FORUM CONTRIBUTION BY Alessandro Carrera, University of Houston, Texas
Bob Dylan is eighty, and he is on his way home. His thoughts are still fixed on wandering (“Got a mind to ramble, got a mind to roam”), but he did begin his journey home (“I’m travelin’ light and I’m slow coming home”). This is how “Mother of Muses” ends, from Rough and Rowdy Ways. But his home isn’t the one he left in Minnesota. Maybe he will want to go back there, sooner or later, or maybe not because, as he says in “Mississippi,” “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.” Minnesota is home, but not his “real” home. He said it very clearly in the interview that punctuated Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home: “I had ambition to set out and find like an odyssey of going home somewhere. I set out to find this home that I left a while back, and I couldn’t remember exactly where it was, but I was on my way there. And encountering what I encountered on the way was how I envisioned it all. I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be and so, I’m on my way home.”
In another century, Dylan asked Miss Lonely, how does it feel to be on your own, with no direction home, like a rolling stone? Perhaps he was also asking himself about the paradox of being homeless yet having to go back home: Ulysses has been far from home for such a long time that for all he knows he could be homeless now. Yet after the siege comes the return, which is just as dangerous; some jealous god can always stop you before you touch the land. When Dylan took it out on Miss Lonely for having lived a life that was too protected and had never learned to survive in the street, he was also angry with himself for having deluded himself into thinking that the noble profession of folk hero, always on the side of the angels, would protect him from the cursed blessing of the street (or better, the road), where you never know if what you believed yesterday is still sacrosanct tomorrow. The teaching of the road is that everything changes — the encounters, the feedback from life, and above all, the style, which you must be able to wear and discard like a dress when the weather changes. The young may think that living on the road has the road itself as its destination. Who needs home after all? Indeed, there is no word in Dylan that has more resonance than “road” (the others are “wind,” “rain,” and “train”; “home” is not among them), but those who are no longer young know that this is not the case.
Being on the road is exciting, intoxicating, heroic. If you are persistent, and lucky enough, the road gives you three thousand concerts all over the world, yet you still end up not having a home. But could it be otherwise? An artist (Dylan’s words again from No Direction Home), “has got to be careful never to arrive at a place where he thinks he is at somewhere” because the false security achieved would make him forget the duty to be “constantly in a state of becoming.”
Jamie Lorentzen, a Kierkegaard scholar who teaches at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, believes he has figured out which house Dylan wants to go to. It’s not unfamiliar to him at all, and he needs no secret map to get there. It is the South of the United States, the place where all the good and all the bad of the great country were born, between Mississippi and Louisiana, where Highway 61 goes to die at the gates of New Orleans — the only place in America that before Hurricane Katrina “was better than America” (Leonard Cohen, Samson in New Orleans). Dylan has already written in Chronicles, Volume One that the highway that brought the blues from south to north, from Memphis to Chicago and from Chicago to Duluth, where Dylan was born, was his road: “It was the same road, full of the same contradictions, the same one-horse towns, the same spiritual ancestors. The Mississippi River, the bloodstream of the blues, also starts up from my neck of the woods. I was never too far away from any of it. It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood.”
Lorentzen is right, except that a question arises: if Dylan knows where his home is, then why hasn’t he already gone back? Why does his Never-Ending Tour deny the very possibility of arriving at somewhere if the last home, which is also the first, can only be the South? Well, because Dylan knows, and all his work is there to prove it, that that house is already occupied. He can only borrow it, and it will never be his. It is the home of the blues, but he did not create the blues and neither did the Jews nor the Anglo-Saxons, the Irish nor the Italians — although all can say, each in their own way, that they have learned from it. It was created by the poorest African Americans and no one can take it away from them, not even by learning all their guitar licks note by note.
Dylan said he stayed in Mississippi one day too long. He sang it right in “Mississippi,” a song recorded in 2001 that recreates obliquely the landscape of the early 1960s. In the fall of 1963, when Dylan was already a name and nothing more than a name, he had actually gone there, to Greenwood, Mississippi for a voter registration rally, something for which you could be shot, and even today it might not be an easy ride. It was, possibly, the only authentic militant act in his life, yet it left its mark. He may have never absorbed the arcana of political struggle, but from the faces of the Black sharecroppers to whom he sang “With God on Our Side” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” he learned what dignity is. And he meditated on it until he wrote “Dignity”:
Fat man lookin’ in a blade of steel
Thin man lookin’ at his last meal
Hollow man lookin’ in a cottonfield
Freedom can sometimes be twisted for ambiguous political means; dignity cannot.
In his personal odyssey, Dylan has found many houses, all made of music. But Bob Dylan’s real house exists only if he continues looking for it, and there is reason to fear that when he stops no one will be able to resume the journey from the place where he interrupted it. In the meantime, a map of Dylan’s America can be drawn: New York through the eyes of the young man who went there to meet Woody Guthrie, Baltimore where Hattie Carroll met a death that was as racist as it was careless, many rows of desolation — the only place where something worth telling happens — the lowlands of the sad-eyed lady, the watchtower on top of which princes learn that Babylon has fallen, the Mexican Egypt where the goddess Isis prowls, the Garden of Gethsemane where none but One understands that something is happening there and you don’t know what it is, the Caribbean of Jokerman the idol-juggler, the infinite Texas of the pearl-toothed girl from Brownsville, and then again the Highlands of Scotland (but there are “highlands” in the U.S. as well), Scarlet Town which is Desolation Row four centuries earlier, and Key West, a place that has the consistency of a postcard yet is the source of all clandestine radio broadcasts like the shortwave radios that from Mexico and Louisiana reached at night the room of teenager Robert Zimmerman who listened to Lead Belly and Muddy Waters wondering from which fiery universe those voices might have come.
These are Bob Dylan’s “stations.” Some he visited only once; in others, he stayed longer and then left again. And it will be no coincidence that the house where he lives, in Point Dume, Malibu, has never entered any of his songs. Therefore, the question is, how can you go back to where you’ve never been?
If I don’t come back,
you should know that I’ve never
was all about staying
here, where I have never been.
If Dylan could read these lines by Italian poet Giorgio Caproni, perhaps he would see something of himself in them.
 Bob Dylan, Chronicles Volume One, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004, pp. 240-241. Quoted (like the interview excerpts from No Direction Home), in Jamie Lorentzen, “Dylan’s Direction Home through the World’s Might Opposites,” in Tearing the World Apart: Bob Dylan and the Twenty-First Century, ed. by Nina Goss and Eric Hoffman, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2017, p. 129.
 “Se non dovessi tornare, / sappiate che non sono mai / partito. / Il mio viaggiare / è stato tutto un restare / qua, dove non fui mai.” Giorgio Caproni (1912-1990), Biglietto lasciato prima di non andar via (“Note Left Before I didn’t Leave”), in L’opera in versi (“The Poetic Works”), ed. by Luca Zuliani, introd. by Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo, Milan: Mondadori, 1998, p. 427.