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The tunes they are a-changin’: The never-ending transformation of Bob Dylan’s songs

Bob Dylan performs at Farm Aid in Noblesville, Ind., in September. His current tour comes to the Orpheum for three shows this weekend.Gary Miller/Getty Images

Reinvention is the great theme of Bob Dylan’s artistic life. It could hardly be otherwise for a man whose career, in a way, began with the act of transforming Robert Zimmerman, Jewish kid from small-town Minnesota, into Bob Dylan, supreme songwriter of his age, which has now stretched into its seventh decade.

Given how long Dylan, 82, has been before the public, it seems entirely logical that his reinventions have continued apace. Woody Guthrie’s self-anointed successor; protest singer and “voice of his generation”; folk music apostate; preeminent chronicler of Americana, both real and imagined; preeminent chronicler of heartbreak; rock ‘n’ roll trickster; wanna-be Vegas showman; born-again Christian. That list skips a couple of phases and still barely gets us to the 1980s.


For all that he’s remade himself, though, the far more profound transformation has been of his songs. Which is what Dylan wishes people would focus on, anyway. “[Y]ou’re just not that person everybody thinks you are, though they call you that all the time,” Dylan told “60 Minutes” in 2004. “ ‘You’re the prophet.’ ‘You’re the savior.’ My stuff were songs, you know? They weren’t sermons.”

How long has Dylan been mining his catalogue to make them sound different, feel different, land differently with an audience? At least since he took “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met),” a jaunty little ballad of abandonment from 1964′s “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” and made it something loud and snarling during his 1966 tour with the Hawks (later The Band) two years later.

The drive to remake even the most hallowed parts of his legacy — changing up rhythms, textures, vocal melodies, even the words — has been a red thread through Dylan’s performances, and will likely be in evidence during his three-night stand at the Orpheum Theatre that begins on Friday. Examples proliferate throughout his career. Dip into his 1984 European tour and you’ll find him tinkering, concert to concert, with both the music and the lyrics of “Simple Twist of Fate,” with almost entirely new words on some nights. Or sample the strange bossa nova vibe he gave “It Ain’t Me, Babe” during 1975′s Rolling Thunder Revue.


Some of these experiments work better than others. But the experience of leaving a Dylan concert and hearing at least one person say something along the lines of, “I’m glad he played [fill in the song of choice], but I wish he did it the way he used to” has become so familiar as to be its own cliché.

Sometimes the changes surprise even those who count themselves reasonably experienced Dylanologists. I remember seeing Dylan and his band at the Palladium in Worcester in May 2008 — a fine show, with the expected mix of familiar and deep cuts. But what really struck me was hearing two songs from “Time Out of Mind” that sounded completely transformed. “Can’t Wait” was slower and meaner, revolving around a scale-like figure in the guitars that wasn’t part of the studio recording. “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” went the other way: It sounded almost like a torch song, with Donnie Herron’s pedal steel a lush ornament to Dylan’s hoarse but yearning vocals.

Two Dylan releases this year further underscore his enduring urge to remake and remodel. “Shadow Kingdom” (released in June) is the soundtrack of a performance film shot in 2021 while Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour was sidelined by the pandemic. It’s a delight to hear Dylan, in this largely acoustic affair, break out so many rarities and songs that have gone missing from his setlists for years or even decades. Among the highlights are playful versions of “Tombstone Blues” and “Queen Jane Approximately,” the latter of which he had performed only a few dozen times over his career.


The cover of Bob Dylan's "Shadow Kingdom." On the June release, he breaks out rarities and songs that have gone missing from his setlists for years or even decades.Uncredited/Associated Press

And later this month, Sony will release “The Complete Budokan 1978,” full recordings of two Tokyo concerts from his epic late-’70s tour. Some of the songs were released on 1979′s “At Budokan,” long thought a nadir of Dylan’s output for the bloated, cringe-worthy arrangements of favorite numbers. But whether because of the passage of time or a sharp new mix, the first songs to emerge indicate that a reconsideration may be in order.

It’s important to note that the penchant for reworking material, while not unique to Dylan, certainly isn’t the norm, even among bands and songwriters with impressive legacies. Consider Tom Petty: You can listen to him play “Refugee” in 1980, the year it was written, and in 2017, in one of Petty’s last performances before he died, and you will hear the exact same song, right down to the vocal inflections.

So why, finally, does Dylan do it? Why tamper with iconic songs that have cherished places in the hearts of so many? Is he mining them for additional nuances the originals didn’t reach? Is he tailoring the arrangements to the strengths of his band of the moment? Is he just bored by the prospect of playing “All Along the Watchtower” for the 2,269th time (at last count)?


Several years ago, Chris Shaw, an engineer who worked on Dylan’s “Modern Times” album, saw him backstage after a concert. Dylan had played “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” a classic from his 1965 album “Bringing It All Back Home.” It was a song Shaw loved in its original account, and he asked whether Dylan ever played the song as he had back then.

“Well, you know,” Dylan replied, “a record is just a recording of what you were doing that day. You don’t wanna live the same day over and over again, do you?”

David Weininger can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.


At Orpheum Theatre, Nov. 3-5, 8 p.m. $62-$151.