Monday, August 16, 2021

Hey, you sing funny

Bob Dylan (1961) • Photograph by Ted Russell

They used to call the the great jazz singer Mel Tormé, "The Velvet Fog." When Bob Dylan hit the airwaves in the early 1960's his singing voice was often mocked and ridiculed, encapsulated by the mainstream as, "The Nasally Frog."

Woody Guthrie and his slogan on his guitar,
"This Machine Kills Fascists"
Bob Dylan idolized the legendary folk singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie who had a no nonsense vocal style that was borderline monotone. Woody was about the message over the messenger. He didn't give a damn what people thought about him, he simply wrote music and let the lyrics lead the way. Dylan greatly admired this and followed his muse in much the same fashion.

In 1961, Bob visited Woody in the hospital as he was slowly dying from Huntington's Disease. In that visit Guthrie remarked, “That boy’s got a voice. Maybe he won’t make it with his writing, but he can sing it, he can really sing it.”

I've always remembered that statement because if Bob Dylan is known for anything, it's his writing and is considered one of the greatest songwriters of all-time. But what Woody was specifically referring to was the unique quality of young Dylan's voice. He wasn't just another run of the mill folk singer, Dylan was different, his vocals set him apart from other folk singers even before he wrote his famous songs.

Now when Bobby was young and coming up and singing with guitar in hand, how many times do you think he heard from some kid or even conformist adult say, "Hey, you sing funny."

Bob's heard it his whole life, but I also want to distinguish between the young Bob Dylan singing voice and NOT the older thrashed Bob Dylan singing voice. Over the decades, Bob's vocals have suffered greatly with the passage of time combined with his habitual cigarette smoking, not to mention the drugs and alcohol. Bob's not the only artist who's vocals have suffered at the hands of smoke, drugs and alcohol to go along with age, but he's probably the most visible target because of his iconic stature.

In the playlist this week, I focus on a number of artist's in their magnificent quirky vocal prime, who forged ahead and dismissed the people who said that they couldn't sing. I say, "quirky" because their atypical lead vocals broke the tradition of the pitch perfect singers on radio and records in the 1960's and 1970's, not to mention their independent personalities that set them a part from the pack.

I start with Bob Dylan because it's my opinion that his singing voice in the early 1960's is one of the pivotal moments in popular music where the listening public could dare dream of becoming a singing songwriting professional. His definitive singing voice literally kicked open the door for thousands of young people to pick up the pen, and a microphone.

Bob Dylan changed the world in two important ways. 

First, he got up on stage and sang his and other people's folk songs while constantly being made fun of and ridiculed for his singing voice. His coat of emotional armor developing as he ventured into the heart of the folk scene in Greenwich Village, New York. His stories and fabrications about himself. His shy, aloof, dismissive and defiant manner and tone wasn't just an act, it was a part of his maturation as an artist and performer.

Second, in the mid-sixties he turned the folk establishment on its ear by going electric and more than anyone, merged folk with rock 'n' roll as he was openly being booed while performing. Dylan didn't care, he was moving forward with his songs. 

So does Bob Dylan begat a Leonard Cohen or Neil Young, a Randy Newman or Willie Nelson? I think so. I got to think that these songwriters and thousands more were certainly influenced if not motivated to step up to the front mic on a stage because of Bob Dylan.

So let's take a listen to "The Quirky Ones." The one's who wrote great songs, but at first, may have not been considered worthy singers of their own written material, and the one's who's unique vocals took their body of work to an exalted place in music history.
  1. Woody Guthrie
    One day we'll all find out that all of our songs was just little notes in a great big song!

  2. Bob Dylan
    Critics have been giving me a hard time since Day One. Critics say I can’t sing. I croak. Sound like a frog. Why don’t critics say that same thing about Tom Waits? Critics say my voice is shot. That I have no voice. [Why] don’t they say those things about Leonard Cohen? Why do I get special treatment? Critics say I can’t carry a tune and I talk my way through a song. Really?

  3. Ringo Starr
    I never studied anything, really. I didn't study the drums. I joined bands and made all the mistakes onstage.

  4. Neil Young
    When you're young, you don't have any experience - you're charged up, but you're out of control. And if you're old and you're not charged up, then all you have is memories. But if you're charged and stimulated by what's going on around you, and you also have experience, you know what to appreciate and what to pass by.

  5. Janis Joplin
    Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin. Now, they are so subtle, they can milk you with two notes. They can make you feel like they told you the whole universe. But I don't know that yet. All I got now is strength. Maybe if I keep singing, maybe I'll get it.

  6. Dave Van Ronk
    I think I have more in common with a carpenter than you might think. We're putting things together.

  7. Lou Reed
    Music should come crashing out of your speakers and grab you, and the lyrics should challenge whatever preconceived notions that listener has.

  8. Ray Davies
    If I had to do my life over, I would change every single thing I have done.

  9. Leonard Cohen
    Music is the emotional life of most people.

  10. Randy Newman
    My music has a high irritation factor. I've always tried to say something. Eccentric lyrics about eccentric people. Often it was a joke. But I would plead guilty on the grounds that I prefer eccentricity to the bland.

  11. Willie Nelson
    When you hear me, you know it's me, regardless of the song.

  12. John Prine
    In my songs, I try to look through someone else's eyes, and I want to give the audience a feeling more than a message.

  13. Tom Waits
    They say that I have no hits and that I'm difficult to work with. And they say that like it's a bad thing.

  14. Bruce Springsteen
    I looked at myself, and I just said, 'Well, you know, I can sing, but I'm not the greatest singer in the world. I can play guitar very well, but I'm not the greatest guitar player in the world.' So I said, 'Well, if I'm going to project an individuality, it's going to have to be in my writing.'

  15. Patti Smith
    I had no proof that I had the stuff to be an artist, though I hungered to be one.

  16. Elvis Costello
    Maybe I just never learned my harmony part, because what everybody says sounds odd to them sounds perfectly natural to me.

  17. Chrissie Hynde
    The so-called feminist writers were disgusted with me. I did my thing, and so I guess by feminist standards I'm a feminist. That suits me fine.

  18. Mark Knopfler
    The music just tends to be a vehicle for that poetry.

  19. Iris DeMent
    For a long time I was interested in being a social worker. In a lot of ways I feel that that's all my music is, trying to help people.

  20. Leo Kottke
    I will literally open my mouth not knowing what is coming out.

  21. Bjӧrk
    The reason I do interviews is because I'm protecting my songs.

  22. Warren Zevon
    I got to be Jim Morrison a lot longer than he did.

  23. Kate Bush
    My music can be a little obscure. It does worry me that the music might be too complicated for people to take in - that they have to work too hard at it.

  24. Eddie Vedder
    I was around nine when a babysitter snuck 'Who's Next' onto the turntable. The parents were gone. The windows shook. The shelves were rattling. Rock & roll. That began an exploration into music that had soul, rebellion, aggression, affection.

  25. Lucinda Williams
    The old jazz singers or old blues singers, you always just saw them kind of sitting down and singing. They weren't worried as much about their voice sounding perfect. They would make the song kind of fit their voice.

  1. Bob Dylan Is a Great Singer (Slate)

  2. Buffalo Springfield (1966)
    "The Quirky Ones" - A good example of this is Neil Young in Buffalo Springfield in 1966 and the choice by their record company to make Young's Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing, their first single. The band also made the choice not to have Neil sing the lead, but to give that to bandmate Richey Furay. From Young's perspective, it probably added to his list of reasons he left the band after only two years. 
  3. - Quotes
  4. BrainyQuotes.Com


  1. Great topic. I can certainly relate! Kris Kristofferson and ?Ray Wylie Hubbard give me inspiration!

    1. Ken, yes two that could have easily been added to this list. Hey readers do you have more to add?

  2. One of your best blogs Doug. So we’ll written. Enjoyed the read tremendously. Fun to hear these guys in one fell swoop. Kept waiting for the Band to come on. They all qualify. And we all got used to the whiny alley cat vibe of Mick, which we all love, of course, but it’s as quirky as the next guy. Just following your suggestion, no criticism intended.

    1. Yes quirky is in the ears of the beholder. I could have made a list a mile long but stopped with my brainstorm list at 25. Ken and Paul, thanks for the comments!


Leave a comment, but please NO LINKED URLs. Thanks. And, if you do leave a link, I will delete.