The remaining albums defined an artist escaping various labels from the 1960’s that had left the songwriter uncomfortable at times, to put it mildly. When looking back at Bob Dylan’s nineteen seventies period, one will easily find that Bob Dylan released two brilliant albums in the middle of the decade while one being defined by many critics and fans as a true masterpiece. (Blood on the Tracks) Author Bruce Schulman wrote a book on the nineteen seventies that was defined by the Washington Post as the “standard text of the times.”
Schulman argued about the impact Blood on the Tracks and Desire had on interpreting the nineteen seventies period. According to Schulman those two album’s “expressed the era’s fears and experience, capturing and defining its zeitgeist.” However, we argue here that while that expression was clearly found in the Desire album, the Blood on the Tracks album tended to search for more of an escape from those same fears.
Regardless of interpretation, Bob Dylan’s nineteen seventies output continued to define Dylan as the most influential single artist of his generation.
# 10 – If Not For You (New Morning)
While so many of Bob Dylan’s songs were based on blues changes or simple chord progressions that lay the foundations for his deep lyrical ideas, there were times when Dylan would simply write a beautiful melody. Bob Dylan’s” If Not For You,” defined those moments when Dylan’s melody bore as much weight as his prose. Released at the dawn of the nineteen seventies, “If Not for You,” was the opening track on the New Morning LP. When the album was released in 1971, fans and critics were ecstatic over what so many of them coined the “return of Dylan.”
In a Rolling Stone magazine review that appeared in the November 26, 1970 issue, critic Ed Ward called New Morning “A superb album, and everything every Dylan fan had prayed for after Self Portrait.” So many fans and critics had been disappointed with the Self Portrait album. New Morning was widely celebrated as a return to form. Some critics argued that return to form was also symbolized by Dylan’s serious look on the album cover.
George Harrison recorded a version of “If Not for You,” and released it on the triple record set All Things Must Pass. The George Harrison album was released in 1971. Furthermore, it has been written that Harrison was also present during the Bob Dylan recording sessions of “If Not For You.” One may ask, if Harrison was present, did the former Beatles have any input on the writing of “If Not For You.” When Harrison covered the song, it sounded so much like vintage George Harrison. Its only speculation, but listen closely to that melody and judge for yourself.
# 9 – Shelter From the Storm (Blood On The Tracks)
Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album was released on January 20th 1975. The album has been hailed as Dylan’s nineteen seventies’ masterpiece by scores of critics and fans. There was much debate over what inspired Bob Dylan in writing the material for the record. Some argued that the album was autobiographical. Many believed Dylan was singing about his troubled marriage with his wife Sara at the time. However, in various interviews Bob Dylan has been quoted as saying he never wrote autobiographical songs. In one instance, Bob Dylan claimed that his studies with the painter Norman Raeben taught him how to write with the unconscious mind on a conscious level. Dylan also claimed that Raeben inspired him to write music with “no sense of time.”
Every song on Blood on the Tracks stands as one of Dylan’s best of the seventies. It was difficult to create a list of the Best Bob Dylan Songs of the 1970’s without filling the list with the entire contents of the Blood on the Tracks album. So to be fair to Dylan’s other works, we have limited this list to only two tracks from the Blood on the Tracks LP. But by all means, if you have never heard Dylan’s mid-seventies masterpiece, you need to order a copy…Now!
# 8 – Oh Sister (Desire)
Desire was Bob Dylan’s follow-up album to Blood on the Tracks. The Desire album was released on January 5, 1976. While the Desire album did not garnish the same critical praise as Blood On the Tracks, the album stands as one of Dylan’s best works of the 1970’s. “Oh Sister,” was the closing track on side one of the album. The track featured a duet between Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris. The duet and nature of the song echoed the collaborations Dylan was enjoying at the time in the wake of his Rolling Thunder Revue concert tours.
Scarlet Rivera’s violin work on the song “Oh Sister,” cast a heartfelt sentiment throughout the song’s verse and chorus. Emmylou Harris’s soft tone juxtaposed with Dylan’s low tenor vocal inflections made for one of the finest moments on the album,.
# 7 – Gotta Serve Somebody (Slow Train Coming)
In the late 1970s, Bob Dylan supposedly had some sort of religious awakening. Bob Dylan had been struggling a bit with the breakup of his marriage and the endless monotony of touring and who knows what else. Without getting into the specifics of his religious awakening, it was clear that a transformation had taken place that had a profound effect on his writing. In 1979, Bob Dylan released his Slow Train Coming album. It was a record that would be bathed in evangelism. For many fans, Dylan’s born again recordings were a huge disappointment.
Although, many fans turned away from the Born Again musings of Dylan’s new direction, the song “Gotta Serve Somebody,” won a Grammy Award for best male rock vocal performance. While Dylan may have lost many fans, he must have gained many new ones, because the album Slow Train Coming reached No.3. on the U.S. Billboard album sales charts. The record reached even higher on the U.K. Charts peaking at No. 2. When listening to “Gotta Serve Somebody,” one can hear the influence of late 1970’s music production. The snare drum is high in the mix. The drummer’s hit hats swing the groove towards a disco funk rhythm highlighted by the fills of the Fender Rhodes keyboard. It’s more soul than disco, but it still resonates with the aftereffects of the recording techniques behind the engineering of the disco sound. This was a sound many never expected to hear from Bob Dylan. It is though, amazing how from a distance, this music is more enjoyable than it was upon first listen during that time period.
# 6 – Is Your Love in Vain (Street Legal)
Bob Dylan’s Street Legal album was released on June 15, 1978. It was marked the eighteenth studio album release of Bob Dylan’s career. In 1978, a radio war was being fought between the last days of disco, and the arrival of punk and new wave. In the midst of it all Bob Dylan appeared only slightly affected by the current trends in music. We say slightly, because on Street Legal,for the first time, Dylan begins to utilize a group of female backing singers.
While there were certainly mixed reviews of the Street Legal album, the cut “Is Your Love in Vain,” paid tribute in its melody to many past glorious rhythm and blues adult style rock ballads. When listening to the songs descending bass lines and chord structure, one can hear echos of songs like Percy Faith’s “When A Man Loves a Woman,” or Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The arrangement of the song also paid fitting tribute to those classic recordings. While the production of the album has also came into the question, there is no doubt that Dylan’s “Is Your Love in Vain,” was one of his strongest ballads to date regardless of what many have termed sexist lyrics. Take it as you want, because It’s always about interpretation. But that melody and chord changes helped deliver one of the Best Bob Dylan Songs of the 1970’s.
# 5 – You Ain’t Goin Nowhere (The Basement Tapes)
Bob Dylan’s album, Bob Dylan and the Band: The Basement Tapes was released on June 26, 1975. The album was sandwiched between the releases’ of Blood on the Tracks in 74 and Desire which was released only a few months after The Basement Tapes. And that release schedule tells the story behind the release of the Basement Tapes. Although the album was released in 1976, most of the material was recorded in the mid-nineteen sixties. However, since the material was never released until 1975, we have included it in our Best Bob Dylan Songs 1970’s list.
Choosing a song from the Basements Tapes album was a rather difficult choice. The original release was a two record set that contained twenty four songs. Without getting too deep into the breakdown of song writers on the album, since this is a songs’ list and not an albums list, we will simply state that “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” was one of out favorite songs on the record. Its sweet melody cascaded over the simple strumming rhythm acoustic guitar. It’s the perfect sing along song. How can you not love the Ghengis Khan line? All sing along songs should have a Ghengis Khan reference.
# 4 – Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door ( Pat Garret)
“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” was one of those Bob Dylan Songs that sounded like it was from the 1960’s. The groove and lyrical content simply echoed the 1960’s Bob Dylan sound.However, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” is pure 1970’s Bob Dylan. The song was released on the soundtrack album Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. That album was released in May of 1973. The movie featured James Coburn as Sheriff Pat Garrett and Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid. Bob Dylan was featured in the movie in a small role as the character Alias.
If we were to judge Bob Dylan songs based on the amount of artists that covered his material, than “Knockin’ on Heavens Door,” would easily rank as one of his most popular songs. Knockin on Heaven’s Door has been covered by artists such as Eric Clapton, Guns N’ Roses, Sandy Denny, The Grateful Dead, Avril Lavigne, The Alarm, The Sisters of Mercy, Warren Zevon, and U2. The song has also appeared in countless movies and television shows. Bob Dylan’s version appeared in 1991’s Rush, 1097’s Lawn Dogs, and 2005’s Be Cool. Not to mention the original soundtrack it first appeared in, Pat Garret and Billy The Kid.
Dylan’s versions also appeared in the television shows, Las Vegas, Salvador, Supernatural, Cold Case, My Name Is Earl and HBO’s Six Feet Under and Big Love. Versions of the song performed by other artists have appeared in 1989’s Lethal Weapon 2, 1990’s Days Of Thunder, and many more. Based on the amount of coverage the song has gained in popular culture, it can be easily argued that “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” is one of the Best Bob Dylan Songs of the 1970’s.
# 3 – Tangled Up in Blue (Blood On The Tracks)
“Tangled Up in Blue,” is the second of two songs on the Best Bob Dylan Songs list representing the Blood on the Tracks LP. (Yes we agree there should be more from that album) The song “Tangled Up In Blue,” was the opening track on the Blood On The Tracks LP. The song was released as the album’s only single. Tangled Up in Blue reached No. 31 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Many writers have listed “Tangled Up in Blue,” as one of Bob Dylan’s greatest compositions. When writing about the song, the writers usually focus 100 percent on the lyrical ideas that fuel the composition. What is often lost is the rhythmic nature of the songs that drives the emotion of the lyrical content. Bob Dylan’s musical identity has been bathed in blues changes and rhythms. In “Tangled Up in Blue,” Dylan utilized the famous Bo Diddley groove that is hidden behind the acoustic guitar and folk vocals. The Bo Diddley groove is actually a variation of an old rhythm called hambone. Bo Diddley groove can be found in so many of rock and roll’s greatest recordings. From Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” to Bruce Springsteen’s “She’ The One.” However, no one has ever utilized that groove in such an original manner as Dylan did on “Tangled Up In Blue.”
Bob Dylan has been quoted as saying that the song “Tangled Up In Blue,” took him ” seven years to live and two years to write.” The song’s title is simply an ode to the blues. It was the perfect title to open up an album labeled as Blood on the Tracks. Although, it has been argued that the album’s material presented listeners into a timeless landscape of being, the Blood on the Tracks connotation argues differently. Bob Dylan is left “Tangled Up In Blue,” but not because of no sense of time, but rather because of that blood spilled along the way. One can never imagine what it must have like to have been in Dylan’s shoes and bear the weight of a world listening to every lyric he sung. As so many people looked to Dylan to find answers during the Vietnam War, that responsibility must have had a tremendous strain on his own sense of being. Dylan has argued that Blood On The Tracks was an ode to timelessness, but it’s the past that fueled that road to ambiguity that burns deep in the material on the album.
# 2 – Hurricane (Desire)
Bob Dylan’s song “Hurricane,” was released on the 1975 Desire album. The song was released as a single in November of 1975. The song was one of Dylan’s most successful charting songs of the seventies as it reached the No. 33 spot on the Billboard Top 100 Singles Charts.
Putting aside sales charts, there are two reasons why we have chosen “Hurricane,” as one of the greatest Bob Dylan recordings of the nineteen seventies. The first reason is rather simple. It’s a brilliantly written piece of music. It’s exciting, melodic, and passionate. The song “Hurricane,” is as cinematic a piece as Dylan has ever written. The second reason is the impact the song had on Ruben Carter’s case and Dylan’s influence on the United States Criminal Court System. How many songs can one name that actually could have such an influence on a criminal case that could force a retrial after the defendant had been found guilty? The answer is probably zero.
Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” had an enormous impact on the Rubin “Hurricane” Carter case based on the songs’ popularity and argument that Carter was falsely found guilty in the triple murder at the Lafayette Grill in Paterson, New Jersey in 1966. Within the song Dylan argued that the eyewitness to the crime had told police that Carter was not the guy.
Four in the mornin’ and they haul Rubin in
They took him to the hospital and they brought him upstairs
The wounded man looks up through his one dyin’ eye
Says, wha’d you bring him in here for? He ain’t the guy!
The song also created controversy because of Dylan’ accusations of racism among the New Jersey police….
When a cop pulled him over to the side of the road
Just like the time before and the time before that
In Paterson that’s just the way things go
If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street
‘Less you want to draw the heat
Without reprinting the complete lyrics to “Hurricane,” it can be easily argued that the song is filled with accusations, of racism, false witness testimony, a negligent trial , and above all that Rubin Carter was chosen by the police simply because they needed someone to blame for the murders.
In 1976, shortly after the song Hurricane had made a thunderous impact in the media, the Carter case was retried. Once again Rubin “Hurricane,” Carter had been found guilty of murder. However, nine years later in 1985. Federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin ruled that Carter had not received a fair trial. Judge Sarokin wrote that the case and prosecution had been “based on racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.” Those were words that echoed Dylan’s lyrics. Rubin Carter was released from jail after twenty years behind bars.
# 1 – Forever Young (Planet Waves)
Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” was released on his 1974 Planet Waves Album. There were two versions of the song recorded and released on the record. We have chosen the slower version to be represented here on the Best Bob Dylan Songs of the 1970’s list. The song was recorded with the members of The Band backing Bob Dylan on the track.
Along with “Knockin’ on Heavens Door,” Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” was of his most covered songs. It did not even take long for artists to begin covering the song. As soon as “Forever Young,” was released, Joan Baez recorded a version and released it as a single also in 1974. The Band who had performed on Dylan’s original version covered the song on their 1996 album High on the Hog. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead recorded a version of Forever Young on his appropriately titled album Garcia plays Dylan. The man in black, Mr. Johnny Cash also paid tribute to Dylan by recording a version for the 1994 Red Hot and Country tribute album. The song has also been recorded by rock legends, The Pretenders, Meatloaf, and Neil Young.
There are reasons why certain songs become covered by multiple artists over a long period of time. Often commonly referred to as standards, these songs usually contain a universal theme that is easily relatable from generation to generation. Bob Dylan wrote the song for one of his sons. However the song’s sentiment is clearly universal in a way that every man, woman and child can relate to. Its simplicity from the title to the lyrical content is the song’s greatest strength. Dylan’s intent was to write a lullaby for a son, but whether or not it was intentional, Dylan’s brilliance delivered a pièce de resistance for the world. It may not have been Dylan’s most important work but it was one of his most universally shared and treasured songs of his career.
Updated December 15, 2021
 Schulman, Bruce J. The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics. New York: Free Press, 2001.
Photo by Jim Summaria (Wikipedia:Contact us/Photo submission) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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