The World of Bob Dylan. Ed. Sean Latham. Cambridge University Press, 2021, xix + 349 pp. Hardback. ISBN-13. 978-1-108-49951-4. GPB 20. 
REVIEW BY Christopher Rollason, Independent Scholar, Luxembourg
The volume under review is a multi-author study of the figure and work of Bob Dylan from an extremely wide range of points of view. It is edited by Sean Latham, Walter Professor of English and Director of the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa — also home to the Bob Dylan Archive and the Woody Guthrie Center — hosted the major conference held from 30 May to 2 June 2019 under the title “The World of Bob Dylan” (in which this reviewer was a participant), although it should be stressed that this volume, despite the shared name, is not the proceedings of that conference. It may also be useful here to distinguish between: the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies (an academic research cell); the Bob Dylan Archive (a collection of over 100,000 objects for consultation on appointment, purchased in 2016 by Tulsa’s George Kaiser Family Foundation in partnership with the University of Tulsa, and held at the city’s Gilcrease Museum); and the Bob Dylan Center (to be the public face of Dylan in Tulsa, scheduled for opening to the general public in 2022).
The World of Bob Dylan is presented as “the first published project to emerge from the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies” (xiv). It brings together 28 texts (introduction, chronology and 26 chapters proper) by a total of 26 contributors, the editor included. 18 are male and 8 female, while 22 are described as based in the US, one in Canada, two in the UK and one in Denmark. Most chapters appear to have been purpose-written for the volume. Two at least, however, originate in the 2019 Tulsa conference. The chapter by Greil Marcus is explicitly credited to his Tulsa keynote speech; that by Ann Powers, another keynoter, reads as if the publication of her text from the event; and there may be more. The role of the archive as a new determinant in Dylan studies is reflected in the fact that two of the contributors quote and formally credit material retrieved via their personal research activities there. The chapters read in general as fresh and new, although several have not been updated insofar as their authors refer to Dylan’s Never Ending Tour as if it were still never ending, rather than forced into stoppage by the circumstances of which we are all aware.
Sean Latham introduces the volume, recalling the multiplicity of Dylan’s work and stressing how each chapter offers a different approach to understanding its “depth, complexity and legacy” (2). He states that the collection aims at a broad readership: while written by experts and scholars, the essays are designed to be accessible both to long-term fans and to the curious. After the introduction comes a six-page-plus chronology, the joint work of Latham and Kevin J. Dettmar. The essays that follow are grouped into five parts: “Creative Life,” “Musical Contexts,” “Cultural Contexts,” “Political Contexts,” and “Reception and Legacy.”
Part I (“Creative Life”) opens with the chronology and continues with “The Biographies,” an essay by Andrew Muir, author of several Dylan-themed books, including most recently The True Performing Of It, a study of Dylan and Shakespeare. Here, he examines the merits and characteristics of the various published lives of Bob Dylan — those by Anthony Scaduto, Robert Shelton, Clinton Heylin, Bob Spitz, Howard Sounes, and Ian Bell — coming down in favor of Heylin as best biographer, thanks above all to his “formidable” research (27). The essay contains detailed comparative analysis and will surely be found useful by future students, as I am not aware that this particular task had been done before. Muir also stresses the “game-changing” role of the Bob Dylan Archive, henceforth a must-consult stopping-place for all aspiring biographers: “the future of Dylan biographies is clearly going to be ‘post-Tulsa’” (30).
The next chapter is by Sean Latham and is entitled “Songwriting.” The author ranges over Dylan’s “massive” song catalogue (32), noting how the songwriting process of “Like a Rolling Stone” can today be followed in detail thanks to the Cutting Edge release, and offering fresh and careful readings of the likes of “Song to Woody” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” He praises the Basement Tapes as amounting to a “graduate seminar in American music,” and “Love and Theft” as showing an “extraordinary depth of learning,” to be juxtaposed with Dylan’s selections on his Theme Time Radio Hour (41). In this area too, the research benefits of the archive are stressed, alongside its “sheer size and depth,” and Latham forecasts that now we have it, “unraveling Dylan’s writing processes will take decades of work” (33).
Keith Negus offers an essay with the title “The Singles: A Playlist for Framing Dylan’s Recording Art.” Dylan is known primarily as an album artist, but here Negus focuses on the single, viewing the 45 as a conduit to a more general listening public and thus as historically a means of broadening the audience for at least some of Dylan’s songs. Ten singles (some as recorded by Dylan, some in cover versions) are examined in detail, not from the viewpoint of sales or chart statistics, but from that of the messages communicated through this format. They range from “Blowin’ in the Wind” (in the Peter, Paul and Mary cover) through “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” to the Grammy-winning “Things Have Changed.”
There follows part II, “Musical Contexts,” whose essays trace Dylan’s relationship to an unfolding series of musical genres: folk, blues, gospel, country, rock, roots music and the Great American Songbook. To start with the first, Ronald D. Cohen’s chapter “Folk Music” examines Dylan’s relationship with that genre. Cohen shows (leaning, legitimately enough, on Chronicles) how Dylan — described by Nat Hentoff in the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan sleevenotes as “so powerful and so personal and so important a singer” (69) — gradually became part of the folk milieu to the point of being a seeming fixture there (Cohen quotes from Suze Rotolo’s A Freewheelin’ Time: “the folk world was his oyster” (70)), until he dramatically dissociated himself from that same milieu. The story is scarcely new, but Cohen’s is a sound retelling.
The next chapter is by Greil Marcus and, as we have seen above, replicates his keynote lecture at the Tulsa conference, beyond any doubt one of the highlights of that event. Marcus entitles his text: “The Blues: ‘Kill Everyone Ever Done Me Wrong’” (the subtitle is a reference to the blues number “Railroad Bill,” recorded in 1929 by Will Bennett, and in 1961 by Dylan on the Minneapolis party tape). The chapter opens, with a somber sense of place, by recalling the notorious white supremacist massacre of 1921 which decimated the African American community in Tulsa — “the worst single racial crime in the United States after slavery” (73). What follows is, despite the title, not some kind of conspectus of Dylan’s multifaceted relationship with the blues (a herculean task, best attempted to date by Michael Gray). Rather, the author looks closely at three chosen aspects of the subject, namely: “Railroad Bill” in the Bennett and Dylan versions and its significance as an “outlaw blues”; Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” and Dylan’s cover of the song on his first album; and, leaping to 1997, Time Out of Mind, seen by Marcus as “Bob Dylan’s great blues album” (74) and of which he comments: “I can’t recall a major artist . . . offering people anything as bleak, as barren, as hopeless as this record” (84-85). As always, Greil Marcus, as music writer and cultural commentator, approaches his subject-matter with simultaneous expertise and passion, brought to bear on both the details and the bigger picture.
Gayle Wald’s chapter, “Gospel Music,” examines what the author considers to be the “least examined” and “most poorly understood” of Dylan’s musical modes (88), and notes the crucial role played by African American female artists in that side of his work. She stresses the importance of the women backup singers for Dylan’s live performances in his “Christian period,” seeing them as “co-creators” of that phase of Dylan’s work (95), and also examines Dylan’s later personal and professional relationship with Mavis Staples.
Leigh Edwards, in her chapter, “Country Music: Dylan, Cash, and the Projection of Authenticity,” looks at the Dylan/Johnny Cash relationship and how their collaborations “activated new potential” in country music (110). She also unearths a song recorded by Cash in 1965, “Hardin Wouldn’t Run,” about the original John Wesley Hardin, as a point of comparison with the title track of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding — a work which she sees as reflecting a “mixture of folk and mass culture” (108). This chapter makes for useful reading alongside the 2019 Bootleg Series issue Travelin’ Thru.
Ira Wells writes on “Rock Music” — a well-worn Dylan theme on which it is not easy to say something new. The author retraces the familiar Newport 65 story, but also stresses, with the benefit of hindsight, how the poetic turn in Dylan’s lyrics as he embraced rock conferred a “new intellectual credibility” on the emerging genre (118), heralding the “exploration of the individual self within a mass cultural form” (119). Kim Ruehl, in the chapter “Roots Music: Born in a Basement,” finds a comparable turning-point in 1967, viewing the Dylan/Band collaborations that became famous as the Basement Tapes as the effective creation of a new genre, namely roots music, and the marking — here evoking Greil Marcus in Invisible Republic/The Old, Weird America — of a “pivotal moment in the history of American music” (124).
The final essay on musical genre is provided by Larry Starr’s “The Great American Songbook: Better Duck Down the [Tin Pan] Alley Way, Lookin’ For a New Friend.” The wordplay in the title reflects the author’s contention that we should not have been surprised by Dylan’s turn to the Great American Songbook in the three “Sinatra albums.” Clearly an admirer of the trilogy, Starr believes it contains “potential material for several books” (134), meanwhile offering his chapter as “a modest guide for future investigation” (134). He goes on to analyze several cases of Dylan’s recourse to the Songbook: the Rodgers and Hart standard ‘Blue Moon’ from Self-Portrait in 1970, “the only Great American Songbook selection to appear on any officially released Dylan album prior to ” (135-136); “Beyond the Horizon” from Modern Times in 2006, which (this was news to me) takes its tune and its atmosphere from the Bing Crosby classic “Red Sails in the Sunset”; and “Autumn Leaves” and “That Lucky Old Sun,” viewed in their context on Shadows in the Night. Starr concludes that “Dylan is helping to keep this repertoire alive” (143).
In part III (“Cultural Contexts”), two essays take on the issue of the literary Dylan, inevitably in a post-Nobel context. The Danish academic Anne-Marie Mai — incidentally the volume’s only contributor from outside the Anglosphere — has a particularly wide brief in a chapter entitled “World Literature.” She lists key literary references in the songs and Tarantula, and, in an analysis that needed doing, dissects Dylan’s Nobel lecture, stressing the points in common between the three classics he focuses on (the Odyssey, Moby Dick and All Quiet on the Western Front). Mai concludes that with Bob Dylan, “world literature came within reach for a growing audience” (168). Florence Dore, in her contribution “American Literature,” poses the question of Dylan’s intellectual respectability as songwriter: “What are the Bob Dylan Archive and the Tulsa University Institute for Bob Dylan Studies doing within university walls ?” (148-149). While incidentally noting the Dylan references in contemporary US authors, most notably Don De Lillo, as well as Dylan’s place on the faultline between “high” and “low” culture, Dore, rather than as might be expected examining Dylan’s debt to classic writers like Whitman or Poe, foregrounds the literary claims of a less obvious protagonist, namely Huddie Leadbetter or Leadbelly. She narrates how the blues artist was invited in 1934 to play before a panel on “Popular Literature” (including no less a folklorist than Alan Lomax) at the convention of the Modern Language Association, an episode that advocates for the blues as a form of literature. Dore thus effectively contends that popular music lyrics could be part of American literature well before Dylan, let alone his Nobel – which award, she concludes, “confirms the deep overlap between American literature and rock’n’roll” (156). Still in the literary register, the chapter “The Beats” by Stephen Belletto examines in fresh detail a familiar textual current, namely the influence on Dylan of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the rest of the Beat Generation writers. Belletto includes close contrastive analyses, pairing Ginsberg’s “Howl” with “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and Kerouac’s novel Desolation Angels with the song known to have absorbed elements from it, “Desolation Row.”
The contribution by Damian Carpenter, “Theatre,” moves us away from the music/literature dyad and into Dylan’s wider multimedia world. The author looks at various aspects of Dylan and the theatre, including the influence of major theatrical figures like Bertolt Brecht, using biographical material from Chronicles and A Freewheelin’ Time, Dylan’s later collaborations with Jacques Levy and Sam Shepard, and Conor McPherson’s 2017 play Girl from the North Country; we also, intriguingly, learn of Dylan’s own “abandoned play manuscripts” (182).
With the chapter “Visual Arts: Goya’s Kiss,” Raphael Falco broadens the discussion to include Dylan’s production in the plastic arts (the Goya reference is to a comment in a 2001 letter to Dylan from Tony Bennett, retrieved from the archive). Falco enumerates the half score or so exhibitions of Dylan’s visual art that have taken place since the first in Chemnitz (Germany) in 2007, in prestigious venues including New York’s Gagosian Gallery, as well as London’s Halcyon Gallery and even its National Portrait Gallery. He stresses the multigeneric nature of Dylan’s visual art production, from paintings and drawings to metal gates. Falco notes that this “flurry of exhibitions in the last fifteen years testifies to the surprising productivity of Dylan the visual artist” (198), also drawing attention to the visual art references in the songs (“When I Paint My Masterpiece” being but one example) and concluding that “Dylan’s songs will always be his first art” but that “when he alludes to the other arts in his songs they are often the same arts he himself practices and exhibits,” thus suggesting a holistic view of Dylan as creator.
Kevin Dettmar’s chapter, “Borrowing,” homes in on the by now well-trodden issue of plagiarism versus intertextuality. The subject has already been ably examined, from the intertextuality side, by scholars including Richard Thomas, and Dettmar, while mentioning the best-known cases (Junichi Saga, Henry Timrod, Ovid), does not analyze them in detail. He positions himself in favor of the intertextual, invoking literary theory (T.S. Eliot and Roland Barthes) and refuting the notion of plagiarism as being a “pretty blunt instrument” (205). Dettmar goes on to demonstrate the sophistication of the intertextual model with a concrete example — a careful reading of Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and how it harks back, through the keyword “lonesome,” to Hank Williams.
The two remaining essays in this section return to the motif of religion, this time from a point of view more textual than musical. Elliott R. Wolfson, in his chapter “Judaism,” offers a detailed argument reading the Dylan oeuvre as infused with concepts from Jewish theology, while Andrew McCarron’s “Christianity: An Exegesis of Modern Times” offers a Christian reading of that album — coherent enough within its own terms, though containing what I would regard as an error in twice linking “Spirit on the Water” (230 and 233) to the Cain archetype: Dylan’s song has “I can’t go back to paradise no more/I killed a man back there,” but the biblical Cain, born after his parents’ fall, was never in paradise in the first place.
Part IV (“Political Contexts”) opens with “The Civil Rights Movement” by Will Kaufman. This is well-known territory, but the author offers some useful focuses, stressing that while African American musicians (Odetta, Leadbelly, Harry Belafonte) were major influences on Dylan’s early career, it was never his intention to speak directly for their community: he preferred to narrate as a witness. Kaufman also reminds us that the never fully resolved “lack of certainty over Dylan’s ‘commitment’ to the civil rights movement . . . is one of the defining features of the critical response to his work” (239). Michael J. Kraemer’s piece entitled “The Counterculture” is in fact mostly focused on John Wesley Harding, in which album he finds Dylan symbolically embodying a newly rural and traditionalist model for that social movement, in opposition to the extraverted psychedelia embraced by the Beatles in Sergeant Pepper. Putting Dylan’s 1968 opus under the microscope, he concludes it was “less a repudiation of the counterculture than an exploration of new directions in which it might move” (253). Kraemer also offers us tantalizing glimpses of how the archive’s notebooks for this period shed a fascinating light on the John Wesley Harding songs, their composition and their biblical sources.
Ann Powers’ keynote address from Tulsa is entitled “Gender and Sexuality – Bob Dylan’s Body.” The well-known music critic breaks down Dylan’s projection of his body into four phases — in his early career, the “soft body”; from 1966, the “mod body”; from 1975, the “star body”; and from 1997, the “mortal body.” The author demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of Dylan’s career and a creative use of diverse biographical sources. A cross-career perspective is also offered by Lisa O’Neill-Sanders in her chapter “Justice.” Her analysis offers what scholars should find a useful catalogue of the recurring themes of criminality and criminal justice in the songs, from “The Death of Emmett Till” and “Seven Curses” through “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” to “Hurricane” and “Political World,” noting that these are motifs that “persist throughout his career” (278). The author concludes by hailing a song from recent times, “Early Roman Kings” from 2012, as embodying a universal inheritance of crime, in a world where — as Dylan said in 1975 – “justice is a game.”
Part V (“Reception and Legacy”) rounds off the book with four essays. Two focus on the more commercial aspects of Dylan’s career and his relationship with the world of marketing. Advertising professor Devon Powers, in “The Bob Dylan Brand,” examines the phenomenon of the mercantile Dylan, from Cadillac commercials to his own Heaven’s Door whiskey, arguing that “‘Bob Dylan’ is in many ways more symbol than person, in the past as a flashpoint for ‘generational sentiment and attachment” (293) and today as an emblem of longevity and a living legend. This chapter is complemented by David R. Shumway’s “Bob Dylan: Stardom and Fandom,” where it is argued that Dylan was central to the formation of the notion of the rock star as artist, although by the end of the 1960s he had become “a star defined by his changes rather than the consistency of his persona” (313). Shumway also stresses the “peculiar devotion” and the “cerebral” nature (323) of Dylan’s fan base, with his mutability and unpredictability accepted as part of his stardom.
In the chapter “The Nobel Prize: the Dramaturgy of Consecration,” James F. English takes us back to the world of literature and rehearses the by now familiar story of the vicissitudes of Dylan’s 2016 Nobel. This story has of course been told before, notably by Richard Thomas and Stephen Scobie, but it bears retelling as the author guides us through its various phases — the initial shock (for many) of the award, the multiple reactions for and against, Dylan’s famous delay in responding, Patti Smith’s performance at the ceremony and Dylan’s last-minute Nobel lecture. He also reminds us that this was hardly Dylan’s first major award, recalling the Pulitzer citation, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Polar Prize and more, all of this being scarcely a precedent for imitating Jean-Paul Sartre and refusing the Nobel (as some suggested). English also takes a commendably original line in reading the entire Dylan/Nobel thread as a dramatic exercise, a form of living the world of literary prizes as spectacle. He concludes that “the 2016 prize lives on as a particularly vivid and well elaborated ‘storm of controversy’,” and as part of the Nobel’s inherent “dramaturgy” (312).
The closing chapter, “The Bob Dylan Archive,” is contributed by the archive’s director, Mark A. Davidson. The volume thus concludes by foregrounding the topic which has studded it as a leitmotif across its pages. Davidson outlines the BDA’s history, calling it “one of the most important collections ever constructed” (328), and stressing its “multifaceted and three-dimensional” nature (330). He stresses that the material it holds is not transparent — it calls for interpretation, like Bob Dylan himself, and is “more sphinx than oracle” (331). As examples of its richness, Davidson cites multiple drafts of Tarantula, the footage of Don’t Look Back, or 19 manuscript pages of lyrics for “Jokerman.” He concludes by hailing the BDA as a challenge for “exploring what archives mean in the 21st century” (334). Davidson’s case for the significance of the archive for researchers is irrefutable. I would, however, enter the caveat that not all Dylan scholars have the resources or the availability to make frequent visits to Tulsa, and it would be unfortunate if a two-tier hierarchy was created in the Dylan community according to whether or not one has consulted the archive — recalling also, as I write, the current environment of travel restrictions, as well as the fact that this is not an online archive. That said, it is clear that the creation of the archive has ushered in a whole new era in Dylan studies.
The World of Bob Dylan may itself be seen as a publication geared to the existence of the archive, offering multiple pathways for future research around it. This is an excellent volume, and the different contributions are of a uniformly high standard. The range of aspects of Dylan studies covered is impressive. Some facets of Dylan’s world are absent or only touched on in passing, for instance his relationship with the cinema or his reception in the non-Anglophone world. However, all in all I consider this one of the best collective volumes on Bob Dylan that I have read in a long time, and indeed one of the most interesting publications of any kind on Dylan that have come my way in recent years. For anyone seeking an up-to-the-moment Dylan book that opens many a door with valuable information and new insights, this volume is indeed right on target.
 As contributors to this collection, Dylan Review editors Raphael Falco and Lisa O’Neill Sanders recused themselves from any involvement in the procuring and editing of this review.