Bob Dylan’s 40 best songs

As chosen by famous fans, Dylan associates and Uncut writers

Trending Now

PJ Harvey, Tom Petty, Idles and more star in the new Uncut

In this issue, John Fogerty talks about the influence that one of his favourite bands had on Creedence Clearwater...

Toots Hibbert: “Believe in what you believe in”

The Maytals frontman has passed away, aged 77. Here's one of his last interviews

Introducing the Ultimate Music Guide to the Grateful Dead

Meeting your heroes can be disappointing. As you’ll read in our new Ultimate Music Guide, when Melody Maker’s Steve...

The 10th Uncut New Music Playlist Of 2020

William Tyler, New Order, Todd Rundgren, Gwenifer Raymond and much more

16 The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll
From The Times They Are A-Changin’ (January 1964)

TOM WAITS: I love the way he tells the tale – it’s such a poignant story taken from newspaper headlines. That’s what Woody Guthrie always said you should be able to do, sit down with a newspaper and write a song in the morning, no sweat. I remember hearing the song for the first time and thinking it was incredible how much detail he’d got in, not knowing id it was invented or taken from history. I was mystified by it and of course later I realised that it is something you can do, take a news story and make it sing. Dylan is really a planet to be explored – for a songwriter, he’s like a hammer and saw is for a carpenter. He’s the real teacher – if you want to write songs, he’s the best person to listen to. He’s the source of a lot of things and he carries a lot of history with him. A lot of times you are exposed to him, you get this weird feeling there’s a lot of the past in him. But there’s a lot of the future there, too.


JEFF TWEEDY: It’s probably one of the more direct comments on society that Dylan’s ever made, oddly enough. Most of his other supposed protest music is cloaked in ambiguities but this is very direct storytelling, and even though the subject matter is so heavy, there’s a lightness to his wordplay and language that makes the story tolerable to hear.

PAUL BURCH: I like this just as a piece of writing. Compared to his folk contemporaries, it’s a real groundbreaking song in terms of the modern folk song. He wrote that when the news was still fresh. He named names – the man that did it, the woman that died, where and when. And people like Phil Ochs and Joan Baez never did that. They always did it in the third person. This is almost like a defence attorney standing up and delivering. At the time, Dylan was really the first American songwriting hero who was singing and performing his own songs, had an aggressive manager and was appearing on television. He was supposed to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, singing something they wouldn’t let him sing, so he just walked off. There was no folk singer like that. Certainly Pete Seeger didn’t have that kind of impact. He was the first folk-singing rock star. It was before The Beatles and all that stuff. As far as getting people’s attention as a songwriter, he had it. To be a great writer, you have to write something that goes beyond you from the moment you sing. You can’t just write something to impress people just because you did it. Anybody can sing this song at any time, and the people who killed that woman are going to forever live in infamy because of that song. It’s saying that this white man clubbed this woman to death and got away with it because he’s white and this is the USA. And Dylan is still the only singular songwriter of that or this generation who’s come out and said that stuff, without couching it somehow.

GRANT-LEE PHILLIPS: This deals with racial injustice and the immunity of the wealthy. I sat down one summer day years ago with a used vinyl copy of this album (The Times Are A-Changin’) and I really don’t think I’ve been the same since. I can remember it as if it were a moment ago. It strikes me that there are pieces of art, there are certain songs and certain things that are made by people which will flow through our lives and make their presence known to be discarded or simply rejected. But “Hattie Carroll” is like some dark American secret that refuses to subside. It’s a ghost that beckons the truth to be known. The depiction of her life in a few effortless strokes, her untimely demise and the dramatic way in which the court of mankind falls short of wisdom is all conveyed in this early masterpiece.

ROBYN HITCHCOCK: It’s a shame nobody can write songs like this now, because it’s such a strong pitcure of injustice. By the time it gets round to the punchline and William Zanzinger ends up getting a six-month sentence, the anger is almost unbearable. It’s a great example of Dylan the storyteller, which he lost as his stuff became more kaleidoscopic.

MARTIN CARTHY: I saw him play at Royal Festival Hall in 1964. It was undoubtedly the most amazing experience of my life up until then.



15 Mr Tambourine Man
From Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965)

PETE WYLIE: I heard The Byrds’ version first. They did a fantastic re-shaping of it and also brought out part of the truth of what he was on about, whatever the truth is. Was it that early psychedelic mysticism – or was he just talking about some knobhead with a tambourine? I don’t care. Dylan’s version seems so simple, he’s not trying to make it pretty but it’s really freaky because of that.

ADAM SWEETING: The Byrds’ star-spangled treatment was hugely influential in bringing the wondrousness of Bob to a broader public, but it only told half the story. Dylan’s version was from the acoustic side of Bringing It All Back Home, though it featured Bruce Langhorne’s wistful electric picking. The kaleidoscopic swirl of the lyric was so overwhelming that any extra instrumentation would have been criminally superfluous. If there was a single song that established Dylan’s reputation as a musical poet, this would have to be prime candidate, a blinding feat of wordsmithery that seemed to encompass dream, memory, ancestral history and science fiction. And Bob claims drugs had nothing to do with it.

LEE RANALDO: It coulda been “It’s Alright Ma . . .” or “Gates Of Eden” or “Baby Blue” off the Bringing It All Back Home album just as easily, but somehow it just has to be this one. It rolls all the marvellous lyrical imagery up into the ultimate minstrel song. I’ve a version of this from the ’66 tour, in Australia, that personifies it perfectly: Bob’s voice doesn’t so much sound ‘on drugs’ as evoke the feel of being on drugs, And the harp solo at the end goes on forever, holding long on one ultimate note, like a minimalist done piece. Fantastic!!

COLIN MacINTYRE: I love the way he hangs onto the melody, but never indulgently. Even when the chords change, he hangs on to the notes, something I think Thom Yorke does brilliantly as well. They’re two totally different songwriters, you would imagine, but there are common links. Also the way his voice dips, it’s music to my ears. I’ve never understood criticisms of his voice.

KELLY JOE PHELPS: He’s great at creating word images – like a great poet or novelist, he has a special way of smashing words together to create a feeling more than intellectual sensibility. He brings you to a particular space. “Mr Tambourine Man” is one of those songs where I’m walking through the store, and all of a sudden it’s in my head. It’s comforting. It’s like remembering something from when you were a child. It makes me very happy. It’s a great melody, and maybe what I like most about it is that it was destined to be a classic folk song, which is damn near impossible to write now. At the same time, he kept coming up with wonderful, simple melodies which made them feel like classic folk, but he played with the phrasing, both in meter and vocally, so he got a tension and release that folk songs don’t. It’s a fantastic piece of music. I was in Milan a couple of weeks ago with a friend, at two or three in the morning. And so we step in his car, and he puts on Bringing It All Back Home, and we pull up at the hotel just as “Mr Tambourine Man” starts, and he turns of the engine and pulls down the window, and we just sit there, and neither of us says a word all the way through. And I said, “That is a FUCKING SONG,” and he said it back.

ROBERT FORSTER: It’s all about freedom without mentioning freedom. All those images are gorgeous – hand waving, the windy beach, it’s very mid-Sixties and it sums up that period like no other song.

CARL HIAASEN: I first heard it when The Byrds recorded it, then I went back obviously and heard the Dylan version of it. It was one of the first songs I can remember being hooked on, listening to it on the radio in the old days. It was so distinct. Everybody was singing it and everybody was playing it. I have that recollection of being part of that time, in the Sixties, it just fit so perfectly.

PAUL BURCH: Some beautiful lines in it and it gave birth to The Byrds, which is worth it in itself. Really lyrically inspired with some great guitar on it. It’s one of those songs that you think you know, but when you listen to it again purely as a piece of music, it’s just beautiful.

DAN BERN: It sounds like he’ll never get old.


14 She Belongs To Me
From Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965)

JACKIE LEVEN: “She Belongs To Me” and “Like A Rolling Stone” were on the jukebox when I was in my mid-teens in Kirkcaldy, Fife. This was the jukebox in the harbour cafe where you’d always go and wait for your bus. They just sounded so great and driving – those two and [Them’s] “Gloria” and “Baby Please Don’t Go” – were the big ones to play, while all the young mothers, smoking with their babies, were ruined because they just wanted to hear The Walker Brothers. It was our way of standing out. If you put it on in a pub, it immediately put you in a coterie of like-minded geezers, which was really important back then because you found yourself talking to guys who in no other way would you talk to, mainly because they were either Catholic or Protestant. Which was a sign of how stupid it could be those days.

PAUL BURCH: He’s singing great. It’s also a new kind of love song. In pop music at that time, I think Tony Bennett had “I Wanna Be Around” out, which was real old-school Johnny Mercer song. Dylan’s love songs – kiss off love songs like “It Ain’t Me Babe”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “She Belongs To Me” – were just kind of sly. They never say “I love you”.There’s a lot of ambiguity and private references, riddles disguised as revelations. There was nobody around writing love songs like that. The Beatles certainly wouldn’t have written “Norwegian Wood” without hearing that song first.

KATHRYN WILLIAMS: Every man I went out with at art college made me a tape with this song on. I thought it was my song. You can really put yourself inside it. It made me feel like the painter I was trying to be. “She wears and Egyptian ring that sparkles before she speaks” – that’s just such a satisfying line. I don’t know why. It’s not that it’s particularly clever. It’s more like a smell or a scent.

ROBERT FORSTER: Classic folk rock and I love the lyric and simple tune.

CHARLIE GILLETT: Among his many gifts, Dylan is a great melody writer – recall the tune and the words just slide into place, even if you don’t know exactly what they mean. If I have one grumble about Dylan, it’s that too many of his songs outstay their welcome to the point where his voice begins to grate. But at only a few seconds over two minutes, this one is too short.

LYNDON MORGANS: One of the first Dylan songs I ever encountered, as the B-side to “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. A love song – sort of. Said to be about Joan Baez, isn’t it? Every line of the lyric is exquisite. I remember being impressed that the title wasn’t mentioned in the song. I still like songs where that happens.

NICK JOHNSTONE: The sweetest of all Dylan love songs and another gem from Bringing It All Back Home, an album that will still sound vital in a thousand years. His vocal phrasing on this track is immaculate. The gift of the late delivery. It’s like he’s peeling the lyrics off his tongue and they’re really sticky and it’s a real effort to get each line out and the music’s slightly stoned and off-kilter. A great love song, utterly romantic, it’s Rome on vinyl.


Latest Issue

PJ Harvey, Tom Petty, Idles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Matt Berninger, Steel Pulse, Hüsker Dü, Laura Veirs, Chris Hillman and Isaac Hayes