The Hal Lindsey Effect: Bob Dylan’s Christian Eschatology 

ARTICLE BY Jeffrey Lamp, Oral Roberts University

Abstract: In the thought of popular Christian personality Hal Lindsey, Bob Dylan found a theological construct that would inform his own Christian experience in three significant ways. First, Lindsey’s popular eschatological teaching informed Dylan’s own understanding of the end times, which is evident in his lyrics and in his more prosaic pronouncements. Second, Lindsey provided Dylan with a heuristic for bringing together the Jewish and Christian strands of his religious pilgrimage. Third, Lindsey’s views on Israel’s place in God’s end-times plan and his stance that human political influences played no significant role in establishing the kingdom of God informed Dylan’s political philosophy of “Christian anarchism.”

Keywords: Bob Dylan, Hal Lindsey, eschatology, Christianity



Bob Dylan’s so-called “Christian/gospel period” has received renewed, and in many cases appreciative, attention in recent years. In 2017 a pair of key works documented Dylan’s output during the period 1979–1981, the years in which Dylan’s albums Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love appeared. The thirteenth entry in the Bootleg Series, titled Trouble No More, a nine-disc set that included studio and live recordings from this period along with Jennifer Lebeau’s documentary film of the same title, was released, along with Clinton Heylin’s book, Trouble in Mind, which provided a narrative of the period. With reports of Dylan’s conversion to Christianity in 1978, the release of the gospel-themed Slow Train Coming in 1979, and a gospel-only tour launched later that year, Dylan’s fan base reeled in shock and, not infrequently, anger. The passage of nearly four decades has allowed for a more reasoned appraisal of the material from this period, with scores of studies emerging in academic circles analyzing both the music and its creator.[1]     

My initial interest was to determine theological influences on Bob Dylan’s eschatology, as seen in such songs as “When He Returns” and “Are You Ready?” As it turned out, a strong candidate quickly emerged: Hal Lindsey, a well-known minister whose famous book The Late Great Planet Earth had captured the imaginations of millions of readers in the 1970s with its sensationalistic interpretation of biblical teachings on the end times. This finding was not only obvious; it was highly disappointing. As I continued my research, I began to see that the influence of Lindsey’s book on Bob Dylan was more intricate. Anticipating the results of this study, Hal Lindsey’s eschatology functions in a multi-faceted way in Dylan’s thought. At a basic level, Lindsey provides the newly converted Dylan with a specifically Christian source of imagery to direct Dylan’s long-established appropriation of prophetic biblical language in his new gospel way. At another level, Lindsey’s emphasis on the role of Jews and the current state of Israel in God’s end time program provided Dylan with a heuristic that allowed him to integrate the Judaism of his background with his new Christian faith. At yet another level, Lindsey’s thought provided Dylan a way to express what has been called his political “anarchism” in a way consistent with his new Christian faith.[2] First, though, we need to look at what Hal Lindsey brings to the table and how he and Bob Dylan found themselves there together.

The Dylan-Lindsey Connection

Hal Lindsey, born November 23, 1929, is a well-known twentieth- (and twenty-first-) century figure on the American religious landscape, having first and most prominently made his mark with the publication of his best-selling book The Late Great Planet Earth in 1970.[3] Lindsey was educated at Dallas Theological Seminary, the educational bastion of a theological position known as dispensationalism. In its basic form, dispensationalism holds that God’s dealings with human beings follow in a series of historical epochs, or dispensations, each administered by a certain kind of covenantal relationship. The foundations of dispensationalism involve creative exegesis of such biblical texts as Revelation, Daniel, and Ezekiel, along with apocalyptic passages from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 24:1–44; Mark 13:1–26; Luke 21:5–28) and passages from certain of Paul’s letters (e.g., Romans 9–11, 1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12). Lindsey made his own distinctive contribution to dispensationalism by providing a further degree of exegesis that included reading certain twentieth-century events into the dispensational framework. The resulting presentation was The Late Great Planet Earth, a highly sensational prophetic oracle that portrayed recent history as the harbinger of the impending end of the age.

For Lindsey, the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 marked a key event in God’s prophetic program. It marked the point at which God would begin to fulfill ancient promises made to the Jewish people but that had been put on hold with the coming of Jesus as the Messiah and the inauguration of the “church age” in which Gentiles would be granted access to God’s kingdom. It also marked the beginning of the last days. It would only be a short time before the church would be “raptured” from earth to heaven by Jesus, the world would enter into a seven-year period of tribulation, and Jesus would return and establish his 1,000-year-long, or millennial, reign on earth with his redeemed people. Precursors to this event were certain portents, such as famines, earthquakes, and wars. But most fantastically, recent historical events were sure signs that these things were about to come to pass. Lindsey read certain political movements and crises as fulfillments of biblical prophecies. The emergence of Arab nations surrounding the state of Israel and their growing economic and military power were a constant threat to God’s chosen people. Moreover, Cold War tensions were a sign that the Soviet Union would become the great Gog and Magog that would attack Israel from the North (cf. Ezekiel 38–39) in the last days. China would be the great force from the East that would join the battle (cf. Revelation 9:16), and the European Economic Community, which would be a revived Roman Empire headed by the Anti-Christ (cf. Daniel 2:42), would attack from the west. The climactic battle would occur in the battle of Armageddon (cf. Revelation 16:13–16), where the Messiah would decisively crush these forces. Significantly, Lindsey did not see the United States prefigured in biblical prophecy, which may indicate, in his thinking, that the United States had ceased to be a major world player by the time of these events. Nevertheless Lindsey does speak to the degrading moral condition of the United States throughout the book, seeing this as portending the coming of the last days.

The point of intersection between Lindsey and Bob Dylan takes place within the context of the emerging Vineyard Fellowship, a loosely connected group of worshiping communities in Southern California founded by Kenn Gulliksen. Gulliksen was on the staff of Calvary Chapel under the pastoral leadership of Chuck Smith when he established a church in Los Angeles in 1974. Dubbed the “pastor of love” by Smith,[4] Gulliksen found a following among the so-called Jesus People Movement of the 1960s and attracted several actors and musicians with Vineyard’s laid back atmosphere and contemporary worship style.[5] The Vineyard at this point did not have a formal theological statement. Hal Lindsey identified with the Vineyard early on and had become close friends with Gulliksen,[6] and so Lindsey’s eschatological teaching unofficially became the position of the Vineyard.

Bob Dylan’s conversion to Christianity took place within the context of the Vineyard Fellowship. In early 1979, his girlfriend at the time, Mary Alice Artes, had been attending a Vineyard church and facilitated a meeting between Dylan and some pastors on staff, Larry Myers and Paul Emond.[7] After his conversion, Dylan surprisingly attended the Vineyard’s School of Discipleship,[8] where some of the themes of Lindsey’s eschatological vision were taught.[9] Dylan also read The Late Great Planet Earth, and was quite taken with it.[10]

Dylan’s familiarity with this book is confirmed in an account by music writer James Riordan on the occasion of Dylan’s 70th birthday.[11] Riordan had just relocated to the Los Angeles area in 1978 and somewhat out of the blue decided to visit a Vineyard Fellowship church service. Sitting near the back, he heard someone singing along to “Amazing Grace” in a rather distinctive voice. He turned and saw it was Dylan. Deciding not to encroach on Dylan’s space in church, Riordan after the service went to the bookstore onsite and perused the latest edition of Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. From behind him, Dylan made the comment, “Hey, that’s a pretty good book, ain’t it?” Part of Riordan’s motivation for moving to Los Angeles was to make the book into a film (though this was already underway). Deciding not to share this with Dylan, he simply agreed with Dylan’s assessment of the book and the two parted ways. As Riordan made his way to his car in the parking lot, Dylan pulled up to him, rolled down his window, and said, “Hey, see you next week, huh?” This sparked a brief conversation where Riordan shared with Dylan his intention to make Lindsey’s book into a film. According to Riordan, Dylan gave him his phone number and asked Riordan to call him should he be able to schedule a meeting with Lindsey’s people. Riordan was never able to connect with Dylan after that, and the plan for the movie never came to fruition. Yet the anecdote, if true, illustrates Dylan’s connection with Lindsey’s book.

In 2017, Seth Rogovoy wrote a piece in the Jewish online magazine, Forward, in which he shared his change of opinion on the quality of Dylan’s work during his gospel period. Asking the question, was Bob Dylan at his best when he was a Christian?, Rogovoy noted the importance of Hal Lindsey’s book in Dylan’s new Christian walk, saying, “Dylan was very much parroting Lindsey’s line” in his songs and stage raps.[12] Someone brought this piece to Lindsey’s attention, so on his website, Lindsey rejoiced that after four decades, someone still “blames” Lindsey for his role in Dylan’s Christian conversion.[13] Just how much Lindsey is to “blame” for Dylan’s conversion is debatable, but there is no question that, at least in matters of helping Dylan express his newfound Christianity and his own eschatological views, Lindsey’s influence is significant.   


Lindsey and Dylan: The Verbal Connection

To be sure, Bob Dylan did not need Hal Lindsey to introduce him to the prophetic biblical texts that informed some of Dylan’s gospel-era songs. Dylan’s indebtedness to the Bible for his imagery has been well-established.[14] As he has stated in an interview with John Pareles of The New York Times in 1997,[15] Dylan’s lexicon and prayer book for his beliefs are the songs of his early musical nurture, extending as far back as the 1930s. Though Jewish, Dylan found inspiration in the gospel songs of such acts as the Carter Family. Many of these songs, interestingly, emerged from a strand of twentieth-century fundamentalist Christianity that was quite at home within classical dispensationalism. Moreover, his early upbringing as a bar mitzvahed Jewish boy certainly exposed him to some of the biblical sources of this faith, including prophetic texts, and Dylan’s visits to Israel in the earlier part of the 1970s seem to indicate an interest in his Jewish background. Moreover, Dylan did not need Lindsey to introduce him to apocalyptic imagery, as songs such as “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” clearly indicate. Finally, he did not need Lindsey to provide him with the worldview of biblical prophetic justice. Theologian Francis J. Beckwith has argued, “[I]f one carefully inspects Dylan’s Christian albums, one will find an individual who found in the Christian faith an account of the deep moral and social principles that had been lurking behind his pre-Christian work for quite some time.”[16] So if Dylan was conversant with biblical imagery that is related to the kinds of pronouncements Lindsey made, what does Lindsey’s particular expression have to do with Dylan?

If the songs in some way function as Dylan’s lexicon, then it may be fair to say that Lindsey provided the new Christian Bob Dylan with a syntax for expressing this vocabulary. This may be seen in his lyrics, his on-stage raps during his gospel tour of 1979, and in interviews. To each of these we now turn.

The Lyrics

Songs from the albums Slow Train Coming and Saved show clear influence of the brand of eschatology touted by Lindsey. In the song “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” Dylan draws from New Testament references to the return of Jesus in the following verse:

Jesus said, “Be ready

For you know not the hour in which I come”

Jesus said, “Be ready

For you know not the hour in which I come”

He said, “He who is not for Me is against Me”

Just so you know where He’s coming from [17]

The suddenness and inability to know of the time of Jesus’ return is standard biblical teaching. Dylan’s emphasis in the final line, laying out the battle lines of allegiance, though biblical, is put here in the context of Jesus’ return. Such an emphasis is at home in Lindsey’s dispensational framework, where eternal destiny is determined based on one’s fealty to Jesus in the final hour.

In many segments of Christianity, the return of Jesus is not viewed in such dread terms. Rather, it is an event that constitutes the very hope of Christians wherein God in Jesus Christ “sets the world to rights,” bringing an end to every evil and establishing a kingdom of joy and righteousness.[18] Yet Dylan, like Lindsey, seems preoccupied with the wrathful side of this event. This is seen clearly in “Are You Ready?”

Are you ready for the judgment?

Are you ready for that terrible swift sword?

Are you ready for Armageddon?

Are you ready for the day of the Lord?[19]

In an alternative couplet from the song “When You Gonna Wake Up” Dylan warns of the sword of judgment that waits to be wielded against those who work unrighteousness in the world when Jesus comes back for his people:

there’s a sword being flashed for all those in sorrow & despair

you won’t find it so hard to imagine when you meet it in the middle of the air [20]

This delight in the judgment and wrath of God at Jesus’ return finds further expression in “When He Returns.”[21]

The iron hand it ain’t no match for the iron rod

The strongest wall will crumble and fall to a mighty God

. . .

Don’t you cry and don’t you die and don’t you burn

For like a thief in the night, He’ll replace wrong with right

When He returns (verse 1)

. . .

He unleashed His power at an unknown hour that no one knew (verse 2)

. . .

Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask

. . .

Of every earthly plan that be known to man, He is unconcerned

He’s got plans of His own to set up His throne

When He returns (verse 3)

In some discarded lyrics to this song, Dylan connects the biblical teaching to specific historical circumstances of the time. Verse 1 finds the following alternative lyrics:

The communists might be frightenin’ you cause they only believe in man

& the capitalists might be exploitin’ you cause that’s part of their plan [22]

Verse 3 has alternative lines toward the end of the verse:

He’s got His own blueprint for a new government

It’s been prophesized from the beginning of time that He’ll return.[23]

Communists and capitalists alike, with the specific evils of each, will meet a woeful end when Jesus returns to establish his kingdom. The return of Jesus brings with it a cataclysmic end to the current order of things.

In “Trouble in Mind,” an outtake from the Slow Train Coming sessions, Dylan provides alternative lyrics that indicate he sees even the neutron bomb as prophesied from the beginning:

Neutron bombs—

It’s all been predicted

It’s all been foretold [24]

A key element of Lindsey’s interpretation of end time events is that the final conflagration leading to the world’s destruction is nuclear weapons. Dylan seems to agree.

This focus on contemporary events as evidence of an eschatological timetable is further attested in “Slow Train.” Here, in the following lyrics, the rise to economic and political power of Arab nations controlling America’s destiny is evidence that the “slow train comin’ up around the bend” draws ever closer:

All that foreign oil controlling American soil

Look around you, it’s just bound to make you embarrassed

Sheiks walkin’ around like kings

Wearing fancy jewels and nose rings

Deciding America’s future from Amsterdam and to Paris

And there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend [25]

Such a situation certainly has “Jefferson turnin’ over in his grave” in the home of the brave. In Lindsey’s calculus, the precise role that America plays in the final stages of the eschatological drama is unclear, yet America’s worsening predicament in the world is a harbinger that the time of final reckoning draws nigh.

Even an ostensible love song, “Precious Angel,” contains allusions to Lindsey’s particular eschatology. Dylan laments his friends’ deception as the end time approaches and the dreadful consequences of their delusion:

My so-called friends have fallen under a spell

They look me squarely in the eye and they say, “All is well”

Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on high

When men will beg God to kill them and they won’t be able to die?[26]

In an alternative verse, Dylan provides more Lindsey-esque detail of the final battle between good and evil, again, in what is framed as more of a love song.







It is interesting that Dylan, even in the time when his faith convictions would come under scrutiny, continued to draw on this type of imagery in his lyrics. On the album Infidels (1983), “Neighborhood Bully” is a song that expresses Lindsey’s assessment of the current state of Israel in God’s eschatological program. The final descriptors of this “bully,” which clearly represents modern-day Israel, show him “standing on the hill / Running out the clock, time standing still,”[28] perhaps alluding to the role of this bully as the time of the end approaches. Indeed, in verse 8, where the established lyrics say, “Every empire that’s enslaved him is gone / Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon,” an alternate lyric replaces the list of empires with the line, “& by one miracle or another he keeps going on,” accompanied by a marginal note that seems to connect this line to the date 1948, the year in which the modern state of Israel was established.[29] The year 1948, as we noted earlier, is a crucial sign post in Lindsey’s eschatological framework.     

In the years to follow, there would be occasional instances where Dylan’s lyrics reflect the imagery of Lindsey’s dispensational eschatology. On 1990’s Under the Red Sky, the song “God Knows” seems to reflect the imagery of the judgment of the earth in terms drawn from 2 Peter 3:6–7, an important passage in Lindsey’s scheme: “God knows there’s gonna be no more water / But fire next time.”[30] In a similar vein, “Things Have Changed,” from the soundtrack of the movie Wonder Boys, contains the line, “If the Bible is right, the world will explode.”[31] Again, this line is not at all a clear reading of the Bible; it is a clear reading of Lindsey’s eschatology.

In this brief survey of lyrics, there is at least circumstantial evidence that Dylan’s thought is influenced by Lindsey’s eschatology. One might argue that what we see here is nothing more than Dylan’s penchant for drawing imagery from the Bible. What we need to realize is that for centuries, Christians interpreted these biblical images in ways quite different from how Lindsey would come to understand them, and indeed, most Christians on earth today would take issue with Lindsey’s interpretations. What we see here is a particular slant on these passages that coheres closely with Lindsey’s. In other words, the biblical data themselves do not necessitate this interpretation. They only take on this interpretation when seen through a particular filter. Given Dylan’s early Christian context, it is reasonable to assume Lindsey provides this filter.

The Stage Raps

Of course, the lyrics provide the most substantial source for comparison with Hal Lindsey’s teaching. Another source, however, is the words Dylan frequently spoke during his concerts, especially during the gospel-only shows in November and December 1979. From November 1–16, Dylan performed fourteen shows in the Fox Warfield Theatre in San Francisco, California. The reaction to these shows, to be charitable, was mixed. On the one hand, the sheer energy of the music captivated many in attendance; on the other, many bristled at the gospel-only setlist, with some calling for Dylan to play his old material and others leaving the theater.

Regardless of its reception, the 1979 tour is useful for how Dylan addressed eschatological matters from the stage. As Dylan began his tour in San Francisco, his pronouncements amounted to little more than an introduction to his song, “Solid Rock.” Typical is the rap from November 6, when he offered about a sentence of eschatological warning: “You know we’re living in the last days of the end of times. In the last days of the end of times, you’re going to need something strong to hang on to, so this song is called ‘Hanging On To A Solid Rock Made Before The Foundation Of The World.’ You’re gonna need something that strong.”[32] Throughout the Warfield Theatre shows, this song’s introduction would stay mostly consistent in wording and duration. 

As the venue shifted to the Civic Auditorium in Santa Monica, California, for four shows November 18–21, the raps became more frequent and more developed. On the opening night of this leg of the tour, Dylan introduced the song “Slow Train” in the following way: 

I suppose you’ve been reading the newspapers and watching the TV? And you see how much trouble this world is in. Madmen running loose everywhere. Anyway we, we’re not worried about that though — it doesn’t bother us — because we know this world is going to be destroyed. Christ will set up his kingdom for a thousand years in Jerusalem where the lion will lie down with the lamb — we know this is true. No doubt about it. So, it’s a slow train coming. It’s been coming for a long time, but it’s picking up speed.[33]

Here Dylan draws attention to the destruction of the present world and the millennial kingdom of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, both key themes in Lindsey’s framework. Here we also see appeal to current events as portents of the approaching end of times.

When the tour stopped in Tempe, Arizona, for two shows at the Gammage Center November 25–26, Dylan began with a rap that added such typical Lindsey features as the battle of Armageddon, the involvement of Russia in the Middle East, and even the very near imminence of the end:

All right. Now don’t be dismayed by what you read in the newspapers about what’s happening to the world. Because, now, the world as we know it now is being destroyed. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s . . . it’s the truth. In the matter of a short time—I don’t know, maybe in three years, maybe five years, could be ten years, I don’t know—there’s gonna be a war. It’s gonna be called the war of Armageddon. It’s gonna happen in the Middle East. Russia’s gonna come down and attack first and you watch for that sign. Anyway, we’re not worried about that. We know there’s gonna be a new kingdom set up in Jerusalem for a thousand years. And that’s where Jesus will set up his kingdom, as sure as you’re standing there, it’s gonna happen. So this is called, “Hanging On To A Solid Rock Made Before The Foundation Of The World.”[34]

The importance of this evidence is that it is prosaic in presentation. Lyrical presentation, especially Dylan’s, is always open to various interpretations due to its poetic nature. But these raps are more homiletical in nature and give insight into the sources of his pronouncements. The themes here strongly “parrot” Lindsey. We see Dylan getting bolder and more comfortable as he proclaims his message of the end of days, and his words could not be more clear for those with ears to hear.

The Interviews

It is with a bit of trepidation that one looks to interviews to discover what Dylan thinks on any topic. Rightly or wrongly, he has a reputation for being, at the very least, elusive with interviewers. However, on the topic of eschatology, he does give indications that he is being straightforward with his responses. Of particular interest here will be an interview conducted by Kurt Loder in Rolling Stone magazine in the June 21, 1984, issue. This interview is important for two reasons. First, it very clearly shows affinity with the views of Hal Lindsey on eschatological matters, and second, it was conducted at a time when Dylan was publicly less expressive of his Christian beliefs. His commitment to Christianity had come under severe scrutiny. The interview shows that, whatever his spiritual state, he remained steadfast in his understanding of how the world will come to its end.

When asked about his spiritual stance, Dylan replied first by affirming belief in a life beyond this one, then added, “I believe in the Book of Revelation. The leaders of this world are eventually going to play God, if they’re not already playing God, and eventually a man will come that everybody will think is God. He’ll do things, and they’ll say, ‘Well, only God can do those things. It must be him.’”[35] Dylan’s attribution rings more true of 2 Thessalonians 2:1–4 than it does the Book of Revelation, but he captures the spirit of this antichrist figure so prominent in Lindsey’s thought. Following a line of questioning by Loder on the song “Neighborhood Bully,” where Loder presses Dylan on whether the song is an expression of Zionism or support for American military intervention on Israel’s behalf in the Middle East, Dylan denies such intentions for the song and diverts attention to the battle of Armageddon: “The battle of Armageddon is specifically spelled out: where it will be fought, and if you want to get technical, when it will be fought. And the battle of Armageddon definitely will be fought in the Middle East.”[36] Again, vintage Lindsey.

Dylan also reflects Lindsey’s sense of uncertainty regarding the place of the United States in God’s eschatological timetable. Commenting on how the world had become more global, with the United States losing its sense of identity, Dylan attributes this evolution to the spread of instantaneous global communication in fulfillment of the book of Revelation.[37] One frequent plank of Lindsey’s end time scheme is the idea that in the last days, knowledge and travel will increase exponentially, evidence of humanity’s arrogant overreach (cf. Daniel 12:4). The smaller, global world already present in the 1980s figures into America’s decline and acquiescence to the one-world government and economy under the leadership of the Antichrist, another key element of Lindsey’s scheme. Dylan seems to decry this move toward globalism and America’s place in the last days when he says,

Somebody’s gonna have to come along and figure out what’s happening with the United States. Is this just an island that’s going to be blown out of the ocean, or does it really figure into things? I really don’t know. . . . Right now, it seems like in the States, and most other countries, too, there’s a big push on to make a big global country—one big country—where you can get all the materials from one place and assemble them someplace else and sell ‘em in another place, and the whole world is just all one, controlled by the same people, you know? And if it’s not already there, that’s the point it’s tryin’ to get to.[38]

Again, Dylan, in 1984, still “parrots” elements of Lindsey’s eschatological scheme, at a time when his own spiritual status seems unclear to the public. Whether through his lyrics, stage raps, or interviews, Dylan’s words frequently and over time betray an indebtedness to modes of expression at home with Lindsey’s eschatological worldview.     

Lindsey and Dylan: A Spiritual Heuristic?

Is he or isn’t he still a Christian? This question has fascinated observers of Dylan and popular Christian culture for decades now. With the release of the album Infidels in 1983, many questions emerged as to whether Dylan had forsaken his commitment to Jesus Christ and returned to Judaism. In 1985, Vineyard Fellowship pastor and Fuller Theological Seminary professor Don Williams wrote a monograph to argue that Dylan had not discarded his Christian faith,[39] and as late as 2017, Dylan’s spiritual journey was the subject of an investigation by Scott M. Marshall in his book Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life. In a provocative essay, Kathryn Lofton raises the prospect that in the study of history, it is very difficult, if at all possible, to know precisely what a person believes on any point because our subjects tend to be wilier and more equivocal in cataloguing their beliefs than our attempts to catalog their beliefs would suggest. Bob Dylan is the case study for her thesis.[40]

I will not here seek to address the question directly. Rather, I will work from the premise that Marshall’s recent study provides the best overall take on what we may surmise about Dylan’s spiritual life.     

Marshall’s study is a broad survey of Dylan’s whole life, seeking to frame the religious question in terms of a spiritual odyssey rather than a static taxonomic determination. Rather than seeing Dylan starting out as a Jew, discarding this in favor of evangelical Christianity, only to reject that in favor of a more informed Judaism following studies with members of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect known as the Lubavitch, Marshall argues that Dylan’s life and art reflect a spiritual quest that has evolved and developed without rejecting any of these elements. Rather, Dylan’s odyssey is a robust integration of all of these inputs. Marshall’s conclusion is that from his childhood, Dylan’s life and art have been the product of a synthetic engagement with both the Jewish and Christian strands of the biblical tradition. In his review of Marshall’s book, Francis Beckwith puts it this way: “Part of Marshall’s thesis is that the Dylan who emerges from his 1983 Lubavitch studies, and subsequently releases Infidels, is not a restored Jew who has rejected Christ, but rather, a Hebrew Christian who has a better and deeper sense of his Judaism and the way it shapes his understanding of the biblical narrative and his relationship with God.”[41] Beckwith, we should note, deems Marshall’s conclusions as speculative, though “based on very good grounds.”

So if this assessment, speculative though it is, has any merit, how might Hal Lindsey’s thought have contributed to this odyssey? It is interesting to note that Lindsey is not mentioned by name, nor included in the index, in Marshall’s study. Yet I suggest that if indeed Lindsey has so influenced Dylan’s lyrics and prosaic pronouncements as we have argued earlier, it would stand to reason that perhaps Lindsey has contributed to Dylan’s ability to integrate both the Jewish and Christian strands of his spiritual journey.

Whatever the theological and exegetical merits of Lindsey’s program, one fact is undeniably clear: Lindsey’s program has a place of inclusion for the Jewish people in God’s end-time program that appreciates them as Jewish without the overtones of anti-Semitism that has often colored Jewish-Christian relationships over the centuries. The current nation-state of Israel, even though constituted largely as a secular state, plays a crucial part in the unfolding of the last days leading to God’s ultimate triumph over the powers of evil. The unfulfilled promises of God toward the houses of Judah and Israel are not spiritualized as referring to the Christian church, as in some Christian theologies.[42] Rather, they are understood as yet-to-be-realized prophecies for the actual, historical Jewish people. Such an understanding would likely appeal to Dylan, who had become a Christian after visiting Israel in the 1970s and coming to a deeper appreciation of his own Jewish heritage. This interpretation could help him better understand a God revealed in Jesus the Messiah, a thoroughly Jewish Messiah, one who has not cast off the historical chosen people. So perhaps Hal Lindsey’s brand of dispensationalism provided a heuristic for Dylan to navigate his way through a conversion to Christianity in such a way as to not only accommodate his Jewish heritage, but also to be enriched by a deeper understanding of this heritage.

Lindsey and Dylan: A Political Framework?

From his earliest days as a public figure, Bob Dylan has been appropriated by various political movements despite his frequent protestations that he is not a voice for any generation or political position. His early embrace of folk music and so-called “protest songs,” his appearance at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, March on Washington in 1963, and performances at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993 notwithstanding, Dylan has mostly avoided endorsing specific political platforms. This is not to say that Dylan does not have political leanings; it is to say that Dylan does not put much stock in the ability of politics to solve humanity’s problems. As he told Kurt Loder in a Rolling Stone interview in 1984, “I think politics is an instrument of the Devil. Just that clear. I think politics is what kills; it doesn’t bring anything alive. Politics is corrupt; I mean, anybody knows that.”[43]

In a recent monograph titled The Political World of Bob Dylan, Jeff Taylor and Chad Israelson present the case that Bob Dylan’s political stance is best characterized by the term “Christian anarchism.”[44] Their case rests upon an analysis of Dylan’s political statements in songs, stage raps, and interviews, brought into conversation with H. Richard Niebuhr’s influential book, Christ and Culture.[45] Taylor and Israelson argue that Dylan’s politics were always more expansive than those of the New Left during the 1960s. Over the decades, Dylan advanced socio-political ideas that resonated with both the political left and right, encompassing both traditional and populist views. Taylor and Israelson argue that within this mix the term “anarchism,” understood broadly as a distrust of and lack of confidence in political authorities to address the human condition, always fit Dylan. With Dylan’s conversion in 1978, his anarchism melded with a stream of Christian political thought that fit one of Niebuhr’s categories of the relationship between church and state, Christ versus culture. This was the position of the Jesus People of the 1960s out of which emerged the Vineyard Fellowship of Dylan’s early Christian nurture. The kingdom of God had its own agenda in the unfolding of human history and it did not depend on alliances with earthly political authorities for its realization.

Of course, history is replete with failed alliances between church and state. Within the United States today, the close identification of a brand of evangelical Christianity with the so-called “Christian Right,” and with Zionistic groups politically tied to the state of Israel, shows that the Christ-versus-culture paradigm is not the only possible approach to church/state relations. At the time of Dylan’s conversion, American politics was beginning to involve Christians in politics to effect religious goals on a social level. President Jimmy Carter, whom Dylan admired and for whom Dylan once performed, identified as a “born-again” Christian, and at this time, Christian conservatives were marshaling their forces to attack the newly legalized practice of abortion. It is possible that Dylan connected with some aspect of the Christian Right upon conversion. However, Dylan was deeply influenced by Hal Lindsey’s version of premillennial dispensational eschatology. As Taylor and Israelson put it, “Dylan’s newfound Christianity was in many ways less culture-bound than the average evangelical at the time — partly because it was new and he approached the Bible with the fresh eyes of a convert. Also, he had a more-spiritual, less-politicized understanding of Bible eschatology.”[46] Lindsey’s eschatology had two things working in its favor. First, it was largely passive. It did not require much from Christians for the realization of the kingdom other than to engage in evangelism so as to hasten Christ’s return. As noted earlier, Dylan’s stage raps during the gospel tour of 1979 spoke of Christ’s return and typically included an exhortation for the audience to turn to Jesus in response. No amount of political effort would hasten the coming of the kingdom. Second, Lindsey’s eschatology was inclusive of the Jewish people. Given Dylan’s Jewishness both pre- and post-conversion, this eschatology, with its spiritualized focus on the last days, accorded well with Dylan’s predilection to distrust human political efforts as well as his focus on integrating the Jewish and Christian elements of his faith. The final reckoning that would usher in God’s age of righteousness and justice was wholly independent of political involvement. Lindsey’s eschatology enabled Dylan to integrate his newfound Christian faith with his established “anarchist” tendencies.[47]


I confess a certain disappointment at the degree to which Hal Lindsey influenced Bob Dylan’s thinking. As a New Testament scholar and an ecotheologian, I find Hal Lindsey’s exegesis and hermeneutic of reading current events through the lens of prophetic biblical passages specious, and the implications of his eschatology frankly dangerous. Yet it is evident that Hal Lindsey exerted considerable influence on Bob Dylan’s art and patterns of thinking during this period. Dylan would be but one of millions of people who found, and still find, in Lindsey’s teaching a key to navigating perilous times within a Christian framework. In the case of Bob Dylan, Lindsey’s influence has clearly endured.



Beckwith, Francis J. “Busy Being Born Again: Bob Dylan’s Christian Philosophy.” Bob Dylan and Philosophy: It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Thinking). Eds. Peter Vernezze and Carl J. Porter. Pp. 145–55. Chicago/La Salle, IL: Open Court, 2006.

—. “Why Are We Worried about Bob Dylan’s Religion?” Crux, 31 July 2017.

Björner, Olof. Still on the Road: 1979 First Gospel Tour.

Bustraan, Richard A. The Jesus People Movement: A Story of Spiritual Revolution among the Hippies. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014.

Cott, Jonathan Cott, ed. Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Gilmour, Michael J. Tangled up in the Bible: Bob Dylan and Scripture. New York: Continuum, 2004.

Heylin, Clinton. Trouble in Mind: Bob Dylan’s Gospel Years—What Really Happened. New York: Lesser Gods, 2017.

Higgins, Thomas W. “Kenn Gulliksen, John Wimber, and the Founding of the Vineyard Movement.” Pneuma, vol. 34, 2012, pp. 208–28.

Lindsey, Hal. “Was Bob Dylan at His Best When He Was a Christian?” The Hal Lindsey Report, 2 November 2017.

Lindsey, Hal, with C. C. Carlson. The Late Great Planet Earth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970.

Lofton, Kathryn. “I Don’t Want to Fake You out: Bob Dylan and the Search for Belief in History.” Cultural Icons and Cultural Leadership. Eds. Peter Iver Kaufman and Kristin M. S. Bezio. Pp. 152–166. Cheltenham, UK/Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2017.

Marshall, Scott M. Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life. Washington, DC: WND Books, 2017.

Maxa, Rudy. “Bob Dylan Knocks on Heaven’s Door, Accepts Christ, Says a West Coast Pastor As the Music Biz and the Star’s Fans Await an Album To Explain It All.” Washington Post, 27 May 1979.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1951, 1975.

Riordan, James. “It Ain’t Easy Being Bob: A Retrospective on Dylan on His 70th Birthday.” Maddancer, 8 July 2011.

Rogovoy, Seth. “Was Bob Dylan at His Best When He Was a Christian?” Forward, 30 October 2017.

Soulen, R. Kendall Soulen. The God of Israel and Christian Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.

Taylor, Jeff. “Bob Dylan and Christian Zionism.” Counterpunch, 25 November 2015.

Taylor, Jeff, and Chad Israelson. The Political World of Bob Dylan: Freedom and Justice, Power and Sin. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Williams, Don. Bob Dylan: The Man, the Music, the Message. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revel, 1985.

Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperOne, 2008.



Bob Dylan. “Are You Ready?” Special Rider Music. 1980.

—. “God Knows.” Special Rider Music. 1990.

—. “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.” Special Rider Music. 1979.

—. “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar.” Special Rider Music. 1981.

—. “Neighborhood Bully.” Special Rider Music. 1983.

—. “Precious Angel.” Special Rider Music. 1979.

—. “Slow Train.” Special Rider Music. 1979.

—. “Things Have Changed.” Special Rider Music. 1999.

—. “When He Returns.” Special Rider Music. 1979.


[1] E.g., Rogovoy, “Was Bob Dylan at His Best When He Was a Christian?”

[2] Taylor and Isrealson, The Political World of Bob Dylan.

[3] The book was also published in 1973 by Bantam Books and again in 1977 by Zondervan. The book was also made into a motion picture narrated by Orson Welles and released in 1979.

[4] Bustraan, The Jesus People Movement, 63.

[5] Higgins, “Kenn Gulliksen, John Wimber, and the Founding of the Vineyard Movement,” 210–14.

[6] Maxa, “Bob Dylan Knocks on Heaven’s Door.”

[7] Heylin, Trouble in Mind, 23–25; Marshall, Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life, 34–35.

[8] Dylan recalls his compulsion to attend the School of Discipleship in Reseda, California, in an interview with Robert Hilburn in the Los Angeles Times, 23 November 1980, in Cott, Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, 298.

[9] Kathryn Lofton asserts that Lindsey actually taught eschatology in the Vineyard School of Discipleship, though other sources surveying this period of Dylan’s life do not mention this. See her essay, “I Don’t Want to Fake You out: Bob Dylan and the Search for Belief in History,” 156. Heylin quotes Larry Myers as saying that Dylan studied under Kenn Gulliksen and “at least four other competent pastor-teachers, including myself,” so it is possible that Lindsey was among that number (Trouble in Mind, 28).

[10] Heylin, Trouble in Mind, 30–38.

[11] Riordan, “It Ain’t Easy Being Bob.”

[12] Rogovoy, “Was Bob Dylan at His Best When He Was a Christian?”

[13] Lindsey, “Was Bob Dylan at His Best When He Was a Christian?”

[14] E.g., Gilmour, Tangled up in the Bible.

[15] Bob Dylan, interview with John Pareles, The New York Times, 28 September 1997, in Cott, Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, 419.

[16] Beckwith, “Busy Being Born Again,” 146. Beckwith identifies four areas in which Dylan’s early philosophy is developed in his Christian work: Dylan’s assimilation of the Christian narrative; human beings live in a moral universe; the moral law is objectively true; and it is important that human beings practice virtue.

[17] Dylan, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.”

[18] Wright, Surprised by Hope, 109–13.

[19] Dylan, “Are You Ready?”

[20] “When You Gonna Wake Up,” typescript lyrics from Slow Train Coming, circa 1979, The Bob Dylan Archive, box 80, folder 02. Courtesy of THE BOB DYLAN ARCHIVE® Collections, Tulsa, OK. Spelling and punctuation retained from the original in all references to archival materials.

[21] Dylan, “When He Returns.”

[22] In some alternate lyrics from “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” Dylan expresses a similar sentiment regarding the place of communists and capitalists in the end time drama: “the communists were falling—the capitalists were crawling/the hand of God is moving—Jesus is calling” (“The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Alter,” typescript lyrics from Shot of Love, circa 1981, The Bob Dylan Archive, box 81, folder 01. Courtesy of THE BOB DYLAN ARCHIVE® Collections, Tulsa, OK).

[23] “When He Returns,” typescript and manuscript lyrics from Slow Train Coming, circa 1979, box 80, folder 01. Courtesy of THE BOB DYLAN ARCHIVE® Collections, Tulsa, OK.

[24] “Trouble in Mind,” typescript and manuscript lyrics from Slow Train Coming, circa 1979, box 79, folder 06. Courtesy of THE BOB DYLAN ARCHIVE® Collections, Tulsa, OK. 

[25] Dylan, “Slow Train.”

[26] Dylan, “Precious Angel.”

[27] “Precious Angel,” typescript and manuscript lyrics from Slow Train Coming, circa 1979, box 79, folder 08. Courtesy of THE BOB DYLAN ARCHIVE® Collections, Tulsa, OK.

[28] Dylan, “Neighborhood Bully.”

[29] “Neighborhood Bully,” manuscript and typescript lyrics from Infidels, circa 1983, box 35, folder 06. Courtesy of THE BOB DYLAN ARCHIVE® Collections, Tulsa, OK.

[30] Dylan, “God Knows.”

[31] Dylan, “Things Have Changed.”

[32] Björner, Still on the Road. Olaf Björner’s website contains the texts of Dylan’s stage rants during the 1979 Gospel Tour. Clinton Heylin also provides several sample rants in Trouble in Mind, Appendix II.

[33] Björner, Still on the Road.

[34] Björner, Still on the Road.

[35] Bob Dylan, interview with Kurt Loder, Rolling Stone, 21 June 1984, in Cott, Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, 306. Italics original.

[36] Dylan, interview with Kurt Loder, 308–9. Italics original.

[37] Dylan, interview with Kurt Loder, 310.

[38] Dylan, interview with Kurt Loder, 311. Italics original.

[39] Williams, Bob Dylan: The Man, the Music, the Message.

[40] Lofton, “I Don’t Want to Fake You out,” 152–66.

[41] Beckwith, “Why Are We Worried about Bob Dylan’s Religion?”

[42] For a survey of positions on the relationship between Israel and the Christian church, see Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology.

[43] Dylan, interview with Kurt Loder, 309.

[44] Taylor and Israelson, The Political World of Bob Dylan, 151–72, 194–99. The following summarizes these discussions. See also Taylor, “Bob Dylan and Christian Zionism.”

[45] Niebuhr, Christ and Culture.

[46] Taylor and Israelson, The Political World of Bob Dylan, 222.

[47] Taylor and Israelson, The Political World of Bob Dylan, 158–59.

Are You Ready?. Copyright © 1980 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Ballad in Plain D. Copyright © 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992 by Special
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Beyond the Horizon. Copyright © 2006 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Black Diamond Bay. Copyright © 1975 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2003 by Ram’s
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​Blind Willie McTell. Copyright © 1983 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Blowin in the Wind. Copyright © 1962 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1990 by Special
Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Caribbean Wind. Copyright © 1985 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Changing of the Guards. Copyright © 1978 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Chronicles, Volume One. Copyright © 2004 by Bob Dylan. All rights reserved.

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

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

Dignity. Copyright © 1991 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

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

Every Grain Of Sand. Copyright © 1981 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Gates of Eden. Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider
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God Knows. Copyright © 1990 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Gonna Change My Way of Thinking. Copyright © 1979 by Special Rider Music. All
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Got My Mind Made Up. Copyright ©1986 Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar. Copyright © 1981 by Special Rider Music. All
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A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall. Copyright © 1963 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991 by
Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Huck’s Tune. Copyright © 2007 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Hurricane. Copyright © 1975 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2003 by Ram’s Horn
Music. All rights reserved.

Idiot Wind. Copyright © 1974 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2002 by Ram’s Horn
Music. All rights reserved.

If Not for You. Copyright © 1970 by Big Sky Music; renewed 1998 by Big Sky Music. All
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I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You. Copyright © 2020 by Special Rider Music.
All rights reserved.

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

Like a Rolling Stone. Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special
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Meet Me in the Morning. Copyright © 1974 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2002 by
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Mr. Tambourine Man. Copyright © 1964, 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992, 1993 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Moonlight. Copyright © 2001 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Mother of Muses. Copyright © 2020 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Murder Most Foul. Copyright © 2020 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

My Back Pages. Copyright © 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992 by Special
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Neighborhood Bully. Copyright © 1983 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Nobel Lecture, The. Copyright © 2017 by Bob Dylan. All rights reserved.

Not Dark Yet. Copyright © 1997 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Po’ Boy. Copyright © 2001 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Precious Angel. Copyright © 1979 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

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Slow Train. Copyright © 1979 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Spirit on the Water. Copyright © 2006 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again. Copyright © 1966 by Dwarf Music; renewed 1994 by Dwarf Music. All rights reserved.

Tangled Up In Blue. Copyright © 1974 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2002 by Ram’s
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Til I Fell In Love With You. Copyright © 1997 by Special Rider Music. All rights

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Under the Red Sky. Copyright © 1990 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Under Your Spell. Copyright © 1986 by Special Rider Music and Carol Bayer Sager Music. All rights reserved.

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Watching The River Flow. Copyright © 1971 by Big Sky Music; renewed 1999 by Big
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When I Paint My Masterpiece. Copyright © 1971 by Big Sky Music; renewed 1999 by
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Workingman’s Blues #2. Copyright © 2006 Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

You’re A Big Girl Now. Copyright © 1974 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2002 by Ram’s Horn Music. All rights reserved.

John Bauldie, The Chameleon Poet. Route Publishing, 2021.

Michael Gray, Outtakes on Bob Dylan. Route Publishing, 2021.

Graley Herren, Dreams and Dialogues in Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind.” Anthem Press, 2021.

Clinton Heylin, The Double Life of Bob Dylan: A Restless, Hungry Feeling, vol. 1 1941-1966. Little, Brown and Company, 2021.

Bob Dylan and the Arts: Songs, Film, Painting, and Sculpture in Dylan’s Universe, ed. Maria Steffnelli, Alessandro Carrera, Fabio Fantuzzi. Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2020.

Christopher Rollason, ‘Read Books, Repeat Quotations’: The Literary Bob Dylan. Gateshead (UK): Two Riders, 2021

Alessandro Carrera is Moores Professor of Italian Studies and World Cultures and Literatures at the University of Houston, Texas. He has published extensively in the fields of Continental Philosophy, Italian and Comparative Literature, Art, Cinema, and Music (classical and popular). He is the author of La voce di Bob Dylan (Milan: Feltrinelli, 2001, 2011, 2021) and three other short books on Dylan. He has translated the songs and prose of Bob Dylan into Italian, all published by Feltrinelli: Chronicles Vol. 1 (2005), Tarantula (2007), Lyrics in various annotated editions, the most recent in three volumes: Lyrics 1961-1968, Lyrics 1969-1982, Lyrics 1983-2020 (published in 2021). 

Sarah Gates is the Craig Professor of English at St. Lawrence University, where she teaches British literature of all periods, poetry, and songwriting.  She has published on Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Tennyson, Joni Mitchell, and most recently, Louise Erdrich.  She is also a musician with the local indie-rock band Bee Children.

Michael Gray is an independent scholar who pioneered the serious study of Dylan’s work with Song & Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan, 1972. His books include the massively updated Song & Dance Man III(1999), The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia(2006), Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search Of Blind Willie McTell (2007), and Outtakes On Bob Dylan: Selected Writings 1967-2021. He has delivered guest lectures in Europe and North America, including at Stanford, California and Bath Literature Festival. His website is

Timothy Hampton is professor of Comparative Literature and French at the University of California, Berkeley, where he also directs the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities. He has written widely on literature and culture, across several languages and centuries.  He is the author of Bob Dylan: How the Songs Work (Zone Books, 2019). A recent article is “Bob Dylan in the Country: Rock Domesticity and Pastoral Song” (Representations, 152, fall 2020). A new study, Cheerfulness: A Literary and Cultural History will be published in 2022 by Zone Books.  He writes about literature, music, and education at

John Hughes‘s writings on Dylan include Invisible Now: Bob Dylan in the 1960s (Taylor & Francis, 2013). He is Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of Gloucestershire and has published widely on nineteenth and twentieth-century literature and philosophy, particularly Thomas Hardy and William Wordsworth. 

Jeffrey S. Lamp is Professor of New Testament and Instructor of Environmental Science at Oral Roberts University, Tulsa, Oklahoma. His primary research and publishing interests are in the field of ecotheology. He has authored five books and co-edited one. He was a translator and editor for the Modern English Version of the Bible (Passio/Charisma House). He is a frequent presenter at academic conferences, has published articles in several journals, dictionaries, and volumes of collected essays, and is the editor of Spiritus: ORU Journal of Theology.

Michele Ulisse Lipparini, born in Milano where he’s based, is an independent scholar who started listening to Bob Dylan in 1988 at age 16. Digging into Dylan’s songs pushed him into learning English, which led him to work as a translator and eventually to collaborate for a few years with Delfina Vezzoli, Italian translator of Don DeLillo’s masterpiece Underworld. In addition to completing Vezzoli’s translation of John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers, Lipparini has translated graphic novels and published articles about Bob Dylan in magazines such as Isis, Buscadero and on various websites, and contributed consistently to Olof Bjorner’s website, He also held a conference about the Nobel Laureate as part of the Sant’Arcangelo di Romagna Poetry Festival in 2015. He has attended 170 Bob Dylan concerts all over the world.

Anne Marie Mai is professor of literature and a chair of DIAS at The University of Southern Denmark. She has published more than 200 articles, book chapters and monographs. She nominated Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize, which he won in 2016. She has published Bob Dylan. The Poet (University Press of Southern Denmark, 2018, German translation will be published 2021), she edited the anthology New Approaches to Bob Dylan (University Press of Southern Denmark, 2019) and contributed to The World of Bob Dylan (ed. Sean Latham, Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Andrew Muir current commitments include teaching language and literature at The Leys School, Cambridge, UK and delivering Shakespeare and Dylan talks at a variety of conferences. Dylan publications: Razor’s Edge (2001), One More Night (21013), Troubadour (2003). An examination of historical and contemporary outdoor Shakespeare performances: Shakespeare in Cambridge followed, in 2015. This led to a comparative study, Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare: The True Performing of It, (2nd edition 2021).

Jacqueline Osherow is the author of eight collections of poetry, most recently My Lookalike at the Krishna Temple (LSU Press, 2019). She’s received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, the Ingram Merrill Foundation and the Witter Bynner Prize. Her poems have appeared in many magazines, journals and anthologies, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, American Poetry Review, the Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry, Best American Poetry, The Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, Twentieth Century American Poetry, and The Making of a Poem. She’s Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Utah. 

Allesandro Portelli has taught American Literature in the universities of Rome “La Sapienza” and Siena. He has served as advisor on democratic historical memory to the Mayor of Rome and founded the Circolo Gianni Bosio for the critical study and historical presence of people’s culture, folk music, and oral history. He is the author of many books on literature, popular culture, working-class history, including The Order Has Been Carried OutThey Say in Harlan Dean County; The Death of Luigi Trastulli. Form and Meaning in Oral History.

Christopher Rollason, M.A. in English, Trinity College, Cambridge. Doctorate in English, University of York. Author of numerous published articles, lectures and conference papers on Bob Dylan. Attended international Dylan conferences held in Caen (France), 2005 and Tulsa (Oklahoma), 2019.

Jim Salvucci, since receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto, has served as an English professor, dean, and vice president at several institutions of higher education. For many years he taught an advanced course in Bob Dylan studies, and he continues to blog, present, and publish on Bob Dylan. Currently he lives in Newburgh, NY, and serves as a management consultant to nonprofits and other mission-driven organizations. He can be found online at

John H. Serembus, PhD., is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Widener University. In his forty-plus years in the classroom, he has taught a wide variety of courses, but mainly those in Logic (both formal and informal), Critical Thinking, Ethics, and Values.

David Thurmaier is Associate Professor of Music Theory and Chair of the Music Studies Division at the University of Missouri – Kansas City Conservatory. His research focuses on the music of Charles Ives, as well as the Beatles. He has published book chapters on George Harrison’s connections to popular music, John Lennon’s political music, and has a forthcoming chapter on Paul McCartney’s use of pastiche. In 2019, he presented a paper examining the musical relationship between Harrison and Bob Dylan at the “World of Bob Dylan” conference in Tulsa. He also co-hosts two podcasts: “I’ve Got a Beatles Podcast,” and “Hearing the Pulitzers.”

SUBMITTED BY Spencer Leigh, 12 April 2021

I thank Quentin Miller for reviewing my book, Bob Dylan: Outlaw Blues so thoroughly and the Dylan Review for publishing that review. Naturally, I would like to make a few comments, as Miller’s review raises several issues.

The book was never intended to be academic but that is not, ipso facto, a drawback: it is just a different type of book. I wanted to try and capture the general reader, maybe people who hadn’t read a Dylan book before. I didn’t want footnotes as they can interrupt the flow of a story.

Dylan is such a quirky individual that I knew I could make this a funny book and that generally goes against academic criteria. The story of him visiting John Lennon’s childhood home in Liverpool in 2009 is comedy gold.

I transcribed all my Dylan-related interviews and no one is misquoted or paraphrased. Most of them have been broadcast on BBC Radio Merseyside over the years. If an academic wanted further details, I can supply the full transcripts and the dates and places of recording. Indeed, my lockdown job has been annotating my radio programs (about 3,000 of them) for Liverpool Central Library. My role model is John Gilliland’s interviews from the 60s/70s which are on the University of North Texas website. 

There is a pattern in my biographies. I start with the artist’s connection to Merseyside and then to the UK in general and onto the US. This I suppose does imbalance the books. In the case of Dylan, I wrote at length about his appearances in Liverpool as they are the shows I attended. 

I accept too that my books may be biased by the people I’ve met. I met Judy Collins and Joan Baez in Liverpool on UK tours. I haven’t interviewed Sara Dylan but I don’t think anyone else has either. Maybe her silence was a condition of the divorce settlement. She is a mystery lady but she is not missing from the index — Dylan’s family members are subsections under Dylan himself.

A significant factor about the key artists from the 60s is that they were listening to what other people were doing and the relationship between Bob Dylan and the Beatles is a strand in the book. I loved how Bob Dylan had taken a rock & roll band, the Hawks, and transformed them, mostly by osmosis. We wouldn’t have had The Band in that form without Dylan’s input, so they are an integral part of the story.

I also suspect that nobody works in a vacuum. When I was talking to the blues singer/songwriter Chris Smither, he said that Tim Hardin was unusual because he didn’t listen to anybody else.

One advantage of putting an artist into context is that it enables me to write about some of my favorite artists. In my world, John Stewart is up there with Bob Dylan and so by putting him into the text, I am hopefully introducing him to a few people who may like him.

Oddly enough, one of the great moments in my life was when I saw Richard Dreyfuss in a Neil Simon play in the West End. He had been on Desert Island Discs the previous Sunday. I went to the stage door after the play and proffered my program for a signature. I said, “You were excellent in the play but I’ve really come round to thank you for playing John Stewart on Desert Island Discs.” He said, “Come here” and gave me a big hug adding, “There aren’t many of us.”  The track he chose: “Mother Country.” It was from the 1969 album, California Bloodlines, which despite its title was cut in Nashville and on the liner note, John Stewart refers to “Dylan across the street,” who was making Nashville Skyline.

The section on the New Dylan is, I hope, both enjoyable and informative as they all have their own idiosyncrasies — Loudon Wainwright and John Prine, for starters. Prine had the talent to rival Dylan except he was never prolific enough. Still, he did outclass Dylan in sheer quirkiness. 

Over the years the great songwriters have known the importance of love songs and Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Lennon and McCartney have given us standards. This is another factor that differentiates Dylan from his contemporaries. Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull told me, “I would love to be able to write short, straight-to-the point love songs. They are the hardest to write because so many have been written.”

As well as writing songs like “Desolation Row” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile,” Dylan is able to write succinct lyrics and get the whole world singing — “Lay Lady Lay,” “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” “If Not For You,” and “Make You Feel My Love.” That Brill Building talent has served him well.

Bob Dylan has been elusive when it comes to discussing his songs and this has worked in his favor. He can be discussed forever as students grapple with their meaning. If he had given footnotes, it would have closed down the discussion. It remains to be seen what is in his archive in Tulsa. I thought that he would have covered his tracks, but it turns out he’s a hoarder.

No matter how thoroughly you read over your text, there is always something you miss and it irks you forever. The John Osborne play is called Look Back In Anger, so why did I give it the Oasis song title, “Don’t Look Back In Anger,” and why didn’t I or anybody else spot it? I don’t know: it happens.

The key problem in discussing lyrics is copyright. I would love to attempt a full textual analysis of “Desolation Row,” but the cost would be prohibitive. Dylan’s work is protected by copyright and it could be several hundred pounds to quote from the lyric. The rule of thumb is you can quote up to 10 words without infringing copyright — at least, that is what the London-based publishers appear to work to.

In 1965, Bob Dylan alienated his audience at the Newport Folk Festival and the jury is out as to whether that was deliberate. What can’t be denied is that he went on a world tour with the same approach. When I saw him in Liverpool, I witnessed something I had never seen before, namely, the star turn being booed. When I wrote the book, I wondered about other musicians who had alienated audiences in the same way and found some examples, starting with Hector Berlioz, who, as luck would have it, could have been on similar drugs to the 60s rock stars. When I put the examples together, I thought it made surprising reading.

Once again, thank you very much for the attention. I appreciate it — and more to the point, so do my publishers.

SONG CORNER BY Sarah Gates, St. Lawrence University

“The Truth Just Twists”: Psychedelic Irony in “The Gates of Eden”

“The Gates of Eden” must be one of Bob Dylan’s more opaque songs, since there is so little commentary on it, and that little only addresses the lyrics—and not all of those. For example, Michael Gray discusses only two of the song’s nine verses to claim that it is about “balances of opposites” (62-63), while Nick Smart and Steven Heine look only at its refrain, calling its Eden “a vision of paradise” (186) and “the locus of non-dual truths” (126), respectively. To me, such readings do not capture the haunting, ominous quality of the song, when it is apprehended as a whole. Here, I will explore all the verses and the music, the whole song, in order to describe a tone and mode that Dylan uses so effectively in works throughout his career, but which he honed especially well in this early period. I like to call this mode “psychedelic irony” for its blend of imagery that invites and escapes rational analysis with an accompaniment built on an ironic musical sleight of hand.


The Kingdoms of Experience: Psychedelia

When I use the term “psychedelic” as a way to describe the particularly cryptic effect created by lyrics of songs like “The Gates of Eden,” I mean first that Dylan does verbally something akin to the sensory effects brought on by ingesting a psychedelic substance. The images and vignettes in these songs seem to me to perform a swirling, shape-shifting intertwinement not just of visual phenomena, but also of phenomena from the other senses, of ideas, figures, scenes, and of phrases from other songs and literary works. Other commentators have noticed Dylan’s intertextuality. Rona Cran calls his style “collagesque” and connects his work to that of modernist poets and visual artists (187), while Alex Ross refers to his “magpie mode of writing” (309). Christophe LeBold sums it up when he writes, “Basically, Dylan does to the great American Songbook what T. S. Eliot did to the Western literary canon” (133). These characterizations very smartly get at the way Dylan layers his songs with bits from all over the blues masters, ballads from the British Isles and Appalachia, cowboy songs, sea shanties, American standards — roots music, as we now call these forms — and those who identify them enlighten us helpfully about where the contents of these song-conglomerates come from. However, with the term “psychedelic,” I want to get at effect as well as content.

For a brief example of what I mean by this psychedelic effect, I’d like to consider one of my favorite lines from another song, and another kind of song, “Visions of Johanna”: “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.”  Now, I don’t know what that means.  I am not sure I even know what it might represent metaphorically. What is the “ghost of electricity”? And whatever it is or represents, what does “howling” mean that it’s doing “in the bones of her face”? However, I do know how vivid the image is: I know what it looks like, what it sounds like, how it feels. That bony, hollow face glows and pulses and aches; it’s starkly lit and shadowed; she’s inspired, or angry, or agonized, or ecstatic — or all of these — or the singer sees all of these in a projection onto her face of his own feeling. The full couplet suggests such an entanglement of identities: “The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face / Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place.” So, while I may not know what it means, I believe pinning it down to a specific meaning is not the point. We do not need to know what it “means”; we can see it, hear it, feel it. This flickering of an image among referents and sensations, like an optical illusion, is what I mean by the “psychedelic” aesthetic effect.     

In 1965, too, important psychological and spiritual dimensions accompanied the perceptual dimension of psychedelic experiences. The word “psychedelic” was coined in the 1950s not by Timothy Leary or Aldous Huxley, but by British psychiatrist Dr. Humphry Osmond, who was at the time researching the treatment of schizophrenia. He noticed a similarity between adrenaline and mescaline molecules, which led him to theorize that schizophrenia might primarily be caused by distortions of perception from “intoxication caused by one’s own body” (“Humphry”). Since some alcoholics seemed able to give up drinking only after experiencing delirium tremens, he observed, perhaps inducing a similar condition with hallucinogens would lead to a cure. His ensuing experiments with hallucinogens on himself and as treatment for schizophrenic patients revealed to him the mind-expanding and mystical experiences such substances could induce, and it was he who guided Aldous Huxley through the mescaline trip that led to Huxley’s 1954 book The Doors of Perception.

Osmond coined the term “psychedelic” from two Greek words: “psyche” (which the Oxford English Dictionary tells us means “mind” and anima mundi, the animating principle of the universe) and “delon” (which the OED translates as “make manifest, reveal”). So literally, “to reveal the mind,” “to make manifest the mind of the cosmos.” In correspondence with Dr. Osmond, Aldous Huxley proposed his own coinage in a rhyme: “To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gram of phanerothyme” (from thymos: “spirited”). Osmond retorted with his own rhyme, in better rhythm and fuller understanding of hallucinatory range: “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic” (qtd. in “Humphry”). As I use this term, then, I want to suggest an aesthetic influence that includes this metaphysical suggestion. And I think it is safe to say that the psychedelic effect of “The Gates of Eden” is not one of “soaring angelic” (despite its cowboy angel) but rather one of “fathom[ing] Hell.”  

The song unfolds a ghastly world of absurdity, neglect, decadence, torment — and longing gazes toward “Eden.” In the seventh verse, we see the abdication of responsibility, as “the princess and the prince discuss what’s real and what is not” with rotting “precious” windiness, while paupers scrabble for each other’s possessions, “each one wishing for what the other has got.” The third verse shows a “savage soldier,” head in the sand, complaining to a “shoeless hunter who’s gone deaf” — two figures that seem to have withdrawn from the world and their roles in it (blinded, head in the sand, deaf to complaint). The same might be said for the wish-purveyors of the fourth verse, “Aladdin and his lamp” and the “utopian hermit monks,” who make “promises of paradise” from their “side-saddle” perch on that false idol “the Golden Calf,” pointing the way with a “time-rusted compass blade.” The fifth verse shows “those who are condemned to act” according to “relationships of ownership” that “whisper in the wings” — enslavement from behind the scene.

Still, the most hellishly haunting psychedelia come in the two verses whose figures that entangle human with machine or human with beast and object perpetrate the most horrifying abuses. In verse two, an iron-clawed lamp-post cop with his “shadowed metal badge” and forbiddingly “folded arms” looms over “holes where babies wail” in a frightening display of state power over the most helpless victims of urban decay. The sixth verse brings us the part-woman, part-machine “motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen” and “silver-studded phantom,” figures that shift among Madonna with Holy Spirit, gypsy queen with spirit familiar, and two-wheeled dominatrix in black silver-studded Phantom motorcycle jacket.  She/they torment a softly helpless “gray flannel dwarf” with his “bread-crumb sins” who “screams” and “weeps.”     

Both Michael Gray and Seth Rogovoy consider these bread-crumb sins an allusion to the tashlich atonement ritual of Rosh Hashana in which the sinners cast the bread-crumbs that have accumulated in their pockets into a body of water in order symbolically to shed their sins—a ritual that responds to Ecclesiastes 11:1: “Cast your bread forth upon the waters, for after many days you will find it” (Gray 482, Rogovoy 84). Like his tormenters, however, the gray flannel dwarf also appears as a shifting composite figure. He is as much the innocent Hansel as he is the guilty sinner. In the tale, Hansel leaves a trail of bread-crumbs in order to find the way home, but the birds eat them, leaving him and Gretel lost in the forest. Here, “wicked birds of prey” “pick up on” (that is, notice and reveal), “pick up” (that is, retrieve), and “pick upon” (that is, tear at) the bread-crumb sins in a nightmare of humiliation, lost-ness, and predation such as Prometheus endures, chained on the mountain, his liver eaten over and over by the eagle.     

Yet, every vignette concludes with a pronouncement about “Eden,” the songworld’s lost paradise. Sometimes ills plaguing the songworld are said to have no place in Eden (kings, sins, trials); sometimes desired things lacking in the songworld appear there (trees, a laugh, the truth). Yet for all the confidence with which such conditions are projected into this paradise, the performance of the refrains feels as unsettling as the verses they close. In his reading of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Christopher Ricks notes in passing that “The trees of Eden are haunting, frightening trees” (144), and Nelson Hilton claims that Dylan’s Eden owes a debt to eighteenth-century poet William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (110). (I would note that it could as easily have come via Huxley’s book: “the doors of perception” is a phrase taken from this Blake text.) However, we do not need to know William Blake to feel what’s “haunting and frightening” about the songworld’s Eden. Dylan performs it in the music.


You Will Not Hear a Laugh: Irony

Certainly, local ironies appear in the individual scenes: the soldier may be “savage,” but he is also plaintive and cowardly; the deaf “shoeless hunter” can hear neither his companion’s complaints nor his prey; the “time-rusted compass blade” will not point in the needful direction; “friends” are “other strangers.” These local ironic twists contribute to the ways the scenes and figures invite and resist interpretation and so intensify the phantasmagoric feeling of the songworld. But the song’s main structural irony plays out in its harmonic movements.     

How do we perceive irony in the non-semantic language of music, whose “meaning” resides in pure sound and the feelings it provokes? Harmonic music creates feeling by establishing a “home” (or “root” or “key”) and then moving away from and back to this “home.” In more complex music, the harmony can lead away from one home and establish a new one—or move into and out of several such homes. Such movements create the patterns of tension and resolution that constitute the “meaning” of music.

The simplest folk and rock songs play out a home-away-home gesture in their three or four chords, sounding some variation of tonic-subdominant-dominant-tonic. In “The Gates of Eden,” G major is the established tonic home, but the chords that lead away from and back to it are not always the ones we expect to hear in that key. Instead, Dylan colors or inflects that journey with sonorities from the Dorian mode — a scale and family of chords that fall between major and minor keys. Minor keys have three flatted notes, which gives them their somber sound. Major keys have no flatted notes and so feel brighter. However, Dorian mode has two flatted notes, which is why it is “between” major and minor, although it is closer to the “somberness” of minor. It thus produces a scale that sounds unresolved, even uncanny, to our modern harmonically-trained ears because it does not follow the patterns of whole- and half-steps found in the major and minor scales that we are so used to hearing. The Dorian scale sounds like it ends on the second degree of the scale instead of the first; it feels unresolved and uncanny, as though it is hovering in mid-air. To us — or to me, at any rate — it is an unsettled and unsettling mode.

This Dorian coloration provides the unheimlich sonority established in the first two lines of the verses in “The Gates of Eden.” The first four chords (G major – D minor – F major – C major), as they are voiced on the guitar, outline in their highest pitches a descending Dorian scale: G – F natural – F natural – E natural, or do – te – te – la. The chord progression itself also gets Dorian coloration from the use of a minor dominant (d minor, or v) leading to two major subdominants (F major—a bVII instead of the usual vii—and C major, or IV), which return home to the tonic via plagal cadence. The sequence we are used to hearing (tonic to subdominant of various kinds to dominant to tonic) is reversed: the dominant gives way to the subdominants, which then shift directly back to the tonic in a plagal cadence. On top of this unsettling progression, Dylan sings a pentatonic melody whose highest note sounds in repeated emphasis, as peak moments in the melodic shape, the flatted seventh-degree te: “Of war and peace the truth just twists.” Put all this together, and we get a combination of sonorities that creates the uncanny, portentous sound characterizing the songworld.

However, the third melodic line, the one that leads into the refrain about Eden, feels different. Its harmony moves comfortingly toward resolution as it approaches the refrain through a standard progression from tonic through subdominants to the major dominant: G major (I) – B minor (iii) – A minor (ii) – G major (I) – A minor (ii) – C major (IV) – D major (V). That D major chord jumps into prominence after the lyrics of the line have finished, as a full-measure fill in the guitar, so its bright F#, or ti, sounding at the top of the texture, provides the strongest possible leading tone towards resolution, like a promise to take us not just home but Home—to Paradise. Then, during the refrain itself, when for example the “ships with tattooed sails” are “heading for the gates of Eden” in a melody that pushes through an insistent repetition of the “home” note G, the harmony shifts behind those notes, beginning with a brief, disquieting Dorian inflection in the transitional chord that comes halfway through that line. I want to call it a Bb7sus4, but whatever it is, it includes all three notes, the F natural (te), Bb (me), and E natural (la), of the Dorian scale. It sounds only briefly, but it takes us not to the D major chord that promised to take us Home via authentic cadence, as in the third line, but back to the C major subdominant (IV) that has been circling us around in the songworld in the first two lines. With the harmony shifting the ground below them in this way, those repeated G notes in the melody draw us unrelentingly to a place where the first syllable of the very word “Eden” is sung on that same flatted te (in the lower octave): “Heading for the gates of Eden”: te do. It is like waking from a bad dream only to find that you are still dreaming. This is the irony sounded in the music: Eden is not a better Other Place but in fact is part of the songworld and its nightmares.     

In this kind of irony, one thought — the acknowledgement of a reality — is clothed in another thought — a wish expressed in the surface utterance. It is the voicing of disillusionment: the ironic utterance banishes the wish in the very act of saying it, even as the wish’s sweetness makes acknowledging the reality bitter. Oedipus wishes to be the righteous king who restores the fertility of his people and their lands and cattle by punishing the criminal whose unnatural actions have caused their desolation. But the unnatural criminal he seeks is in fact himself. The words in the refrains voice a wish: Eden holds original innocence and the Tree of Life—no sins, no kings, no trials, no crashing but meaningless blows. The compass will point the way, the ships will reach the gates, we will laugh in joy when we return. But the music hollows laughter into derision: “And on their promises of paradise you will not hear a laugh / All except inside the gates of Eden [tedo],” where they know better than to listen to promises of paradise (or make them). The “curfew gull” and “cowboy angel,” wafting up from Eden’s trees on “four-legged forest clouds” with “candle lit into the sun,” bear a wish: the time has come to return where truth glows bright. But the curfew gull “just glides,” the glow is “waxed in black.” Within the wish comes bitter reality: Eden also holds that other Tree, the one with the forbidden fruit, the knowledge of good and evil: we have always already fallen. The song turns on this irony, just as it turns on the refrain that wishfully cycles around at the end of each verse: Eden world is songworld.


No Words but These to Tell What’s True

Lyrics and music are of course delivered in a performance, and this song is performed for and addressed to listeners by a first-person singer/speaker. This singer has enough in common with the cowboy angel that I’m tempted to consider that angel his Eden-world avatar. Both bring portentous news, both come accompanied by birds — the “curfew gull,” the “lonesome sparrow” — both have what seems an alienated relation to the “foreign sun,” which “waxes” the cowboy angel’s candle-glow “in black” and “squints upon” the singer’s bed that is never his own.

However, the cowboy angel bears “the truth,” and in this song, whether the bearer of “the truth” is Eden’s cowboy angel, the state’s lamp-post cop, the church’s motorcycle black Madonna, the capitalist’s whisperer in the wings, or philosophy’s arbiters of what is real and what is not, “the truth just twists.” How can our singer bring us a true message and how can we hear it in such a world? The final verse gives us a “glimpse”:     

At dawn my lover comes to me and tells me of her dreams

With no attempts to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means

At times I think there are no words but these to tell what’s true

Telling the dreams provides the words that tell what’s true. Attempts to shovel these glimpses “into the ditch of what each one means” just twist their truth.

We so often approach poems as though what a poem “means” is something other than what it “tells.” But with dreams and much poetry and certainly songs composed in this psychedelic-ironic mode, we need to listen in the state of receptivity that poet John Keats calls “Negative Capability”: the capacity to rest in “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (109). Our singer, keeping himself (like his lover) in this state of negative capability, speaks through art, not exegesis. If we attend to what he tells instead of irritably reaching after what he means, at times we might see and hear and feel what’s true, especially in a world where the truth just twists.


Works Cited

Cran, Rona. Collage in Twentieth-Century Art, Literature, and Culture. Taylor and Francis, 2014. Ebook.

Dylan, Bob. “The Gates of Eden.” Bringing It All Back Home, Columbia Records, 1965.  

——-.  “Visions of Johanna.”  Blonde on Blonde, Columbia Records, 1966. 

Gray, Michael.  Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan.  2nd ed. Continuum, 2000.  

Hartman, Charles O. “Dylan’s Bridges.” New Literary History, vol. 46, no. 3, 2015, pp. 737-57.

Heine, Steven.  Bargainin’ for Salvation: Bob Dylan, a Zen Master? Continuum, 2009.

Hilton, Nelson. “Waxed in Blake.” Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 3, 2009-10, pp. 110-11.

“Humphry Osmond.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 March, 2017. Accessed 13 May, 2017.

Keats, John. Letter to George and Tom Keats, 21 (27?) December, 1817.  John Keats’s Poetry and Prose. Selected and edited by Jeffrey N. Cox.  W. W. Norton, 2009, pp. 107-09.  

LeBold, Christophe. “I’ve Got the Judas Complex and the Recycling Blues: Bob Dylan as Cultural Theft.” Ranam, vol. 43, 2010, pp. 127-35.

Ricks, Christopher. Dylan’s Visions of Sin. HarperCollins, 2004. 

Rogovoy, Seth. Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic Poet. Scribner, 2009. 

Ross, Alex. “The Wanderer.” The New Yorker May 10, 1999, pp. 56-65.  Rpt. Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader. Ed. Benjamin Hedin. W. W. Norton, 2004, 291-312. 

Smart, Nick. “Nothing but Affection for All Those Who’ve Sailed with Me: Bob Dylan from Place to Place.” Popular Music and Society, vol. 32, no. 2, 2009, pp. 179-197.

Bob Dylan and Wallace Stevens in Conversation

ARTICLE BY Jim Salvucci, Independent Scholar

Abstract: Bob Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” and Wallace Stevens’ “Of Mere Being,” both composed in their authors’ septuagenarian years, engage in an intertextual conversation about the end of life. That both are evidently set in Florida as they contemplate the distant horizon adds to the intimacy of their conversation and invokes the range of Stevens’ Florida poems, which Dylan’s song extends thematically. Dylan’s speculation about the liminal moment of death centers on immortality and equanimity and thus is more reassuring than Stevens’ conception, which is more abstract and terminal even as it holds out hope for a renewal. Both authors emphasize the profound ambiguity of liminal death as one approaches the unequivocal finale of life and its potential beyond.

Keywords: Dylan, Bob; Stevens, Wallace; “Key West (Philosopher Pirate); Rough and Rowdy Ways; “The Idea of Order at Key West”; “Of Mere Being”; death; dying; afterlife; immortality; legacy; horizon; Key West; Florida; Florida poems; flowers; intertext


Not all great poets—like Wallace Stevens—are great singers, but a great singer—like Billie Holiday—is always a great poet.

Bob Dylan (qtd. in Marcus par. 48)


A student of literature as well as Americana, Bob Dylan has long known of the poetry of Wallace Stevens, as the epigraph above establishes. The quotation appears in critic Greil Marcus’ famous Rolling Stone review of Dylan’s album Self Portrait, but Marcus supplies no other pedigree for the statement than that Dylan said it “a year ago,” which would date it as 1969 (par. 48). While Dylan has always been a magpie of sorts, absorbing the words of others and fashioning them into his own original works, I am not aware of Stevens’ poetry appearing in Dylan’s songs or other writings—with one possible exception. In 2001’s “Po’ Boy,” Dylan sings punny lines that appear in the authorized lyrics on Bob Dylan as

Poor boy, sitting in the gloom 

Calls down to room service, says, ‘Send up a room.’

In contrast, unofficial online transcriptions commonly reproduce that first line as, 

Po’ boy, in the hotel they call the Palace of Gloom. (For instance, Dylan, “Po’ Boy Lyrics”) 

That transcription notwithstanding, I find it impossible not to hear Dylan sing, 

Po’ boy, in the hotel they call the ‘Palaz of Hoon.’

In my hearing, the line is an aural allusion to the Stevens poem “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” in which a solipsistic Sol sets at the end of the day, much like the ever-sinking Po’ Boy who never seems to catch a break. Whether Dylan sings “Palace of Gloom” or “Palaz of Hoon,” one thing we can be sure he does not sing, thankfully, is “sitting in the gloom.” Although this allusion is a rare and speculative instance of Dylan using Stevens’ language in his writing, we can find a confluence of ideas elsewhere. For instance, in “Not Dark Yet,” Dylan writes, “Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain,” an intertextual variation of Stevens’ famous line in “Sunday Morning”: “Death is the mother of beauty.” More broadly, this song and the poem address similar themes regarding the inevitability of darkness. A more extensive intertextual conversation takes place between Dylan’s song “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” from his album Rowdy and Rowdy Ways (released 2020) and Stevens’ poem “Of Mere Being” (first published posthumously in 1967). Of all Dylan’s songbook, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is his most Stevens-esque lyric, with its Florida locale, its catalog of flower imagery, its horizonal perspective, and its sense of movement within stability. The conversation between the two works revolves around their shared geographical setting and thematic focus even though they express a divergent perspective on life, death, and what lies in between.

The album Rough and Rowdy Ways features a thematic thread that contemplates the prospects and consequences of a long life and, importantly, the process of aging. This theme narrows to a progression in the final three numbers, which Richard Thomas deems “the closing epic triad of the album,” starting with “Crossing the Rubicon,” the album’s eighth song (55). “Crossing the Rubicon” explores the steady march of choice and consequence that constitutes life itself and amounts to little more than a series of metaphorical Rubicon crossings, the most significant being the very first—the traversing of the birth canal. Fate is set at that moment, and nothing can stand between that birth and its ineluctable conclusion—death—a sentiment Dylan articulates in “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” as, “he not busy being born is busy dying.” Similarly, in “Huck’s Tune,” Dylan equates all of life as a form of death (“In this version of death called life”), making life itself the only Rubicon that matters in the end. The first song on Rough and Rowdy Ways, “I Contain Multitudes” is even more direct regarding the transience of life: “The flowers are dying like all things do.” This focus on life and death prevails as Rough and Rowdy Ways closes with “Murder Most Foul,” a saga of life’s conclusion. Its repercussions occur as an otherworldly perusal of the aftermath of death and a supernatural address from the afterlife or, perhaps, a plea to the afterlife. We witness the assassination of John F. Kennedy, some details that surround it (including hints of conspiracy theories), and finally its ethereal aftereffect: a litany of musical requests to a celestial “Mr. Wolfman Jack.” 

Unfolding between these two narratives, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” envisions the passage from life toward the approaching end. As a song about the nebulous, liminal space before death, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” recalls the horizonal theme of Wallace Stevens’ poem “Of Mere Being,” composed shortly before his death in 1955 and possibly his last poem.[1] The composition of each work occurs late in the authors’ lives (though precisely how late in Dylan’s life has yet to be determined), with the song and the poem conducting a literary conversation regarding the end of life while also sharing similarities of setting, content, and even form. For instance, Dylan’s song explicitly and Stevens’ poem evidently are set in the tropics of southern Florida with its perpetual warmth and never-fading flora. “Winter here is an unknown thing,” as Dylan sings.[2] For Stevens the region is, in Helen Vendler’s phrase, “the realm of the sun” (41), a symbol of the life cycle and a topos most pertinent in the context of works envisioning the sunset of life in “the land of light,” as Dylan would have it. Similarly, Eleanor Cook avers that “Florida released something in Stevens” (Poetry, 67). The ostensible Florida setting of the two works contributes a geographical definiteness to life’s ultimate certainty even as both works emphasize ambiguity in the advance toward that certainty. However similar in this regard, though, the poem and the song draw different ideological conclusions regarding the conditions of our terminal state.

It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of Florida to Stevens and in his writing. Florida imagery pervades his poetry, with critics grouping a subset of his works as his “Florida poems.” Some, like “Of Mere Being,” do not expressly invoke Florida but still turn to the imagery of the tropics. For instance, as Karl Precoda notes in his perceptive article “The Noble Rider on the Terminal Beach,” one section of “The Comedian as the Letter C” is labeled “Approaching Carolina,” but it “is recognizably Floridian in its details” (8). Whatever the precise setting, “Comedian” is a poetic narrative of voyage, discovery, and landing that, as Cook observes in A Reader’s Guide, “allegorizes his partial literary biography as the physical and mental journey of Crispin,” the main character and Stevensian persona of the poem (46-7). In fact, we can see the Florida poems’ setting and imagery as a sort of crude plan for a continuous journey through the experience of life as in “Farewell to Florida,” where Stevens’ departure is akin to death or a permanent transformation like a snake that “has left its skin upon the floor.” Also, as with “Comedian” and other Florida poems, “Farewell” is full of sea imagery and the trope of a movement or a voyage, launched with the hail, “Go on, high ship.” In the early poem “Fabliau of Florida,” another voyage is enacted without movement as a boat, “Barque of phosphor,” lies still “on the palmy beach.” Stevens commands it to sail toward the nighttime horizon, but the only actual motion is the surf with its perpetual “droning,” which mimics the constancy (and tedium) of the life journey. He also evokes this language and imagery in “Two Figures in Dense Violet Night” where the “droning sibilants” of the “sea-sounds” resolves into the serene and intimate beauty of a nighttime “serenade.” The sounds here and throughout the Florida poems are a recurring part of the life experience as they “come to dominate the music of Stevens’ lines” (Precoda, 7). In “Indian River,” the sound is not a drone but a “jingle” that rings steadily all over Florida, mixing the human-made (“rings in the nets”) with the natural (“jingle of the water”). In “Primordia,” a self-pastiche of a poem that embeds the entirety of “Indian River” as its ninth section, Stevens depicts the “voice of the wind” as a continental sound, linking the Florida peninsula with the rest of the American landmass, but it is sound and the movement of air, not solid dirt and rock, that bounds and delineates the continent.[3] Cook counts these Stevens poems, along with several other Florida poems, among the “fluency poems” that work “with the concept and trope of flowing and fluency” (Poetry, 39). Time and again throughout Stevens’ Florida poems, we witness the association of sound and movement with the land, as though the land flows like water, as in “The Load of Sugar-Cane” or “Infanta Marina.” We also feel the sense that even the land is not solid but is a phantom on the horizon. Thus the land itself is the movement of a journey, the journey of mind and geography that Crispin and Stevens take, which are among the tropes that Cook identifies in “Comedian” (Poetry, 77-8). This same conceit plays a significant role in Stevens’ final Florida poem, “Of Mere Being,” and in Dylan’s only Florida song, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” both of which dwell on the liminal state of terminal transition, on fluency within stability.

I refer here to “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” as Dylan’s sole Florida song, but a number of Dylan’s songs mention Florida or Florida locales. For instance, “Po’ Boy” evokes Florida as a potential escape from “them Georgia laws” (and is thus less a Florida song than a Georgia song, if that). Some Florida cities surface in passing in Dylan songs, such as Miami in “Caribbean Wind” or Tallahassee in “Got My Mind Made Up” (co-written with native Floridian Tom Petty), a city that also appears among the litany of place names that is “Wanted Man.” To be sure, Dylan’s association with Florida extends beyond individual songs and recordings. For instance, Dylan recorded Time out of Mind in Miami, but none of the album’s songs explicitly evokes that city or its state. More tantalizing is “Florida Key,” a handwritten Dylan lyric sheet from the Basement Tapes sessions that musician Taylor Goldsmith set to music and performed on 2014’s Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes. While the lyric is situated in Florida and is a plaintive expression of love and longing, Dylan neither finished nor performed it, nor does it appear on the list of songs on his authorized website, Bob Dylan. As such, it is hard to qualify the abandoned lyric sheet “Florida Key” as a Dylan song with the same definitiveness that, say, “Of Mere Being” is a Stevens poem. Unless and until Dylan composes another, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” remains the only Dylan song that approaches the spirit and depth of Floridianess present in Stevens’ Florida poems.

The major theme of Dylan’s “Key West (Pirate Philosopher)” is the mediation of the condition of life and the condition of death—the instant just before or of death itself—within the journey of life that is Rough and Rowdy Ways. The outcome is not equivocal, but this liminal state is itself marked by vagueness. It is a moment within a transition, a suspension that offers the possibility of reflection. Much like the “horizon line,” which the song references twice, this state is not physically fixed as its position is always relative to the perceiver, like a boat at rest on the water, still and not still, an echo of the tropes of several Stevensian Florida poems. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is, after all, a sea song, and Dylan knows the sea, having sailed the Caribbean extensively on his schooner, the Water Pearl, with his family for ten years “from Martinique to Barbados” (Chronicles 163), adventures that manifest in the horizonal perspective and the movement of the song.[4] As with the horizon, the liminal state the song evokes can never be visited as a destination nor fully experienced and yet is always perceivably there, certain and inescapable. Meanwhile, this condition, though ostensibly static, roils with tension and pressure, pulling and pushing—a boat adrift. Like Dylan’s sailboat, the land mass of Key West is only deceptively permanent, an impermanence reinforced by the fact that Dylan’s boat sank in a storm (Chronicles 163). Furthermore, Precoda offers the historical detail that even in Stevens’ day, much of the land of Key West had been claimed and reclaimed by ongoing dredging (9) and that the island was largely a mass of “shifting sands” (10), much like the horizon itself—there and not there—and in theoretical danger of disappearing altogether like the island resort in Dylan’s “Black Diamond Bay.” In “Farewell to Florida,” almost foreshadowing the fate of Dylan’s schooner, Stevens describes this very instability—“Key West sank downward under massive clouds”—exemplifying the fluidity amidst seeming solidity we see throughout the Florida poems and in Dylan’s Florida song.

The lyrics of Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” present a first-person narrative of a man who himself is at sea and is best understood as at once literally Dylan and not. After all, while many lines and the song itself resonate as Dylan’s bona fide personal reminiscences and musings, so far as I am aware, no biographer has ever uncovered an instance when a preteen Bobby Zimmerman was made to marry a sex worker as the narrator of the song asserts: 

Twelve years old and they put me in a suit
Forced me to marry a prostitute
There were gold fringes on her wedding dress
That’s my story but not where it ends
She’s still cute and we’re still friends
Down in the bottom – way down in Key West

This narrative is provocative and has generated much speculation. For instance, numerous online commentators have, offering scant evidence, construed this particular vignette as a sardonic reference to Robert Allen Zimmerman’s bar mitzvah, but as David B. Green notes in Haaretz, that ceremony took place on 22 May 1954 (par. 1), merely two days before the future Bob Dylan turned thirteen, the normal age for a Jewish boy’s bar mitzvah. While he was still twelve at the time of the ceremony, the two-day age differential remains more technical than consequential, and it seems unlikely that Dylan would further obscure what would only rate as an opaque reference to his own bar mitzvah with such artifice. More pertinently, in the very next verse, Dylan references “Pretty Little Miss,” a 2011 Patty Loveless song that features a young girl who is looking forward to marrying at age twelve but is jilted by her would-be groom. Thematically and structurally, Loveless’ song is quite different from Dylan’s, but they share the topical kinship of preteen marriage. Alternatively, the reference could be to an identically titled traditional bluegrass song, also with a theme of impending marriage, although the ages of the bride and groom in that song are never established and are evidently considerably older than twelve.

As with the sequence on young marriage and many of the song’s lyrics, the opening lines of Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” are disconcerting. Why start with the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 at all, and how could the narrator have “[h]eard it on the wireless radio,” which was still in its developmental infancy at the time McKinley’s death? Could Dylan be guilty of a careless anachronism? Many others have noted that the first line of Dylan’s song (“McKinley hollered – McKinley squalled”) quotes the opening line of “White House Blues” by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, first recorded in 1926 (for instance, Thomas 63). Poole’s song cleverly tells the story not of McKinley’s life and assassination but of his final days lingering with the fatal consequences of two bullet wounds. Thus, when Dylan’s narrator states, “I heard all about it – he was going down slow / Heard it on the wireless radio,” he is not referring to the breaking news of McKinley’s murder but to hearing the song “White House Blues” itself playing on the radio. While listening to the radio in his youth back in Hibbing, Minnesota, Dylan would most likely have heard the 1959 version of “White House Blues,” by the New Lost City Ramblers, which has a different opening line and “updates” the lyrics to the Hoover-Roosevelt transition period.

Another curious reference is the use of the word “pirate,” which occurs most prominently in the title as well as in the phrase “pirate radio station.” The affiliation of pirates and Key West is both historical and contemporary. A simple internet search will reveal much pirate activity in and around Key West dating back to the sixteenth century. One may also uncover an extensive list of present-day pirate-themed businesses and venues along with indications of the island’s more recent use as a smuggler’s base. Additionally, in “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” Jimmy Buffett, a songwriter long associated with Key West, portrays the melancholy reflections of a modern-day drug runner as he enters middle age—a theme in line with that of “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” Dylan, an admirer of Buffett, performed “A Pirate Looks at Forty” with Joan Baez in 1982 (Greene par. 5), and Buffet arguably makes another appearance in Dylan’s song as “Jimmy” in a litany of individuals who were “born on the wrong side of the railroad track.” The title also calls to mind the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht song “Pirate Jenny” from The Threepenny Opera (1928), which Dylan discusses at length in Chronicles, Volume One, describing its great influence over him when he was first learning to write songs (272-6). The Weill-Brecht song is from the point of view of Jenny, a former prostitute (ostensibly unmarried and decidedly not “still cute”) and housekeeper who fantasizes about wreaking revenge on all those who look down upon her. In Jenny’s reverie, a dark pirate ship launches an assault from the harbor to rescue her from misery and to exact vengeance as the invading pirates defer to her leadership to decide the fates of the survivors. In Chronicles, Dylan refers to the song’s “ghost chorus” (275) with “[b]ig medicine in the lyrics” (274), so in this way, her musings make her a sort of metaphysician pirate if not a philosopher pirate. Still, “Pirate Jenny” is an intense and disturbing song in both music and lyric. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” by contrast, though exhibiting its own lyrical potency, has the melodic movement of a lullaby cum sea shanty (see Hartman 8).

So how is Dylan’s titular pirate a “Philosopher Pirate?” Instead of attempting to further unspool the Gordian knot of allusions in the song, a focus on the thematic conversation between it and “Of Mere Being” by Wallace Stevens, a poet renowned for his philosophical rumination, may offer insights. After all, according to Thomas, intertextuality is “a hallmark of Dylan’s song composition since the 1990s” (42). Indeed, the conversation between these two works, along with several of Stevens’ Florida poems considers both the philosophical and metaphysical dimensions of mortality.

Dylan’s Key West is as much an aspirational horizon point as it is a physical island, a geographically fixed reality, even though we know that it is largely a mass of reclaimed sand. The Key West setting recalls numerous poems by Stevens, most obviously “The Idea of Order at Key West,” which, like “Of Mere Being” and so many other of Stevens’ poems, resists definitive interpretation as it flows through meaning(s). Similarly, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” refuses to settle, its fragmented narrative consisting of a series of observations of experiences on the island of Key West, including the sights, locations, and people associated with the island, literally or figuratively, all of which connect with concepts the songwriter wishes to express. In effect, this narrative functions as a fictional or representational life review. Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” also educes memory (genuine, enhanced, or fabricated) as it revolves around the notion of trying to snatch settled order from fluidity much as Stevens’ reader attempts to snatch settled meaning from his poetry. Precoda observes Stevens’ inclination to associate the fixed with longitudinal movement in that “Stevens reads landscape like a book, stressing the temporality of the act of perception” (14). In “The Idea of Order,” on a beach at sunset, a siren-like singer draws the poet’s attention. For Cook, Hoon is a “forerunner of the singer,” which makes sense as both mark the end of day (Poetry 133). In “Idea of Order,” the singer’s voice mimics the sea in the listener’s mind, and he muses about meaning, meaninglessness, agency, and creation. In the closing stanzas, Stevens notes the human imperative to impose order on a chaotic world and conveys a sense of loss in this process. 

While Key West and Florida are featured throughout Stevens’ works, there is a particular emphasis on the flora of the state with extensive references to Florida and Florida-adjacent terms, which Cook documents as “‘Floréal,’ ‘florid,’ ‘flora,’ ‘flor-abundant,’ and so on” (Poetry 71-2). Similarly, Dylan’s Florida song, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” itself features flowers and plants throughout, which are not typically prominent subjects in his other lyrics. In this floral context, two of Stevens’ Florida poems warrant closer scrutiny. The first is “Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores,” a contemplation of ennui, a recurrent Stevensian topic. In the poem, the poet notes the languidness of a sultry day, presumably in Florida. At the end of the poem, the sight of a vivid hibiscus bloom shocks the poet from his torpor as its brilliance contrasts with the climatic indolence. The poem is as much about a mental awakening as a sensual awakening with a “monstered moth” lingering over the garish flower “all the stupid afternoon.” In contrast, and characteristically, Dylan’s song does not treat his hibiscus so analytically: “Hibiscus flowers, they grow everywhere here / If you wear one, put it behind your ear.” Still, like the hibiscus in Stevens’ poem, the lines are sensual and provocative particularly since wearing a flower behind the ear is unhelpfully supposed to signal either that a female is available or that she is taken. The flower reference thus stands as an instance of Dylanesque ambiguity and dissonance that augments the song’s presentation of a liminal state of being.

Another Stevens poem, “O, Florida, Venereal Soil,” includes the lines, “In the porches of Key West, / Behind the bougainvilleas.” This poem, too, references the ennui of the tropical clime, which at night gives way to its own form of sensuality, a libidinous restiveness. In the last stanza, he calls out: 

Donna, donna, dark,

Stooping in indigo gown

And cloudy constellations,

Conceal yourself or disclose

Fewest things to the lover —

“Donna donna” here is as much a woman as it is the flowering belladonna, a poisonous plant employed medicinally as, among other things, an anesthetic, a sedative, or an aphrodisiac, which reinforces Stevens’ titular use of “venereal” in its every sense (Cook, Poetry 69). The diminutive and “stooping” indigo/purple flowers of the belladonna are native to Eurasia but grow widely in Florida as an invasive species. The closing line of the poem depicts the flower, referencing a variation of belladonna’s alternate moniker, “nightshade”: “A pungent bloom against your shade.” Dylan’s song references both flowering plants in separate lines: “Bougainvillea blooming in the summer, in the spring,” and a more indirect image of the belladonna: “The tiny blossoms of a toxic plant / They can make you dizzy.”[5]  These floral images subtly echo the ennui, sensuality, and eroticism of Stevens’ lines. 

I am not suggesting that the coincidence of these floral images are Dylan’s intentional allusions to Stevens’ poetry. It is clear, though, that the poet and songwriter have, at the very least, compatible visions of Key West, and that these visions inform a literary conversation across generations and genres. As noted, Stevens has infused his poetry with flowers throughout his career, often in a Floridian context, while Dylan seeds “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” with plants and flowers, sometimes cryptically. For instance, Dylan’s lines, “The fishtail ponds and the orchid trees / They can give you the bleedin’ heart disease,” allude to three Florida plants in a slightly disguised presentation: fishtail palms, orchids (a flowering plant, not a tree), and bleeding heart flowers, none of which feature prominently in Stevens’ poetry, just as none of the flora in “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” has ever appeared in any previous Dylan lyric.

While itself devoid of flower imagery and introducing only a lone palm, Stevens’ “Of Mere Being” presents a stripped-down philosophical vision even more compatible with that of “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” Like “Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores,” it is not explicitly set in Key West or Florida or anywhere else in particular; although, with its phantasmagoric image of an exotic bird in a distant palm tree, the poem does evoke that setting. “Of Mere Being” educes the space between departure and arrival, or as B.J Leggett speculates, it “may be thought of as a poem about after leaving or beyond leaving” (139). The opening lines present a golden bird in a palm rising in the distance “in the bronze decor,” which evokes the sunset as one approaches the horizon, an image Dylan separately resurrects as a “Bird on the horizon, sittin’ on a fence” in his 1975 song “You’re a Big Girl Now.”[6] Given that Stevens composed the poem late in life and likely while ailing, it stands to reason that mortality colors or at least tints the poem’s theme. The poem opens with an image: “The palm at the end of the mind, / Beyond the last thought.” Later, “The palm stands on the edge of space.” Thus, the palm is an object that comes into view after the “last thought” but just before or at the end, a terminus on the horizon and a vision of an oasis with accompanying mirage. “Palm” in the first line bears an aural similarity to the word “poem,” thus insinuating the poem “at the end of the mind,” which anticipates Dylan’s wordplay with “fishtail ponds” vs. fishtail palms. The language of the poem’s final line echoes the alliteration and imagery of the last line of “Nomad Exquisite,” a fellow Florida poem that ends “Forms, flames, and the flakes of flames.” In “Of Mere Being’s” final image, “The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down,” eliciting a vision of the phoenix aflame and destined to rise from its own ashes but not rising yet. It is, thus, a poem that addresses the end of life. Jennifer Bates notes the weightiness of this image: “Instead of upward swords of flame, the colors in the fire-fangled feathers are drawn downward, as though even the flames of fire—whose nature, according to Aristotle, is to go up—could not escape the pull” (159-60). Tim Armstrong recognizes the poem as articulating a “sense not only of Stevens’ work, but also of his life-cycle, and particularly the moment of death itself” (43). 

But it also is a poem of renewal, transition, and even hope, and like “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” it is a pause for reflection in the midst of that transition, which Cook perceives as a “transmutation” (Poetry 312). In this and in the image of the wind that “moves slowly in the branches,” the trope of fluidity that pervades the other Florida poems operates in “Of Mere Being.” The poem announces a belief in the cyclical nature of life but certainly not literal reincarnation or rebirth. As Cook puts it, “The poem is of mortality yet with a sense of immortality, though not personal immortality. It is a kind of will and testament of song” (Poetry 312). The poem gestures toward the perpetual regeneration of the poet through his poems that metaphorically live on after him—thus, “The [poem] at the end of the mind.” Brayton Polka conjectures but does not insist that in “Of Mere Being,” “the artificial bird is the poem, it sings the poem, it makes the poem” (54). Cook sees a complex pun linking the palm and the bird, and she also affiliates the palm’s leaves with the poem’s words (Poetry 312). Whether the palm is the poem or the bird is the poem is immaterial to my reading of the distant object representing the potential of Stevens’ artistic/intellectual legacy. As Bates puts it, “[o]nce risen, the palm, bird, or poem as a whole are in a sense absurd” (161). Leggett observes that “[t]he poem attempts to posit a conception of being that is sundered absolutely from the human mind and thus necessarily survives ‘the end of the mind’ in death” (141) although, like Stevens, he does not venture to suppose what that state of mind may be with any precision. 

Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” as a nonliteral life review, contains much more narrative than “Of Mere Being,” but it is more a chronicle of a state of being or states of being than a coherent, linear story. Dylan’s island of Key West is both distant and near, like “that pirate radio signal,” which communicates with the local listener from its exotic origin “out of Luxembourg and Budapest” and is at once present and not present, an ethereal sound that, distorted by atmospherics, can tease and evade the would-be listener. Similarly, Stevens’ golden bird sings a “foreign song,” audible but beyond the listener’s understanding, even as it manifests within the familiar setting of a palm tree in the breeze.

As we already saw, the song is more narrative than the poem and starts sharply in medias res with an impending death, the immediate aftermath of the attack on McKinley, which will echo as Kennedy’s assassination in “Murder Most Foul.” The last verse before the final chorus brings us back to the theme of death as the singer reports that he “heard your last request.” The chorus then antithetically offers, for the second time in the song, the promise of eternal life in heaven:

Key West is the place to be

If you’re lookin’ for immortality

Key West is paradise divine

Given the association of Florida and environs with the legend of the Fountain of Youth, it is only appropriate that Key West would be the source of perpetual life, but Dylan’s Key West offers immortality of a different sort, as a “paradise divine,” not an earthly eternity. Dylan makes a similar promise of an afterlife in his other great horizon song, “Beyond the Horizon”: “Beyond the horizon, behind the sun / At the end of the rainbow life has only begun.” The first and last choruses of “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” conclude that “Key West is on the horizon line,” which, like Steven’s palm, is forever on the “edge of space” and, in fact, definitionally demarcates the optical separation of the sea from space, which is visible to us on Earth as the sky. The horizon line, where we can locate Key West, is an illusion, the image of a seemingly set and accessible location that is neither set nor accessible at all since its position is entirely relative to the inherently mobile viewer. There can be no mappable geographical coordinates to define the horizon line. Dylan’s Key West, like Stevens’ “gold-feathered bird” that sings in the palm “without human meaning, / Without human feeling” is phantasmal, “the enchanted land”—visible on the edge of perception but intangible and alien, fluidly there and not there.

The musical performance of the song generates a similar tension. As Christopher Ricks has observed in Dylan’s Visions of Sin, the most pronounced distinction between song and poetry is the performative aspect of the former, which can illuminate and subvert the lyrical text (14-5). In “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” understated and lurking in the background, the instruments propel the song and hold it back at the same time, enacting the fluidity of the lyrics. At moments, a guitar strains, perhaps with the help of a tremolo bar, pushing the music almost out of key before dragging it back again. (This effect is most notable immediately after the line, “I play the gumbo limbo spiritual.”) The result is beautifully subtle but unmistakable once you take note of it. The ever-present accordion, the number’s “signature sound” (Hartman 8), plays throughout in counterpoint, which further increases the pleasant tautness while providing “a delightful aquarelle tone” (Grafe and McKeown 223). Meanwhile each line of the melody rises and then falls, like a boat at sea riding swells—a movement of music and of feeling.[7] Since it is a long song, the total effect is lulling and ultimately mesmerizing as the movement of the music lingers just on the edge of consciousness, “the edge of space.” In this way, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” shares much with the mellifluous aural experience of Stevens’ Florida work.

Appropriately, while both of these works are about ending or at least visualizing the end, they are full of false endings—primarily performative, in the case of Dylan’s song, and primarily structural, in the case of Stevens’ poem. In “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” Dylan sings the chorus four times in four different versions. The first three choruses are followed by a rest before the instruments pick up the next verse, thus creating a false ending to the song after each of these three choruses. Ironically, the final chorus is the only one not followed by a rest or false ending but is followed immediately by an instrumental fadeout, the true ending of the song. Similarly, Stevens’ “Of Mere Being,” while not primarily a performative work, induces a sense of ending over and over in the last two of its four stanzas by presenting six sentences splayed paratactically across a mere six lines. If not for the fact that one can see more words remaining on the page, some of these sentences could feel terminal, thus falsely giving the impression that each is an ending. When the poem is read aloud, which is the only mode of performance available to poetry as poetry, this effect is particularly pronounced, an illusion that is only enhanced if the reader exaggerates the pauses at the periods. Stevens’ use of paratactic sentences in the final two stanzas stands in radical contrast to the first two stanzas, which consist of one continuous sentence, or, as it is, two independent clauses joined by a comma after the first stanza. The first two stanzas/independent clauses, thus, are linked as a single thought or image, an artificial continuation, which is the opposite of a false ending. The abundant false endings in both these works project a sense of incompleteness, which Bates also detects in Stevens’ images (103), and evoke the thematic sense of conclusion followed by new or renewed beginning. For Dylan this new beginning is in “the land of light,” which Thomas sees as offering “a brighter glimpse of the afterlife” than that of “Murder Most Foul” (60). For Stevens, the new beginning is something even more evocatively figurative and discomfiting (the phoenix in flames). Quoting a phrase from Stevens’ “The Poems of Our Climate,” Bates argues that “Of Mere Being” “is apocalyptic in that it uncovers and celebrates how imperfection, properly understood, is complete: the poem expresses Stevens’ view that ‘The imperfect is our paradise’” (163). In this way, Dylan’s song and Stevens’ poem are equally sanguine regarding the state of death.

In their philosophical conversation about the end, these two works, the song and the poem, present the authors’ visions of the tentative and liminal instant at the end of life, the moment when the dying can perceive the end but not quite reach it. It is, on the one hand, a place of serenity where, as Dylan opines, “If you lost your mind you’ll find it there.” To reach the “horizon line,” a physical impossibility, is to live eternally in equanimity. On the other hand, for Stevens, this liminal instant is a moment of immolation, annihilation, and triumphant revitalization, not literally, but as a representative new beginning, perhaps as a creature of renown without consciousness. Although reaching “the edge of space” is a logical impossibility since pure space contains all matter and has no edges, to do so figuratively is to live on in seemingly violent cycles of memory and repute—as a phoenix of eternal renown. For both authors, the moment portrayed is a mediation of striving and holding back, and their depictions of that state are neither comforting nor dismaying. They are, like the horizon itself, the mere end, just there in the inchoate distance, reliably and forever. As “Of Mere Being” is Stevens’ final Florida poem, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is Dylan’s only Florida song and, in terms of subject, imagery, form, and spirit, extends the scope and propels the thematic reach of Stevens’ Florida poems into the genre of song and into the twenty-first century.


Works Cited

Armstrong, Tim. “Stevens’ ‘Last Poem’ Again.” The Wallace Stevens Journal, vol. 12, no. 1, 1988, pp. 35-43, Accessed 30 May 2021.

Bates, Jennifer. “Stevens, Hegel, and the Palm at the End of the Mind.” The Wallace Stevens Journal, vol. 23, no. 2, 1999, pp. 152-166, Accessed 30 May 2021.

Bob Dylan. Sony Music Entertainment, Accessed 16 June 2021.

Brecht, Bertolt, and Kurt Weill. “Pirate Jenny.” The Threepenny Opera, Grove, 1994.

Brinkley, Douglas. “Bob Dylan Has a Lot on His Mind.” The New York Times, 12 June 2020, Accessed 30 May 2021.

Cook, Eleanor. A Reader’s Guide to Wallace Stevens. Princeton UP, 2007.

—. Poetry, Word-Play, and Word-War in Wallace Stevens. Princeton UP, 1988. 

Dylan, Bob. “Beyond the Horizon.” Modern Times, Columbia Records, 2006.

—. “Black Diamond Bay.” Desire, Columbia Records, 1976.

—. “Caribbean Wind.” Biograph, Columbia Records, 1985.

—. Chronicles, Volume One. Simon and Schuster, 2004.

—. “Crossing the Rubicon.” Rough and Rowdy Ways, Columbia Records, 2020.

—. “Got My Mind Made Up.” Knocked out Loaded, Columbia Records, 1986.

—. “Huck’s Tune.” The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased, 1989-2006, Columbia Records, 2008.

—. “I Contain Multitudes.” Rough and Rowdy Ways, Columbia Records, 2020.

—. “Idiot Wind.” Blood on the Tracks, Columbia Records, 1975.

—. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” Bringing It All Back Home, Columbia Records, 1965.

—. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” Rough and Rowdy Ways, Columbia Records, 2020.

—. “Murder Most Foul.” Rough and Rowdy Ways, Columbia Records, 2020.

—. “Not Dark Yet.” Time out of Mind, Columbia Records, 1997.

—. “Po’ Boy.” Bob Dylan. Accessed 16 June 2021.

—. “Po’ Boy.” Love and Theft.” Columbia Records, 2001.

—. “Po’ Boy Lyrics.” Genius. Accessed 9 May 2021.

—. Time out of Mind. Columbia Records, 1997.

—. “Wanted Man.” Travelin’ Through, 1967-1969: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 15. Columbia Records, 2019.

—. “You’re a Big Girl Now.” Blood on the Tracks, Columbia Records, 1975.

Dylan, Bob, and Taylor Goldsmith. “Florida Key.” Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, Electromagnetic Recordings and Harvest Records, 2014.

Ginsberg, Allen. Liner Notes. Desire, Bob Dylan, Columbia Records, 1976.

Grafe, Adrian, and Andrew McKeown. “Coda: Late and Timely, Rough and Rowdy: A Review of Rough and Rowdy Ways.” 21st-Century Dylan: Late and Timely, edited by Laurence Estanove, Adrian Grafe, Andrew McKeown, and Claire Hélie, Bloomsbury Academic, 2020, pp. 217-26.

Green, David B. “1954: Shabtai Zissel Is Bar Mitzvahed, and Turns out to Be Bob Dylan.” Haaretz, 21 May 2015, Accessed 30 May 2021.

Greene, Andy. “Flashback: Bob Dylan and Joan Baez Cover Jimmy Buffet in 1982.” Rolling Stone, 5 July 2016, Accessed 30 May 2021.

Hartman, Charles O. “Review of Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways.” Dylan Review, vol. 2, no.1, 2020, Accessed 30 May 2021.

Leggett, B. J. Late Stevens: The Final Fiction. Louisiana State UP, 2005.

“Lily of the Valley in Florida? – Knowledgebase Question.”, 1 Nov. 1997, The National Gardening Association, Accessed 9 May 2021.

Marcus, Greil. Review of Self Portrait, by Bob Dylan. Rolling Stone, 8 June 1970, Accessed 9 May 2021.

Polka, Brayton. “The Image’s Truth: Wallace Stevens and the Hermeneutics of Being.” On Interpretation: Studies in Culture, Law, and the Sacred, edited by Andrew D. Weiner and Leonard V. Kaplan, series Graven Images 5, U of Wisconsin P, 2002, pp. 38-67.

Precoda, Karl. “The Noble Rider on the Terminal Beach.” The Wallace Stevens Journal, vol. 18, no. 1, 1994, pp. 6-18, Accessed 16 May 2021.

Ricks, Christopher. Dylan’s Visions of Sin. Ecco-Harper, 2005.

Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose, edited by Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson, The Library of America, 1997.

—. “Fabliau of Florida.” Collected Poetry and Prose, p. 18.

—. “Farewell to Florida.” Collected Poetry and Prose, pp. 97-8.

—. “Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores.” Collected Poetry and Prose, p. 18.

—. “Indian River.” Collected Poetry and Prose, p. 93.

—. “Infanta Marina.” Collected Poetry and Prose, p. 6.

—. “Nomad Exquisite.” Collected Poetry and Prose, p. 77.

—. “O, Florida, Venereal Soil.” Collected Poetry and Prose, pp. 38-9.

—. “Of Mere Being.” Collected Poetry and Prose, pp. 476-7.

—. “Peter Quince at the Clavier.” Collected Poetry and Prose, pp. 72-4.

—. “Primordia.” Collected Poetry and Prose, pp. 534-7.

—. “Sunday Morning.” Collected Poetry and Prose, pp. 53-6.

—. “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon.” Collected Poetry and Prose, p. 51.

—. “The Comedian as the Letter C.” Collected Poetry and Prose, pp. 22-37.

—. “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Collected Poetry and Prose, pp. 105-6.

—. “The Load of Sugar-Cane.” Collected Poetry and Prose, p. 10.

—. “The Poems of Our Climate.” Collected Poetry and Prose, pp. 178-80.

—. “Two Figures in Dense Violet Night.” Collected Poetry and Prose, pp. 69-70.

Tenschert, Laura. “Songs from the Threshold.” Definitely Dylan, Episode 11, 25 March 2018, Accessed 24 May 2021.

Thomas, Richard F. “‘And I Crossed the Rubicon’: Another Classical Dylan.” Dylan Review, vol. 2, no.1, 2020, 3b9ea1479f9b4b0cafaa209551dd5257.pdf. Accessed 30 May 2021.

Vendler, Helen. Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen out of Desire. Harvard UP and U of Tennessee P, 1984.


[1] Tim Armstrong discusses at length the “delicate” question of this poem being Stevens’ last in “Stevens’ ‘Last Poem’ Again.” For my comparison, it is only necessary that the reader recognize the poem’s having been composed toward the end of Stevens’ life as his health was failing, according to Eleanor Cook (A Reader’s Guide 314), and the thematic implications of that timing with regard to Dylan’s own later work. On liminality generally in Dylan’s songs, see Tenschert.

[2] In his poem “Indian River,” Stevens similarly declares, “Yet there is no spring in Florida.”

[3] Dylan, likely unconsciously, replicates this airy conceit in a couplet Allen Ginsberg deems the “national rhyme” of “Idiot Wind”: “blowing like a circle around my skull / From the Grand Coulee Dam to the capitol.”

[4] Douglas Brinkley, in the introduction to his 2020 interview with Bob Dylan, envisions the lyrics more terrestrially as “an ethereal meditation on immortality set on a drive down Route 1 to the Florida Keys” (par. 5), perhaps with particular reference to the line, “Stay on the road – follow the highway sign” from the first chorus, the only lyrical indication that the song may approach the Keys via a land route.

[5] Some internet commentary identifies the tiny poisonous flowers as lilies of the valley without offering any textual evidence, but according to the National Gardening Association, the lily of the valley simply cannot grow in the warmer climate of southern Florida (“Lily of the Valley in Florida?”).

[6] The image of the bird at such a far remove raises a practical matter. At the distance of the horizon or the “edge of space,” a bird of any size would be difficult to see and even more difficult to hear, but the poet and the songwriter do both with surprising acuity.

[7] “Music is feeling, then, not sound,” Stevens muses ironically in “Peter Quince at the Clavier.”

POEM BY Jacqueline Osherow, University of Utah


One chord of a harmonica can take 

me back, or a name — Johanna, Mr. Jones

to that Eden of stretched-out afternoons

on the living room carpet, an open math book

neglected at my elbow, index cards

untouched beside it in a fallow stack.

I’m halfway in a trance, half trying to crack

each cipher in the snarled onrush of words

surging through the stereo’s dark mesh.

Something is happening and you don’t know 

what it is . . .  I’m fourteen. Of course that’s true 

but I get an inkling — as limits vanish —

of word as lightning flash, wick, whiplash, arrow

and soon-to-be accomplice. Dylan, thank you. 

The film actress Kay Francis, reputedly the highest paid female star at Warner Bros. in the 1930s, once told an interviewer, “I can’t wait to be forgotten.” She has all but gotten her wish, since few can imagine Kay Francis was more of a box office draw than Bette Davis until 1938 (the year of Jezebel).

Unlike Kay Francis, celebrities usually want the opposite: to be remembered well past their sell-by date. There’s even a film about it, Sunset Boulevard, as complex a mixing of art and life as the medium ever offered (Gloria Swanson, a genuinely forgotten silent-screen idol plays a silent-screen idol whose servant is her old director, Max Von Stroheim, who was in fact a celebrated German silent-film director.) Not quite Don Quixote, but more than enough layering for a two-hour on-screen performance where you can’t turn back the pages.

John Milton called fame the “last infirmity of mortal man.” He was referring to poets seeking a permanent place in the literary firmament. This same infirmity still afflicts poets and writers hoping their work will last. Even when they are not literary celebrities, they would rather not be forgotten. There are exceptions, of course: the seventeenth-century English poet John Donne refused to publish even his less saucy verse. Now considered one of the finest lyrical poets in any language, Donne and his work sank from sight for more than two centuries. No one cited him in the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson did not include him in the Lives of the Poets, despite including such seventeenth-century giants as Wentworth Dillon (Earl of Roscommon), Thomas Otway, and George Stepney. Johnson also excluded all women poets, so Donne was in good company in terms of neglect. But the neglect meant that the Romantics didn’t read him, and Donne had no influence whatever on nineteenth-century authors like Tennyson, Whitman, or Dickinson.

Not until Herbert Grierson, a scholar, published his Oxford edition of John Donne did the poet’s fortunes begin to change. Grierson’s edition was reviewed by no less a celebrity than T.S. Eliot, and Donne’s brilliance shined from under the bushel.

But this is a rare, quirky emergence in the realm of literary culture. As the late Harold Bloom often pointed out, poets make the canon, not editors, professors, readers, or even Amazon. Earlier poems chosen by later poets — “belated,” in Bloom’s vocabulary — serve as models to be imitated, stolen from, reworked, or parodied. This is a cumulative process of formation, since those later poets in turn become the objects of imitation. All these imitated works come inescapably to make up the canon because, to read and study later poets, we must study the works that influenced them.

There are other ways to conceive of canon formation, including discovery-and-recovery missions like Grierson’s, but charting the influence of earlier poets is unavoidable. Walter Jackson Bate called this “the burden of the past.”

Will Bob Dylan’s influence survive as a “burden” on future generations? Will he, in the future, become an unavoidable figure of the American poetic and musical past? Is he already a canonical figure, or is there work to be done, Grierson-style? The Nobel Prize is no guarantee of a place in the literary firmament, as Pearl Buck, Sinclair Lewis, and (probably) John Steinbeck would testify.

Popular music presents an even trickier problem than literary works. Songs from earlier eras only outlast their first popularizers in nostalgic covers, or, rarely, as with the “standards,” in a new improvisatory art form like jazz.

So where does this leave Dylan’s songs? It’s difficult to imagine what demographic will be strumming “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Mr. Tambourine Man” in twenty, thirty, fifty years (is there a generation of acoustic guitarists playing those songs even now?). Will there be rock ‘n’ roll bands reviving “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Tangled Up In Blue,” or “Not Dark Yet”? Given the direction of popular music, this kind of revival seems unlikely.

And what about the Dylan imitators? They used to be legion. Dylan’s phrasing and style, diction, even his inimitable voice demonstrably influenced a generation of guitar players and songwriters. The term Dylanesque became descriptive currency, referring not only to singing and songwriting, but also to something beyond music, an elusive, utterly distinct posture. But would a Dylanesque effort be recognizable today? What would it take for that characteristic to survive? More significantly, can anyone other than Dylan be Dylanesque successfully, or does the term a fortiori indicate a failure to create a personal musical style and distinctive posture? This latter alternative further confirms the threat of obscurity in Dylan’s future.


Ergo, maybe this 80th birthday year—hailed as a milestone by some, dismissed as a non-event by others—should get us wondering. Not wondering if Dylan will endure, but how we can make it happen. Because no one has ever survived without some help, whether from imitators or editors.

Here’s a curious fact. Despite all the voluminous attention Dylan has received, all the interpretation, poring-over, contextualization, and microscopic critical appraisal—and Christopher Ricks’s monumental The Lyrics: Since 1962, which includes variants of the songs. Despite all that, there hasn’t yet been an annotated edition of Dylan’s lyrics. That is, an edition with commentary and interpretation, along the lines of the Yale Milton or the Oxford Ben Jonson or even, more modestly, the myriad Shakespeare textbook editions.

Maybe this gap in Dylan studies is a result of copyright restrictions. Still, I can’t help but wonder if we’re toying with canonical survival. It’s all well and good to sneer about infinity going up on trial, or to impute permanence to works we deem unsurpassable. But are we tempting fate to think song lyrics live in the music and die in explications on the page?

There have been translations of the lyrics, most notably into Italian and French. And there are footnotes galore in sixty years of articles and books. But no sifting and collocation has emerged in the form of a single edition designed, at least in part, for future listeners (and readers). This is a desideratum. For example, an annotated edition might include this kind of information:



* 4th Street an east-west running street in New York City’s Greenwich Village, a quarter known for its bohemian inhabitants and, during the 1960s, home to cafes and folk clubs. Dylan owned a house on 4th Street.



Inside the museum,* infinity goes up on trial

* museum private or public building that cares for or conserves artifacts and other objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance; curates exhibitions for viewing audiences who walk through the galleries at their own pace.

Don’t laugh: before about 1800, the word museum referred to Greco-Roman temples. Scores of other Dylan lines come to mind, many of which, even today, might benefit from annotation. 



And if you hear vague traces of skippin’ reels* of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind

* skippin’ reels a) a reel-to-reel tape recorder, the state-of-the-art technology in the 1960s, both in studios and for home recordings; b) a traditional dance, e.g., the Highland Reel.


It’s all well and good to eschew becoming self-ordained professors’ tongues. And it’s certainly a blast to debate interpretations on Einstein “sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet,” or the importance of the “13th-century poet,” or why the trial’s “in a Sicilian court.” Not that these debates should stop — on the contrary, poetry and criticism grow together like the rose and the briar. But hermeneutics alone won’t preserve Dylan. Soon enough, it will be necessary to define Bette Davis, now probably almost as obscure as Kay Francis. And other basic definitions will be called for: what are electric violins, for instance, where’s Montagu Street, what exactly is “a topless place,” who were “Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac” (not to mention “Louie and Jimmy and Buddy”), and what about “the land of Oz”?  This is not pedantry. It’s preservation. Dylan’s 80th birthday might not be a genuine climacteric. But perhaps we should use it as a bourne at the roadside, a marker to urge selfless planning for future listeners to the music, future readers of the lyrics, future scholars — future Dylanistas.

– RF

Jim Curtis. Decoding Dylan: Making Sense of the Songs That Changed Modern Culture. North Carolina: McFarland, 2019. 177 pp.

REVIEW BY John H. Serembus, Widener University

Whenever I read a review of a book I may be interested in, I like to know something about the reviewer so that I can put the review into context.  It is only fair, then, that I give you some details about my perspective on Dylan and my background.

First off, I am not a Dylan scholar.  Yet, at the same time, I am not merely a fan. I do possess all his albums in some form or other, I have attended twenty or so Dylan concerts over the years, and I have read a fair amount of books about and by Dylan. The relationship is more intimate than merely a fan though certainly less than a scholar. As a friend and colleague said to me in the 1980s, Bob Dylan has provided “the soundtrack for our lives.”

Secondly, I am a professor of Philosophy with a specialization in Logic and an abiding interest in its dark side — paradox. The former informs my review of the book. The latter explains my interest in Dylan.

The author, Jim Curtis, is an accomplished scholar and academician. One of the great strengths of the book is his Renaissance-like command of the materials of which he speaks as well as all things Dylan. Another great strength is that the author is literally a contemporary of Dylan. Born less than a year before Dylan, he grew up within the same cultural milieu as Dylan with similar influences and experiences. The rest of us (me, just barely) can only imagine what it was like to come of age in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Decoding Dylan runs 169 pages, which includes copious chapter notes, an extensive bibliography, and an extremely thorough index. It obviously is not intended to give a complete account of Dylan’s life and works but rather focus primarily on his output during the 1960s. Interestingly, it begins with an original poem (song lyrics?) by the author: “Songs for Passersby,” which is an homage to Dylan spun from biographical strands used by the author to support his claims. This is then followed in the customary way by a preface and introduction.

The body of the text contains eight chapters divided into two sections and a conclusion.  Section I, “Theories and Practices” contains three chapters offering: a biography, an account of Dylan’s early years in New York, and Dylan’s affinities with Franz Kafka, T. S. Eliot, and Pablo Picasso. Section II, “Songs and Songwriting” contains fives chapters which: detail what Curtis calls “Songs of Transcendence” from Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, “Songs of Assimilation” from John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, tables of rhyme forms from Dylan’s songs of the 1960s as well as those of some Tin Pan Alley and other American Songs, a comparison of Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and a chronological comparison of the early successes of Dylan, Barbra Streisand, and Woody Allen. Curtis concludes his account with a discussion of the paradoxes of Dylan.

The very first sentence of the introduction tells us that his purpose in writing the book “is to help the reader understand the often puzzling, confusing songs that Bob Dylan wrote during the 1960s” (p. 4). Hence, the need to decode Dylan. There are three things to unpack here: there is a message in these songs, the messages are hidden, and that a key exists to unlock the messages. But in some sense the key itself is hidden, or, at the very least, it is not as straightforward as a cryptogram where there is a one-to-one correspondence between letters in the message and letters in the key. The message connects to what Curtis calls the “markers of creativity.” In particular, the four major markers of: cultural marginality, ethnicity, relationship to father, and birth order (10). If one can understand these markers with respect to Dylan, then one can then decipher the messages of his songs. Given the space constraints on this review, I will focus on just two of the four markers — ethnicity and birth order.

The author attempts to account for these markers in Dylan by looking at “other major figures in cultural history” (10). I will focus on just one of those figures — Pablo Picasso. Curtis goes to great lengths to establish that Dylan had read or had an opportunity to read Picasso’s Picassos, Picasso: An American Tribute (58) and Life with Picasso. He notes that Dylan’s own words in Chronicles acknowledge a familiarity with Picasso and the impact he had on the art world with Dylan wanting to “be like that” (57).  He goes on to claim that Dylan and Picasso “have a remarkable series of affinities” (64).  He then lists no fewer than seventeen affinities between the two men! To this reviewer there is less here than what meets the eye. It may be interesting to note these affinities, but they can’t serve as proof for any claim. One can find coincidences between any two people.

Frankly speaking, using ethnicity as one of the “markers of creativity” is fraught with difficulty. The author wants to claim that Dylan has Jewish ethnicity, and this helps explain his genius and his affinity to others who also have the same ethnicity. Therefore, for example, the author compares Dylan with Barbra Streisand and Woody Allen. Yet how does one determine ethnicity? There are no real objective markers, and assuming there are leads to stereotyping. If it is a matter of self-identifying, then how can one be sure that any two people identify as a certain ethnicity for the same reasons?  

The first-born marker, though less controversial, also has major failings. If it is intended as a psychological theory, it runs counter to the hallmark of every scientific theory — falsifiability. Curtis talks about Dylan, Streisand, and Allen as being first-born. But there is a problem: Streisand was born second. Rather than questioning the merits of the claim of the theory, the author points out that though she was born second, she was born six years after her older sibling and that fact makes her, in effect, first-born. This ad hoc revision of the criterion does not pass the smell test. In addition, this account lumps first born and only children together without any proof that the experiences of the two are sufficiently similar. I have no problems with the first-born account being a useful fiction. I do have a problem with it being used as part of a proof of someone’s creativity.

The final point that the author makes in his conclusion is worth emphasizing. It is “Dylan’s refusal to choose between high culture and popular culture that makes him a man in the middle” (148-149). The man is the middle has a foot in both worlds, sprinkling high culture references into popular culture songs. He is a participant in both without an affinity to either. This allows the author to justly claim that Dylan is paradoxical. His lyrics are strewn with paradoxes resulting from his two-culture habitation, such as “I was so much older then / I am younger than that now.”

Given some of the preceding paragraphs, you may think this reviewer would not look favorably upon the book. But the truth is, I found it to be an interesting and enjoyable read. The book is a lot like the Dylan songs of the 1960s that Curtis noted may be “puzzling and confusing,” but are nonetheless worth listening to. It may not stand up to rational scrutiny, but it is certainly a useful fiction.