As Emma Swift releases Blonde On The Tracks onto digital platforms, the Nashville-based Aussie has penned a powerful op-ed as to how the musical icon is still so beloved by a fervent group of supporters to this day.
Ask any lover of music, and the chances are close to perfect that they’ll admit to being a fan of Bob Dylan. Sure, his reputation may precede him, and radio might not play his works as often as it used to, but with more than 50 years at the top of his game, it’s hard to find anyone who hasn’t had their lives affected in some way by the great man.
With a discography that towers over many others, Dylan is the very definition of a masterful artist – an icon of songwriting and compositions – and one whose influence is forever indelibly stamped upon the annals of music history. While he might be an influential figure in every aspect of the world of music, Emma Swift would agree that he even has the power to reinvigorate one’s own life.
That’s exactly what happened to the Nashville-based artist, who – whilst navigating a period of personal and creative depression – found herself able to turn to Dylan’s works. Soon enough, she found herself regrouping and entering the studio with Patrick Sansone (Wilco) to create Blonde On The Tracks, an album that honours the timeless nature of Dylan’s catalogue.
“It was hard to get out of bed and get dressed, and present to the world as a high-functioning human,” Swift explains. “I was lost on all fronts no doubt, but especially creatively. With a bad case of writer’s block and no songs of my own to record, I turned to Dylan’s music to reinvigorate my life force. And it worked. To use one of his lines, he got me out of a jam.”
Originally releasing the record back in August, its initial arrival was only on analogue formats, making it one for all the audio purists in the world. And of course, fans got around it, not only sending the album to #1 on the ARIA Vinyl Chart, but also #9 on the ARIA Album Chart, too.
Now, today sees the stunning collection receiving a more accessible reissue, with Blonde On The Tracks appearing on streaming services (backed by a trio of bonus live tracks).
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“It’s extremely rare for musicians to withhold their songs from streaming services, but given that I lost my touring job at the beginning of the year due to COVID, I wanted to see if music lovers still bought albums; and it turns out they do,” Swift explains. “I wouldn’t have an ARIA Top Ten album if they didn’t.”
With the digital version of the record arriving today, Swift penned an op-ed on why it is that in a year such as 2020 – almost 60 years on from when some of his most iconic songs were written – that the works of Bob Dylan are still so timeless, and how his fanbase still fosters a mesmerising sense of community.
Check out ‘I Contain Multitudes’ by Emma Swift:
Emma Swift on getting through 2020 with Bob Dylan and his fans:
If you had told me at the beginning of 2020 that this would be the year I became part of an extensive internet fan community, the kind with in-jokes and memes and teenage-like obsession over minor biographical details, haircuts and album out-takes, I would have laughed. Surely, at the dud end of my 30s, I was too old for this shit. Surely I had better ways to spend my time. People to see and songs to write and gigs to play.
Enter: the pandemic. And suddenly, I’m stuck at home for months on end. And I’m out of work. And I’m craving connection to the outside world, but all I have is four walls and a Twitter account and a lot of time on my hands. Enter: the weird and wonderful of Dylanologists, an extraordinary group of people, who, like me, think about Bob Dylan’s art in a way that other people would most likely define as maybe, just maybe, a little bit too much.
When I first got into Dylan, back in the mid-1990s, I was a lonely, nostalgia-obsessed teenager with a bad haircut, purple corduroy flares and a deep desire to disappear into my record collection and never return. My severe fandom, not just of Mr Dylan, but of Elvis Costello and David Bowie, Ella Fitzgerald and Linda Ronstadt, was a solitary pursuit. And while it inspired me to explore a career in music, it didn’t exactly give me a sense of belonging.
If anything, it magnified my feelings of being an outsider, of being old before my time, of being born in the wrong decade. But, fast-forward 25 years later and it would appear that in a year where I could have felt a crushing sense of loneliness, instead, I may have finally found my people. Or rather, Bob Dylan found them for me.
You see, this year has been a kind of gift for the Dylan fans of the internet. It began, as so many things do these days, with a tweet:
Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years.
This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting.
Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.
— Bob Dylan (@bobdylan) March 27, 2020
The track, ‘Murder Most Foul’ was a magnificently bleak 17-minute opus, rich in cultural and pop references, delivered without warning and arriving just in time for many of the devoted to have their ears pressed against their speakers from some form of quarantine or lockdown scenario.
“and may God be with you”.
Was this new song, the first new Dylan song in eight years, a sermon? I’m not brave enough to offer an answer for what the famously mercurial author of this tweet did or didn’t intend by dropping the “G” word. But I can tell you, the flock took to singing the praises of ‘Murder Most Foul’ with evangelistic zeal. Greil Marcus, the rock journalist’s rock journalist, astutely observed in the LA Review of Books that the online response to the song was so overwhelming it seemed to have formed its own society.
And indeed the fans, even the ones who may have wavered over the years, were back praising the Patron Saint of Wayfarers and polka dot shirts and holy reverence for dead poets. And what else could possibly follow next but a rock and roll miracle, of course. And so, at age 79, Bob Dylan, the only songwriter to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, achieved a feat perhaps even less likely, his first #1 single on the Billboard charts.
From this blessing forward, the Dylan-mania sparked online in March continued with a surprisingly youthful fervour, so much so that you could be forgiven for thinking Bob Dylan had become the host body for Harry Styles. And yes, I am a super fan (of both!), but I am not kidding here. From fan-cams to gifs to passionate defences of dubious ’80s haircuts and even more dubious ’80s production choices, it has been extraordinary and utterly delightful to witness.
Check out ‘I Contain Multitudes’ by Bob Dylan:
The people – the young and the old and those like me, betwixt the two – still love Dylan. And in turn, what is perhaps even more special, in this year of death and confinement and widespread, perfectly justifiable fear, is that they love each other.
By the time Rough And Rowdy Ways was released in June, I was not merely excited about hearing the new album (it’s marvellous, by the way) but I was overcome with anticipation about how my new internet friends would react. Oh, the memes we would chuckle over! The reviews to analyse and memorise! The passionate podcasts!
And the songs, we’d cry and laugh and feel comforted, knowing that despite the pervasive and heartbreaking isolation that has blanketed this year like a bitter fog, somewhere, someplace else on earth, there we people just like us – people for whom Bob Dylan is not merely the world’s finest songwriter – he is the charming, elusive, sage, handsome, poetic and life-affirming brother, father, uncle and grandfather we never had.
When I was asked to write this piece, the purpose was to write about Dylan. Ever the student who doesn’t quite get the assignment, instead, I have chosen to write about my other, more recent passion: Dylan fans. I am, in many ways, forever an adolescent, and my vinyl collection is a place I love to go wandering and to occasionally, okay more than occasionally, get lost.
But online, a place I usually think of as a little bit scary, in a community of strangers with a shared fandom, I have found hope, joy, comfort and a remarkable new direction home. I can’t imagine how I might have made it through this year without them. And I can’t wait to meet them in the real world, whenever that day comes…
Emma Swift’s Blonde on The Tracks is on digital services now.