Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love: The Funniest Bob Dylan Songs
Bob Dylan's songs have the capacity to move mountains, collapse walls, open up landscapes, light up the night sky, illuminate history, and tell stories. Like any good storyteller, Bob can tell a joke.
Certainly, songs that feature Bob trying on new musical suits could be seen as funny: In "Three Angels" Bob sounds like he's playing a character in a scat band. "If Dogs Run Free" is kinda ridiculous idea all the way through, as Bob sounds like a stoned poet who's trailed by a lazy band. Lastly, in "Brownsville Girl" Bob's singing makes me laugh every time. It could be the extra vocal emphasis he puts into this nearly spoken word tune. Of course, this is all preceded by Dylan's press conferences:
Earlier in his career, when Bob was bustling with the bohemian folk energy of Greenwich Village, his jokes were witty, political, and right out there in front of the audience. Some of these early jokes were like Shakespearian comedies, as Bob tap danced like a court jester in front of the public.
Songs from this era: "Bear Mountain Picnic" recounts a group of city dwellers who head out to the country only to fund the boat that takes them there starts to sink. "I Shall be Free" is a drunken, folkie tune that is equal parts mischievous and a celebration of reckless youth. Even the harmonica sounds like it's laughing. "Motorpsycho Nightmare" is a jaunt through the country about winning over a conservative father during the courtship of his daughter.
Bob kept the laugh lines moving through his years, churning out tunes full of hallucinatory wit and absurdist humor during his "wild thin mercury" years in the mid 1960s. I notice a detachable absence of humor in his songs in the hard rain years of the 1970s and 80s. Perhaps it was then that he felt he was surviving in a ruthless world. This is not to suggest that no humor could be found at all in this 20 year span, it is just less emphasized. For example, "Idiot Wind" is probably more bitter than funny.
Some more songs: "Maggie's Farm" reminds me of "Motorpsycho Nightmare" not only musically, but content wise. Sure, the farm might be a metaphor but it's much more fun to imagine this song as a literal description of why living somewhere is downright miserable. Bob high tails outta the farm like he's a cartoon character with his pants on fire. "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat" features Bob coming up with ridiculous excuses on why he wants to leave a relationship. We know, truthfully, that Bob can't face or reveal the actual answer so he pins a put down on an item of extravagant clothing.
In his later career, Bob hasn't minded if the joke was on him. Often, before concerts, he is introduced as "Columbia recording artist and voice of a generation". Here, Bob is playing with the the press declarations the press has given him. In many ways, this is not only funny but true, as I don't think the media as a while has moved on from their image of Bob as a 60's protest song troubadour. He's been winding and grinding, a grin on his face, and a true joy expressed in his performances.
Songs from this era: "Highlands" is a 17 minute laugh track. Viewed in a certain light, this song is like a modern day sitcom: Bob tries to draw a waitress in a restaurant on a napkin, she doesn't like it, he can't decide what to order, he's out of touch with the modern world, and he continues to wander the streets of Boston. He pokes fun at his own legacy in "I Feel a Change Coming On", claiming that he's got the "blood of the land in his voice". Bob's also dismayed to see that his "baby's coming/ she's walking with the village beast".
He ain't no monkey but he knows what he likes.