Back at the hotel afterward, Dylan looks about as satisfied as a man with his restless creative spirit can be. It’s nearly 2 a.m. by now and another pot of coffee cools. He rubs his hand through his curly hair.
After all these hours, I realize I haven’t asked the most obvious question: Which comes first, the words or the music? Dylan leans over and picks up the acoustic guitar. “Well, you have to understand that I’m not a melodist,” he says. “My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or Carter Family songs or variations of the blues form.
"What happens is, I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That’s the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it’s a proven fact that it’ll help them relax. I don’t meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song.
"I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds,’ for instance, in my head constantly – while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song.”
He’s slowly strumming the guitar, but it’s hard to pick out the tune. “I wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in 10 minutes, just put words to an old spiritual, probably something I learned from Carter Family records. That’s the folk music tradition. You use what’s been handed down. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ is probably from an old Scottish folk song.”
As he keeps playing, the song starts sounding vaguely familiar.