to the song, we’re drowned in the flood of words and desolate imagery — We lose track of where we are, and where the end could be — And that’s exactly what Dylan is trying to do. We’d think that the song would reach its climax somewhere, but Dylan gives you a verse after another.
In spite of all the bleakness, Dylan does offer some hope in the song. He reminds us of our duty as artists, which is to speak out against the darkness. Echoing Kenneth Rexroth’s quote that “Against the ruin of the world, there is only one defense — The creative act”, Dylan sings,
“I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’ ”
I first knew Jackson Browne as the musician who co-wrote one of my favorite songs, Take it Easy by the Eagles. Traveling down the rabbit hole of Browne’s music is a journey I dearly cherish, as it has certainly influenced how I write. Incredibly astute in his lyrical commentaries on the human condition, he’s a songwriter like no other. Deservedly so, his songs were covered by other artists before he even got his own record deal.
His music is also delicate in the elusive human emotions that they capture. You wouldn’t think that the private, seemingly untranslatable feelings that you experience could be put into such lucid words, until you listen to Browne. Many of his songs hit me right in the head, as I would think, “Oh my, did he just sing that out?”. Jimmy Buffett was right when he said, “The only thing that could get me through was a bottle of Perrier and a Jackson Browne album” — Well, maybe change the Perrier into a Malta or a cup of coffee, and we can get along.
These Days – This song is perhaps the best in summing up how even as a young songwriter, Jackson Browne was wise beyond his years. Believe or not, he wrote this when he was only 16. Yet, it contains lyrics that are evidently mature. “Don’t confront me with my failures,” he sings. “I had not forgotten them.” — Who else could write that when they’re a teenager?
Doctor, My Eyes – “Is this the price for learning how not to cry?,” asks Browne in this bleak yet upbeat song. He brings forth the discussion of being at the extreme end of stoicism, where one goes through hardships without feeling and processing his emotions — When such a spartan way of life has become her system, she isn’t able to feel anything when she sees the good and bad in the world. The song ends on an ambiguous note — As with in many of his songs, in a way, Browne acts as not only a poet, but a philosopher. He merely dips into an important societal problem, but without conferring any solutions, answers, or conclusions.
Running on Empty – In this song, Browne muses on how we tend to live our lives “running”, or chasing one desire after another, at the cost of losing sight of what truly matters and not being able to appreciate the present moment. Then, it would be common to find ourselves looking back at all the years that we couldn’t regain. At first, Browne thinks that he’s alone in feeling this way. Having entered the arena of musicianship at an early age, he reflects, “In ’69, I was 21, and I called the road my own. I don’t know when that road turned into the road I’m on”. But the older he gets, the more he realizes that this is in fact, a societal issue. “Look around for the friends I used to turn to to pull me through,” Browne sings, “Looking into their eyes I see them running, too.”
Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate – When Browne was working on his album The Pretender, his wife tragically committed suicide, leaving him to raise their baby boy on his own. According to Browne, this is the only song on the album that specifically dwells on the tragedy. It expresses Browne’s thoughts as he would lay awake at night, wondering where all his years had gone, how he had taken things for granted — How they had all “passed under sleep’s dark and silent gate”. I couldn’t help but picture him coming home late at night from work to find that his wife had already passed away, when I hear the lyrics, “I found my love too late”. And my eyes never fail to water when he sings, “Oh, God, this is some shape I’m in…When the only thing that makes me cry is the kindness in my baby’s eye”.
If Tom Petty were still alive, and if he were to read that I’m distilling his songs into practical lessons, he would likely disapprove it. As he once said, “I hesitate to even try to understand (songwriting), for fear that it might make it go away. It’s a spiritual thing.” But in understanding Petty, time and again he demonstrated his genius in embracing universality and simplicity in his songs, which make them lasting and endearing as they are.
Producer Jimmy Iovine remarked about Petty, that “When you catch a really great songwriter, the song is about something else, but you say, ‘That’s me’.” And that’s essentially what poetry is — You might never truly know what a poem is about, but by relating it to your own life and experiences, it becomes yours. You keep it very close at heart.
Also, if you’ve ever tried to make music before, you’d know that the hardest thing is to come up with something simple and good. It’s tempting to run up and down the scale, and creating a tune out of a complex technique. True genius lies in the commonplace. Back when rock music was turning into a sophisticated 7 minute exercise, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers brought back “rock and roll” — They brought back the swing : sparse lyrics and straightforward instrumentals that you could sing and dance to. A slogan they jokingly held on to was, “Don’t bore us. Get to the chorus.”
American Girl – This song has one of the most highly anticipated intros in rock music — Dual guitars, a classic Bo Diddley beat, and a sleek bass part. The vocals chime in, and Petty sings about a character and her lust for adventure — But it’s really the story of all of us. We all have a desire to explore uncharted vistas in our lives, to accumulate new experiences outside our usual comfort zone. Sometimes we might find that such adventures are worth going through. But in the case of the American Girl, it wasn’t. Because she learns that nothing external could compensate for the emptiness that she feels on the inside. As the lyrics go, “God, it’s so painful, when something that is so close, is still so far out of reach.”
Even the Losers – In an interview, Petty reflected that it’s uncommon to hear songs about topics such as friendship, that most of the songs that he was aware of were about how tough the performers were. Well, being tough is to be able to discuss tender topics, and to embrace life, especially in its ugliness.
This song is written about a date that Petty had, who only liked him for one night. “Well even the losers get lucky sometimes,” he sings. This song shows how Petty’s universality could penetrate into a deeper, more vulnerable part of our hearts. Because he sings about the losers, the misfits, the rebels, and mess-ups. Everyone has felt that way about themselves at some point, and Petty certainly doesn’t pretend that he hasn’t. He embraces it as a good and unconventionally comforting story to tell his listeners.
Runnin’ Down a Dream – One of the hallmarks of a great song is that you can remember the time and place, and the feeling in your mind and heart when you first listened to it. This song was my first encounter with Tom Petty’s music, and I was in the early primary school years of my childhood, playing Grand Theft Auto : San Andreas on my PS2. I could immediately call up memories of driving across the game’s map, with this song playing on the in-game radio. And now, as a 22 year old, I’d always play this song when I’m driving a real car, and it still makes me wish that I could listen to it for the first time again.
I Won’t Back Down – I’ve mentioned this song in numerous articles that I’ve written, because it’s my favorite — In the truest sense of the word. I find myself listening to it on repeat every day. If you were to be a little cynical about the song, it really might not seem like much. The lyrics are super direct, it’s just 3 minutes long, and it only makes use of the four chords every beginner guitar player should know. But it gives me a tremendous amount hope over my own struggles, because I know the words that Petty sings are true and honest.
The song was written as a way for him to outgrow his trauma, after his home was burned down by an arsonist while he and his family were inside. In writing it, Petty did what T.S. Eliot advised on making great poetry, which is to “transmute his personal and private agonies into something rich and strange, universal and impersonal”. From his own struggles, he made a song that we can now call ours, as we fill it with our own personal meaning.
So, a huge thank you to you, Mr. Petty, for changing my life, as you’ve done for so many other people that you never had the chance to know.
Believe in What You Make
As it was for just about everybody, the beginning stages of COVID-19 and the Movement Control Order were a pretty demoralizing experience. After all, there was a very real fear of not knowing what tomorrow would look like, and what other unforeseen circumstances might further unfurl. Above everything, I sorely missed being in the dear city I was born and raised in, which is one of my primary sources of comfort to turn to.
One of my lecturers checked in to see if I was doing okay. In response, I wrote what I thought was just a simple email about how I was coping with quarantine. I didn’t get a reply after that, so I guess that was just that.
A few weeks later when we conversed in her virtual class, she could tell that I wasn’t quite alright. So she asked me again how I was doing. I replied, “I’m feeling down for now, but I’m gonna be okay.”
“Hey, remember the email you wrote me?,” she said. “I don’t know about you, but what you wrote was really special. It certainly motivated me to go about my own life during this tough time.”
“That little email? That was nothing,” I thought.
“Well, maybe you should go back and give it a read,” she said.
When we’re dedicating ourselves to our work, sometimes it can be hard to see the value that it brings to other people’s lives. Because in our eyes, it’s a normal thing. And of course, we are well acquainted with the process of making it, and we know that it’s not as romantic as some people might imagine when they see the final outcome of it. But in a way, that leads us to take our craft and ourselves a little for granted.
Your words, and your work, truly are important. And it’s worth keeping that in mind, especially when you feel any ounce of doubt seeping in.
Like these three great songwriters we’ve discussed, though they did approach their work with humility, they always believed in the gift that they had to offer. Dylan famously refuted claims that he was poet, saying that “Poets don’t drive cars, poet’s don’t go to the supermarket,” or that they “die broke” or “drown in lakes”. But in his love for his craft, he did say that “The highest purpose of art is to inspire”.
Surely, your art can garner you recognition, or even make history. But really, what’s most satisfying is knowing that you’re making a difference in a person’s individual life. That’s the real sweetness that artists look for in their work. As Jackson Browne sings in Running on Empty, “If it takes all night, that’ll be alright. If I can get you to smile before I leave.”
What my lecturer said to me that day reminded me that I’m often critical to none other than myself, and there’s really no harm in telling good things about yourself and your work to yourself. In fact, it gives you the much-needed confidence and self-esteem to carry on.
Since then, I decided to compile emails and messages that I get from people telling me how they love my work. It’s not to brag, but to remind myself that my words are truly making a difference, and that they’re worth all the agony and sweat at the end of the day.
And while we obviously will not live forever, our work and its value will live longer than we do. So take pride in that.
“It always feels good to finish an album,” said Tom Petty. “Because I’ve done it long enough to know these things are gonna be around longer than me…That’s what’s so great about music and composing : Something that wasn’t there a few minutes ago is here. And it could be here longer than you.”