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.