With five decades and counting in the music business, an exhaustive list of songs penned by Bob Dylan could run for pages. Of course, unlike most artists, some Dylan songs have had a bigger impact on music and culture than others. Unlike most artists, Dylan’s greatest hits can almost all be counted as modern music standards.
Songs Written by Bob Dylan: The Major Hits
From Dylan’s exhaustive music catalog, here are some of his best known tunes:
Like A Rolling Stone
Full of bluster and confrontation, Dylan’s counter-culture epic was penned while he tried to recover from a long and grueling tour of England. He had the lyrics down pat from the get-go, but he struggled to put it together musically. Enter session musician extraordinaire Al Kopper, who came up with the song’s iconic organ riff and convinced Dylan to take the song in a rock direction.
Dylan’s label, Columbia Records, balked at that rock sound, and they were none too pleased with the song’s six-minute length, either. Their concern was for nothing, however, as the song was an instant hit and confirmed Dylan as the voice of a generation. Musicologists consider it one of the most important songs of the modern period.
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
This song is an early example of Dylan using one of his favorite songwriting tricks – borrowing themes and structures from other songs and poetry, particularly medieval ballads. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall is based on Lord Randall by Francis Child.
Dylan’s version borrows Lord Randall’s call-and-response structure as he tells the tale of a young man’s travels and a threatening hard rain. In later years, the song would be credited as being a tale of Vietnam or even the Cuban Missile Crisis, but in fact, it pre-dates them both. Nevertheless, it got a new lease on life during the 1980s in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam epic Born on the Fourth of July.
Blowin’ in the Wind
Dylan claims he wrote Blowin’ in the Wind in 10 minutes – minutes that would become very profitable. The song was written in 1963 for the album Freewheelin Bob Dylan, but before including it on his own album, Dylan sold the song to both the Chad Michael Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary, who each recorded versions that reached the top five on the Billboard charts. The publishing payments for those versions of the songs were the first big paychecks Dylan received in his music career.
Girl from North Country
This song is another example of Dylan borrowing themes and structure. Girl from North Country was penned while Dylan was in England hanging around with fixtures on the English folk scene. He immersed himself in their music as well as traditional English ballads. He drew inspiration for this song from that music. Dylan released the song in 1962, but the definitive version is the one he re-recorded in 1969 with the help of Johnny Cash.
Subterranean Homesick Blues
Originally released in 1965, Subterranean Homesick Blues was an important Dylan track for a few reasons. First, it was his first Top 40 hit in the US and Top 10 hit in the UK. It was also one of the first tracks in which he went electric. The song was also accompanied by what was arguably the first music video.
The real story of this song, however, is the lyrics. Delivering his words at a blistering pace, Dylan takes on all of the social and political upheaval of the time. He references drugs, Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement and the growing social divide in the country that emerged with the counterculture. The meaning behind the lyrics has been the subject of much debate in the music community, and Dylan himself isn’t talking.
The song has seldom been covered, but the accompanying film clip, which featured Dylan flipping cue cards displaying words from the song, has been copied over and over again.
Explore more of Dylan’s catalog with these tracks:
- The Times are A-Changing
- Baby Let Me Follow You Down
- End of the Line
- The Ballad of Ira Hayes
- Mr. Bojangles
- Knocking on Heaven’s Door
- Lay Lady Lay
- Everything is Broken
- Highway 61 Revisited
- Black Crow Blues