Then came Dylan’s discovery of Leadbelly, another poet in the guise of a songster, and from Leadbelly it was a hop, skip, and jump to “the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs,” to American music in all its incomparable abundance:
You know what it’s all about. Takin’ the pistol out and puttin’ it back in your pocket. Whippin’ your way through traffic, talkin’ in the dark. You know that Stagger Lee was a bad man and that Frankie was a good girl. You know that Washington is a bourgeois town and you’ve heard the deep-pitched voice of John the Revelator and you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek. And you’re pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy. You heard the muffled drums and the fifes that played lowly. You’ve seen the lusty Lord Donald stick a knife in his wife, and a lot of your comrades have been wrapped in white linen.
“I had all the vernacular all down,” Dylan says. “I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day.” He still can. I doubt that Dylan will be writing a song about the lusty Lord Donald and his knife-stuck wife anytime soon, but what a song it would be. What he is saying is that he learned his consummate literary technique—how to wield metaphor and make simile sing, how to sew his songs with rhyme and spin a whole uncanny scene from a perfectly worded image—from the great vernacular tradition of American songwriting, a vast library stored not on shelves but in minds and chord-picking fingers.