Are readers familiar with Darius Rucker’s current country hit “Wagon Wheel”? Lady Antebellum backs him up. Here’s the video:
No points for guessing who wrote the tune originally.
I have friends who, upon discovery of this fact, will evidence more than a touch of annoyance that it turns out that they do like Bob Dylan songs, after all.
Here we encounter one of the chief marks of his genius: more than a few of his great songs were arranged and performed by someone other than Dylan. So many, indeed, that a plausible project could be made of defending the enduring quality of the troubadour’s music, while abjuring any effort to cobble together another threadbare defense of his voice. Joan Baez, interviewed for Martin Scorsese’s riveting No Direction Home, relates drolly a tale of how, in the midst of her romance with Dylan in the early 1960s, she observed him praise one of her songs playing on the radio, in perfect innocence of the fact that he had written it.
No one ever imagines he can sing George Jones songs better than Jones himself did or Johnny Cash songs better than Cash himself. But there is a sense in which Dylan’s music is uniquely engaging because about half his listeners feel, with some justice, that they could sing the songs better.
These days most Americans probably can sing better than Bob Dylan. At the high point of his late-60s crooning (see Nashville Skyline and New Morning), this was definitely not true; but it was on the whole true of most professional American singers. Dylan’s union of poetry and musical arrangement thus appears to us, as it were, in relief.
Consider this catchy little number “Wagon Wheel” by Rucker. The Dylan fingerprints are all over it: The particularly Southern localism; the wandering tramp or troubadour, oppressed by his sins and in search of redemption in the arms of a lady; the flashes of a kind of tragic patriotism and solidarity; the lazy, slightly decadent rhyme scheme punctuated by a handful of pungent alliterations and parallels.
In an interview published last year in Rolling Stone, a pugnacious Dylan, in the course of answering some nebulous critics as summarized by the interviewer, settled on a striking definition of his art: “It's called tradition, and that's what I deal in. Traditional, with a capital T.”
Tradition is never the work of one man, or even one generation. No one is more aware than Dylan that he is working with materials he did not invent; and that a major part of his vocation is to make those materials accessible to later artists, and thereby tell the story of a people. Chesterton famously called it the democracy of the dead.