Bob Dylan’s Desire album is a prime example of him at the height of his genius. It highlights that he’s one of the most prolific, controversial, and long-lasting songwriters of all time.
Really, if you’ve forgotten how incredible Dylan is, listen to Desire, read the lyrics, and revel in his greatness.
Today, we’re revisiting Dylan’s Desire to discover just how genius he is.
Let’s hit it!
The Story of Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan was born as Robert Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, into a close Jewish community in Duluth, Minnesota. Interested in music from a young age, he formed several rock and roll cover bands while in high school. He moved away from rock and roll in college and focused more on American folk music.
There was a coffeehouse near his campus at the University of Minnesota, where he played. At this time, he decided to change his name to Bob Dylan. He had read the poems of Dylan Thomas and thought, “You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”
One of Dylan’s early influences was Woody Guthrie. In 1961 Dylan dropped out of school and moved to NYC, where he visited Guthrie. Guthrie was in the hospital suffering from Huntington’s disease, but Dylan wanted to learn about his music firsthand.
Other early influences were Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, a protégé of Guthrie, and African American street poets, including Big Brown. Big Brown was a beat poet who Dylan declared the “best poet he’d ever heard.”
Dylan’s first album, self-titled, was released in March 1962 and sold only 5000 copies. His second record, 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, established him as a protest singer/songwriter.
The Civil Rights Activist
He played at many protests and civil rights concerts, including many with his girlfriend for a time Joan Baez. Many other groups also covered his music, including Peter, Paul and Mary, The Byrds, and more.
Over the years, Dylan has stirred controversy and protested and championed the rights of many through his music. Many considered him “the voice of a generation” and a king of the Civil Rights Movement.
Desire was Dylan’s 17th album, released in 1976, and he has produced many more after that to this day. He’s also a published author and visual artist.
He’s one of the best-selling musicians of all time and has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Nashville Songwriters, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He was awarded The Presidential Medal of Freedom, ten Grammys, a Golden Globe, and an Oscar.
In 2016 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
The Greatest Songs from Bob Dylan’s Desire
Hurricane is a perfect example of Dylan’s protest music. It’s about a boxer, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who spent 19 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. He and his friend, John Artis, were both black men accused of murdering three white people in a bar in Paterson, New Jersey.
The two witnesses were white men with a criminal past. They both claimed to have seen Artis and Carter at the scene when they were on their way to rob a factory. Dylan’s hit explains how the two black men were accused and convicted due to racism, not guilt.
The song is over eight minutes long but immediately enthralls the listener with his rapping poetic style and a rhythmic beat backed by violins. “How can the life of such a man be in the palm of some fool’s hand? To see him obviously framed couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game.”
The tune brought much attention to the case and, in some ways, helped to ultimately free Carter. In 1985 a federal judge overturned Carter’s conviction, saying it was obtained due to racism and concealment.
Isis is a ballad about a traveling man who recently separated from his wife. Dylan and Jacques Levy co-wrote it in July 1975. The man in the piece is traveling with a companion, and they’re on their way to raid a tomb. The whole time the man thinks about his ex, Isis.
The tomb is empty, and his partner dies, so he heads back to Isis. “She was there in the meadow where the creek used to rise, blinded by sleep and in need of a bed, I came in from the East with the sun in my eyes, I cursed her one time then I rode on ahead.”
He wants to be with her, but she’s essentially unknowable. “Isis, oh Isis, you’re a mystical child, what drives me to you is what drives me insane.” Some people interpret this hit as an allegory for Dylan and his estranged wife at the time. Dylan has only said it’s “a song about marriage.”
Dylan and Jacques Levy wrote Mozambique. The piece stirred up some controversy at the time of its release. The country, Mozambique, had just won its independence from Portugal after ten years of struggle. The party that won the war was communist, and some people believed that Dylan had written the song in support of communism.
This was likely because Dylan was a known protest writer and civil rights activist. However, the hit is simply about “people living free” in an idyllic lifestyle on the beach. The melody and the lyrics are fun and breezy. Dylan and Levy chose the title Mozambique because they wanted the challenge of rhyming as many words as possible with -ique.
Who Is the Female Singer on Desire?
Emmylou Harris is the female singer on Bob Dylan’s Desire. She was born on April 2, 1947, in Birmingham, AL. Harris dropped out of college to pursue her musical career and moved to NYC.
In fact, she started playing folk music in coffee houses while working as a waitress. Later she was noticed by the band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, who recommended her to Gram Parsons.
Parsons was looking for a female singer for his first solo album. They became a duo, and Parsons became a mentor for Harris until he died of an overdose in 1973. Harris went on to become one of the most famous and beloved American singers in the world. She has won 14 Grammy Awards and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
She’s a singer, songwriter, and guest artist with many other famous musicians too. In 2015 she won the Swedish Polar Prize, considered the Nobel Prize in Music. The reason was that “The music of Emmylou Harris contains the history and topography of the entire American continent.”
Who Played Violin on Bob Dylan’s Desire?
Scarlett Rivera, born Donna Shea in 1950 in Chicago, played violin on the Desire album. A chance meeting secured her the gig with Dylan. He was driving around Greenwich Village in his limo, and she happened to be walking across the street with her violin. He stopped to talk with her and then asked her to play her violin for him.
Rivera said of the encounter, “We went to his SoHo loft, and he started playing all kinds of songs I could never have heard before…no key, no chart, no suggestion, nothing. Sink or swim.” Rivera’s violin made a significant difference on Desire, elevating it to a higher level.
Afterward, she went on to play with many other artists across many musical genres, including instrumental, jazz, Celtic, New-Age, and world music. She was a soloist with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and appeared on albums with noted artists such as Tracy Chapman, Keb Mo’, Indigo Girls, and DeeDee Bridgewater.
Rivera and Nine Mile Station released a new version of Hurricane in May 2021 for Dylan’s 80th birthday. It was critically a hit, with American Songwriter saying, “The reverence she has for the song and the songwriter shines in the purity and passion of her playing.”
Who Helped Write the Songs for Desire?
Jacques Levy was a songwriter and theater director born July 29, 1935, in NYC. He started his career as a clinical psychologist, but his true passion was theater and musicals. He began directing plays and musicals in 1965, including the erotic avant-garde revue, Oh! Calcutta!, which consisted of sexual topics and full nudity.
He collaborated with Roger McGuinn of The Byrds on a musical, which produced the song, Chestnut Mare. The hit proved to be popular in the US, and Levy and McGuinn collaborated throughout the 70s. Levy met Dylan through McGuinn, and together, they wrote seven tracks on the Desire album.
Levy was also the stage director for Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975 and 1976. After his work on Desire, he continued to direct theater and was also the drama program director at Colgate University in NY. He died of cancer in 2004.
Bob Dylan’s Album, Desire, Really Was Genius
The way Dylan brought home his story-telling ability with striking, unique, and beautiful imagery is part of what made it genius. However, he did two other things that brought Desire into that realm.
He found and included Scarlet Rivera, a talented and wild violin player, in the making of the album. He also included Emmylou Harris, one of the most gifted and beautiful singers ever, as his backup singer.
What do you think? Is Dylan’s Desire one of your favorites?