The First Line

Bob Dylan typing

‘It is the first line that gives the inspiration and then it’s like riding a bull. Either you just stick with it, or you don’t,’ Bob Dylan.

The first line is the spark that ignites the forest fire. The words come out like a rocket. Or a shooting star. Or they come out like teeth being pulled. Or diamonds being mined. In a flourish or one at a time like stepping-stones heading into the unknown.

Just as a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step – says Lao-tzu – the first line of a song or a poem or a novel is the start of a struggle with your creativity and sense of magic.  

‘Creativity,’ says Dylan, ‘is like a freight train going down the tracks. It’s something that has to be caressed and treated with a great deal of respect. You’ve got to program your brain not to think too much.’

The first line sets out the theme, the atmosphere, the style. It draws you in. Or it doesn’t. Words are like sheep. They have to be guided, shepherded, shorn of the woolly and superfluous.

The First Line of St John

The Gospel of John 1:1 commences with: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.

It doesn’t say: In the beginning there was God and God was a good editor arranging the words. No, we start with the word. Whether its gospels, articles, prose or lyrics, it’s all about the words. It’s only about the words. 

Dylan does not have the voice of Roy Orbison or Elton John. If he had been blessed with the sweet moving sound of the lark or nightingale, it would have been too much. We would have listened to the sound. Not the words.

Woody Guthrie writes in his hymn ‘This Land is Your Land:’ 

As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
Saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me

Dylan in 1962, aged 20, writes in ‘Song to Woody:’

Hey, hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song
Bout a funny ol’ world that’s a-comin’ along
Seems sick an’ it’s hungry, it’s tired an’ it’s torn
It looks like it’s a-dyin’ an’ it’s hardly been born

Woody Guthrie travelled through the dark days of the 1930s; dust storms, depression, unemployment, the Second World War. Dylan came of age in the 1960s; the candy-coloured tangerine flake streamline Age of Aquarius, consumerism, LSD and Vietnam. Dylan didn’t see golden valleys and endless skyways. He saw Hard Rain, Desolation Row and Black Lives Matter long before the movement was born.

Why didn’t Dylan write novels about all that he saw and felt, feared and visualised? Because books reach a small, well-informed minority. Wrap those words in the blanket of music, culture and the zeitgeist, and you reach the world.

To do that, you start with the first line.

Bob Dylan and the secret of success

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  1. In the beginning is the word, not words. Word is a metaphor for the thing that connects one person to another, which is all that distinguishes humans from all other living things.

    By themselves, at home in the dictionary, words are impotent; not until a person puts them in some manner of a composition, for some purpose, does a word take on meaning. Look at any Dylan lyric on the page – now, listen to any Dylan song – see what I mean?

  2. I agree with everything regarding words and the wonder of Bob Dylan. Of course we know he felt the injustices to black people.
    I just wish you hadn’t related it to BLM. That organization is a scam. The founder bought multi million houses with the donations. The riots and looting took the lives of many black children.

  3. “Something there is about you/ that strikes a match in me.”

    I always thought that was a great first line.

  4. Brilliant. But Ana is right about the BLM movement. They care for black people about as much as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. In John’s gospel “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus is the Word and the Word is Truth. And Dylan worships It.

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