Bob Dylan gives career-spanning speech at MusiCares gala

Honoree Bob Dylan speaks onstage at the 25th anniversary MusiCares 2015 Person Of The Year Gala honoring Bob Dylan, at the Los Angeles Convention Center on February 6, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Last night, thousands gathered at the Los Angeles Convention Center for the annual gala benefiting the MusiCares Foundation to honor one of music's greatest: 10-time Grammy winner Bob Dylan.

"I learned lyrics, how to write 'em, from listening to folk songs," Dylan said at the gala. "And I played them, and I met other people who played them, back when nobody was doin' it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that's fair game. That everything belongs to everyone."

Beck, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson and Bruce Springsteen were just some of the performers who took part in the tribute.

"I'm proud to be here tonight for MusiCares. I'm honored to have all these artists singing my songs," Dylan said.

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Bruce Springsteen, Don Was and Tom Morello perform onstage at the 25th anniversary MusiCares 2015 Person Of The Year Gala honoring Bob Dylan, at the Los Angeles Convention Center on February 6, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Presenting the award to Dylan last night was former President Jimmy Carter.

The night was especially important since Dylan hasn't spoken in public in some time. In his rambling half-hour speech, he thanked Peter, Paul and Mary, Sonny and Cher, The Byrds, the Staple Singers, Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Cash -- people to whom he thought he owed a debt.

On Johnny Cash:

"Johnny Cash recorded some of my songs early on, too. I met him about '63, when he was all skin and bones. He traveled long, he traveled hard, but he was a hero of mine. I heard many of his songs growing up. I knew them better than I knew my own. 'Big River,' 'I Walk the Line.' 'How High's the Water, Mama'? I wrote 'It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)' with that song reverberating inside my head -- I still ask, 'How high's the water, mama?'

"Johnny was an intense character, and he saw that people were putting me down [for] playing electric music. And he posted letters to magazines, scolding people, telling them to 'shut up and let him sing.' In Johnny Cash's world of hardcore Southern drama, that kind of thing didn't exist. Nobody told anybody what to sing or what not to sing. Critics didn't do that kind of thing.

"I've always got to thank him for doing that. Johnny Cash was a giant of a man. The Man in Black. And I'll always cherish the friendship we had until the day there is no more days."

On Jimi Hendrix:

"We can't forget Jimi Hendrix. I actually saw Jimi perform when he was with a band called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. Something like that. And Jimi didn't even sing. He was just the guitar player. He took some small songs of mine that nobody paid any attention to and brought them up into the outer limits of the stratosphere, turned them all into classics. I have to thank Jimi, too. I wish he was here."

On Peter, Paul and Mary:

"I didn't usually think of myself as writing songs for others to sing, but it was starting to happen. And it couldn't have happened with a better group. They took a song of mine that I'd recorded before that was buried on one of my early records ('Blowin' in the Wind'), and they turned it into a hit song. Not the way I would have done it -- they straightened it out. But since then hundreds of people have recorded it. I don't think that would have happened if it wasn't for them. They definitely started something for me."

On Nina Simone:

"I used to cross paths with her in New York City at the Village Gate nightclub. These were the artists I looked up to. She recorded some of my songs that she learned directly from me. She was an overwhelming artist, piano player and singer. Very strong woman, very outspoken, and dynamite to see perform. That she was recording my songs validated for me everything I was about."

On Joan Baez:

"Oh, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Joan Baez. She was the queen of folk music then and now. She took a liking to my songs and brought me with her to play concerts where she had crowds of thousands of people enthralled with her beauty and voice. People say, 'What are you doing with that ragtag, scrubby-looking waif?' And she'd tell the audience in no uncertain terms, 'Now, you'd better be quiet and listen to your songs.' We even played a few of them together.

"Joan Baez is as tough-minded as they come. ... A free, independent spirit. Nobody can tell her what to do if she doesn't want to do it. I learned a lot of things from her. A woman of devastating honesty. For her kind of love and devotion, I could never repay that back."

On The Byrds, The Turtles and Sonny and Cher:

"They made some of my songs top-10 hits. But I wasn't a pop songwriter. I never even wanted to be that. But it was good that it happened. Their versions of songs were like commercials. I didn't really mind that. Because 50 years later my songs would be used for commercials. So that was good, too. I was glad it happened."