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15 Jan 2021

What links Scotland’s National Bard to Bob Dylan?

A white thatched cottage stands on the side of a road with a blue sky background.
Burns Cottage in Alloway
What links Robert Burns and Bob Dylan? The connection is perhaps not so unlikely – one of the modern world’s most celebrated songwriters has named Robert Burns as his greatest inspiration.

The link between Burns and America’s greatest songwriter was first established in the ‘My Inspiration’ advertising campaign by the HMV music store. The campaign targeted world-renowned musicians and artists and asked them to select a line or verse that had provided their greatest inspiration. David Bowie picked a line from the song ‘Gigolo Aunt’, from Syd Barrett’s second and final album, Barrett. Liam Gallagher chose a verse from Oasis’s own hit ‘Supersonic’, penned by his brother Noel. Paul McCartney chose a line from Bob Dylan’s ‘She Belongs To Me’.

As for Dylan himself, a man whose work was named by many others as their source of inspiration and who reluctantly accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’, his choice was surprising to some. Dylan opted for Burns’s poem ‘A Red, Red Rose’, selecting the lines:

O my luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonny lass.
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

It would be fair to say that the choice sent a wave of excitement through the community of scholars and enthusiasts who study the Bard’s life and work. They awaited further word as to where this connection came from? Who introduced Bob to Burns?

Bob Dylan, wearing a white panama hat and a dark jacket, stands behind a keyboard on stage, singing into a microphone.
Bob Dylan in 2012

Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Minnesota in 1941, Dylan remains one of the most secretive and elusive figures in music. In his rare interviews after the ‘Burns one’, he has never expanded on the link. And, as Chris Waddell, one of the team members at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway explains, this thread of a connection continues to tantalise experts and enthusiasts alike:

‘As a Dylan fan myself, it’s a very exciting connection and one that people still mention. Unfortunately, he’s never told us more about it and he’s never visited the museum here either!’

Chris continues: ‘I think the thing with Burns is that he finds a place in different cultures, different hearts. He is in with the bricks in American culture; if you think about it, he’s been there for 200 years. There’s a statue of him in Central Park in New York; Burns is taught in the school system; there are statues of him in college campuses; and we know that Abraham Lincoln kept a copy of Burns’s work on his bedside table.

‘Burns speaks to people directly, in a way that a lot of other poets don’t, despite the linguistic differences. I think that’s at the real heart of it. You sometimes feel that he is talking directly to you when you read his poems, because there’s so much of the man in his poetry.’

“Going back to Bob Dylan and ‘Red, Red Rose’, this is about ever-lasting love – there is a primal, unstoppable avalanche behind it. And if you’re a person like Bob Dylan, I can see why there is a connection between two great poetic minds.”
Chris Waddell
Learning Manager, Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

Chris adds: ‘You can talk about how clever Burns is; you can talk about how clever Bob Dylan is; but there is raw, human, absorbing emotion in both of their work.’

A close-up of an oval portrait of the head and shoulders of Robert Burns. He is shown standing against a natural backdrop.
Portrait of Robert Burns

There is another link, too, between Bob Dylan and Scotland’s national bard, a direct connection between the men that goes beyond the realms of inspiration. Dylan has actually played alongside Robert Burns, and counts him among his most trusted collaborators!

Robert Hunter was born just one month after Dylan, in California, and died in September 2019. Best known for his work with the Grateful Dead, this poet, singer and songwriter worked with Bob Dylan from the late 1980s onwards and co-wrote songs on the albums Down in the Groove and Together Through Life. However, Hunter was actually born Robert Burns and, according to friend and food critic Charles Perry, he was a direct descendant of the Bard – a great-great-grandson.

‘We could probably write a hundred songs together if we thought it was important or the right reasons were there,’ said Dylan of Hunter in a rare interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 2009. ‘He’s got a way with words and I do too. We both write a different type of song than what passes today for song writing.’

If Dylan is aware of the direct link between Hunter and Burns, he has never spoken about it. It remains to be seen whether Dylan will ever expand on his link with the Bard in other interviews.

Discover more about the fascinating life of Robert Burns when you visit Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway. We also offer a wide range of exclusive items inspired by Scotland’s national bard in our online shop.

View our exclusive Robert Burns collection

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