After Bob Dylan went into hiding in upstate New York in 1966, the search was on for the “New Dylan.” Many were given this distinction by the rock press, many others consciously aspired to the title. The following is an attempt to corral the “usual suspects” into one space.
For a period of time—the two decades after he “went electric,” moved to Woodstock and woodshedded with the Band at Big Pink—the rock press seemed desperate for a “new Bob Dylan.” Anyone with an acoustic guitar, a harmonica neck-rack, a penchant for poetry, a wheezing or distinctive singing voice and (most importantly) who wrote their own songs were scrutinized for possible symptoms of “new Dylanism”. Every large city in the U.S. seemed to have their own homegrown “new Dylan”, but some broke through the parochial haze to attract national attention as the “heir” to Bob Dylan’s throne, now that he had apparently abdicated and gone into hiding or exile.
Creem magazine, sometime in the 1970s, published a survey article about the “new Dylans” that included contenders like Bruce Springsteen, Loudon Wainwright III, Elliott Murphy and John Prine. But I wanted to cast a wider net because Dylan was such a supernova back then that many people were caught in the force field of his musical orbit and influence, perhaps without even knowing it.
Some of these “new Dylans” were his contemporaries and had been, just a few years earlier, playing alongside him in the Greenwich Village coffeehouses when he first arrived from Minnesota. Some had already established themselves, and garnered record contracts, managers, a bit of fame, etc. before he did. But none of this first wave of “new Dylans” achieved even a smidgeon of the notoriety and lasting influence as the man himself.
Of all people, Syd Barrett—late of Pink Floyd—seemed to address this situation with his “Bob Dylan Blues,” a song he wrote as a teenager in the midst of the Dylan folkie craze but didn’t record until after he left Pink Floyd, prodded by his friend, and Floyd “replacement”, David Gilmour. This is an outtake from the Madcap Laughs sessions.
Phil Ochs: After Dylan “went electric” at Newport in 1964, many purist folkies pinned their hopes on Phil Ochs to carry the torch for acoustic music and topical songwriting. Though he and Dylan were equally popular in the Village clubs where they started out, Ochs was eventually waylaid by alcohol, mental illness, a mugging in Africa that damaged his vocal cords, followed by his own suicide. Nonetheless, he left some bona fide post-Village masterpieces, such as the albums Pleasures of the Harbor and Rehearsals for Retirement.
David Blue (nee Cohen): Deeply influenced by Dylan (his contemporary), as seen in song titles on his first two albums (“Gasman Won’t Buy Your Love”, “It Ain’t the Rain that Sweeps the Highway Clean,” “These 23 Days in September,” “Scales for a Window Thief”). Being a “new Dylan”, though, required more than enigmatic song titles.
Eric Andersen: Still going strong 60 years later, with new recordings, a documentary about his career [The Songpoet], and seemingly ageless good health, he was, during his coffeehouse days, what Lilian Roxon in her Rock Encyclopedia called, “…perhaps just a little too beautiful.” Further, Roxon noted, “Eric was one of the first of the folksingers to write his own song rather than interpret the songs of others. And in the early Sixties that took courage.” He was also enamored of the Beats and, allegedly, Brian Epstein was set to sign him when the Beatles’ ex-manager OD’ed. So it goes.
Tom Rush: He cut his teeth in Cambridge/Boston around the time Dylan and Ochs were conquering Greenwich Village. Less topical, more emo (before such a thing existed), presaging Jackson Browne, Steve Noonan, et al. He might have been disqualified from the New Dylan Sweepstakes because he did far more covers (of songs by Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, et al.) than his own songs, for having graduated from Harvard, for having a soothing voice and a nice moustache. He did write one song that has itself been covered multiple times.
Tom Paxton: He was playing in Village coffeehouses before Dylan arrived and has never affected being anything but a folksinger during his long career. Some of his songs were topical (“Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney”), others comical (“Bottle of Wine”), friendly, inviting but never enigmatic—disqualifying traits for “new Dylan-hood”. The Move’s version of his song “The Last Thing on My Mind”—off their Shazam album—may be one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll covers ever recorded. Bev Bevan’s drumming and Rick Price’s bass runs are positively transcendent and Roy Wood’s guitar soloing mid-song takes it to another level.
Eric Von Schmidt: A folk-blues traditionalist with a deep knowledge of American roots music, he was a stalwart of the Cambridge folk scene (he co-authored a book about it). He was multitalented, as a visual artist, writer and musician, but never aspired to new Dylan-hood. He was ten years Dylan’s senior, for one thing, and, like Dave Van Ronk, was on the folk scene long before he arrived, serving as an influence and even a mentor. As he later told the Boston Globe about meeting Dylan in Cambridge in 1962, “I sang [Dylan] a bunch of songs, and, with that spongelike mind of his, he remembered almost all of them when he got back to New York.”
Joan Baez: Though inextricably linked to Dylan in their early folkie days (and his companion during the filming of Don’t Look Back), Baez fell to the wayside until the release of her platinum-selling album, Diamonds and Rust (1975), after which she again openly flaunted her Dylan connection. Check out the annoying Dylan impersonation in this song.
Richard and Mimi Farina: He was every bit as charismatic and talented as Dylan (having published a now classic novel of disaffected youth, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me), and she had the same crystalline voice as her older sister, Joan Baez. His death from a motorcycle accident in 1966 is one of the great “what ifs” of music history.
Barry McGuire: One-hit protest singer (“Eve of Destruction”), the aspiring actor simply hung out with all the right people in Los Angeles and, when time came to record P.F. Sloan’s anthem, he was there.
Janis Ian: This one-hit protest singer (“Society’s Child”) turned out to be a serious songwriter and innovative musician with much more to show, as attested by her long and distinguished career.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Dylanesque antiwar anthem “Universal Soldier” put her on the map and the only thing that has wavered about her ever since is her singing voice.
Donovan: One of the most painful scenes in the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Don’t Look Back was when the impossibly young-looking Donovan Leitch traded songs with Bob Dylan; it was like the confrontation in the Western where the gunslinger wastes the wannabe before he can even pull his pistol out of his holster. Donovan’s first hits were “Universal Soldier” (penned by Buffy Sainte-Marie) and his own Dylan-influenced “Catch the Wind,” but then he made one of the most extraordinary transformation in pop music history, altering the course of music with a string of ethereal, trend-setting albums produced by Micky Most. No one mentioned “new Dylan” in his presence after 1967.
Simon & Garfunkel: This folk duo was on the same label as Dylan, and their songs were suitably elusive and cerebral. Simon had, in fact, tried to make it as a Dylanesque solo artist in London before his “Sounds of Silence” topped the charts and called him home to rejoin boyhood pal, Artie Garfunkel. Dylan offered a curious sort of salute to Simon by including a cover of his “The Boxer” on the even more curious Self Portrait album.
Sonny & Cher: The Sonny Bono-penned “Laugh at Me” may have been the most amusing and patently obvious Dylan impersonation ever, no doubt riding the fumes from his # 1 hit, the slightly less Dylanesque “I Got You, Babe,” the year before. This is the same guy who later became a Republican Congressman.
Mott the Hoople did the best, seemingly tongue-in-cheek cover of the song on their brilliant Guy Stevens-produced debut album. Take it away, Ian Hunter!
The Byrds: When Roger McGuinn proved that you could add electricity and a rock beat to a Bob Dylan song—and produce a hit single—a light bulb must have gone off inside Bobby’s head. “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Chimes of Freedom,” “My Back Pages,” “All I Really Want to Do.” They all still sound beautiful.
Arlo Guthrie: Dig the circular irony. Dylan was the “new Woody Guthrie” when he wandered in from the West with his flannel shirts and baker boy cap, and Arlo Guthrie briefly seemed like one of the “new Dylans.” Happily, Arlo has since gone far beyond the “talking folk blues” format of “Alice’s Restaurant.”
Loudon Wainwright III: In his engaging 2017 memoir, Liner Notes, Wainwright addressed the issue with his characteristic wit. “Nesuhi Ertegun at Atlantic came up with more money, and my first album…was released on that label in 1970,” he writes. “Nobody bought it, but the critics were generally kind and occasionally overly effusive. I was dubbed, among other things, the new Bob Dylan, the Charles Chaplin of Rock, the Woody Allen of Folk, and…the male Melanie.”
Elliott Murphy: He was unapologetically literate from the get go, on his exceptionally good debut album Aquashow (1973), which to my ears at the time seemed to channel Lou Reed by way of F. Scott Fitzgerald (never once suggesting “new Dylanhood” to me). In an interview I conducted with Murphy back in 2016, he said the “new Dylan” tag was a direct result of the rave review of Aquashow in Rolling Stone by Paul Nelson, in which Nelson called him “the best Dylan since 1968.” “It was totally misinterpreted and soon became that ‘new Dylan’ tag although Paul never really said that,” he said. Loaded by the Velvet Underground was his touchstone (Murphy would write liner notes for the VU Live 1969 album).
John Prine: When I asked him about the Prine-Dylan comparison, rock scribe (and PKM contributor) Parke Puterbaugh said, “He had that dry, dusty wheeze in his voice, wrote cosmically about everyday lives, plainspoken delivery, celebrated as an extraordinary songpoet, shared Dylan’s midwestern roots (Prine was actually a mailman before he became a full-time singer-songwriter) and his catalog has held up.” Just about any song off Prine’s debut album would be a worthy as a new Dylan candidate, including the lesser known “Six O’Clock News”.
Gordon Lightfoot: He and Dylan had the same manager (Albert Grossman) for a while but that’s as close as this Canadian folkie got to new Dylan-hood. Nonetheless, he was one of Dylan’s favorite songwriters. Dylan once said that when he heard a Lightfoot song he wished “it would last forever.”
Bruce Cockburn: Cockburn may be the closest to a “new Dylan” that Canada has produced. He was in a series of Ottawa-based bands but went solo in 1970, when he released his first album, which was mostly acoustic folk with spare arrangements. But he slowly wandered toward rock and jazz—even taking classes in jazz studies at the Berklee School in Boston. He’s also an exceptionally gifted instrumentalist, as good a guitarist as songwriter, which moves him out of “new Dylan” status. Listen to the playing on this:
Tim Buckley: There has never been another folkie with a vocal range like Tim Buckley’s (maybe his son, Jeff?). He would, of course, go on to create his own category-transcending music. However, Tim Buckley started out as part of the L.A./Orange County folk scene, along with Jackson Browne, Steve Noonan, Greg Copeland, Penny Nichols, and Mary McCaslin, all talented singer-songwriters (Noonan’s two early albums are lost treasures). Buckley was also offered the part as Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory but died of a drug OD before shooting began. Here he is as a young folkie from LA.
Patti Smith: What more do you need to know? She showed up in Oslo at Dylan’s Nobel Prize ceremony! Here, she does a creditable live cover of Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” in 2018, accompanied on acoustic guitar by PKM favorite Lenny Kaye.
Jim Carroll: Poet, basketball player, heroin addict, memoirist, Irish-Catholic working-class hero. No Dylan here, just a unique artist who tells his tale in “Catholic Boy”:
Bruce Springsteen: The wordplay on his first two albums, the “discovery” by the same Columbia Records exec (John Hammond) who “discovered” Dylan. What happened to the guy who wrote and performed so brilliantly on this cut from his debut Columbia album?
Steve Forbert: His was another Columbia Records debut of some note, Alive on Arrival, which possessed the requisite energy, earnestness and wordplay. He just seemed to show up one day in New York, like a character from Grapes of Wrath who got lost on his way west. He headed downtown with his guitar in a case in the middle of the punk rock moment in NYC. Still, he did play CBGB and busked in the subways. “Goin’ Down to Laurel”
John Wesley Harding: His real name is Wesley Stace (under which he has penned four novels and hosted a series of popular NYC-area concerts called “Cabinet of Wonders”), but he took his stage name from Dylan’s 1967 album by that name. Thankfully, he never pushed the connection any further than that.
Billy Bragg: More directly a descendant of Woody Guthrie—he, in fact, recorded a number of Guthrie songs—Bragg did have the one guitar-one man-and-a-message stage persona of a Dylan. His playing was raw, replacing the acoustic picking with an electric guitar strummed simply and loudly, his songs short and punk-flavored and he was as earnest as they come. “Ideology”-borrowing the tune from Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” (recorded at the BBC by John Peel).