Bob Dylan's voice is at once one of the most recognizable and most polarizing sounds in Western music, simultaneously iconic and inscrutable. More even than his words, Dylan's voice is the most potent material signifier of his mercurial persona. As an early Columbia Records advertising campaign put it, "Nobody sings Dylan like Dylan." But does he even sing like himself? Over the last five decades Dylan has adopted a bewildering range of voices, from laconic dust-bowl drawl to smooth country croon, from gospel shout to guttural Delta-blues bark. What is Bob Dylan's "real voice"? And why does this problematic question seem to have such urgency in his case? This talk considers these questions by surveying Dylan's diverse voices, illustrating some of their differences through spectrographic imaging and speculating on their stylistic and physiological origins. The talk also considers the ways in which his voices act as agents of meaning and identity, bringing his celebrated words—and equally celebrated personae—to sonic presence.
Steven Rings is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Music at the University of Chicago. His research focuses on transformational theory, phenomenology, popular music, and questions of music and meaning. Animating all of his work is an abiding interest in the relationship between music theory and broadly humanistic inquiries into music as a cultural practice.