Bob Dylan has identified Robbie Burns as the greatest influence on his work. Not a bad choice on Bob’s part, although he has identified Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, and Smokey Robinson as idols and major influences in the past.
The Dylan revelation came in an HMV advertisng campaign called ‘My Inspiration’ which is asking hundreds of artists to name their biggest influence. So maybe Bob was being a bit tongue and cheek, knowing it was a commercial endeavor.
Hank Williams is sometimes called the “Hillbilly Shakespeare”, but “Hillbilly Burns” might be a more accurate reference to classic British poets.
Burns (1759-1796) died young probably didn’t look after himself very well, and was a notorious womanizer and drinker. He was born of a poor family in a remote part of Scotland far from the centres of learning and sophisticated society. He had a limited education and worked from a young age. His overall health may have been frail and hard work did not help. Many of his famous poems were written as songs. His lyrics were pure emotion based on personal experience, but he often used old traditional melodies.Over two hundred years after his death his 250th birthday this Sunday will be celebrated around the world.
Burns became very famous at a young age and moved from his rural home area to the big city where he became a sort of hillbilly celebrity. One critic says his life was often painful, sordid and remorseful, but at the same time there were many times of joy and exhaltation.
I guess we can say for sure that Hank Williams would have been familiar with at least one of Burn’s songs, Auld Lang Sang (Old Long Ago) which he certainly would have had to sing at a few New Years Eve celebrations he must have been booked into during his career. So there’s a connection!
Dylan’s reference to Burns comes in a brief article in the The Guardian Newspaper where he names ‘A Red, Red Rose’ written in 1794 as the work that influenced him the most. This poem is template for the kind of simple but memorable poetic language used by accomplished love poets such as Burns, Hank Williams, Leonard Cohen, , and Bob Dylan.
My luv’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June,
O my luv’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
In ‘Highland Mary’ there’s a line that reminds me of Hank:
But Oh! fell death’s untimely frost,
That nipt my flower so early,
Now green’s the sod, And cold’s the clay,
That wraps my Highland Mary.
The final lines of Burn’s greatest poem, ‘To a Mouse’ also reminds of many of sentiments Hank expressed through his own an other’s work, and through his Luke the Drifter character. Burns says to the Mouse:
Thou are blest compared with me,me
The present only toucheth thee,
But, Oh, I backward cast my eye on prospects drear,
And forward tho I canna see, I guess and fear!
So enjoy Robbie Burns day this Sunday, the 250th anniversary of his birth. Although our 20 and 21st century folk, country, and blues singer- songwriters may never realize it consciously, the Scottish heritage from Burns worked its way down through the centuries from Burns, to Hank Williams, and Bob Dylan and scores of others.
I guess we owe Bob Dylan a thank you for passing on the reminder.
Here’s the link to the Bob Dylan quote in Britain’s ‘The Guardian’.