Graley Herren’s article “Young Goodman Dylan: Chronicles at the Crossroads,” Dylan Review 2.1 (Summer 2020) contains a citation error (p. 68). Scott Warmuth’s article, “Bob Charlatan, Deconstructing Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume One” appeared in New Haven Review 006 (Summer 2010): 70-83.

Ballad of Hollis Brown. Copyright © 1963 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Beyond Here Lies Nothin’. Copyright © 2009 by Special Rider Music and Ice Nine Publishing. All rights reserved.

Blind Willie McTell. Copyright © 1983 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Cold Irons Bound. Copyright © 1997 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Crossing the Rubicon. Copyright © 2020 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Delia. Copyright © 1993 Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight. Copyright © 1983 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Down the Highway. Copyright © 1963, 1967 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1995 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Duquesne Whistle. Copyright © 2012 by Special Rider Music and Ice Nine Publishing. All rights reserved.

Early Roman Kings. Copyright © 2012 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

False Prophet. Copyright © 2020 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

I Contain Multitudes. Copyright © 2020 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Key West (Philosopher Pirate). Copyright © 2020 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

License to Kill. Copyright © 1983 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Man of Peace. Copyright © 1983 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Mississippi. Copyright © 1996 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Pay in Blood. Copyright © 2012 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Scarlet Town. Copyright © 2012 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Song to Woody. Copyright © 1962, 1965 by Duchess Music Corporation; renewed 1990, 1993 by MCA. All rights reserved.

Soon After Midnight. Copyright © 2012 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Stack a Lee. Copyright © 1993 Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol. Copyright © 1964, 1966 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992, 1994 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love). Copyright © 1985 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Tin Angel. Copyright © 2012 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum. Copyright © 2001 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky. Copyright © 1985 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere. Copyright © 1967 by Dwarf Music; renewed 1995 by Dwarf Music. All rights reserved.

Brillo, Paulo. No Such Thing as Forever: Images from 30 Years of the Never Ending Tour. Cornwall, U.K.: Red Planet Books, 2020.

Curtis, Jim. Decoding Dylan: Making Sense of the Songs That Changed Modern Culture. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2019.

Grossi, Luca. L’Inferno di Bob Dylan. Roma: Arcana Edizioni, 2018.

Portelli, Alessandro. Bob Dylan, poggia e veleno: “Hard Rain,” una ballata fra tradizione e modernità. Roma: Donzelli Edizioni, 2018.

Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, acclaimed Americana musicians, are a powerhouse of vocal and instrumental virtuosity. Their performing partnership was molded during ten years of recording and touring with Levon Helm, iconic drummer and voice of The Band. The couple’s two albums, 2015’s Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams and 2017’s Contraband Love opened doors and ears as they toured with Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris, and John Prine. Mojo dubbed the pair “The first couple of Americana,” and American Songwriter wrote: “[Larry and Teresa] have created a unique sound inspired by the past, that is spirited, stirring and timeless.”

Michael Hacker is the creator of A Bob Dylan Primer, a fifteen-episode podcast dedicated to Dylan’s life and work (  He is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker, raised and currently living in Los Angeles with long stints in San Francisco, Livingston, Montana, and Vienna. At present, Michael works mostly in television producing documentary content for a wide variety of providers.  He’s seen Dylan in concert many times, starting with the 1974 tour and including The Last Waltz, the “gospel” shows in 1979, and the last night of Dylan’s run at the Beacon Theater in NYC in December 2019.

Bob Keyes writes about arts and culture for the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram. He’s written about Bob Dylan since the early days of the Never Ending Tour and presented a paper about Dylan’s visual language at the World of Bob Dylan Symposium in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2019. He received an inaugural Rabkin Prize for Visual Arts Journalism in 2017 in recognition of his essential voice in the regional arts conversation and is currently working on a book about the artist Robert Indiana.

Matthew Lipson is an independent scholar from Montreal, Canada. His graduate studies focused on Dylan’s performance of age from Time Out of Mind (1997) to Tempest (2012) and Dylan’s twenty-first century role as elder statesman of traditional American genres. His future work will examine this topic from the perspective of Dylan’s roles in television commercials. Lipson is currently based in Toronto, where he curates and manages music for a range of brands.

Quentin Miller is Professor of English at Suffolk University in Boston where he teaches courses on contemporary American literature, including one on Dylan and the Beat generation. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, most recently Understanding John Edgar Wideman (UP of South Carolina, 2018), James Baldwin in Context (Cambridge UP, 2019), and The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature (Palgrave/MacMillan, 2020).

Thomas G. Palaima, Robert M. Armstrong Professor of Classics at University of Texas at Austin and a MacArthur fellow, has long thought and taught about evil, suffering, and injustice in human societies, ancient and modern. In 1963–68, Bob Dylan and James Brown changed his life. He has written over 500 commentaries, reviews, book chapters, feature pieces, and poems on what human beings do with their lives. These have appeared in such venues as the Times Higher EducationMichigan War Studies Review, Arion, Athenaeum Review, The Texas Observer, the Los Angeles Times, and

Tommy Shea teaches in the MFA program at Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. He was an award-winning columnist for The Republican in Springfield. He co-authored Dingers: The 101 Most Important Homers in Baseball History. He’s been a Bob Dylan fan since 1974.

John Radosta teaches high school English in Milton, Massachusetts. He is the co-author, with Keith Nainby, of Bob Dylan in Performance: Song, Stage, and Screen. A board member of the New England chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, he has also, under a pseudonym, published a noir novel and many crime stories. He lives in Boston with his wife, son, and rescue dog.

Walter Raubicheck is a professor of English at Pace University in New York, where he teaches American Literature, film, and college composition. He is the co-author of Scripting Hitchcock (2011) and co-editor of Hitchcock’s Rereleased Films (1991), both with Walter Srebnick. He also edited Hitchcock and the Cold War (2019). He has published essays on British crime fiction authors including Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, and G. K. Chesterton, as well as essays on American authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, and Dashiell Hammett.

DR spoke with musical couple, duo, and Dylan collaborators Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams in the fall of 2020. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DR: You’ve noted the importance of music as a special art form during your performances, an art form capable of building community and unifying people. Can you say anything about how that unification happens, what it looks like? Is it the lyrics that unify or the combination of the music and the lyrics?

TW: Music itself without the lyrics is the most bare-bones, close to the bone, primordial thing that reaches people. You don’t need language. Music itself, first, is the most primal. But the language—the poetry of it—can affect you the way the music affects you, but that’s after the fact of the music. The poetry can wash over you in a way that that music washes over you. Dylan is an excellent example of that.

LC: The effect of the music itself has always been the conscious and subconscious appeal to me of a song. Speaking of Bob, I heard a couple of things from his latest record. I haven’t paid much attention to what Bob’s been doing since I left the band, for various reasons. I heard a couple of songs from this latest record and you know, I gotta hand it to this guy, there’s nobody like him. And with him and his body of work right now, the music is a landscape for what he’s saying. I was able to go right to the words of what he was saying, the poetry is as moving on a subconscious level as good music is moving on a subconscious level.

TW: That’s right.

LC: I knew when I started playing with him the role of the band. Bob Dylan is unique in that Dylan and an acoustic guitar is all you need. He gets everything he is across with that. If you’re gonna be a band backing him up, then you need to be as subjective as that acoustic guitar. You can’t showboat. It’s not a place to draw attention to your skills. It’s not your place to detract in any way from the essence of what he’s putting out. It was an interesting place to be.

DR: That’s especially interesting, given that he’s always had some of the most talented people performing for him.  He’s been with people who on their own can shine.

LC: I’ve never been one who appreciates the value of words like a lot of great artists do. To be a great songwriter you have to love words, or a great writer of any kind, and I’m okay with words, and they certainly do work their magic on me, but there’s a mystery in music that gets to me right away on a visceral level.

TW: It takes the melody and the lyric crossing over each other in a certain way for a song to get to me. “Boots of Spanish Leather” is one that does that for me. The melody, the lyric of that song—I don’t have words to say what it does to me.

DR: That’s a great example!

LC: There’s a maturity in that lyric writing, and a subtlety, and a nuance in the lyrics of that song. How can a young adult produce something like that? It’s mind-boggling!

TW: It’s like a ninety-year-old wrote it. But, honestly, some of it is just giftedness, and the person being open to let it channel through them. I don’t want to take anything away from anybody’s talent or intelligence. But to be open enough to let that go through you, and put it out there, takes a lot of courage and openness inside a person, to allow yourself to be that vulnerable in front of people.

LC: Yes, it’s scary. Growing up in the ‘60s with what he was putting out then, and the anthemic nature of some of those songs, that was a blatant influence on the culture, and the unity of the culture at that time. And that’s on a very conscious level. He sort of made social justice become fashionable or enabled it to become fashionable. And it wasn’t just him. But he was the primary voice.

TW: Joan Baez might beg to differ.

DR: That’s a really interesting way to put it. Because that’s where we are now.

LC: The social justice movement ended up with some sort of sex appeal because that’s what’s gonna make a universal movement. It has to have sex appeal of some sort, and I don’t mean that literally. Through that, it becomes fashionable, trendy.  It starts out with the hip and Bohemian people thinking about it, and then it goes to the gay people, and then it ends up in Long Island. And once it’s there, then it universal. And then it becomes a commercial, moneymaking thing, and then the whole thing gets destroyed.

To answer your question, that on its most obvious level, “Blowin’ in The Wind” was the anthem of the time. “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” “Hard Rain,” all these tunes became anthemic to the movement. So obviously they had influence. But then his tunes that were more personal, that had nothing to do with Emmett Till or Hattie Carroll or any of those songs, they also—because of Dylan’s poetry, and because of the honesty that was used to express them, the sentiment of those songs—were so universal that they caused a unity in the listener that was every bit as potent as his political stuff. As Teresa mentioned, with “Boots of Spanish Leather,” the emotion that stirs in people is a unifying thing. So I think the answer to your question is yes.

DR: The speaker, or the voice in Dylan’s song is sometimes dismissive and, people have said, vindictive toward women. Teresa, do you have anything to say about that from the perspective of women, the voice of women, the characterization of women?

TW: Some of the songs feel vindictive for sure. I guess I never thought of it that way. I don’t remember it striking me so much, and if it did, I probably just wrote it off to, “well that’s how things are.” Seriously. Because I’m from far enough back when that was the way things were. So I’m just not calling that to mind offhand.

DR: Larry do you have any views on that?

LC: I never thought about it that way. “Like A Rolling Stone” is probably the first song that I heard that was sort of chastising in its lyric, whereas most pop music at the time was love songs or “you hurt me” songs. “Like a Rolling Stone” is pretty acerbic if you think about it. I don’t think it’s misogyny. I think he’s just painting a picture of the bitterness that’s felt when you get dumped, because that bitterness is just as much part of the relationship as the sweet love stuff that was being expressed ubiquitously, at the time, in pop music. Nobody was expressing the bitterness. I don’t see that as misogyny. All the years I was around Bob, I never got the impression that misogyny was any part of his personality.

TW: Sometimes I’m taken aback by the level of vitriol, and it’s so well-crafted that it’s like, “ouch.” But that goes back to being open enough to put it out there. It helps somebody through something. All that stuff does, if you ask me. It all gets out there for a reason, and I think that if somebody’s going through something, a song will get them through.

DRCan you talk about conveying the meaning of Dylan’s music as a guitarist?

LC: There’s nothing Bob Dylan needs to express himself other than him and his acoustic guitar. And if you’re going to add more instruments to that, and I’m going to be the guitar player whose role it is to enhance what he’s putting out, then you have to think on the minimal level as an instrumentalist. One time I was thinking about trying to do a guitar instrumental album of Bob Dylan songs. The problem I ran up against is that his stuff is really not that melodic. He’s certainly written memorable melodies, like “Just Like A Woman,” but it’s not like a McCartney tune, or a Paul Simon tune, where the melody is memorable. And the music with Bob has always seemed to me like a vehicle that gets his art out there, rather than the music itself being the art.

TW: What I keep being reminded of as we’re talking is my Meisner training as an actor. One of the tenets was: the words you’re speaking are riding on the river of emotion. Words aren’t really what’s going on, it’s the emotion underneath.  So the words, the music, it’s all riding on that emotion. You can say the words are riding on the lyrics, the lyrics are riding on the melody; it’s all riding over the emotion. That image just keeps coming to mind. The words are the canoe riding over the river, which is, the river of emotion.

LC: As a guitarist you gotta be part of that river, you know. You don’t want to be another canoe on that river. You just want to be—

TW: In the canoe!

LC: When we performed, Bob would have really good tunes that were just fun to play, that had nothing to do with anything, except the fun of getting up there, and banging on the guitars. We would do a bunch of traditional tunes that weren’t Bob Dylan songs, and there you felt like you had more license to play your instrument in a more permanent way. But with his songs, even if you were taking a solo in one of his songs, you knew on some level you shouldn’t try to compete with his lyrics.

DR: Larry, having had an integral role in his band, what do you think is the source of his ability to captivate a crowd?

LC: His honesty. That’s it. Honesty and authenticity.

TW: That goes back to being vulnerable enough to do that. That’s some kind of courage to me.

DRHow is a Dylan performance, from a performer’s point of view, different from other performances, for example, like the Grateful Dead, or playing with Levon, or is there any difference?

LC: There’s no difference. All of that is an opportunity to communicate through the vehicle of great music, so that’s all the same. Teresa and I did a bunch of touring with Phil Lesh and that was about no parameters. Phil would even say when we got on stage, “You gotta remember, there’s no such thing as mistakes, only opportunities,” which means just get up there and play, and play, and keep playing until you feel, and connect with each other, and as we are connecting with each other, we will connect with the audience, and there were no rules. The only rule was listen to each other. And with Levon, in not so much of an anarchic way, it was still about all of us being in this together, we’re all contributing, were all on equal footing up here. And now playing with Bob, it wasn’t about an equal footing, and you got into that knowing that.

TW: And that’s okay because that’s a different animal. Like you said, Larry, him and the guitar is really the focal point. Even when it was the rock ‘n’ roll band. And your role was to support that.

LC: And there was no resentment at all. I was glad to be part of something like that because his volume of work deserves that, and on my own personal level, after eight years of that, I knew that I had to put myself in situations where I had a broader opportunity to express myself.

TW: And what you did with Bob was part of being a journeyman, no matter what level of musician you are, in supporting something like that, that moves the artist like that, like you’ve described being in Spain, being on stage, and you guys doing something like “Blowin’ in The Wind.” It’s part of why you become a musician, to be part of something that moves an artist like that. Journeyman is kind of the right word. Crossman.

DRThere must be incredible fatigue that goes with that kind of life.

TW: You can’t even imagine. Can I just say with Levon, without saying it out loud, he required honesty. He was the North Star musically, and he was a touchstone for me as an actor, and a musician, and a singer, before I ever dreamed that I would meet him and work with him or any of that. He is a touchstone for me as an artist. If anyone ever asks me who’s my favorite actor-singer, I would say Levon, because the honesty level is painful. It would just slay you. He expected everybody to bring their game and pull the others up by doing it. And it was very freeing working with him. He wants you to bring it, don’t stand back, and it was liberating, and encouraging.

LC: And that’s connecting to each other on the stage, and through that we connect to the audience, and the connection to the audience comes back to you, and that’s a cycle that just keeps feeding on itself.

DRYou’ve both won accolades for Americana music. From your perspective Teresa, especially as a female artist, how do you see Dylan’s influence, and his place, and relative to where you are in that genre?

TW: I think it’s not for nothing that the Band was working with him, and the Band is known for being the first Americana band. As far as Americana goes, for me the great love of my life is that I got to work with Levon. One of the most exciting things when I first saw Dylan was when Larry was playing with him. I was taken by the fact that he played any genre he wanted to play during the show. It was bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll, folk, showtunes. That was so freeing for me because I love so many different genres. When I was starting out, I was thinking, “which genre should I do?” Those folk people were also ensconced in Harry Smith, and all those field recordings, all that stuff. I like to quip that I was the person in the field. I grew up with that stuff. What went down was really raw. We literally were the people in the field. People would say, how did you get with these people (Levon, Phil)? My upbringing was certainly not as a Deadhead. It was so remote from where I am now, down here with my parents. That world was like another planet. I didn’t even know about it. As an adult, to discover that stuff that they were really digging into, that Jerry was really bringing to that band, was that stuff that we were singing in church when I was growing up. So when I first started working with Phil, it was like, “Oh yeah, I know that song.” It wasn’t the stretch that I would’ve thought.

I’m basically doing now what my parents taught me to do in the living room when I was growing up: the Joan Baez version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” with my little Yamaha guitar. And then I end up working with Levon. You just can’t make this up. And he grew up just over the river from us. And he has a set of great-grandparents that came from right here where I grew up.

LC: Regarding his place in the genre, Bob is ground zero. Bob and then The Band—ground zero for what has become the Americana genre. And that’s because what he did and what they did was take all these disparate American genres, everything that’s organically American, blues, country, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, Cajun, jazz, all the stuff that is uniquely American, and they threw it all into this big pot, mixed it up, and came out with a whole different style of music that’s been emulated and refined and expanded.

And when Bob was at his height, and The Band was at their height, I was a fan of both of them, but during that time of my musical life I was obsessed with the roots of what these guys were doing. I wanted to hear Robert Johnson, I wanted to hear Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, George Jones, Hank Williams. I was into the whole Bakersfield thing, chipped teeth and sideburns: country music. I was obsessed with that stuff from the origin. And it took mining all that stuff as deeply as I could to then really appreciate what Bob was doing and what The Band was doing.

DR: Do performers have any responsibility in getting various musical messages across to the audience?

LC:  I think the performer has a responsibility to move the audience. The audience is paying money to have an emotional experience with the performer. And if that comes from directly from the vibrations that are coming from the music that they are making, and that’s the only message that’s getting across, then as long as it’s moving the audience, then the responsibility has been met. From the perspective of people coming to see Bob Dylan, someone who has done plenty of political messaging and social messaging, it’s the same. His only responsibility yet is to give the audience what his honest artistic output is, so if that at the time is encoding social and political messaging, then great. But if not, if it’s just love songs or just hate songs, or if it’s just bluegrass songs, and that’s what he’s feeling artistically, then that’s his responsibility—to put that forth to the best of his ability, in any performance.

TW: That’s exactly what I was going to say. Your responsibility is, if you’re feeling compelled to share something, then it’s got to be the truth, through you, whatever you’re compelled to share truthfully. You’re just sharing the truth as it’s coming through you.

It’s that performer’s truth. Like if Steve Earle needs to expound on some political wrong, that’s his truth in the moment. If it’s melody, just music without the lyrics, that’s what you should share. If it’s a political statement, and it’s your burden to share, then that’s your burden to share. And you have to tell that as truthfully as you can.

LC: And as far as getting a specific message across to an audience, I don’t see that per se as the responsibility of the performer. That’s the responsibility of a politician, or a preacher, a lecturer, but as Teresa just said a performer’s responsibility is to emotionally express the truth of what they are feeling.

DRWhat Dylan songs do you play together, if any, and why those songs?

LC: We do “Boots of Spanish Leather” occasionally and we do “Wallflower” because it’s a perfect little country tune that we sing together well.

TW: We play “Cry A While” during a benefit concert that’s put on around Dylan’s birthday to benefit schools in the area. It’s kind of fun and it has some vitriol in it, but with humor. I enjoy doing that because it goes a little bit in the blues direction.

LC: And Teresa sings that and it’s interesting because it’s a different song when a woman is singing it. And Teresa sings the hell out of it.

TW: We also do “I Shall Be Released” and “Forever Young.”

DR: Given the pandemic and the disruption in live performances, in your opinion, does music matter less or more now?

LC: I’d like to know the answer to that question.

TW: Music is always going to matter. It’s primal. It’s a soother. It’s a happy dance. It’s a common thing. It’s a nostalgic thing. It can reach inside people who are deep in dementia or trapped in their own bodies for some other physical reason. It can reach inside those people and move them. Music is vital.

LC: Given that, music does matter more now than ever, or any art form for that matter, because of its ability to be the glue that binds people together. And it enables them to express the insecurity they are feeling, to express the loneliness they may be feeling, to express the fear they may be feeling. It’s because of this time we’re going through. I think it’s always needed as Teresa said, but now that need has been heightened to a pretty high degree.

TW: It binds us all together and reminds us that we’re all human. We all go through these emotions. It’s the key sometimes to your soul. It’s a common foundation. All that’s going on, the pandemic, the social unrest, the political unrest: music can remind us that we’re all human and we’re all in this together.

DR: Do performers have special leadership responsibilities in this crisis especially during lockdown, and if so, then how can they fulfill them?

TW: Thinking about the responsibility they have—it doesn’t change the responsibility of delivering the truth as it’s being given to them in the moment of their need to express something. They just express that truth. That alone is a leadership move and there are plenty of ways to get it out there. And people at home have more time on their hands, typically, to find the output with digital. I hate that it’s digital, until we can all be together again.

LC: I completely agree with the view that performers have a responsibility to tell the truth. That is the responsibility. As far as being leaders in navigating through this pandemic, I don’t see that as responsibility, so much as if you endeavor to take that responsibility, you do it with honesty. I don’t think there’s any sin in well-known performers wanting to sit back and hide during this time. I don’t think they’re obliged to have any sort of leadership role or comforting output or anything. But I do think that anyone who does set out to take a leadership role needs to do it with complete openness and honesty. That’s the responsibility.

TW: The responsibility is if you have a talent and gift that way and you’re feeling driven inside from whatever, spiritual thing you want to say, to make art, that’s your responsibility to do it. And to me if you don’t, it’s kind of like slapping God in the face if you ignore it. But as far as politically or leading the world, no. I think the responsibility is within you, and what is driving you and getting your truth out. And beyond that, it lands where it’s supposed to land.

LC: I concur.

DR: With regard to Dylan’s music, does the ambiguous and sometimes cryptic nature of the lyrics make it impossible to determine a simple message?

LC: In a cranial sense yes, but in an emotional sense that’s the beauty of it. Because if you allow yourself to be immersed in what he is saying and get away from the cranial part, the beauty of most of his lyric writing is that you can produce your own video in your mind of what he’s trying to say. Then it becomes what it means to you, and that’s because though it’s cryptic and sometimes ambiguous and difficult to follow sometimes, it’s always poetry, and poetry of the highest order. It’s Teresa’s appreciation for poetry that has gotten me to understand it a little bit better, to understand how this stuff can work on you through the subconscious and not look for a literal translation. Just ruminate on what this particular phrase does to you and how it’s connected to all the other phrases in the song. But that’s what’s so enigmatic about his art. If you open yourself up, that stuff’s going to have an effect on you.

TW: If it’s something from the artist’s subconscious putting that down, then it is sheer poetry. To try to combat it from the cranial place is wrong from the get-go. It’s like the interviewer said to Robert Hunter, “We don’t understand what this line means,” and he flatly said, “It’s poetry.” I think that if you’re just putting the honest thing that’s coming through you down, it’s like a painting. It means a different thing to different people. The subject is different to different people. But when performer gives you thirty minutes of how and where and when and why they wrote the song, to me, it destroys the song. And we do it too. I will tell why a song means something to me. Larry tells why he wrote a song—he may say that on stage—but to me you do a disservice, even though it’s juicy to hear. You want a blank slate so it can mean whatever, without you layering over your own interpretation. It’s not your interpretation. It’s what it does to that person. What goes through their soul, which is the point of a piece of art.

LC: Look at a song like “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” What the hell does that mean: “Whoo-ee! Ride me high / Tomorrow’s the Day / My bride’s gonna come . . . We gonna fly / Down in the easy chair.” What the hell does that mean? It doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter. There’s something about it that conjures up pictures in your mind, and those pictures lead to a certain emotional experience. That’s what the words are supposed to do. Bob could have written that just to parody himself. I don’t know that, but I think he went through a phase of writing nonsense because he was Bob Dylan and people had all these expectations about how profound his lyric writing is.

TW: And it still evokes emotion.

DR: With regard to the Johnny Cash/Bob Dylan connection, didn’t that help Dylan gain traction in the South?

LC: It did with some people, but it helped Johnny Cash more in the Dylan world than it helped Dylan in the Johnny Cash world.

TW: Yeah I think that’s right. The hero here in the South was Johnny Cash. We watched that show religiously. And the Carter family singing behind them. The Dead wasn’t that big down here either. And the people that Larry and I have played with were really more East Coast, West Coast, Northeast, Northwest. Around here, people really don’t appreciate that music.

DR: Do you feel like knowing Bob Dylan makes it more difficult to hear songs with detachment?

LC: It did for a while, but I’m past that now. I’m back to where I can see him as two different entities. There is Bob who I got to know, and then there’s Bob who has been, in my opinion, our most important artist of the latter twentieth century.

After I left the band, I wasn’t interested in hearing Bob Dylan music anymore. Not because of any bitterness or anything like that, but just because the mystique had worn off. But now with enough distance—and these embers have been stirred by his last body of work, listening to some of that stuff, the JFK thing—there’s no denying, the guy is unique. There’s nobody like him, and his ability to tell the truth on a subconscious level is surpassed by no one.

DR: How would you characterize Dylan’s impact on not only your careers but on American music at large?

LC: There is no more important artist in American music at large and on my career. Playing with him all those years and delving through his music gave me license to accept and embrace my own creativity because I was around someone who uses that talent in the most artful way. Through osmosis it gave me license to follow the path that I wanted to follow.

TW: Larry made a nonverbal commitment to not be on the road anymore. You know the road is destructive to family life.

LC: I was having a very lucrative career as a studio musician, which had been my ambition from the beginning. So I was in this frame of mind that I wasn’t going to go out on tour. I was going to stay in New York and do this. And then Jeff Kramer called me, and said that Bob wanted me to come down and play with him, and I said no. And the next morning I woke up and said, “What did I just do!” So I called Kramer back and told him I was reconsidering.  The studio work, as lucrative as it was, and as interesting as it could be, you’d be hired to play stuff that you wouldn’t play in a million years, because it meant nothing to you, but you’re getting paid to do it so you do it. With Bob, and subsequently since then, I’ve been allowed to stay true to who I am as an artist.

TW: Two weeks after Larry left the band, Levon called Larry, and then Amy had heard me and Larry play, and then she called me up to work on the record that they had called on Larry to produce. So as far as how it affected the career, the sequence of events that followed: following your heart about things, like Larry did when he broke his own rule about not going on tour again and going out with Bob, is like sticking to your art. It will lead to beautiful places in your own life. All of those things gave us a platform to evolve our own thing.

LC: Levon gave us a great sandbox to play in, to hone what she and I could be.

TW: He wanted everybody to step up and bring your whole game. Even me meeting Larry was because I stepped out on a limb and sent a tape I had from a couple of demos I did in Nashville. A friend of a friend helped me get a band together to do it. It took my brother dying for me to decide to do something with this music. I plucked up my nerve and sent them in to a contest. That’s how I met Larry, through a friend of a friend. Do what you love to do and be true to yourself first. From Dylan, to Levon, to us as our own thing together.


Rob Stoner thinks the handwringing and conjecture over Bob Dylan’s decision to sell his publishing catalog is nothing more than mixed-up confusion.

Too many people, all too hard to please.

“This is strictly a business deal. This is all about the numbers, cut and dry. It’s not surprising, and I don’t understand the controversy,” said Stoner, who played bass and was bandleader during the Rolling Thunder Revue, and toured and recorded with Dylan later. “Bob is no dummy. Do you think he is going to make a stupid deal? He’s always had his ducks in a row. He’s always had the best advice, the best lawyers, the best accountants that money can buy.”

Stoner’s advice to fans: Calm down. Everything is going to be okay.

Dylan’s decision to sell his entire publishing catalog of more than six hundred songs, up through Rough and Rowdy Ways, to Universal Music Publishing Group for what Billboard now says is between $375 million and $400 million reflects the unprecedented value of Dylan’s catalog because of the near-ubiquitous nature of music streaming. It’s the right deal at the right time, observers say, the confluence of opportunity and convenience for both sides in the landmark deal.

For fans, the sale likely means a lot more Dylan music will begin appearing in commercials and across mass media, as Universal recoups its investment by licensing as many songs as often as possible—and we can only hope with respect to the integrity of the collection. More significantly, it does not mean Dylan will stop recording, stop touring, or begin concentrating only on making paintings and sculpture. If he does, it almost certainly will be for reasons unrelated to the publishing deal.

Indeed, within a few days of the report of the sale to Universal in the New York Times, the Dylan camp announced the upcoming release of the new Dylan/George Harrison box set, following up a limited release of a special-edition collection issued primarily to extend copyrights. Both products suggest it will be business as usual in terms of curated, bootleg-style releases.

For Dylan, the Universal deal is about cashing out at high value and walking away with the ability to continue to do whatever he wants to do, still with control of his masters but without the headache of administering a song catalog that grows more complicated with time, shielding his heirs from the hassles and complexities of evolving entertainment and business law.

“Now Universal will do all the administration, and Bob doesn’t have to deal with it,” Stoner said.

For Universal, it’s about gaining control over the most valuable and culturally significant collection of contemporary songs ever written, the jewel-in-the-crown of twentieth-century American art.

Dylan’s deal is the latest and most intriguing among the so-called evergreen generation of songwriters and recording artists, who generate huge revenue on streaming services because of the size, popularity, and sustaining nature of their song catalogs. Each time a Dylan song is sold, broadcast, or streamed—or placed in an ad, movie, or TV show—Universal will earn back its investment.

In addition to signing over his publishing royalties, Dylan also sold the copyrights to his songs, according to multiple reports. That means Universal will earn money each time a Dylan song is covered by another artist, and Dylan will have no say in how his previously recorded songs are used or how much Universal can charge to license them.

George Howard, an associate professor of music business at Berklee College of Music, said the sale of the underlying copyright (“the whole kit and caboodle,” he told Business Insider) “almost never happens,” which makes this deal unique. “That explains the valuation.”

It’s a safe investment for Universal because streaming services have made music revenue predictable, which makes music catalogs attractive to investors. That is why so many artists have sold their catalogs, from Stevie Nicks to Taylor Swift. “The way streaming services are growing, this will be the gift that keeps on giving, in terms of royalties,” Howard said of the Dylan deal.

Tim Riley, a longtime Dylan observer, music critic, and associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, called the deal a slam-dunk for Universal and said the initial report in The New York Times of the sale being worth $300 million “struck me as a small number.” He said Universal would earn back its investment in a few years’ time.

He wasn’t surprised by the news—nothing about Dylan surprises him anymore—but he was surprised how much attention the sale received and how much Dylan was criticized. It’s easy to criticize wealthy rock stars, Riley said, “but we will never understand the air they breathe. They make a lot of decisions that may seem weird to us.”

He agreed with Stoner that this deal is about timing and convenience. “The idea that you could sell it for a lump sum and never deal with it again—‘just get it off my plate’—that becomes very attractive after you have had to manage it all these years,” Riley said. “If he spends four hours a week administering his catalog on the phone with his team, it’s probably the worst four hours of his week.”

People who are upset with Dylan for making his music available for commercial purposes have had plenty of time to resolve those conflicts. Dylan has licensed his music for ads for more than a quarter-century, sometimes successfully and with artistic flair, sometimes less so. He filmed an ad for the “ladies’ garments” company Victoria’s Secret in 2007, using his song “Love Sick,” and appeared without music in another for IBM. “Forever Young,” it seems has ageless appeal among advertisers. The list is long. As Dylan himself said, money doesn’t talk, it swears.

“There is punditry that you now will start to see Bob’s songs everywhere, and you might,” Howard said. “But he’s not like Radiohead or Neil Young, who have never licensed their work. Maybe you’ll notice a bit more, maybe a bit less, but the average consumer probably won’t notice much. Dylan already licenses his music for such weird things. Not much he does would surprise me.”

I’ve been listening to Dylan since the ‘60s, I’ve been a fan since the ‘70s, and I’ve attended eighty-plus shows all across the country. This year, 2020, will be the first since 1986 that I have not seen at least one Dylan concert. And yet, I have never appreciated his music more, with a tantalizing new record and the convenience of streaming music during my walks in the Maine woods that have carried me through the pandemic. When people ask what I did during the pandemic, I will tell them I listened to a lot of Dylan.

The use of his songs in TV ads in no way diminishes my connection to his music or my desire to see him again in concert. I sometimes wish he hadn’t sold this or sold that, but who am I to judge his motives?

As Tim Riley said, we will never understand the air he breathes.

I appreciate the ads for their quirky mystery. I see the Chrysler Super Bowl ad, with “Things Have Changed” lingering in the background, as an extension of one of his road songs, a travelogue, and an homage to American adventure with at least one great line: “Because we believe in the zoom, the roar, and the thrust.”

Richard Thomas, the Harvard classics professor who wrote the book Why Bob Dylan Matters, said the worst-case scenario of the Universal deal is that Dylan’s music shows up in ads we don’t approve of, that perhaps degrade the integrity of the song. But he’s not too worried. “I don’t buy Victoria’s Secret, and that didn’t bother me. I quite liked that ad. I thought the Cadillac ad was pretty good too,” he said.

As a researcher who has worked with Dylan’s team to secure permission to reproduce song lyrics, Thomas understands the work involved in dealing with those requests. He called it “a level of micromanaging” that Dylan and his management “are not enamored of.” He said Dylan’s team has always been cooperative, and he hopes Universal is equally responsive and open to allowing writers to quote Dylan’s lyrics.

Further, Thomas said he does not read anything into the deal as the end of one phase or the beginning of another. It’s nothing more than a business deal, timed to coincide with the high value of Dylan’s catalog at this historic moment in the music business.

“Any new material is not included in the deal, so the implication is there could be new material, new song material as well as other things he is working on,” Thomas said. “I sure hope he is writing another album, since the last one we got is so terrific. Dylan will keep doing what Dylan is doing, which is continuing to produce his songs, paintings, and sculpture. And I think he will tour again. I sure hope he does. I think touring is something that means a lot to him, and it means a lot to us.”

Stoner said Dylan became savvy in business from fighting with Albert Grossman, his early manager who suffered an inglorious separation from Dylan in 1970. “Bob didn’t want to let Grossman have a penny for his songs, so he retained his own rights and administered his own publishing through his own employees,” Stoner said. “The people who ran his business office back in the 1970s were the people he poached from Grossman’s office. When Bob split with Grossman, he replicated the same operation with the same employees a few blocks away.”

The deal with Universal is the same kind of thing, only this time civil, and with higher stakes and rewards. With Dylan turning eighty in the spring, who can blame him?

“It’s a huge chunk of change,” Stoner said, “and now his heirs don’t have to fight about it.”

The Simple Art of Music: Bob Dylan and Noir

ARTICLE BY John Radosta, Independent Scholar

Abstract: This article traces Dylan’s extensive use of, and connections to, crime fiction, tracing its roots from ballads such as “Barbara Allen” through Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin stories (particularly on the album Tempest), and into film noir. Many of Dylan’s noir songs, such as “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” “Down the Highway,” “Scarlet Town,” and “Tin Angel,” share rhythms and themes with crime fiction that highlight the seedy underbelly of society. This is distinct from his songs of social protest, such as “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” where the goal is to effect change, instead of the vicarious experience of crime for entertainment’s sake. While there has been extensive study of Dylan’s use of film noir dialogue in his lyrics, this study focuses more on the attitudes and aesthetic of pulp fiction. It also includes a review of several of Dylan’s more recent music videos, such as “The Night We Called it a Day” and “Duquesne Whistle,” and their relationship to the noir tradition.

Keywords: James M. Cain; Raymond Chandler; crime fiction; Bob Dylan; James Ellroy; Dashiell Hammett; Griel Marcus; noir; Otto Penzler; Edgar Allan Poe; Harry Smith

Man has climbed Everest. He has invented, devised, created in every realm of human endeavor . . . but there is one that has been neglected, Mr Bond. That one is the human activity loosely known as crime . . . And yet . . . in one week, the curtain will go up for the single, the unique performance. And then will come the applause, the applause for the greatest extra-legal coup of all time. And, Mr Bond, the world will rock with that applause for centuries.

—Ian Fleming, Goldfinger

With the exception, perhaps, of the title of 1983’s “License to Kill,” Bob Dylan seems never to have made an allusion to another enduring cultural phenomenon that came out of the 1960s: James Bond. However, this monologue from Ian Fleming’s 1959 novel (Gert Frobe’s iconic film version was so memorably delivered in 1964) anticipates Dylan’s imminent arrival on the world stage as well as his long-abiding interest in crime fiction. Fleming wrote in the tradition of pulp and noir fiction, a tradition that Dylan continues to honor as he explores criminality throughout his work, not least in the albums of original material he has released recently, starting with Together Through Life. My intention in this essay is not to show that Dylan makes specific references to specific titles—though he does, and they will be explored—but that he draws extensive inspiration from this literary genre. In the same way that he has walked “a road other men have gone down,” reworking the conventions of traditional murder ballads, blues, and other musical styles, Dylan finds a clear appeal in the cynical worldview of noir, which intersects easily with his interest in songs similarly populated by cons, harlots, and other low-lifes. Each artistic medium provides his writing with themes that parallel our times.

Dylan’s early work is best known for his concerns with injustices borne of poverty, social inequality, and race. The 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changin’ takes aim at the injustice and asks us to change it: when we learn that William Zanzinger, who “Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres / With rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him / And high office relations in the politics of Maryland,” walked off with a six-month sentence, Dylan tells us, “Now’s the time for your tears.”[1] When we hear of the mass murder-suicide and “seven new people born”[2] at the end of “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” we know instinctively that these new unlucky seven are likely to feel the same weight of poverty and despair that the Browns did, unless we do something to rectify economic inequalities. But improving the human condition is not the primary goal of noir, and so we leave this worthy cause to wander some more.

Noir does cast an eye on the crushing power of situations beyond a person’s control, but it does so mainly to signal the foolishness of the character’s attempts to win a rigged game. American pulp fiction began in the early twentieth century, in magazines such as Black Mask, in which Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories were published, as well as many others including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which survives to this day. The pulps, so called for the cheap paper on which they were printed, emphasized lurid stories, often set in seedy and sleazy corners of the city. There was no pretext of literary merit, just fast-paced stories designed to shock you into turning the page to the next hellish tale. In the introduction to The Best American Noir of the Century, Otto Penzler defines noir works as

existential, pessimistic tales about people, including (or especially) protagonists, who are seriously flawed and morally questionable. The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry.[3]

In his own introductory essay to the same collection, James Ellroy adds that “[t]he social importance of noir is its grounding in the big themes of race, class, gender, and systematic corruption.”[4] Today, practitioners of noir are as varied as Ken Bruen, Dave Zeltserman, and S. A. Cosby. Given Dylan’s attraction to similar themes, both with an eye towards social improvement in his protest songs, as well as an interest in some of his later work in presenting the seedy spectacle of little people making big mistakes, I would add Bob Dylan to that list.

Before the pulps, there were dime novels and myriad periodicals. One of those was the Philadelphia-based Graham’s Magazine, which, for a time in the early 1840s, was edited by Edgar Allan Poe. While at the helm, Poe published one of his own sensationalizing tales, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in which he introduces the first literary detective, C. Auguste Dupin. One inspiration for Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Dupin used “ratiocination” to deduce the outré truth behind bizarre crimes. But while Holmes generally remains in more civilized circles (except for his occasional escape to an opium den), Poe’s Dupin steps boldly into the darkest corners of society. In “Rue Morgue,” he confronts the brutal, animalistic murders of two women in graphic detail, down to a severed head. In the next Dupin story, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1842-3), following the tradition of murder ballads, Poe uses as his starting point the real-life murder of the cigar-store girl Mary Rogers, whose body was found in Newark, New Jersey in 1841. The final Dupin story, “The Purloined Letter,” (which the first Holmes short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia” (1891) significantly resembles), invokes the memory of the surgeon John Abernethy.

It has long been known that Bob Dylan is well-versed in Poe and especially in the Dupin stories. As far back as 1965, he visited “Rue Morgue Avenue” in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”[5] However, especially since the start of the new millennium, he has mined those stories for more than a simple warning to stay away from dangerous neighborhoods. In his Theme Time Radio Hour, ostensibly recorded in the fictional “historic Abernathy building,” he reads “The Raven”[6] and “Annabel Lee.”[7] During the legs of his “Never Ending tour” in support of 2012’s Tempest, ticket pre-sale codes included such allusions to Poe as “nevermore” and “raven.” Meanwhile, several songs on the album make direct references to Poe, including “Duquesne Whistle” and “Scarlet Town,” which features a grotesque ball reminiscent of “Masque of the Red Death.” He also makes a direct reference to “Mr. Poe” and his “tell-tale heart” on his latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways.

Dylan’s most detailed exploration of a Dupin story is in the Tempest tune “Tin Angel.” The song depicts a murderous love triangle, in which the cuckolded husband climbs through the window of the room where his wife is visiting her lover. It is a vile story of marital betrayal and murder, reaching as far back as Aeschylus’ Agamemnon—the ancient play in which the triumphant commander of the Greek forces returned home from Troy, only to be murdered in his bed by his wife and her lover—right into the present day. On the face of it, the two works are not immediately connected, beyond the setting of a boudoir, but there are significant recurrences of details. For example, Dupin lives in “a time-eaten and grotesque mansion,”[8] while “the boss” of Dylan’s story comes home to “a deserted mansion and a desolate throne.”[9]

It is in the scenes of murder where Dylan hews closest to Poe’s description. He describes the boss’s approach to the murder room using many of the details scattered about the miserable apartment in the Rue Morgue. All of the witnesses attest to the fact that though they “heard two voices in loud and angry contention—the one a gruff voice, the other much shriller—a very strange voice,” they “[c]ould not be sure whether it was the voice of a man or of a woman.”[10] Dylan echoes that in his depiction of the boss as he “Peered through the darkness, caught a glimpse of the two / It was hard to tell for certain who was who.”[11] His entrance to Henry Lee’s room is similarly detailed. Dupin recognizes that the murderer must have entered and escaped through the windows, as the staircase was being observed. When deducing how the killer gained access to the room, Dupin notes that near the window “in question there runs a lightning-rod.”[12] Dylan takes care to have the boss “Cut the electric wire” before “lowering himself down on a golden chain,”[13] an image quite similar to a copper lightning rod. Both rooms contain gold, the Rue Morgue’s site providing a red herring motive for the murder, while in the song, beyond the golden chain, the faithless wife claims her lover is “dearer to me than gold.”[14] One of the tell-tale clues Dupin finds is “a small piece of ribbon, which from its form, and from its greasy appearance, has evidently been used in tying the hair in one of those long queues of which sailors are so fond.”[15] Meanwhile, Dylan’s harried boss “ran his fingers through his greasy hair.”[16] The cumulative effect of these repeated key words and images reinforces Poe’s influence on Dylan’s writing, while their transformed use in new contexts and plot points illustrates Dylan’s mastery in reinterpreting the source of that influence.

Of course, in Poe’s macabre tale, the killer is inhuman—literally. Straining credulity, Dupin deduces that, given the difficulty in attaining the height of the window and the savagery of the wounds found on the two women, the perpetrator must have been “no animal but an Ourang-Outang.”[17] Twice in Dylan’s song the boss is knocked down a few rungs on the evolutionary ladder to be compared to a similar simian. First, Henry Lee (his name is the same as the title character in Dick Justice’s song on The Anthology of American Folk Music) calls him “a gutless ape with a worthless mind,”[18] and then the spurned husband acknowledges the transformation, telling Henry Lee, “You made a monkey of me, what and for why?”[19]

Poe’s story is notable for its bizarre plot, but also for its unusually diverse cast of characters, one that presents to his audience a broader and more realistic view of society than was often shown to readers at the time. This combination of sensational events taking place within a realistically seedy setting is what spurred American pulp fiction decades later. The stories of both Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett feature their heroes tramping through desolate neighborhoods with broken down houses and apartment buildings, bars too cash-poor to afford new signs when they change names, and a frightening array of characters dragging through one miserable hour to the next. The vivid descriptions allow us, the readers, a vicarious (and cheap) thrill in walking down those alleys without the fear of getting a shiv in the back.

Dylan can’t, or won’t, stick with a musical form for more than two or three albums, but his interest in Penzler’s world of bleakness and nihilism, a world seething with the most atavistic levels of lust and greed, is one interest that is long abiding. Returning to his earliest influences from traditional ballads with the pair of albums Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong in the 1990s, Dylan packed the playlist with murder ballads and voyeuristic glimpses of seedy lowlifes. These songs, like the sensationalist stories portrayed in pulp fiction, were popularized through mass media, first as broadsides, then later as recordings on shellac or vinyl. Over the course of two albums, Dylan sets sail on a transport ship to Australia with “Jim Jones,” he’s sentenced to hard labor on a chain-gang in “You’re Gonna Quit Me,” and he suffers plain old “Hard Times.” During the same period, he also recorded the ghostly murder ballad “Polly Vaughn” and the Robert Johnson tune “32-20 Blues.”

Though these are all covers of traditional ballads and blues, they are late-century rambles through those same dark and dangerous alleys that keep the focus on lurid crime, not for the romance of the west, as in “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” or to protest injustice, as in “Hurricane” or “The Death of Emmett Till.” These songs simply provide the vicarious experience of being in the murder room, of witnessing for ourselves as “they got old Stack-A-Lee and they laid him right back in jail.”[20]

On the Road: From Poisonville to Smithville and Beyond

Noir’s ability to get us to sympathize with low-lifes and losers, to root for sleaze peddlers and dope fiends, to experience the corrupting forces of lust and greed and pure bad faith, is at the rotten heart of pulp fiction. But it grips us by the neck, as Poe’s Ourang-Outang and Chandler’s Moose Malloy both do, and it forces us to not just watch the roiling filth of the cities, but to revel in it

In their novels, both Hammett and Chandler, in addition to countless other pulp writers, explored both the upper crust and the underbelly of society. Hammett moves his unnamed Continental Op through social circles that include rum-runners, duplicitous dames, and corrupt town officials. One such city can be found in “The Cleansing of Poisonville,” which was serialized in Black Mask in 1927, and was ultimately transformed into the novel Red Harvest. In his Introduction to the Hammett collection The Continental Op, Steven Marcus says that Hammett “not only continually juxtaposes and connects the ambiguously fictional worlds of art and of writing with the fraudulently fictional worlds of society; he connects them, juxtaposes them, and sees them in dizzying and baffling interaction.”[21] Some of those juxtapositions can be seen in The Maltese Falcon (a favorite film of Dylan’s, which has provided him with countless lyrics), when Sam Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy, “I’m going to send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. . . . You’re an angel. I’ll wait for you. . . . If they hang you I’ll always remember you.”[22] The interplay of love, hatred, and the likelihood that her privileged background may get her a lighter sentence all put Spade’s—and Hammett’s—cynicism in the fore. The same types of juxtapositions are rife in Dylan’s work, and are a common source of his art. For example, in “Pay in Blood,” Dylan writes (though on Tempest he sings different lyrics),

Another political pumping out his piss

Another ragged beggar blowin’ ya a kiss

Life is short and it don’t last long

They’ll hang you in the morning and sing ya a song.[23]

His cynicism rivals Hammett’s, with the rhyme linking the political and the beggar, and Spade’s iconic speech reduced to a jaded couplet.

Dylan also shares similarities with Raymond Chandler. In a conversation between Ian Fleming and Chandler, Bond’s creator notes, “the thriller element it seems to me in your books is in the people, the character building, and to a considerable extent in the dialogue, which of course I think is some of the finest dialogue written in any prose today.”[24] Indeed, Chandler’s characters are well built. His knight-errant detective Philip Marlowe, himself the occupant of a room so small he uses a Murphy bed, scales the heights of society, such as when he “call[s] on four million dollars”[25] to meet the decrepit General Sternwood in The Big Sleep. The general, who retained his randiness late into his 60s, when he begat his two wild and wayward daughters, now gets his kicks by sniffing at the cigarettes and booze his visitors enjoy in his sweltering conservatory, which is filled with orchids whose “flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.”[26] But later, in Farewell, My Lovely, instead of four million dollars, Marlowe finds himself at a “dried-out brown house with a dried-out brown lawn in front of it.”[27] In other words, he walks in a world

in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels . . . a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of money-making, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing.[28]

A world frighteningly like our own, where small people make big mistakes. It is a world eerily similar to the one Dylan depicts in “Early Roman Kings”:

They’re peddlers and they’re meddlers, they buy and they sell

They destroyed your city, they’ll destroy you as well

They’re lecherous and treacherous, hell bent for leather

Each of them bigger than all men put together

Sluggers and muggers wearing fancy gold rings.[29]

In these short lines, Dylan builds those characters Fleming so admired in Chandler’s work. Though we hear none of them speak, their personalities are richly described in their self-importance: every single one of them believes he is more important than the group, and those gold rings most certainly do more than flash as they slug their hapless victims.

That gritty, sensationalist view has long been an important theme in Dylan’s work. Much has been made of his romantic depiction of outlaws and villains, which are prominent in his early work. In his earliest live performances, he sang such songs as “Moonshiner” and Dock Boggs’s “Pretty Polly,” in which Polly pleads for her life as Willie leads her through the woods to her grave. For both complete songs and inspiration for his own compositions, Dylan mined Harry Smith’s The Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection Greil Marcus goes so far as to describe as the fictional town “Smithville,” a place where the

prison population is large, and most are part of it at one time or another. While some may escape justice, they do not remain among their fellow citizens; executions take place in public. There are, after all, a lot of murders here—crimes of passion, of cynicism, of mere reflex—and also suicides. Here both murder and suicide are rituals, acts instantly transformed into legend.[30]

Likewise, when Dylan recorded his debut album, 1962’s Bob Dylan, he included noir-ish tales like “House of the Rising Sun,” and in “Song to Woody,” he gave a nod to prisoner-turned-recording star Leadbelly.

One trope that infuses noir and Dylan’s work alike is that of the lonesome hobo, cursed like Cain to wander the earth from one rocky coast to the other. In the hands of Woody Guthrie, that type of tramping along the road takes on a romantic air. Guthrie’s “autobiography” Bound for Glory, an early influence on Dylan, describes the situation like this:

I walked on down the highway bucking the wind. It got so hard I had to really duck my head and push. Yes. I know this old flat country up here on the caprock plains. Gumbo mud. Hard crust sod. Iron grass for tough cattle and hard-hitting cowboys that work for the ranchers. These old houses that sweep with the country and look like they’re crying in the dust. I know who’s in there. I know. I’ve stuck my head in a million. Drove tractors, cleaned plows and harrows, greased discs and pulled tumbleweeds out from under the machinery. That wind is getting harder. Whoooooo![31]

The wandering is adventurous, a tale to be told with the cheerful glee of a raconteur. But a noir story, while presenting the same milieu of down-and-out laborers and drifters, has a mean glint in the eye, a cynical contempt for the world and everyone in it. For example, in the classic 1934 tragedy The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain’s doomed lovers Frank and Cora have the following exchange:

“We’ll ditch this Greek and blow. Just blow.”

“Where to?”

“Anywhere. What do we care?”

“Anywhere. Anywhere. You know where that is?”

“All over. Anywhere we choose.”

“No it’s not. It’s the hash house.”

“I’m not talking about the hash house. I’m talking about the road. It’s fun, Cora. And nobody knows it better than I do. I know every twist and turn it’s got. And I know how to work it, too. Isn’t that what we want? Just to be a pair of tramps, like we really are?”[32] [33]

The same rhythms, the same optimistic misery can be heard in “Down the Highway”:

Well, I’m bound to get lucky, baby

Or I’m bound to die tryin’

Yes, I’m a-bound to get lucky, baby

Lord, Lord I’m a-bound to die tryin’

Well, meet me in the middle of the ocean

And we’ll leave this ol’ highway behind…[34]

None of Guthrie’s chipper road-earned wisdom is here, no pride in hard work or joy in the company of your fellow man or woman. Just an ongoing war against a hard-lipped fate that always crushes you in the end.

That hard-lipped fate is right there in front of you in “Scarlet Town,” from 2012’s Tempest. Dylan’s Scarlet Town shares borders with Smithville and Poisonville. Here, “the evil and the good” live “side by side.”[35] The song is a fascinating nexus of ancient balladry, nursery rhyme, biblical excess, and tragic waste. Some versions of the ballad “Barbara Allen” (though not the version Dylan sang in the Greenwich Village coffee houses) are set in Scarlet Town, and here, as in that song, a young man named William lies dying for the love of a woman. But instead of telling the tale of too-late repentance, this song moves out of the death room to investigate other scenes of filth. Beggars crouch at the gate, love is a sin, and beauty is a crime. In Scarlet Town, all manner of perversions fester, where you fight your father’s foes “with whiskey, morphine and gin” and then dance with your “flat chested junky whore”[36]—not an inaccurate description of the blackmailed daughter of General Sternwood, Carmen, that Philip Marlowe deals with in The Big Sleep: after rescuing her from a drugged nude photo shoot, he later kicks her out of his apartment when he finds her recreating the scene in his Murphy bed. The 1946 film of The Big Sleep, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, provides a number of lyrics to Dylan tunes over the years, as Michael Gray points out.[37] But it also has another connection to Dylan’s output: in one scene, when the stars speak in a restaurant, the music in the background is the song, “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan,” which he recorded for his last collection of American standards, Triplicate, in 2017.


Blood in My Eyes: Femmes Fatales in Story and Song

The land of noir is a bastion of male misery, and, like the blues, this literary genre often trades in a simple, brutish attitude toward gender roles. In these tales, men are most often the aggrieved party, brought low by the machinations of a beautiful but foul woman. It’s an attitude that reaches as far back as Eve and the “beautiful evil,” Pandora. Dylan modernizes the image with the wife in “Tin Angel,” discussed above.

Jim Thompson gives us several such “beautiful evils,” notably in A Hell of a Woman. The 1954 novel follows the much-put-upon traveling salesman Frank “Dolly” Dillon (while the names are similar, it’s unlikely that young, ambitious Robert Zimmerman looked to this book for his stage name). At the start, he’s just another employee at Pay-E-Zee Stores, where you “got used to people who hid when they saw you coming.”[38] But then he meets the alluring Mona, pimped by her own aunt, who sets him off on a tragic spiral. When Dolly’s wife leaves him, she tells him, “I’m leaving. Now. Tonight. I don’t want anything from you. I can pawn my watch and ring—get enough to get by on until I land a job. All I want is to get away from here.”[39] Dylan echoes that decisive line in “Crossing the Rubicon”: “I pawned my watch and I paid my debts and I crossed the Rubicon.”[40] The similarity of diction across the decades shows Dylan’s continued participation in the tradition of pulp and balladry.

During his sojourn with the Band in West Saugerties, New York, in the late 1960s, Dylan rediscovered that vast Americana collection of balladry and turned toward recording a string of outlaw and prison songs found or inspired by the denizens of what Greil Marcus, in Invisible Republic, would later name “Smithville.” In these sessions, Dylan and the Band covered such songs as “Folsom Prison Blues,” “That Auld Triangle,” and “The Hills of Mexico.” Smithville, as Marcus defines it, is a noir town, feverish with desperation, a place where “some crimes are instantly turned into legends.”[41] Whenever Dylan travels through its environs, he gleans images and sordid tales that he salts away for later. For example, the caged bird who witnesses the murder of a lover in “Love Henry” on World Gone Wrong, first took flight in Dick Justice’s song “Henry Lee” on Smith’s Anthology. Another legend-turned-song is “Frankie and Albert,” which Dylan recorded for 1992’s Good As I Been to You. In this semi-true story, which is also told in Mississippi John Hurt’s “Frankie” in Smith’s collection, the woman gets her revenge, insofar as the song relates the murder of Allen Britt by his wronged lover Frankie Baker. Their relationship may have been even more complicated, as some reports suggest Britt was Frankie’s pimp. In any case, it’s another miserable ending sung in the gutter of a dead end street.


Drinking from an Old Tin Cup: Jailhouse Confessions

One aspect of noir that often gets lost in the celebratory leering at vice and corruption, is that it is a fundamentally conservative genre. For all its wallowing in sin and foulness, noir plays a redemptive societal role, in that it rarely allows the misfits and criminals to win their crooked games. With a dying breath or the clang of a closing cell door, right is usually restored at the end. In the same way, many of the murder ballads and other tunes Dylan has recorded present a fated justice that strikes at the heart of those who would dare to transgress society’s moral values.

One song that illustrates this is “Delia,” recorded for World Gone Wrong. Dylan sticks close to the traditional version, in which Curtis is arrested and put on trial after murdering the gambling girl of the title. Smugly the killer addresses the judge, only to be coldly rebuffed:

Curtis said to the judge, “What might be my fine?”

Judge says, “Poor boy, you got ninety-nine.”

All the friends I ever had are gone.[42]

In the liner notes Dylan says of the song, in his idiosyncratic typing,

Delia herself . . . doesn’t need a blood change & would never go on a shopping spree. the guy in the courthouse sounds like a pimp in primary colors . . . does this song have rectitude? you bet. toleration of the unacceptable leads to the last round-up.[43]

What is “unacceptable,” Dylan doesn’t specify. While it’s clear that his sympathy, and the song’s, are with Delia, the fact that she herself is a “gambling girl” and is shot dead suggests that she, too, is in need of rectitude. In the end, all are punished.

On the next track of the same album, Dylan follows the convict into the Smithville jail. In his version of Frank Hutchison’s oft-covered “Stackalee,” Dylan presents the supernatural agony that comes of a senseless killing:

Stack-A-Lee turned to the jailer, he said, “Jailer, I can’t sleep.

’Round my bedside Billy Lyons began to creep.”

All about that John B. Stetson hat.[44]

It’s a knife-edge walk between reveling in the criminality of associating oneself with the villain, and assuming the air of righteousness by seeing him succumb to his existential punishment.

The guilty thrill of the jail cell continues in 1997’s “Cold Irons Bound,” in which the narrator is “beginning to hear voices and there’s no one around.”[45] We never find out what his crime was, but there is a strong sense that he has killed the woman he loved. The rest of the song is a plea to a woman who drives him “out of control” with a single look, one he “tried to love and protect,” despite the fact that “Some things last longer than you think they will / There are some kinds of things you can never kill.”[46] The cumulative references to mud, blood, and his seeing her from his cell “twenty miles out of town,” even though she can’t see him, suggest she’s alive in his conscience but not in the real world. The punishment never ends, warning both the readers of pulp and Dylan’s listeners that to act on their prurient curiosity will bring them no good.


Peddlers and Meddlers: Recent Noir Imaginings

In the new millennium, Dylan’s work took on more and more examples of sudden violence, even in seemingly urbane love songs. Throughout “Love and Theft” (its title is taken from Eric Lott’s study of minstrelsy, but the sentiment equally applies to the idea that the album showcases the musical styles and literature Dylan plunders for inspiration), danger lurks around every turn of phrase. Among many oft-discussed allusions—some have argued thefts—on the album are lines from Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza. Lewis Carroll’s Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum are shown “throwing knives into a tree” and in possession of a “dead man’s bones.” This is not Alice’s perverse looking-glass world, but the even worse “Land of Nod,” home to the Bible’s first murderer and noir-ish wanderer, Cain, whose ironic punishment is a desperate life without death. The nonsensical partners in crime traverse a terrifying landscape of casual cruelty, where “a childish dream is a deathless need”[47]—the very definition of a noir loser’s motivation.

The world-weary fatalism of noir continues in “Mississippi.” Here, the speaker’s loving tones belie the hardship he and his partner have endured, “all boxed in, nowhere to escape.” When Dylan says, “Nothing you can sell me, I’ll see you around,”[48] one can imagine “Dolly” Dillon knocking on one door after another, getting the same miserable response.

Though Dylan never strays too far from the noir sentiment, it is on Together Through Life where he dives into the abyss. The album, with David Hidalgo’s accordion suggesting the norteño music of a border town, is a grim depiction of urban decay. The opening track, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” written with Robert Hunter, is spoken in the voice of a deluded pulp hero:

Just as long as you stay with me

The whole world is my throne.[49]

But his tragic flaw of grandiosity is throttled in the downbeat lines that finish each stanza, especially the closing line, “Nothin’ done and nothin’ said.”[50] In classic noir fashion, the protagonist reaches too high, only to be thrown back to the ground.

This series of Dylan’s musical tales of “flawed and morally questionable” characters culminates in 2012’s Tempest, a noir album through and through. This album, long thought to be Dylan’s final collection of original material until this year’s release of Rough and Rowdy Ways, seethes with rage, vitriol, and violence. Even a swinging tune like “Duquesne Whistle” hides menace by way of its allusions to Poe (“Blowin’ like she’s at my chamber door”), trips through “another no-good town,”[51] and offers the threat of a time bomb. To listen to the music and Dylan’s smooth singing on “Soon After Midnight,” you might think the track could have been slipped onto one of his collections of American standards, but its lyrics prove there is little love to be found here. It’s jarring enough to hear Dylan say in that sweet melody that he’s “been down on the killing floors.”[52] However, the image gets nastier when you realize it’s an allusion to Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” which uses the slaughterhouse to describe the singer’s relationship with a woman. By continuing the misogynistic thread of early pulp stories, the song introduces murder to what pretends to be a romantic stroll.

When Dylan surprised us all with the gift of Rough and Rowdy Ways in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Los Angeles Times called it a “savage pulp-noir masterpiece.”[53] In fact, it knots together many separate threads of Dylan’s preoccupations, including nineteenth century poetry (“I Contain Multitudes”), the twining of music and history (“Murder Most Foul”), and the ancient world (“Mother of Muses” and “Crossing the Rubicon”). That’s not to say that the Times got it entirely wrong. The album’s second track, “False Prophet” evokes the despair of good intentions gone bad that accompanies most pulp:

Another day of anger – bitterness and doubt

I know how it happened – I saw it begin

I opened my heart to the world and the world came in.[54]

As on Tempest, casual violence seeps throughout the album. For example, in “I Contain Multitudes,” he claims to carry “four pistols and two large knives.”[55] He continues to seethe through the defiant declarations of “Crossing the Rubicon”:

I feel the bones beneath my skin and they’re tremblin’ with rage

I’ll make your wife a widow – you’ll never see old age.[56]

There are also spurts of hardboiled cynicism. It’s easy to imagine Humphrey Bogart quipping the lines from “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” perhaps to Lauren Bacall:

Fly around my Pretty Little Miss

I don’t love nobody – gimme a kiss.[57]

But these are flashes of cynicism and violence amidst so many other allusions to other songs, films, historical events and figures that it’s hard to credit the whole album as a noir. Instead, the genre has become another pattern woven into the larger tapestry of Dylan’s work, black and white threads that he pulls to emphasize a detail or draw a connection between genres or historical events. Perhaps, as the Times says, it is a pulp-noir masterpiece, but only because Dylan’s overarching artistic theme is that the whole world is in the throes of what Ellroy terms “systematic corruption.” It’s a jaded view, but one borne out by verse after verse of Dylan’s output addressing society’s ills throughout his career.


He Went to Hollywood: Noir Influences on Dylan’s Music Videos

Dylan’s appearances in such films as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and his own Renaldo & Clara reveal his interest in visual media, and it is worth noting that both films involve a fascination with criminality. For instance, a complicated subplot of the later movie involves Harry Dean Stanton as the escaped con Lefkezio. However, while study of Dylan’s work in film has been considerable, his music videos have not been discussed to any great extent. Yet it is in these short films that he interacts directly with noir images, often making visual references to tropes and even specific titles. Music videos, by their very nature, are collaborative projects, and it isn’t always easy to discern Dylan’s involvement in their production, but the connections between the few he has released and classic film noir are pervasive and provide yet another lens through which to examine Dylan’s contributions to the genre.

It has been often pointed out that Dylan’s album Empire Burlesque is laden with lines quoted from a number of classic movies, notably The Maltese Falcon. Interestingly, the record’s release in 1985 coincided with the rise of music videos. Ever dubious of fads, Dylan’s entries to the MTV listings were sparse. But two videos he did make to support this album—“Tight Connection to My Heart” and “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky”—each bears strong connections to noir. A third, “Emotionally Yours,” is not so obviously influenced by noir, but some similarities lead it to be caught up in the dragnet of this discussion.

The techniques used in film noir, especially those made in the post-war era between the 1930s and 1950s, involve stark contrasts between light and dark. Shadows pervade every frame, symbolizing the evil that lurks in every darkened doorway. Paul Schrader, in “Notes on Film Noir,” points out that “[l]ight enters the dingy rooms of film noir in such odd shapes . . . that one suspects the windows were cut out with a pen knife.”[58] Noir characters rarely see the sun, only the glare of a bare bulb in an interrogation room, or a flashing neon sign. Men dress in rumpled trench coats and fedoras tilted to hide their guilty faces. Society women appear in elaborate hats and elbow-length gloves, while their skid-row counterparts try to doll up in tattered fur collars and threadbare dresses. Bootleg whiskey mixes with blood in the gutters, and huge cars speed through the streets, desperate to outrace fate. The visual cues to virtue and vice are never subtle.

Dylan’s videos, especially from the early period marked by Empire Burlesque, approach noir in an ambivalent fashion. For example, the video for “Tight Connection to My Heart,” a song made up almost entirely of lines from old movies, pointedly avoids the harsh dichotomy of black and white, and instead is splashed with color. The setting, too, is transported from New York or Los Angeles to neon-lit Japan. But the story elements are plainly derived from the golden age of B-reels. In it, Dylan plays a man who may or may not be involved in a crime, one that left a body on the sidewalk outside of movie theater. Dragged by Japanese police into the interrogation room, he lip-syncs, “You want to talk to me, go ahead and talk,”[59] a favorite line from The Maltese Falcon (he later used it in Hearts of Fire as well). The wardrobe designers trade fedoras and trench coats in for a trucker’s cap and a garish ‘80s shirt, but one of the two femmes fatales wears a white dress very similar to the one Jane Greer sports in her entrance at the start of Out of the Past. These scenes represent an overt attempt to drag the seediness of noir into the bright lights of Miami Vice. But it is ultimately unsuccessful, bordering on camp: Dylan winds up on a karaoke stage, trying to match the choreography of a trio of young women.

Darkness and sharp shadows make a return in the video for “Emotionally Yours,” directed by Dave Stewart. Most of the video shows Dylan playing guitar in what looks like a bar or dancehall after closing time. Despite the seedy setting and black and white film, the mood is distinctly modern, but a few elements hint at something menacing. Silhouettes of crossed girders are projected on a wall; through a discarded photo shown at the start and end, as well as flashbacks, we see images of a tempestuous relationship, another trope of noir film. Schrader argues that such complex chronologies “reinforce the feelings of hopelessness and lost time,”[60] which certainly is appropriate to this video, as well as to the bulk of Dylan’s work. A strange figure of the woman, hands at her neck as if fighting off someone choking her, can be seen rotating beneath a spotlight. The effect is a mismatch of words and images, once again displaying Dylan’s holding the past and present in an uneasy balance.

Perhaps the most successful of the trio, in terms of incorporating noir aesthetics into a modern setting, is “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky,” directed by Eddie Arno and Markus Innocenti. This time, an appropriate setting—the back alleys of Los Angeles—and black and white film situate the video in a classic mode. In what looks like a performance at an illicit club, one spied on by kids through a back window, Dylan sings lines that might have been penned by Hammett:

I can’t provide for you no easy answers

Who are you that I should have to lie?

And later he adds,

You must have been protecting someone last time I called.


I’ve never asked you to set yourself up for a fall.[61]

In his 2000 book Song and Dance Man, Gray points out film lines from other sections of the song,[62] but in these two verses, Dylan’s own cynicism and snappy retorts are of a piece with all the hard-boiled books and films we’re looking at here. He conjures up an entire scene of someone, probably a woman torn between two men, huddled over a telephone receiver. The scenario and the clichéd set-up are just what you’d expect from a pulp novel.

Never one to sit still, after Empire Burlesque, Dylan released a few more music videos in the 1980s, though none with noir connections. But with the album Under the Red Sky (1990), Dylan returned to the form. After trying to update the genre in fluorescent ‘80s duds, his clip for “Unbelievable” used more traditional noir images: a pair of classic Mustang convertibles, bar fights, cheap motels, and a trip through the desert, where the hero is robbed by a duplicitously sexy (though not noir-ishly sultry) woman, played by Molly Ringwald. The license plate shown at the end, as the main character is picked up in a limousine chauffeured by Dylan himself, suggests that the whole thing has been one bad trip: LSD 752. The chaotic camera work and the unexplained nose-ringed pig in the back seat might seem to weaken the connection to noir, but as Oliver Harris notes, such disorientation in noir “functions . . . to implicate the film viewer in the dream within the film.”[63] By making us question whether we have just watched an actual narrative or fantasized one concocted from noir elements we have internalized over years of film viewing, Dylan (in conjunction with the director Paris Barclay), makes us complicit in that chaos.

In contrast, his twenty-first century efforts have stuck closer to the timeless images that harken back to the shadowy camera work and scruffy losers. His 2008 video for “Dreamin’ of You” (an outtake from 1997’s Time Out of Mind) returns to the lonely desert roads hazy with heat, and the washed-out colors of sleazy, sun-baked motels. The video features Harry Dean Stanton, veteran of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and, as already noted, Renaldo & Clara (closing another link, he also starred with Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink). Here, Stanton is noir personified, wearing a shapeless fedora, white shirt, and black tie. He’s a bootlegger, too—of concert performances. The feverish shots of him driving from show to show, plotting his trips with string on wall maps, and checking set lists with mug after mug of diner coffee portray his desperation and dedication to a cause that isn’t worth the gas money. Unlike the previous videos, this one could have been shot at almost any time over the last 75 years.

Even through his later music videos, Dylan’s fascination with and reworking of familiar noir tropes continues. He uses these raw materials to project new ideas onto the screen, as he works through the themes of alienation and violence, noted by Penzler and Ellroy, and offers them as reflections not of the smoky past, but a cold, bleak present. The first of these later explorations is “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” from Together Through Life. It is clearly not “classic” noir in the sense that the narrative inverts the typical noir plot: it starts with brutality and ends with a kiss. The director, Nash Edgerton, told Pitchfork, “Usually, you get sent a song and you listen to it a bunch and then you write a treatment. But because it was Dylan, and piracy and all that, I only got to hear the song once over the phone.”[64] All the same Edgerton’s treatment—set in a run-down motel with a blood-stained bed and restraints, a syringe and no visible life outside—must have appealed to Dylan’s cinematic sense. As we watch the man (Joel Stoffer) enter the apartment, he’s scruffy, carrying a package the contents of which never get revealed, reminiscent of many noir and hardboiled MacGuffins (including the Mickey Spillane film Kiss Me Deadly (1955), which is the glowing inspiration for 1984’s Repo Man—featuring Harry Dean Stanton—and Pulp Fiction (1994)). What follows is a whiplash series of attacks, in which the two antagonists, a man and a woman, strike, stab, and brutalize each other, culminating in the woman running him over with a car. Yet, instead of riding off and leaving him for dead, she gets out of the car, and the last shot is of her kissing him. The expectant look on the man’s face is one of hope, not tragedy, and so reverses the effect of noir.

Edgarton returned to direct three other song videos for Dylan, all of which tend to the dark side. Even “Must Be Santa” features what must be the worst Christmas party ever, with an unexplained fugitive tearing the place up. Its black and white countdown opening and the decorations in the house suggest the 1940s or 1950s, though other than that there are no connections to film noir. But Edgarton returns to the noir atmosphere of Tempest, in the video for “Duquesne Whistle.” Separate from the images in the song itself, as discussed above, the video presents two stories in fractured narrative: by night, Dylan and a crew of followers walk through gritty streets; by day, a clearly delusional man, with the gaunt face and lopsided grin of Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, struts through the same streets, stalking a woman who doesn’t hesitate to mace him. From there, the video explodes into rampaging violence: his escape from the police leads him to push over a ladder that holds a man changing the movie title on a rusting theater marquee. The pathetic post-beating fantasy he dreams while being transported in a van brings us back to the last ramblings of Frank in The Postman Always Rings Twice: “Whenever I can make it, I’m out there with Cora, with the sky above us, and the water around us, talking about how happy we’re going to be, and how it’s going to last forever.”[65] But there is no stay of execution for Frank, and the delusional young man is tossed onto the sidewalk, stepped over by Dylan and his tough-looking crew. The message is the opposite of that in “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’”: there is no loving redemption to be had for the miserable. These juxtaposed views in consecutive videos suggest Dylan’s refusal to give answers, only vignettes that force us to judge for ourselves.

The culmination of all of these videos, though, is the black and white film that accompanies the Sinatra cover, “The Night We Called It A Day.” Starring Robert Davi and Tracy Phillips, along with Dylan himself, Edgarton’s “Night” is a full-blown noir. From the title card scrawled in B-movie script to the murderous love triangle that disintegrates under chloroform, a fireplace poker, and bullets, every noir trope makes an appearance. In the opening shot, Dylan walks past a bleeding man talking to a cop and into a bar, where Phillips is dancing a burlesque. Over a drink, he shows Davi the ring he’s going to give Phillips, only to be shown a bigger one in return. But later, when Davi arrives at her apartment, he finds a gun-toting Dylan, who turns aside as Phillips brutally murders Davi. It looks like the pair will live happily ever after, until they pull guns on each other in the elevator. Flashes of light suggest shots, but we don’t know what happened. The black and white is used to excellent effect as Phillips strides out of the elevator alone, her white dress radiant. Suddenly a blood stain grows on her abdomen. Dylan escapes from the police out a back door, driving off in a hail of gunfire. “The End” appears in looping script.

As with “Dreamin’ of You,” the video is timeless. While most of the cars hail from the 1940s and 1950s, Davi’s is from the 1970s. And while Davi wears the noir uniform of black hat, black tie, and white shirt, Dylan’s patterned tie, and, later, untucked button down and black t-shirt all point to the present day. The result is a tightly woven tapestry of Dylan’s voice, the evocative strings of the music, and the iconic shadows and violence of a B-reel. In three short minutes, “Night” ties together three-quarters of a century of music, film, and cultural history by way of its images of blood, betrayal, and greed.

The sensationalism of a classic noir calls to mind the violence of our own present and shows that its tangled roots are buried deep in a soil soaked in that same betrayal, blood, and greed. Schrader discusses noir’s rise amid the disillusionment that followed the Second World War,[66] and it’s interesting to note that Dylan turns to its themes during moments of national upheaval, such as the economic crises of the 1980s, the post-9/11 period, and the COVID pandemic and civil rights protests of 2020. Through both his musical and video output, Dylan, like the writers of pulp and the directors of film noir, lures us in with the vicarious thrill that mass entertainment promises. His depictions of a world where everything is broken fascinate and repel, forcing his audience to come to terms with their own complicity and mortality. By trafficking in familiar themes of vice and wholesale corruption, and by using images and even verbatim lines from folk and blues, from pulp literature and film noir, Dylan speaks to his audience with a common vocabulary.

But that common vocabulary is used with uncommon subtlety. As the transmitter of a larger, infinitely complicated culture, Dylan urges us to reckon with the truths that these dark stories reveal about corruption in our most trusted institutions, as well as in our own hearts. By reworking images that return to us out of the past, he involves us in that narrative and questions our future. Thus, the culmination of his work transcends the limits of cheap mass media. Instead of simply providing that vicarious thrill, he uses the elements of noir—its preoccupation with lust, greed, misogyny, and class inequality, as well as our own uncertainty—to highlight the ills of society in much the same way he did with his protest songs. These short morality tales act as a call to action, one in which we are all urged to make a plea for peace and justice.



[3] Penzler,”Foreword,” x.

[4] Ellroy, “Introduction,” xiii.


[6] Dylan, “Halloween.” 2006. Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour archive.

[7] Dylan, “Women’s Names.” 2007. Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour archive.

[8] Poe, “Murders,” 106.


[10] Poe, “Murders,” 114.


[12] Poe, “Murders,” 127.



[15] Poe, “Murders,” 134.


[17] Poe, “Murders,” 133.


[19] Ibid.


[21] S. Marcus, Introduction, xxiv.

[22] Hammett, Falcon, 211.


[24] Chandler, Interview.

[25] Chandler, Sleep, 3.

[26] Chandler, Sleep, 11.

[27] Chandler, Farewell, 304.

[28] Chandler, “Art,” 17.


[30] G. Marcus, Republic, 124.

[31] Guthrie, Bound, 193.

[32] Cain, Postman, 13.

[33] The novel also features the following passage, which has the same refrain as the Shel Silverstein song Dylan sings to Fiona in Hearts of Fire: “We just got to sell him a story, that’s all. You were in here, and the lights popped, and you heard him slip and fall, and he didn’t answer when you spoke to him. Then you called me, that’s all. Not matter what he says, you got to stick to it. If he saw anything, it was just his imagination, that’s all” (Cain 19).



[36] Ibid.

[37] Gray, Encyclopedia, 226.

[38] Thompson, Woman, 4.

[39] Thompson, Woman, 30.


[41] G. Marcus, Republic, 135.


[43] Dylan, “About the songs.”



[46] Ibid.












[58] Schrader, “Notes,” 11.


[60] Schrader, “Notes,” 11.


[62] Gray, Song and Dance, 552, 556.

[63] Harris, “Fascination,“ 8.


[65] Cain, Postman, 121.

[66] Schrader, “Notes,” 9.


Cain, James M. The Postman Always Rings Twice. New York: Pocket Books, 1947.

Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. New York: Quality, 1995.

———. Farewell, My Lovely. New York: Quality, 1995.

———. “The Simple Art of Murder.” The Simple Art of Murder. New York: Vintage. 1988.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Clinton, MA: Airmont, 1966.

Dombal, Ryan. “Director’s Cut: Bob Dylan’s ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” Pitchfork

Dylan, Bob. “About the Songs (What They’re About).” Liner notes to World Gone Wrong. New York: Columbia, 1993.

———. “Halloween.” 2006. Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour archive.

———. “Women’s Names.” 2007. Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour archive.

Ellroy, James. “Introduction.” The Best American Noir of the Century. Eds. James Ellroy and Otto Penzler. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2010.

Fleming, Ian. Goldfinger. New York: Jove, 1980.

Gray, Michael. Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan. London: Continuum, 2000.

———. The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, New York: Continuum, 2006.

Guthrie, Woody. Bound for Glory. New York: Plume, 1983.

Hammett, Dashiell. “The Cleansing of Poisonville.” The Big Book of the Continental Op. Eds. Richard Laymand and Julie M. Rivett. New York: Vintage, 2017.

———. The Maltese Falcon. New York: Vintage, 1992.

Harris, Oliver. “Film Noir Fascination: Outside History, but Historically so.” Cinema Journal, vol. 43, no. 1, Autumn, 2003. JSTOR, Accessed 1 Dec. 2020.

Marcus, Greil. Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

Marcus, Steven. Introduction. The Continental Op, by Dashiell Hammett. New York: Vintage, 1974.

Penzler, Otto. Foreword. The Best American Noir of the Century. Eds. James Ellroy and Otto Penzler. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2010.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Great Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Pocket, 1956.

———. “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” Great Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Pocket, 1956.

———. “The Purloined Letter.” Great Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Pocket, 1956.

Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir.” Film Comment, vol. 8, no. 1, (SPRING 1972), pp. 8-13. JSTOR, Accessed: 1 Dec. 2020.

Thompson, Jim. A Hell of a Woman. New York: Mulholland, 2014.

Wilentz, Sean and Greil Marcus, ed. The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad. New York: Norton, 2005.

Wood, Mikael. “Review: Bob Dylan’s ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ is a savage pulp-noir Masterpiece.” Los Angeles Times



Dylan, Bob. “The Ballad of Hollis Brown.” 1964. Track 2 on The Times They Are A-Changin’. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’.” 2009. Track 1 on Together Through Life. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Blowin’ in the Wind.” 1963. Track 1 on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Columbia. Compact disc.

———.  “Bob Dylan’s Blues.” 1963. Track 5 on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Cold Irons Bound.” 1997. Track 8 on Time Out of Mind. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Crossing the Rubicon.” 2020. Track 8 on Rough and Rowdy Ways. Sony. Compact disc.

———. “Delia.” 1993. Track 6 on World Gone Wrong. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” 1963. Track 7 on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Down the Highway.” 1963. Track 4 on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Duquesne Whistle.” 2012. Track 1 on Tempest. Sony. Compact disc.

———. “Early Roman Kings.” 2012. Track 7 on Tempest. Sony. Compact disc.

———. “False Prophet.” 2020. Track 2 on Rough and Rowdy Ways. Sony. Compact disc.

———. “Girl From the North Country.” 1963. Track 2 on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “High Water (For Charlie Patton).” 2001. Track 7 on “Love and Theft.” Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance.” 1963. Track 12 on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “I Contain Multitudes.” 2020. Track 1 on Rough and Rowdy Ways. Sony. Compact disc.

———. “John Wesley Harding.” 1967. Track 1 on John Wesley Harding. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” 1965. Track 8 on Highway 61 Revisited. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” 2020. Track 9 on Rough and Rowdy Ways. Sony. Compact disc.

———. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” 1964. Track 9 on The Times They Are A-Changin’. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Love and Theft.” 2001. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Mississippi.” 2001. Track 2 on “Love and Theft.” Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Moonlight.” 2001. Track 8 on “Love and Theft.” Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “My Own Version of You.” 2020. Track 3 on Rough and Rowdy Ways. Sony. Compact disc.

———. “Pay in Blood.” 2012. Track 5 on Tempest. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Scarlet Town.” 2012. Track 6 on Tempest. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Soon after Midnight.” 2012. Track 2 on Tempest. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love).” 1985. Track 1 on Empire Burlesque. Columbia. Compact disc.

———. “Tin Angel.” 2012. Track 8 on Tempest. Columbia. Compact disc.

______.  “Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum.” 2001. Track 1 on “Love and Theft.” Columbia. Compact disc.

______. “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky.” 1985. Track 8 on Empire Burlesque. Columbia. Compact disc.

Howlin’ Wolf. “Killing Floor.” iTunes audio, 2:50. 2003.

Hutchison, Frank. “Stackalee.” 1952. Track 5 on Disc 1B of The Anthology of American Folk Music. Smithsonian Folkways. Compact disc.

Justice, Dick. “Henry Lee.” 1952. Track 1 on Disc 1A of The Anthology of American Folk Music. Smithsonian Folkways. Compact disc.

Mississippi John Hurt. “Frankie.” 1952. Track 7 on Disc 1B of The Anthology of American Folk Music. Smithsonian Folkways. Compact disc.

Visions of Desolation: Cleveland 1965 Austin 2012

POEM BY Thomas G. Palaima

Ecce homunculus.

This new blank document
could remain blank
for all I care
to reveal or conceal.

Ask me.
I ain’t sayin’.
Coax me.
My lips are sealed.

I could turn myself inside out.
My soul could slowly spin about.

Spin? Turn? Rotate? Whirl?
Like a chicken on a spit?
Like coffee in a microwave?
Like a top? A dervish? A compact disc?
A vinyl record from my youth?

What would you like me to play?

The needle in the groove works
its wonder in high fidelity,
but faithful to the max to what?

The songs from cheap speakers,
two-bit, sentimental,
still sound good to me.

But who cares?

If I stood naked, who would hear?

My dried voice
is more than quiet
and less than meaningless.

Not a whimper.

“Peanuts, here, four bags for a quarter.”

“Buy your rags from Daddy Wags!”

A naïve young
Roman Catholic boy,
thirteen going on ten,
by way of the CTS
(Cleveland Transit System)
Number 35
—“Trowbridge next!” —
after eighteen miles
and fifty minutes
of fading storefronts
run-down bars
reading the same
lexicon of Polish,
Czech, Hungarian,
Irish, Croatian
and now Puerto Rican
steps off
at Lorain Avenue
and 25th Street,
walks from the West Side Market
five blighted city blocks
to the red-brick Jesuit high school,
and sits among other boys,
among, but not with.

What was that shell,
what kind of envelope
kept him sound,
and soundless?

Move, move, move,
you splendid little machine.

Not quite a robot.

What did Eliot really know
about the butt ends of days?

Who can count
the butt ends
of the ways
that life can play
blind man’s bluff
with your soul,
and for keeps?

There isn’t even any key chain.

The back page of the British journal TLS (The Times Literary Supplement) featured, until very recently, a column by J.C. Over the years this column included some paragraphs reflecting on Writers More or Less Forgotten—writers who, J.C. reminds his readers with a determinedly light touch, are to be distinguished from writers “unjustly overlooked.”[1] A fine point, but one worth keeping in mind. Granted, the categories are porous, subjective, but this was their secret strength. They encouraged simultaneous expansion and delimitation, allowing J.C.’s periodic review of the canon to shine a torch into the dim library stacks of the literary past and drag many half-forgotten authors into the light.

Can we apply similar categories to Dylan’s work? Would gratifying rediscoveries emerge if we adapted J.C.’s categories, substituting the word “Songs” for “Writers”? I think they might. Maybe in dribbles, maybe in droves, Songs More or Less Forgotten and Songs Unjustly Overlooked might teeter into the light. I have a few candidates for these categories—who doesn’t? But, still, I should offer a (perhaps unnecessary) disclaimer: my nominations depend entirely on where, in the moment, I think the obscurity begins. Long ago, in the liner notes to Freewheelin’, Nat Hentoff quoted Dylan on “Blowin’ in the Wind:” “The first way to answer these questions in the song is by asking them. But lots of people have to first find the wind.” Let me borrow that thought: to determine which songs, More or Less Forgotten, should emerge from the darkness into the light, first you have to find the darkness.

But even before doing that—before separating the light from our highly subjective darknesses—it’s advisable to make a slightly different distinction between Songs More or Less Forgotten and Songs Best Forgotten. Most longtime listeners have managed to compile lists of these songs—lists that read like FBI dossiers of crimes against the canon. Predictably, no two lists match, and, perhaps fortunately, there could never be perfect agreement on which songs are Best Forgotten (although the mid-‘80s output seems to get the majority vote). The Dylan literature is chock-a-block with heated debates attacking and defending songs heard by one group as Dylan’s nadir and by another as close to his zenith. Where the former finds only detritus, the latter uncovers hidden gems. But, ironically, by the very nature of public debate, these Best Forgotten songs tend to be more prominent than many others—among the six-hundred-plus—that have simply flown for decades under the radar.

There are examples, too, of infamous performances, live or in the studio, that are Best Forgotten. And sometimes when the studio recordings and album cuts are Best Forgotten, subterranean favorites surface in live performances: e.g., the largely vilified studio outtake of “Abandoned Love” (Biograph) superseded by the live version, recorded at the Bitter End by an audience member (and available on YouTube), in which the voice, timing, and humor of Bob Dylan come through with authority.

Best Forgotten Songs and Performances Best Forgotten, in all their variants, stand apart from Songs More or Less Forgotten. Less distant, however, is the subcategory of neglected or overlooked songs that became part of the popular canon precisely because they were neglected or overlooked. In my view, three of the most renowned of these are the stunning “Percy’s Song,” an acoustic masterpiece that received heavy radio play over the years, the impossibly brilliant “Blind Willie McTell,” now canonized though originally excluded from Infidels, and “Up to Me,” an outtake from Blood on the Tracks. To take the last one, most critics highlight the excision of “Up to Me” as a spectacular blunder. Yet, ironically, the very notoriety of its outtake status has brought more attention to “Up to Me” than to many officially released songs. As with “Percy’s Song,” of course, and even more so “Blind Willie McTell,” this attention is deserved—these are simply better songs and better recorded performances than many included on the albums. But valorization notwithstanding, they still fall into the subcategory of songs canonized because they were neglected.

Songs More or Less Forgotten, then, shouldn’t enjoy the same visibility as Best Forgotten Compositions/Performances or Notoriously Neglected Songs. Instead, to be More or Less Forgotten, a song must break the surface of the waters of oblivion. This happens from time to time, accomplished not so much by a new old song on Dylan’s concert playlist (“Lenny Bruce,” anyone?) as by an enterprising artist covering a Dylan rarity. And in this subcategory, too, we all have our preferences. One of mine: Chris Smither, with his searing guitar and lean baritone, in a brave cover of “What Was It You Wanted?” (Up on the Lowdown)—brave, because the song is tailored for the virtuoso contempt of Dylan’s vocal. And brave, too, because only initiates would even know it was a Dylan song, let alone one from Oh Mercy (an album More or Less Unknown to the timid pilgrims who fear to tread into the Slough of Eighties Despond).

This welter of categories and subcategories makes me wonder: is there a hidden economy of song suppression? Might there be a secret ecology of neglect patterning songs More or Less Forgotten? Or is it just vogue? This last possibility reminds me of the sixteenth-century poet Thomas Wyatt, who, reflecting on a lover’s fickleness at Henry VIII’s court, speaks of “a strange fashion of forsaking.” No doubt, forsaking is part of the phenomenon, and it must be a fashion of forsaking foundationed deep for great songs to become More or Less Forgotten. But is it merely fashion? Music-company economics of A- and B-sided singles—back when such quaint things existed—might have contributed to the suppression of certain songs in the first flush of an album’s release. But Dylan singles almost never overshadow Dylan albums. Not even “Like a Rolling Stone,” a top-ten hit, could obscure “Desolation Row,” “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues,” “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” On the contrary, like all the ‘60s albums (as well as Blood on the TracksDesire, and InfidelsHighway 61 Revisited harbors no song More or Less Forgotten. And, remarkably, this kind of assimilation doesn’t stop way back when. The Time Out of Mind“Love and Theft”Modern Times trilogy (if it is a trilogy) reprises—almost but not quite—that same ‘60s comprehensiveness.[2]

All those albums are systemically present in the mind of any Dylanista. They are, as Roland Barthes says about language, “nothing but a human horizon which provides a distant setting of familiarity” (his italics). If we think of those comprehensively known albums as constituting a song-system, a horizon of familiarity, then songs More or Less Forgotten would have to pierce that horizon to change their status and to alter their effect on the song-system.

Allow me a digression to back this up. In his Cours de linguistique général, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure divided language into two distinct categories: the first he called langue, a kind of floating totality or system of conventions; the second he called parole, the real-time utterances by speakers. Langue, as Jonathan Culler explains, “is a system, an institution, a set of interpersonal rules and norms, while [parole] comprises the actual manifestations of the system in speech and writing.” And, bringing it all back home, Culler adds, “to learn English is not to memorize a set of utterances; it is to master a system of rules and norms which make it possible to . . . understand utterances. To know English is to have assimilated the system of language.”

Devoted, longtime Dylan followers have assimilated a kind of langue of early songs, almost like a system of linguistic conventions. New performances of those songs act as real-time utterances—parole—separate from the established Dylan songs. To have assimilated this institutional totality is to know the Dylan langue, as a native speaker would know English or Portuguese, Urdu or Igbo. No song from this langue could ever be More or Less Forgotten because memory isn’t really part of the process. To know Dylan in this way is equivalent to having assimilated the rules and norms of a language-system—or maybe a “song-system.”

Some songs never rise to the level of assimilation and are therefore never incorporated into the song-system, the Dylan langue. These songs are in the canon, of course, ready to be used by other artists, while proving to be convenient sources of annoyance for critics on the hunt for new talking points. And many of these songs are hiding in plain sight among the six-hundred-plus. Three personal candidates: “New Pony” (Street-Legal), “I’ll Remember You” (Empire Burlesque), and, very tentatively, “Cry a While” (from “Love and Theft”—an album replete with songs which were rapidly absorbed into the langue).

Sometimes pertinent songs fail to intersect the horizon, falling short of becoming part of the “distant setting of familiarity.” This happens even when an intersection would be timely, with practical ramifications. It seems to me there might have been a lot less handwringing about Dylan’s delay in accepting the Nobel Prize if “Day of the Locusts” (New Morning) had been assimilated into the song-system, accompanied by the autobiographical interpretation of the lyrics.[3] Like “Love and Theft,” New Morning has been almost fully absorbed into the langue. Only “Day of the Locusts” and “Three Angels” seem to have “more or less” slipped through the cracks.

But the cracks themselves, like the darkness I mentioned earlier, appear differently to every Dylanista. Even my list of categories is fungible (and, certainly, J.C. shouldn’t be held accountable for, nor is it likely he’d approve of, the taxonomical fragmentation I’ve wrought on the original Writers More or Less Forgotten). The few songs I’ve mentioned as More or Less Forgotten could be multiplied many times over, but any list I made, long or short, would still be subjective and patently unverifiable. Yet I suppose that’s the point of porous, subjective categories. While some people would strenuously object to my choice of songs, others might add to the list and cite songs they consider fully present in the song-system that seem to me to be outside the Dylan “institution.” And still others might altogether deny the existence of a langue-like capacity in Dylan studies. But these different reactions would confirm, rather than obviate, the phenomenon of Songs More or Less Forgotten, which makes me wonder if songs good and great will continue to languish More or Less Forgotten. And I wonder, too, if those songs, should they escape from the shadows, will successfully merge with the Dylan langue, breaching the horizon of familiarity. It’s hard to say. You can always bring them back, but can you bring them back all the way?

– RF

[1] For the last installment of Writers More or Less Forgotten (numbered Part VII), see September 4, 2020. [J]ames [C]ampbell stopped writing the NB column on September 18, 2020. The back page of the TLS is currently being written by M.C., but there’s been no hint that this new columnist will extend J.C.’s literary themes into the journal’s future issues.

[2] In a Rolling Stone interview with Jonathan Lethem (9/7/2006), Dylan “disincluded” Time Out of Mind from a possible trilogy: “Time Out of Mind was me getting back in and fighting my way out of the corner. But by the time I made Love and Theft [sic], I was out of the corner. On this record, I ain’t nowhere, you can’t find me anywhere, because I’m way gone from the corner . . . I would think more of Love and Theft [sic] as the beginning of a trilogy, if there’s going to be a trilogy.” If “this record” is Modern Times, then the reconstructed trilogy would be “Love and Theft”Modern TimesTogether Through Life. And what about Tempest? An outlier? Who saw a trilogy in the first place? A critic? Now is the time for your tears.

[3] In 1970, Princeton University awarded Dylan a Doctorate in Music honoris causa. If “Day of the Locusts” is a response to that event, as critics suggest, then the apocalyptic indictment of the ceremony and the fictional speaker’s escape from the scene might have given a hint about Dylan’s feelings toward academic honors and the academically inclined Nobel committee. This attitude toward a prize is puzzling, certainly, since Dylan didn’t seem to have any hesitation in accepting the American Medal of Freedom, the French Legion of Honor, or induction as an honorary member in the American Academy of Arts and Letters—not to mention countless music awards.

Patrick Webster, A Wanderer by Trade: Gender in the Songs of Bob Dylan. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2019. 195 pp.

REVIEW BY Matthew Lipson, Independent Scholar

Patrick Webster’s A Wanderer by Trade: Gender in the Songs of Bob Dylan employs foundational cultural and gender theory to address the tricky issue of Dylan’s treatment of women and sex, as well as the feminine and masculine spheres in Dylan’s work. It’s a murky and necessary topic, especially loaded and fertile in the wake of the #MeToo era and the ongoing, even existential issue of gender dynamics and social justice. And if Dylan’s work speaks to life as it happens, the nature of love, relationships, and religion, then A Wanderer by Trade grapples not just with issues of gender and sexuality within Dylan’s world, but by implication, a larger world, too. It’s as wide-ranging an undertaking as it sounds, especially given the sheer breadth of Dylan’s canon and various personae.

For this reason Webster narrows the field to Dylan’s catalogue up to 1985, calling it Dylan’s most significant period, and asserts that rarely has Dylan’s post-1985 work been as worthy of study. While this drawing of lines will divide readers, especially given the critical acclaim and accolades of Dylan’s twenty-first century output, the extensive focus on a handful of songs does allow for some provocative close readings.

Webster’s central contention is that with a poststructuralist perspective, we may read Dylan’s lyrics for the ways in which the performative aspects of gender identity play out in his narratives, as well as the ways in which those aspects and modern notions of sexuality conflict within Dylan’s versions of masculinity. The argument is not without flaws, offering more of an introduction to gender theory through a Dylanological lens than a study of Dylan’s lyrics from a gender theory approach. Even so, A Wanderer by Trade excels at what it does, weaving between its theoretical foundation and its subject.

The notion of misogyny and strongly gendered narratives in Dylan’s work may not be news, but it is necessary and meaningful territory and a timely step toward modernizing Dylan criticism. Webster draws fascinating links between the masculine domain and travel in early Dylan, highlighting Dylan’s classic tropes of male rambling and roaming, getting away, abandoning, and the romanticization of the highway as a metaphor for self-discovery and reprieve, particularly from women. Granted, the trope of men “escaping” women who have done them wrong, or vice-versa, hardly begins or ends with Dylan; as with his lyrics and melodies, the topic of male victimhood falls firmly within the folk and blues traditions. Not only do Dylan’s men seek to escape from women, but more broadly from the confinement of their dreams by women and familial responsibility. Men, Webster claims, travel as a way of protecting themselves from the inconsistencies in their own gendered identities, hitting the road as a method of performing and reasserting their own masculinity.

While this reading of gender performance in Dylan’s world certainly has its merits, Webster’s theory stops short of such a reading’s implications. Why are men free to ramble and roam, shirking their duties in favor of soul-searching expeditions? Why do men get to leave in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” “One More Night,” and “Isis”? If travel is an inherently masculine act, at least in Dylan’s world, is it still performative? And what of exceptions, as in “Boots of Spanish Leather,” where women travel, leaving men behind to fill the traditionally female role of pining lover receiving love letters? Webster leaves questions of the morality of men’s travel in Dylan’s lyrics wide open, favoring a laissez-faire reading of masculinity.

Webster does, however, follow up his discussion of masculinity by basing the next chapter on the question of why so many of Dylan’s lyrics contain seemingly misogynistic sentiments. Even more puzzling, as the author points out, is the question of why Dylan’s men are consistently suspicious and even hostile toward women and yet “irredeemably drawn to them.” Countless examples are featured here, naming the women in Dylan’s songs as “deceivers, castrators, temptresses, often unfaithful” and calculating in their intent to trap men into a web of responsibility and danger. Webster does a fine job of categorizing the themes of Dylan’s misogyny, though an audience of Dylan scholars, likely already aware of misogynistic tendencies in Dylan and his male songwriting peers of the ‘60s and ‘70s, will find the discussion cumbersome.

Still, the question of the root of misogyny in Dylan’s narratives lingers. Webster hints at the performative aspect of gender early on, the male-dominated blues tradition, and even the notion of Christ’s masculinity as a potential reason for diminishing the feminine sphere during Dylan’s born-again years. What Webster makes clear, though, is the sheer breadth of Dylan’s approaches to femininity, or rather, the nuances of female gender constructs. In Dylan’s world, Webster asserts, women are not simply angelic or demonic, inviolate or inviolable, confused or contemptible. They are enigmatic, maternal, deceptive at times, subservient at others. And though the chapter defers any straightforward answers to the question it poses of why men are simultaneously suspicious of and drawn to women, it highlights the messy and fractured nature of gender constructs and romantic love in Dylan’s lyrics and attitudes.

Webster works his way from gender as a performative construct to its role in sexuality, both hetero- and homosexual. The claim that Dylan exhibited a puritanical, indifferent attitude toward sex throughout the 1960s mostly holds true, though certainly unrequited heterosexual romantic love is a salient theme in so much of Dylan’s early output. Still, the author suggests that Dylan is and has been misread as a heterosexual artist writing about heterosexual subjects; when so many songs lack gender pronouns, why do we assume “It Ain’t Me, Babe” isn’t Dylan’s preeminent gay anti-love statement? The simple answer, according to Webster, is that nothing in the text suggests otherwise. Webster also highlights the potential for latent homosexuality in Dylan’s work, citing what Craig McGregor calls the “camp bitchiness” of his 1966 persona. The example speaks more to the datedness of many of A Wanderer by Trade’s references than it does to any convincing commentary on Dylan’s identification with homosexuality. One cannot also help but feel that Dylan’s circumstances at the time, including his marriage to Sara Lownds and alleged trysts, diminishes Webster’s post-structuralist reading.

The chapter is framed by Dylan’s born-again attitudes toward homosexuality and examines vastly differing attitudes toward sex and sexuality throughout his career. This is done in a sort of zigzagging way as the author works through Judeo-Christian views toward sex, all to ask, not unreasonably, why would someone as seemingly sensible as Dylan buy into the homophobia and dogma promoted throughout the born-again era? Webster does a fine job of highlighting the juxtaposition between Dylan’s born-again sermons (“You pray for ungodly vice and you’ll get it, ungodly vice and lust,” he once said of San Francisco’s gay community) and his earlier nonchalance about sexual binaries. He also posits that by 1979, Dylan’s belief in salvation through the romantic love of women runs dry, replaced by the love of Christ instead. The period of 1979–1981, however, represents a vacuum in Dylan’s otherwise indifference to the modalities of human sexuality. Webster even goes as far as to suggest that Dylan’s interest in male-female sexual relationships is overblown. Rather, it is femininity, and to a greater degree, masculinity, with which Dylan is especially concerned.

A Wanderer by Trade’s penultimate chapter meditates on the roles of gender and sex in Dylan’s own persona. Webster contends that more worthwhile than any biographical information we might use to demystify Dylan is to consider the ways in which “Bob Dylan” the legend works as an exploration of masculine identity. A central feature of the section is the idea of the “enemy within,” the twin, the search for the lost “other,” and sex as a means by which we seek to reunite with our other half. That half, Webster intimates, is none other than the gender identity which we are not. It is this gender anxiety that drives men to women and to simultaneously distance themselves from the feminine sphere.

It’s a convincing argument on paper, grounded in the theories of Freud and Lacan. It is also, however, where Dylan criticism so often folds in on itself, reaching so far as to ordain Dylan time and again as a sort of omniscient vessel for the human psyche. The theoretical foundation remains strong, but the notion of Dylan or his subjects working, perhaps consciously, perhaps not, in a Lacanian world, may for some ring hollow. Perhaps knowing that, Webster adds the caveat that this is again one of many possible readings.

Dylan critics and scholars ought to be encouraged by the multitude of issues raised in Webster’s book. As cultural texts, Dylan’s work from the period studied here offers insight into both his own treatment of gender identity and sexuality, and the evolution of those themes in popular music at large. The decade to come may serve not as a reckoning for the kind of machismo depicted in Dylan’s work, but as a basis on which to continue bringing Dylan studies forward into the current societal re-evaluation of gender dynamics and sexual multiplicities. In this sense, A Wanderer by Trade offers hope for a future understanding of the nuances in Dylan’s depiction of women rather than a continued mass shying away from his more unsavory tendencies. Despite its flaws, including the dated nature of Webster’s references and the book’s own tendency to wander, A Wanderer by Trade aims to grapple with themes long dismissed in the study of Dylan, and for that it should be commended.