‘Chronicles: Volume One’ by Bob Dylan – The Songwriting Begins


‘Chronicles: Volume One’ by Bob Dylan   (2004) – 293 pages

I am by no means a Bob Dylan completist.

My relationship with Dylan’s songs over the years has been erratic to say the least. I have only bought a few Dylan albums, and a couple of them I have been disappointed with. At least one of those originally disappointing albums I learned later to really like and another one I stayed disappointed with. For a long time I preferred Joan Baez’s versions of his songs, especially ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ and ‘Farewell Angelina’.

I remember when the radio became inundated with Dylan songs including ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ by the Byrds, ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ by the Turtles. ‘All I Really Want To Do’ by Sonny and Cher, ‘The Mighty Quinn’ by Manfred Mann and ‘All Along the Watchtower’ by Jimi Hendrix as well as Dylan’s own performances of his classics including ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’, and ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’.

I could list my 10 favorite Bob Dylan songs as of today, but tomorrow the list might change anyway.

It took me sixteen years to finally get around to reading his partial autobiography, ‘Chronicles: Volume One’. It turns out that ‘Chronicles’ is a fascinating book; it is offhand, spontaneous, and enthusiastic, everything I look for in an autobiography.

Bob Dylan did not start out as a songwriter. He started out playing other people’s songs. From the beginning he was almost totally devoted to music but not his songs. Much of ‘Chronicles’ is about how Dylan came to write his own songs. Two of his primary influences were the folk musician Woody Guthrie and Delta blues musician Robert Johnson. However he expresses enthusiasm for many other musicians and songwriters throughout ‘Chronicles’. He is for the most part generous in what he says about them, and when he can’t be generous he is sincere. I admired his sincerity throughout ‘Chronicles’.

‘Chronicles’ gives us striking word pictures of only a few of the many phases of Dylan’s life, starting when he arrives in New York City alone with his acoustic guitar from his family home in Hibbing, Minnesota, not even 20 years old. At this point Woody Guthrie is his idol, and Dylan seeks out the offbeat folk music venues where he can perform. He also visits Woody Guthrie who is hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital in New Jersey.

Then we jump ahead to 1970, and Dylan is working on another album ‘New Morning’. By this time Dylan is mighty tired of being “the voice of a generation’, being accused of “turning my back on the folk community”, and being hounded by the press and everyone else. He just wanted to be left alone with his family. Just before ‘New Morning’, he apparently intentionally put out a bad album ‘Self-Portrait’ to deflect attention away from himself.

The next jump in this autobiography is to 1987. This long chapter is about Dylan’s renewal as a songwriter and musician. He came together with producer Daniel Lanois and some musicians in New Orleans and created the album ‘Oh, Mercy’ of his own original songs, and that album is considered a comeback for him.

The last chapter goes back to Dylan’s very early teenage days in Minneapolis when he first discovered folk music.

Along the way, throughout the book, we get scattered appreciations of Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison, Joan Baez, Johnny Rivers, Johnny Cash, and Tennessee Williams, among several others. Here are some of Dylan’s words on Harry Belafonte :

Harry Belafonte was also there. Harry was the best balladeer in the land and everybody knew it. He was a fantastic artist, sang about lovers and slaves – chain gang workers, saints and sinners and children…He was a movie star, too, but not like Elvis. Harry was an authentic tough guy, not unlike Brando or Rod Steiger. He was dramatic and intense on the screen, had a boyish smile and a hard-core hostility…To Harry it didn’t make any difference. People were people. He had ideals and made you feel you were part of the human race. There never was a performer who crossed so many lines as Harry. He appealed to everybody whether they were steelworkers or symphony patrons or bobby-soxers, even children. He had that rare ability.”

I admired Bob Dylan’s sincerity and enthusiasms throughout this autobiography.



Grade:    A



6 responses to this post.

  1. I concur whole-heartedly, I loved this book. Now where is volume 2?

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Annabel,
      Yes, Volume II and Volume III. I was really surprised by how fascinating Chronicles was. I usually don’t read autobiographies, but I expect he received the Nobel Prize in part on the basis of this book. You and I are both waiting.

      Liked by 1 person


  2. I’m a huge Dylan fan and loved this – like you and Annabel I wish he’d produced more volumes!

    Liked by 1 person


  3. I read this when it came out, having always loved his work, and was impressed but not surprised by his literary skill. It’s an exemplary piece of auto…biography? Fiction? He can never be pinned down. Song and dance man, and writer.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Tredynas Days,
      I did notice that some of the critics did question the “facts” that were in this autobiography, but I get the feeling that the word-pictures of what these various times were like for Dylan is quite accurate.



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