The idea of putting together a soundtrack for this story really appealed to me. Music has a unique power to take us right into the emotional landscape of someone’s life at a particular moment. If we share those feelings, we can bond instantly across all kinds of divides, no matter who or where we are. Since there are two major characters in this narrative, I wanted to choose voices and musical styles that could speak for each of them. Most of these are songs that were part of the era (though several pre-date it): themes, voices, rhythms, and beats that convey what Dylan and his mom are going through at a particular time. Maybe you’ll connect with a few of these songs from moments in your own life.
“Locked Up” (Akon) from album Trouble, 2004
Arrested, a young man is doing jail time for substance abuse and reckless behavior in this song by a Senegalese-American artist. One of the percussive sounds in Akon’s music resembles the clank of a steel cell door closing. The hard streets and getting locked up theme will ring true for Dylan. Though his family was pulling him toward college, other forces were drawing him into more dangerous schemes. This tension between worlds became stronger during his teen years when he faced life changes beyond his control. After his own lock-up, I’m pretty sure Dylan felt the same confusion as the character in this song about how he could ever move forward with his life.
“It’s Now or Never” (The Roots) from album How I Got Over, 2010
I first associated this rap song with the film Fruitvale Station, the story about Oscar Grant in Oakland. The story resonates with me because the young man’s dilemma—just being released from jail, trying to get his job back, trying to forge a better way without selling (or doing) drugs—resembles Dylan’s. It’s not only about young black men from tough neighborhoods; the appeal is more universal. It’s about facing a major turning point in your life and how can you rally whatever resources you have to turn the corner away from destruction? Haunting, given what happened to Grant. This affirmation of a deep need to change means a lot to many among us.
“Bridge over Troubled Water” (Paul Simon), 1970
This is such a beautiful, spiritual, hymn-like song. And what parent doesn’t want to be that bridge for their child, no matter what? The bond is so strong; it’s in your blood and your nerve fibers, your deepest feelings and memories. And though as a mom, I’ve had to face my own limitations, I feel the bridge will always be there in my heart. Many versions of the song exist: Paul Simon’s, Aretha Franklin’s, and my personal favorite, Eva Cassidy’s version on the album Live at BluesAlley.
“White Rabbit” (Jefferson Airplane), 1967
A song that recalls a whole era in itself. Grace Slick proclaims a do-it-yourself psychopharmacology that parallels what the caterpillar tells Alice to do in the classic, Alicein Wonderland. Self-medication has gone on for millennia, but this approach can take on more urgency in the life of someone like Dylan who has a mood disorder to deal with. Scientifically speaking, the brain circuitry links between anxiety, depression, and substance abuse are only beginning to be recognized and mapped out by researchers. So maybe Lewis Carroll’s hookah-smoking caterpillar wasn’t just making it up!
“Hold On” (Beres Hammond) on album Can’t Stop a Man, 1998
This soundtrack wouldn’t be complete without something from the Jamaica period in Dylan’s life. Hammond here sounds like the father figure mentors who worked at the residential school. They were hard-nosed, practical men, but they knew how to maintain a playful attitude toward life, too. They knew about give and take, about showing respect. They also knew about the roller coaster of fortunes and how things turn around in ways you can’t always predict.
“Riding with the King” (B.B. King and Eric Clapton), 2000
I knew this blues tune had to be part of the ride, preferably in a classy vehicle with chrome, as in the chapter “Wheels.” Along with two ace guitarists and blues masters, we’re going somewhere to look for a good time. Somehow I suspect this is close to what it must have been like for anyone riding with Dylan after he got the red truck, even if I wasn’t there to see it. Not to mention: this is a great song to convey the buoyancy of hypomania and free spending—no problemas, ever! Now where did we stash those angel wings again?
“I don’t know” (Gretchen Peters), 2000
I love the way this singer/songwriter creates characters who talk to us so clearly about their inner lives. The song says it all, at least from the mom’s point of view toward the end of the book. I don’t know whether Ms. Peters imagined a mother singing her song, but it works for me. After all, the woman who tells my story is moving out of two roles she’s been playing for over twenty-some years—her career self and her protective mom identity. Now, she’s walking out the door, getting into her car, and taking on a new adventure to gain perspective. Could it be that one of the men she’ll have to let go during her lifetime will be her son?
“Goodbye Buffalo” (Sasha Colette and the Magnolias) on album Ridin’ Away, 2015
Sasha Colette hails from Olive Hill, a town halfway between Lexington, Kentucky and Huntington, West Virginia. I heard Sasha play with her fabulous lead guitarist once at a show. I just knew her voice performing this song would be right for the narrator’s solo road trip through the hill country of eastern Kentucky. The mom shares the same “bring it on” attitude as she drives to the college friend reunion shortly before her passage through Cincinnati.
“Up From Your Life” (James Taylor), from Hourglass, 1997
I love Taylor’s intimate, conversational tone. As one who’s been through addiction cycles, treatment, the struggle for recovery, he knows what it’s like. A survivor, he doesn’t make grandiose redemption claims, either, just stays with a simple message: look up beyond yourself,see the big picture around you. And that goes for the whole motley crew of us. This is one of those James Taylor songs that works almost like a gospel hymn. By the end, the whole audience is singing the refrain, wrapped in the communal uplift. We could use a little more of that in this world.
Music available on streaming services like youtube, spotify, and vimeo, or else on CDs or vinyl albums wherever these can be found and played.