He has been called "rock's greatest songwriter." A better description is "America's greatest writer of popular songs." Bar none. We can discuss the criteria later, and consider counterexamples. Maybe this Saturday night. His earliest four or five albums are not in the rock genre. I'll permit quibbling about #5, Bringing It All Back Home (1965), but Bob Dylan (1962), The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963) , The Time's They Are A'Changin' (1964), and Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) are better classified as folk, not that they sit all that comfortably in this niche.
These early albums are studded with lasting contributions to Americana. This is music with meaning that speaks to the mind and the heart. No Rat Pack crooner Las Vegas lounge lizard stuff here. Two lesser-known compositions both from The Times They Are a'Changin' (1964):
The Ballad of Hollis Brown Performed by Stephen Stills.
North Country Blues. Written from the point of view of a woman and so appropriately sung by the angel-throated Joan Baez.
D. A. Pennebaker on the making of Don't Look Back. I saw it in '67 when it first came out. I just had to see it, just as I had to have all of Dylan's albums, all of his sheet music, and every article and book about him. I was a Dylan fanatic. No longer a fanatic, I remain a fan.
May he die with his boots on. It ain't dark yet, but it's gettin' there. When his 30th album Time Out of Mind came out in 1997, twenty years ago now, I was amazed to discover that Dylan could still tap back into that magic mood he achieved in the mid-60s.
Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.I was born here and I'll die here, against my will
I know it looks like I'm movin' but I'm standin' stillEvery nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.
Sinatra is supposed to have said that a pro is one who can play it the same way twice. (Where?) Dylan rarely plays it the same way twice. Here is a version of "Just Like a Woman" which is lyrically and in other minor ways different from the Blonde on Blonde version.
UPDATE: Dave Bagwill recommends this outstanding extended version (Freewheelin' outake 2, 1962) of "The Ballad of Hollis Brown." Move over, Stephen Stills! The harp fills don't quite make it, however, in this minor-keyed tune.