Like other famous sloganeers such as Yogi Berra or Winston Churchill, Bob Dylan is a master of spitting out ingenious and oft-repeated quotes in his interviews, books, or song lyrics, which have been considered works of literature. The following Dylan quotes have been selected not by how often the quote has been featured elsewhere, but by how well it captures the many perspectives of one of the greatest poets of modern times.
Bob Dylan's 25 Best Quotes
Dylan's perspectives about truth and the human experience have rarely stayed in one place, since he has never liked being pinned down. To better capture his range of views, the top 25 quotes span his entire career and touch upon pivotal points in his life. Any quoted song lyrics were taken from Bob Dylan's official site, which features all of his lyrics as he originally wrote and published them.
1. "There was a violent, angry emotion running through me back then. I just played the guitar and harmonica and sang those songs and that was it."
Taken from Chris Rowley's book Blood on the Tracks: the Story of Bob Dylan (page 48), this quote summarizes his mindset during the folk era of the early Sixties when he became a spokesman for a generation of outraged social revolutionaries.
2. "Yes, I wish that for just one time / You could stand inside my shoes / And just for that one moment I could be you / Yes I wish that for just one time / You could stand inside my shoes / You'd know what a drag it is / To see you."
3. "Oxford Town around the bend / He come in to the door, he couldn't get in / All because of the color of his skin / What do you think about that, my frien'?"
Taken from the song Oxford Town from the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, CBS chose this song as one of Bob Dylan's most underrated works. This particular lyric in the song demonstrates Dylan's bold voice in the civil rights movement during the Sixties.
4. "Back then I guess most of my influences could be thought of as eccentric. I was drawn to the traveling performers passing through. The side show performers - bluegrass singers, the black cowboy with chaps and a lariat doing rope tricks. Miss Europe, Quasimodo, the Bearded Lady, the half-man half-woman, the deformed and the bent, Atlas the Dwarf, the fire-eaters, the teachers and preachers, the blues singers. I got close to some of these people. I learned about dignity from them. Freedom too. Civil rights, human rights. How to stay within yourself. Most others were into the rides like the tilt-a-whirl and the rollercoaster. To me that was the nightmare. All the giddiness. The artificiality of it. The sledgehammer of life. It didn't make sense or seem real. The stuff off the main road was where force of reality was."
In an interview with Bill Flanagan, Dylan provides this colorful, fascinating glimpse about what shaped his folk music sensibility. He explains why he never allowed any audience to pin him down for very long especially the hippie generation that embraced him as their countercultural figurehead, a position that helped make him a mainstream household name. It wasn't long before he abandoned the folksy crowd and started playing in a rock band with an electric guitar.
5. "The whole counterculture was one big scarecrow wearing dead leaves. It had no purpose in my life."
This quote from Dylan's book Chronicles: Volume One was explained why he turned his back on his early folk persona and embraced hard-boiled electric rock and roll.
6. "When you got nothin' / You got nothin' to lose."
This lyric is taken from Bob Dylan's best song, the electric guitar rocker Like a Rolling Stone, which Rolling Stone chose as the greatest song of all time of any genre. While many people quote the song's chorus, the line above would become a recurring theme in Dylan's work.
7. "When you think you've lost everything / You find out you can always lose a little more."
In the book Bob Dylan and Philosophy: It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Thinking), authors Peter Vernezze and Carl J. Porter (page 148) point out that this lyric from the 1999 song Trying to Get to Heaven is a philosophical rebuttal to the lyric from Like a Rolling Stone in quote #6. It is as if an older, wiser Dylan looked back on the 34-year-old lyric he wrote and revised it with what he had experienced later in life.
8. "We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it."
The collaborative Dylan fan site The Dylan Commentaries credits this line from the song Visions of Johanna, a song from Dylan's late Sixties era, as ably summarizing in one sentence what philosopher Sartre tried to describe in an entire book.
9. "Then she opened up a book of poems / And handed it to me / Written by an Italian poet / From the thirteenth century / And every one of them words rang true / And glowed like burnin' coal / Pourin' off of every page / Like it was written in my soul."
In an article celebrating the best literary moments of Bob Dylan lyrics, The New York Times regarded the stanza above as one of Dylan's finest moments from his 1974 song Tangled Up In Blue. It's a romantic song and lyrics like these illustrate how Dylan can craft not only tunes of anger and protest, but also moving love songs.
10. "How can the life of such a man/ Be in the palm of some fool's hand?/ To see him obviously framed/ Couldn't help but make me feel ashamed/ To live in a land/ Where justice is a game."
In his song Hurricane, Dylan wrote about the injustice of boxer Rubin Carter being charged with a crime he clearly didn't commit. Carter's name was vindicated in 1988, as noted by Flavorwire, which ranked the lines above as some of Bob Dylan's best lyrics.
11. "Don't have the inclination to look back on any mistake / Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break / In the fury of the moment I can see the Master's hand / In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand."
This song lyric and its album Desire, released in 1976, was the precursor to Bob Dylan's Christian era and shows how he is beginning to embrace his religious side. The Christian Science Monitor ranked this song, Every Grain Of Sand, as one of his top 20 lyrics of all-time.
12. "These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you've been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified."
While many people tried to pin Bob Dylan down and claim he lost his religious faith after he stopped making all-Christian albums, quotes as recent as 2012 have sparked speculation that he is still religious. In a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone, he refers to Jesus as his "Lord" in the memorable quote above about how the hippie movement in the Sixties disowned him for going electric.
13. "John and Yoko add a great voice and drive to this country's so called ART INSTITUTION./ They inspire and transcend and stimulate and by doing so, only can help others to see pure light and in doing that, put an end to this mild dull taste of petty commercialism which is being passed off as Artist Art by the overpowering mass-media. Hurray for John & Yoko. Let them stay and live here and breathe. The country's got plenty of room and space. Let John and Yoko stay!"
One rock legend who expressed anger with Bob Dylan about his newfound Christian faith -- especially the song Gotta Serve Somebody -- was John Lennon. Despite their disagreements, Dylan admired Lennon. When the Nixon Administration tried to deport John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the Seventies, Bob Dylan wrote a letter to the U.S. Immigration and Nationalization Service with these words of support.
14. "From the Liverpool docks to the red light Hamburg streets / Down in the quarry with the Quarrymen. / Playing to the big crowds / Playing to the cheap seats / Another day in your life on your way to your journey's end / Shine your light, / Move it on, / You burned so bright, / Roll on John."
On Dylan's 2012 album Tempest, the lyric above paid a moving tribute to John Lennon that The Atlantic cited as the most intriguing moment of the album.
15. "You can always come back, but you can't come back all the way."
In an article by Ultimate Classic Rock, the lyric above from Mississippi is described as Dylan's melancholy summary of his entire career and his mastery of making (partial) comebacks after serious setbacks: "Disowned by folkies, put out of commission by a motorcycle accident, written off as a '60s relic, ignored as a religious performer, dismissed as a writer who lost his touch - who has had more comebacks than Bob Dylan?"
16. "Spending time with Bono was like eating dinner on a train--feels like you're moving, going somewhere. Bono's got the soul of an ancient poet and you have to be careful around him. He can roar 'til the earth shakes."
Dylan's most severe setback in his career happened in the eighties when he lost his muse and found himself unable to write music. In his book, The Gospel According to Bob Dylan, Michael J. Gilmore pinpoints a pivotal meeting with Bono (page 122) as a turning point that helped Dylan get back on his feet. Dylan is quoted in the book as saying these words about Bono.
17. "Feel like falling in love with the first woman I meet / Putting her in a wheelbarrow and wheeling her down the street."
Released in 2000, Things Have Changed is one of many songs that kicked off Bob Dylan's creative breakthroughs in the 2000s and 2010s. This particular song is a favorite of actor Bill Nighy, and it won an Oscar for Best Original Song in the film Wonder Boys, thanks to its memorable lines like the one above.
18. "Carelessness. I lost my one true love. I started drinking... I move in with a high school teacher who also does a little plumbing on the side, who ain't much to look at, but who's built a special kind of refrigerator that can turn newspaper into lettuce. Everything's going good until that delivery boy shows up and tries to knife me. Needless to say, he burned the house down, and I hit the road. The first guy that picked me up asked me if I wanted to be a star. What could I say?"
Despite the many famous, beloved Bob Dylan quotes that people have embraced, Dylan has earned a reputation as one of the worst interviews in modern history, sometimes filling a reporter's note pad and tape recorder with the most incomprehensible mumbo jumbo ever seen in print. The online magazine Vulture attempted to rank the top 10 most incomprehensible Dylan interviews, and the one above, excerpted from a 1966 Playboy interview, took the cake when he gave an answer about how he chose his career.
19. "Well, I try to get it when it comes. I play the guitar wherever I find one. But I try to write the song when it comes. I try to get it all . . . 'cause if you don't get it all, you're not gonna get it. So the best kinds of songs you can write are in motel rooms and cars . . . places which are all temporary. 'Cause you're forced to do it. Rather, it lets you go into it."
In a much more lucid 1969 interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan offered a rare glimpse into his songwriting process and how he finds his muse.
20. "What's in or not in changes all the time, doesn't it? Some artists are always in - Picasso, Rembrandt, Dickens, Son House, Keith Richards. There's nothing the authoritarian order can do about that. If you were never in, you were never out. People are only out once they've been in. We never hear of the ones that are truly out. They're so out, they're in. It's all relative, isn't it? I've always been more of a traditionalist and followed my own star - to thine own self be true and all that. What's in or not in is mostly media-manipulated for commercial reasons anyway. You have to believe in what you do and stay dedicated. It's easy to get sucked in to what others think you should do. But there's a price to pay for that."
21. "That was just a term that could create problems for somebody, especially if someone just wants to keep it simple, write songs and play them. Having these colossal accolades and titles, they get in the way."
In an interview with NPR, Dylan said this about being called the "voice of a generation" during the early years of his career and how it may have hindered rather than helped him.
22. "You can make something lasting. I mean, in order to live forever you have to stop time. In order to stop time you have to exist in the moment, so strong as to stop time and prove your point. So that you have stopped time. And if you succeed in doing that, everyone who comes into contact with what you've done - whatever it might be, whether you've written a poem, carved a statue or painted a painting - will catch some of that. What's funny is that they won't realize it, but that's what they'll recognize."
When Bob Dylan is sitting down for an interview with a friend or someone he trusts based on a solid referral, his answers seem to be much more generous and illuminating. In this interview with his friend Viejo Indolence he gives some eye-opening answers -- particularly the one above about how to create a work of art or music that is timeless and truly excellent.
23. "Time lets me find new meanings to every song, even in the older ones, and it's important to be always looking for new meanings. Yes, the body of the song remains the same but it wears new clothes."
While in Rome, Italy, Dylan sat down for an interview with reporter Gino Castled who asked Dylan why he performed his songs differently at each concert, to which Dylan gave the above reply. It illustrates that songs change over time not just for the listener, but also for the artist.
24. "Every step of the way we walk the line / Your days are numbered, so are mine / Time is piling' up, we struggle and we scrape / We're all boxed in, nowhere to escape / City's just a jungle; more games to play / Trapped in the heart of it, tryin' to get away."
Bob Dylan's 43rd album Love and Theft, which was named by Newsweek as the second best album of the 2000s, came out on September 11th, 2001. Although the terrible events of that day vastly overshadowed his new release, the media eventually noticed how eerily prophetic his lyrics were.
25. "If I was a poet / And could write a fine hand / I'd write my love a letter / That she'd understand / And write it by the river / Where the waters overflow / But I dream of pretty Saro / Wherever I go."
If Bob Dylan comes across as tough, thick-skinned, or even rude and brutish in some cases, his 2013 release Another Self-Portrait, which resurrects a mix of old recordings never before released, shows Dylan "at his most tender-hearted," as The Boston Globe observed. The newspaper also highlighted the stunningly beautiful song Pretty Saro as one of Dylan's most haunting, well-sung, well-written songs ever, thanks in part to this lyric.
The Maze of Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan has always distrusted the world's fair-weather, flighty treatment of his music and his persona, and this has often led him to veil himself in protective layers of mystery. Regardless of who or what he is or isn't, one thing is observable from the quotes above: His body of art, whether in music or word, is a rich maze of treasures worth paying attention to.