All Along the Watchtower. Copyright © 1968 by Dwarf Music; renewed 1996 by Dwarf Music. All rights reserved.

Angelina. Copyright © 1981 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Ballad of a Thin Man. Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Black Rider. Copyright © 2020 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

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

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

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

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

Foot of Pride. Copyright © 1983 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Fur Slippers. Copyright unknown [Shot of Love outtake].

Goodbye Jimmy Reed. Copyright © 2020 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall. Copyright © 1963 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

I and I. Copyright © 1983 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You. Copyright © 2020 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

It Ain’t Me Babe. Copyright © 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

John Brown. Copyright © 1963, 1968 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1996 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Jokerman. Copyright © 1983 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Just Like a Woman. Copyright © 1966 by Dwarf Music; renewed 1994 by Dwarf Music. All rights reserved.

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

Like a Rolling Stone. Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

The Man in Me. Copyright ©1970 by Big Sky Music; renewed 1998 by Big Sky Music. All rights reserved.

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

My Own Version of You.  Copyright © 2020 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Need A Woman. Copyright © 1982 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

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

One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later). Copyright © 1966 by Dwarf Music; renewed 1994 by Dwarf Music. All rights reserved.

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

Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. Copyright © 1966 by Dwarf Music; renewed 1994 by Dwarf Music. All rights reserved.

Silvio. Copyright © 1988 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

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

Standing in the Doorway. Copyright © 1997 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.

Sweetheart Like You. Copyright © 1983 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Tangled Up In Blue. Copyright © 1974 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2002 by Ram’s Horn Music. All rights reserved.

Thunder on the Mountain. Copyright © 2006 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

The Times They Are A-Changin’. Copyright © 1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Watching The River Flow. Copyright © 1971 by Big Sky Music; renewed 1999 by Big Sky Music. All rights reserved.

What Can I Do for You?. Copyright © 1980 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

When I Paint My Masterpiece. Copyright © 1971 by Big Sky Music; renewed 1999 by Big Sky Music. All rights reserved.

Where Are You Tonight? (Journey through Dark Heat). Copyright © 1978 by 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.

Dylan at 80: It Used to Go Like That, Now It Goes Like This. Edited by Gary Browning and Constantine Sandis. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2021.

Larry Starr, Listening to Bob Dylan. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2021.

Nicholas Birns teaches modern and contemporary literature at the Center for Applied Liberal Arts, School of Professional Studies, New York University. His articles have appeared in Exemplaria, Angelaki, Victorian Studies, and MLQ. His latest book is The Hyperlocal in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Literary Space (Lexington, 2019).He teaches a Bob Dylan course regularly and contributed to Dylan At 80, coedited by Constantine Sandis and Gary Browning.

Mark DeStephano is Chairman and Professor of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, and Director and Professor of the Asian Studies Program at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.A.  He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Philosophy from Fordham University, four Master’s degrees in Theology from Regis College of the University of Toronto, and his Master’s and doctoral degrees in Romance Languages and Literatures from Harvard University.  His research focuses on medieval European literatures and on issues of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and identity in Asian and Latino cultures.

Christine Hand Jones is an Assistant Professor of English at Dallas Baptist University, where she teaches Writing, Literature, and Songwriting courses. She is interested in the intersections of music and literature, and her recent work has focused on Bob Dylan, The Band, and Paul Simon. She has a PhD in literary studies from the University of Texas at Dallas, which she earned largely by writing about the music and lyrics of Bob Dylan. When she’s not in the classroom, she performs her original soulful folk-rock music around the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Her most recent album, The Book of the World, features sweet, bluesey vocals over vintage folk-rock instrumentation. The songs celebrate the everyday inspiration found in coffee cups and bluebonnet fields, imagining all creation as a book of revelation.

Graley Herren is a Professor of English at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He is the author of Dreams and Dialogues in Dylan’s Time Out of Mind (Anthem Press, 2021), The Self-Reflexive Art of Don DeLillo (Bloomsbury, 2019), Samuel Beckett’s Plays on Film and Television (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), and numerous articles on various modern artists. He also edited five volumes of the Text & Presentation book series for McFarland, and he is an executive board member for the annual Comparative Drama Conference.

Dave Junker is Associate Professor of Instruction and Director of the Honors Program in the Moody College of Communications at the University of Texas at Austin. He earned his master’s degree in Afro-American Studies and his doctorate in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also an active musician and an independent recording artist.

Thomas M. Kitts, Professor of English at St. John’s University, is the author of books on Ray Davies, John Fogerty, and, forthcoming, Richie Furay. With Nick Baxter-Moore, he edited the Routledge Companion to Popular Music and Humor, and with Gary Burns, he edits Popular Music and Society and Rock Music Studies. He also chairs the music area for the Popular Culture Association.

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

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, and of the book Read Books, Repeat Quotations: The Literary Bob Dylan (2021). Attended international Dylan conferences held in Caen (France), 2005 and Tulsa (Oklahoma), 2019.

Nathan Schmidt is currently pursuing a PhD in American literature at Indiana University, Bloomington. His work has appeared in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and the Indiana University blog Conversations in Science, and he is a contributing editor for the website Gamers with Glasses. Dylan and the Beats originally inspired him to pursue a career in English. He has played the guitar since he was nine years old.

​​Evan Sennett is a graduate student at Indiana University specializing in American literature. His interests include American Transcendentalism as well as twentieth century Kentucky authors like Wendell Berry and Harlan Hubbard. He also has a background in filmmaking. His various projects have screened in over 100 film festivals around the world.

Christopher Star is professor of classics at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Apocalypse and Golden Age: The End of the World in Greek and Roman Thought (Johns Hopkins University Press 2021).

Joe Whang is an artist and illustrator born in Seoul, Korea. He has a BFA in Illustration and an AAS degree in Graphic Design from Parsons School of Design. His paintings and illustrations have gained recognition from such prestigious organizations as the World Illustration Awards in the U.K., Applied Arts in Canada, American Illustration, 3×3 Magazine, Creative Quarterly, and the Society of Illustrators New York. His work has been shown in exhibitions in the U.K., South Korea, and the Philippines, and he is currently a member artist at b.j. spoke gallery in Huntington, NY.

The Dylan Review spoke with poet and translator Alessandro Carrera in fall 2021.

DR: Do you translate the lyrics as poetry on the page or as songs to be performed? Do Italian performers cover Dylan songs in Italian?

AC: I’ll start from the second part of the question if you don’t mind. Yes, there are several Italian covers of Dylan songs. They start after Blonde on Blonde. The first covers appeared in 1967, when Dylan was not very well known. It was at a time when there was a rush of British and American covers in Italian pop music. Everybody was translating English and American songs. Also, there were very favorable laws at the time, that in a way, favored covers even better than national songs. It’s not the case anymore, but it was the case back then. So, if you could get into the “club of translators” of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Dylan, and others, you could make money. The first cover was “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but it was not released until 1972, because the arrangement was not good. But the first cover that had a certain circulation was “I Want You.” Many people listened to those songs without knowing who the author was. It was only in the 1970s that there were covers addressed to people who could clearly compare to the original, and I would say that the best ones were “Desolation Row” and “Romance In Durango,” both written by Italian songwriters Francesco De Gregori and Fabrizio De André. I would say “Romance In Durango” was probably the most faithful rhythmic translation. It was very close to the original lyrics. And there were others. There were translators before me because the first collection of songs appeared before Writings and Drawings, and one of [the translators]—who translated Lyrics, 1962-1985—decided to do translation in rhyme. I was not satisfied with this. To me, many songs seem to be contrived just for the sake of putting in a rhyme. When I started working on it, I saw that it was absolutely impossible to translate all the songs in rhyme and metric. Also, because the previous translations were full of mistakes. And I wanted the readers to, for once, read exactly what Dylan meant, instead of reading my personal interpretation, my version, and that is the reason why I wanted to add a substantial corpus of endnotes for every song. So, my edition is not a critical edition, but it is the only annotated edition in the world, I think. The publisher let me do it. Then my notes were translated for the Spanish edition. So, in the Spanish edition, you’ll find up to 2012, my notes translated. However, the work on the notes to me was necessary because I noticed that Dylan uses several layers of meanings; it’s full of puns, which are almost untranslatable. Some lines are—this is something I noticed, I’m not sure that I’m right—I noticed as a translator that sometimes Dylan uses idioms in the literal meaning, not in the idiomatic meaning. That is, he picks up a sentence that is idiomatic in English, like “You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you,” from “Like A Rolling Stone,” and you don’t really know if he means the idiomatic meaning of “getting your kicks” or the literal meaning: getting your kicks in the rear. It’s very hard to decide, and that’s not the only case. So, when you translate, what do you do? You have to choose the idiomatic meaning or the literal meaning. You cannot choose both because there is no equivalent in Italian. So therefore, I said, I have to explain this in the notes. I give the idiomatic meaning in the translation, because I think it’s the first one that everybody understands, I mean English-speaking persons. Then I say, okay, you can also read it in another way. And that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to have explanatory notes. And then the notes became philological, that is, these are the sources, poetic sources, musical sources, and whatever. Therefore, most of my translations are literal. No rhyme and no metrics, but there were some songs that couldn’t let me sleep. They were telling me, “No! You have to do it right! You have to make me with rhyme and metric.”

DR: Could you give an example or two?

AC: Yes, “My Back Pages,” for example. With my “My Back Pages,” it was possible to do that without changing much of the text. And then I did the same thing with some short songs where the rhythm is the most important thing, some of the blues songs for example. It was impossible with the narrative ones, like “Hurricane” or “Brownsville Girl,” you know, they have to be read like stories. And then there were two songs that told me “No! You have to make me right.” And I’m proud of those: “Early Roman Kings” and “Mother of Muses.” And then in other songs, I adopted a compromise.  For example, “Desolation Row,” because every stanza ends with the same sound—”Desolation Row”—I rhymed with row in every stanza. So, there’s only one rhyme in every stanza, but at least there’s some sort of recurring rhythmic lyric.

DR: Every translation is also a transformation and a new creation. How important is the structure of a line to you in transforming it into Italian verse, and do you feel that to accommodate the significant differences between the English and Italian word order, you must sacrifice something distinctly U.S. American?

AC: Well, sometimes the original is sacrificed—there’s no other way to put it—because the Italian syntax is different. It’s very fluid. In Italian you can use inversions, for example, if you want. So, it’s not that you have to respect the exact syntax of the other language, because you can play with the syntax. That’s something with other languages you cannot do. You cannot use inversions easily in English, or French, or German. What goes away is the sound. I mentioned “Early Roman Kings.” The reason why I wanted to do a rhythmic translation of that song is precisely because of its sound in English—not so much about the content, but because of the sound. I tried to read it out loud, and it has a phonetic density that is almost unmatched. You have to go back to songs like “Chimes of Freedom” to get the same amount of phonetics. It’s just full of sounds. You don’t even need the music for that song, in fact, it’s almost spoken. So, I wanted to re-create a sound but of course not the English sound. I wanted to have an Italian sound that was as strong and as uncompromising as the English song. As for the meaning, what makes the English  language what it is, sometimes you have to forget about it. My choice when it was possible was to think, how would an Italian poet say the same thing? So, I was racking my memory to think of lines, or poets from the past. Sometimes I thought of poets from the twentieth century, and sometimes I went back as far as Petrarca. What could Petrarca do with a line like this? And I can give you an example: “Standing in the Doorway.” It starts with the line, “I’m walking through the summer nights.” Now, walking is the thing that all Dylan characters do. They always walk. This is the archetype of the Dylan situation: a lonely man walking down a country road, or driving, but mostly it’s walking, or getting on a train. But never getting on an airplane. There are no airplanes in Dylan, except in “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”

The problem is that the verbs that you use to describe movements in English, like walking for example, and the way the same movement is described in Italian, is so different. Because in Italian you don’t use the verb the equivalent of “to walk.” You say different things. Instead of saying “io cammino,” “I walk,” “I walk from here to there,” “cammino da qui a là”— no, people don’t say that. They just say, “I go,” or they say “vado a piedi,” “I walk by foot.”  So I had to find a different equivalent for all this walking. With that line, “I’m walking through the summer nights,” it was not easy to find any Italian line that had the same cadence, so to speak. Then I thought, I want Petrarca. There’s a famous poem by Petrarca that begins with two lines: “Solo e pensoso i più deserti campi / vo mesurando a passi tardi et lenti.” It’s a Dylan line: “Alone and pensive in the most deserted meadows, I am measuring my steps, taking a measure with my steps, slowly and with fatigue.” Now, this idea that “I am measuring my steps,” I thought, okay, this is what I have to do. So, my translation starts with “Misuro coi passi le serre estate”: “I am measuring the summer nights with my steps.” The sound is similar to the cadence in English. Of course it’s a different line, but if someone remembers Petrarca, they say, “Yes, I understand the equivalence of the two situations.” It may not seem so, but Dylan is closer to Petrarca than he is to Dante. There are several lines that could be translated with Petrarca in mind. In other instances, I thought of contemporary poets. For example, with “All Along the Watchtower,” I was trying to find a good equivalent of “watchtower.”  There were several, but I was also looking for the rhythm. And there is the idea of “all along,” which is not just on top of the watchtower, and which was almost impossible to translate. But then I remembered a poem by Mario Luzi that ends with this line translation: [di] “Tanto afferra l’occhio da questa torre di vedetta”: “this is what the eye can get from this watchtower.” The final stanza, “All along the watchtower, princes kept the view,” I translated as “dalla torre di vedetta i principi scrutavano d’intorno.” But I couldn’t think of the perfect equivalent of “watchtower” until I remembered that poem by Luzi.

DR: That brings up the question of what Dylan was reading and when.

AC: That’s a good question. The Bible is always the main source. Not just the King James Bible, but there’s also the New International version. I think Dylan, as we all know, he reads to get something, to appropriate. He’s a magpie. I don’t think he reads systematically with the idea of getting into a contest with the original. He may quote or echo Walt Whitman sometimes, but I don’t think he consciously says, “I want my listener to understand that I’m referring to Walt Whitman in order to engage in a conversation on this issue.” No, I think he works in a more collageistic way, which makes sense in the end. That is the mystery. It’s not the amount of quotes that you can find. There are songs of Dylan that are just made of quotes. “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” is entirely made of quotes. But it makes sense. The way he puts them together creates a different thing. Therefore, the accusation of plagiarism really does not stand up.

DR: Dylan is a master of the demotic and much of his immediacy depends on audience recognition of tropes of common speech. How do you mirror this effect in Italian?

AC: I noticed that even in the songs of the 1960s, he uses the demotic, but sometimes the demotic comes from areas of the English language that not everybody would recognize immediately. There are several expressions that belong to the language of the blues. And I don’t think everybody can get them, because you have to have a certain knowledge of the blues lyrics, of the blues poetry, to understand what they mean. Sometimes he uses references to the blues in a funny way that’s completely out of place. Even the song “Just Like a Woman” is a blues expression. The way he uses it cannot be picked up from the streets of New York. No, it comes from Alabama, Tennessee, or Mississippi, actually. It does not come from New York. Or the idea in “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” which sounds so 60s, so New York. But no, it’s based on very old blues, and you always have some clue that brings you out of the city and into the countryside. For example, in “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” you have at the beginning, “Go away from my window.” “Go away from my window” comes from “Drop Down Mama” by Sleepy John Estes,. It’s a song that Sleepy John Estes composed long before the 60s, but Dylan knew it. But there are two sources. “Drop Down Mama” by Sleepy John Estes begins “Go away from my window, quit scratching on my screen,” but the expression comes from an English ballad that’s called “Go Away from My Window.” It’s a very old ballad, and Dylan knew it in the version of John Jacob Niles, who was a musicologist and balladeer with an uncanny voice. Dylan says about him in Chronicles [that] “Niles was incredible, he sang like a Shakespeare witch,” which is absolutely accurate. Listen to John Jacob Niles and you get the idea. This is the sound of the witches of Macbeth. So, you think the song is very city-like but it goes way, way back. And some of the expressions that we associate with the songs of the 60s are almost unknown today. They fell out of use. I remember this from when I was writing my book on Dylan, which appeared in 2001.  The third edition was published this year. I was translating for my book some lines from “Like a Rolling Stone,” and I was trying to figure out what “don’t let other people get their kicks for you” meant. I was teaching at NYU at the time and I didn’t want to ask a professor, but rather someone who was living in New York. So, I asked the secretary of the department without telling her that I was translating Dylan. And she said, “Whoever wrote this is certainly not a native speaker.” Dylan uses expressions that are apparently common, very sophisticated, and very strange. Even when he uses street language, it’s almost never literal street language. There’s always a twist.

DR: How does the music or the melody affect the meter of the translation?

AC: When you translate a song, you don’t just translate the lyrics, you also translate the rhythm and the voice. The voice sometimes gives an inflection to certain lines and gives them an interpretation. The voice interprets what it is singing. You have to think of how Dylan is singing certain lines to get them in translation. The rhythm is extremely important. Sometimes I had to readjust the Italian lines because they were too long. I had to avoid the service translation effect. There’s a huge literature on that. I read an attempt of an Italian writer to translate certain books of the Bible that way and unless you are a Bible scholar, you cannot go past page two. It’s just impossible. So, we have to accept the fact that we have to re-create things in a different way. And besides, Italian has its own rhythms. The most common Italian line is eleven syllables, which is close in a way to the iambic pentameter. If you think of the iambic pentameter in Italian, you think of it as a ten-syllable line. But Italian has abandoned Latin meter, which was quantitative. Italian uses just the number of syllables and the way the accents are placed, which is variable. You can have different patterns of accents. So, in a way you have a great variety of rhythms that you can use. For the short songs I wanted to write short lines. But for narrative songs like “Hurricane” and “Brownsville Girl,” or even “Idiot Wind,” I felt free to translate them almost in prose.

DR: What is the most difficult aspect of Dylan’s lyrics to translate?

AC: He never says exactly what it seems he is saying. There is always a backline behind the line. Sometimes you understand that, sometimes it’s hidden in the song. It’s hidden also—and this is something you discover thanks to the bootleg series—because what is on the official recording is sometimes not the final version of the song, or even the best version of the song. There are songs that have had a very complicated gestation. If you read only the final version of the official version, there are lines that are almost incomprehensible, and they become comprehensible if you look at the previous versions. There is sort of a mega text. For example, a song like “Foot of Pride.” Thanks to the latest installment in the bootleg series, we now have two previous versions under a different title—“Too Late”—and two versions of “Foot of Pride.”  If I were to go back to “Foot of Pride,” which is a very mysterious song, because it seems to be telling many different stories at the same time, I think I could do a better job by comparing the four versions and considering them as one. So that in the final version, what is mysterious can be explained by what was cut off in the previous versions. In Dylan, nothing is definitive. There are songs that he never changed. He never changed the lyrics of “Like a Rolling Stone.” He never changed the songs of John Wesley Harding or Oh Mercy. Those songs are very written. They are written in a tight scheme, a rhythmic scheme, so it’s not easy to change that. But for example, with Blood on the Tracks, we have several versions that are very different from one to another and you have to consider all of them. Even recently, Modern Times was a nightmare for me because that record was made in a haste. If you listen to it closely, there are some mistakes. There is a wrong note played by the guitar in the final song and they could have easily corrected it. But Dylan being Dylan, they didn’t. And then I found out that the lyrics of Modern Times are one thing and then there’s the same song in another bootleg series with a very different text. And then there’s the printed text in the American edition of Lyrics, which is often completely different from what he sings. Of course they illuminate each other if you compare them. As for my edition, I had to choose one. And I was thinking of someone who is listening to the record with the Lyrics book open. The reader wants to read the same lines that Dylan is singing. On the other hand, I had to stick to the text printed in the lyrics because that is what I’m supposed to translate. Therefore, I copied all the stanzas that Dylan is singing but are not printed, and I put them in the notes. So, if you go back and forth between what Dylan is singing and what is printed, and what I put in the notes, you can reconstruct the song. It’s a very long process. You have to be very in love with Dylan to do that. But this is how it works. The difficult thing is to understand that sometimes what he says is not really understandable, because it’s the revision of a revision of a revision. And that whole process of writing the song must be understood as one single work.

DR: And also an evolution, right? Because as a songwriter, he’s seeing different possibilities over time.

AC: Sure.

DR: Dylan is a performance artist and for most admirers and audiences, the songs are alive in his voice. Do you translate with the idea that your readers will compare the Italian version to the original recordings?

AC: Yes and no. Because to compare the translation with the original, it should follow the same rhythmic pattern. For myself, I translated sixteen songs that I can sing. Many years ago, I was a folk singer and a singer-songwriter, so I published an album and some scattered songs. Those sixteen Dylan songs, I did them for myself and for occasional performances. But I didn’t publish those translations, because they veer away from the original. In my written edition in the book, I wanted to have a literal translation. So I don’t think the reader necessarily wants to compare my translation with the original. The reader wants to understand what the song means.

DR: In the interview on—“My Voyage in the Labyrinth”—you speak of Dylan’s use of anaphora. You quote your Italian version of “Where have you been my blue-eyed son?” from “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” and the repetition of “With your” in “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Do you look for this kind of rhetorical device to frame your translations?

AC: I had to use that of course. It had to be respected. You will find the same in my translations. But I translated “blue-eyed boy” as “mio figlio diletto,” “my favorite son,” in a way. I rely on scholars of the English ballad. This seems to be the meaning. So, it’s not literal. It’s a typical way of referring to my favorite son. In Italian, I consciously used the most common translation from the Bible. When God says “This is my chosen son,” the exact expression is “Questo è il mio figlio diletto,” so I wanted to use the same when I could find a reference to a common Italian translation of the Bible.

DR: Do you think of yourself as a re-shaper of the literal lyrics?  Or, in contrast, do you think of your lyrics as reflecting the source semantics and, in translation-theory terms, “functioning as target-language literary texts”?

AC: It would be presumptuous on my part to say that I am a re-shaper. I would be a re-shaper if I had decided to do a rhythmic version of all the songs for the performance, but I did it only for specific songs, not for all of them. So yes, the last definition that you used is the right one.

DR spoke to Laura Tenschert, host of the Definitely Dylan podcast, over videochat in October, followed by an email exchange in December. The Definitely Dylan podcast is available on all podcast platforms; Definitely Dylan radio is available through Spotify; or you can visit This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DR: At the 2019, World of Bob Dylan symposium in Tulsa, you gave a presentation that set the conference abuzz? What was the gist of that presentation? And how did you feel it was received?

LT: I wanted to be a part of this conference, because although Definitely Dylan is first and foremost meant to be entertaining and fun, I’m also a recovering academic, so I bring that background into what I talk about. The conference was called “World of Bob Dylan,” so in my presentation, “What’s a Sweetheart Like You Doing in a Dump Like This?,” I wanted to talk about the role of women in that world. My point was that if we want to understand the role women play in Bob Dylan’s work, whether as characters in his songs, or as his collaborators or romantic partners, women need to be part of the conversation. Bob Dylan is one of the most influential figures in popular culture, so we need to be aware that our understanding of his work and his cultural impact is shaped by the fact that the scholarship and criticism has been dominated by men. In fact, one of the few people who had written about Dylan and misogyny at that point was Christopher Ricks. I’m not saying that men cannot weigh in on the topic, but the conversation cannot be led by men! The one quote by a woman that often gets cited is by Marion Meade, who wrote in the New York Times in 1971 that there’s no more complete catalogue of sexist slurs than “Just Like a Woman.” This line just gets repeated over and over as proof that women think this song is sexist. So in my paper, I asked, “Why aren’t there more updated, more nuanced quotes from women talking about the song?” Why is this fifty-year-old quote still the go-to representative of “the female perspective”?

First of all, there is no such thing as one female perspective, and Meade’s quote merely reflects her own personal outlook, as well as the time at which the piece was written. Some women might find the song sexist, but others won’t. To me personally, “Just Like a Woman” is a song about femininity. The woman sung about has no choice but to play the role allocated to her by the society of her time—she performs her femininity and it gives her power in the moment the male singer is attracted to her. But as a woman in the mid-60s she also holds very little actual power, and so in a moment of weakness, when she isn’t able to perform the role of “woman” anymore, she’s reduced to a “little girl.” No wonder Marion Meade, who was writing only five years after Blonde on Blonde came out, rejected this song, since it represented an idea of womanhood that the second wave feminism of her time was striving to overcome. But also, “Just Like a Woman” has been covered by a lot of female artists, who have all brought out different sides to the song. To me, those covers are part of the conversation. So I think you can’t just ask “is this song sexist or not?” Dylan’s songs are complex and nuanced and their discussion needs to match that.

But there is a very real problem of sexism in the world of Dylan, particularly in the way the male-dominated discourse has treated, or rather mis-treated, the real-life women in Bob Dylan’s life. And I think the “buzz” you refer to in your question came from the fact that I called out a few established Dylan critics for their misogyny. For example, when Bob met Sara, she worked as a secretary for the Time Life company in the film department, and she was the one that introduced Dylan to D.A. Pennebaker, yet the vast majority of books about Dylan reduce her to a “former playboy bunny,” which diminishes her role and makes it all about her looks. Also, why is it that when we think of Dylan’s “muses,” it’s always the white women in Dylan’s life, even though we now know that he was in meaningful relationships with Black women as well. In general, I think the influence of Black women on Dylan’s work is really underrated. The singers in his band from the late 70s to the mid-80s were incredible musicians who helped define his sound at the time and played a prominent role in his stage show, but Clinton Heylin insists on calling them “girlsingers.” I just find that so disrespectful. For example, Clydie King is still so under-appreciated in what she contributed to Dylan’s work, and how deep their connection was. This is something I feel quite strongly about, something that I was pointing out in my talk, that all this is shaped by the fact that the writers on Dylan have historically been very white, and very male, and of a certain generation. And I think that our understanding of Dylan and his collaborators would shift if that pool became more diverse.

In my talk, I was making the case for why we need more women, but the same case can and should be made for more LGBTQ people, and more non-white people. And I think, at the 2019 conference, there were almost exclusively white people. So that is a very important topic that needs to be tackled as well.

DR: You refer to yourself as a recovering academic. How long have you been reading about Bob Dylan, thinking about Bob Dylan, talking about Bob Dylan? How did that blend in with your academic career and beyond?

LT: I got into Bob Dylan when I was sixteen. The first song I fell in love with was “Every Grain of Sand,” which, I think, is not the usual gateway to Dylan. But I think, if that one gets you, you’re in. I started reading books about Bob Dylan pretty immediately, because I really loved reading biographies when I was younger. I was always interested in music. But the turning point with Dylan probably came when I started reading Paul Williams—his Performing Artist trilogy really changed the way that I thought about not just Dylan, but maybe even generally reframed how I think about art, how I think about music and performance. It was quite a formative read for me. I was always interested in music and language, and I studied Comparative Literature at university. I wrote my Bachelor’s dissertation on Dylan, and though I don’t think it was very good, it was my first time writing about Dylan, so it’s significant to me in hindsight, because I otherwise kept my academic work and my love for Dylan separate. I started doing a PhD on language philosophy, on Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin, but eventually I decided to drop out. Afterwards, when I was trying to figure out what to do next, I had the idea of starting a radio show, because I wanted an outlet that would be both fun and creative, and it was immediately clear to me that it would have to be about Bob Dylan. That’s how Definitely Dylan was born. And I have to say, the moment I left academia and started writing about a topic I really loved, I feel like I found my voice. I like thinking critically about Bob Dylan’s music, but I intend for the show to be accessible for people who aren’t academics as well.

DR: Tell us more about Definitely Dylan. How did it begin and how has it evolved?

LT: Definitely Dylan is now also a podcast but it started out as a radio show in early 2018, at a London arts radio station that was crazy enough to take a chance on a weekly, one-hour show about Bob Dylan. From the beginning, I knew that I didn’t just want it to be a Bob Dylan jukebox, but that I wanted to talk about the songs and the performances as well. That’s why it was initially a radio show, because I wanted the audience to listen to the performances, and for the performances and the discussion to illuminate one another, hopefully. The idea was to take a small aspect of Dylan’s work and focus on that for an hour. For example, for the anniversary of the “Judas” incident, I dedicated an hour to the role of Judas in Dylan’s lyrics throughout his career. For one, I found it interesting that there’s enough there to fill an entire hour, but we can also trace how Dylan evolved as a songwriter through the years, and how he uses this biblical figure, whose name has somehow become entangled with Dylan’s own story, in his own songs. When you look at all this, it somehow puts the heckling incident from 1966 in context. I loved the freedom of those early radio episodes, but the weekly deadline was brutal, so now these episodes are more conversational. They’re co-hosted by my partner Robert, who’s a huge Dylan fan as well as a musician, so he picks up on a lot of details in the performance or the recording that a non-musician might not hear. Sometimes our conversations revolve around a theme, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes a theme emerges over the course of the episode.

These days I spend a lot of my time on the Definitely Dylan podcast, which began last year, when we were all in lockdown and Dylan released “Murder Most Foul.” The song came so out of left field, and I had some time on my hands, so I decided to finally make the jump to a podcast. These podcast episodes are deep dives, and I’m creating them in the hopes that they will find an audience that is willing to go that deep with me. This is quite liberating, because on the radio, I always felt like I had to keep things accessible for people who aren’t already huge Dylan fans, but now on the podcast, I can get as nerdy as I want. I started writing about “Murder Most Foul,” and then later, “I Contain Multitudes.” I have an ongoing series on Rough and Rowdy Ways, where I talk about the themes on the album. For example, in Chapter Two, I talk about themes of creation and creativity, particularly in “My Own Version of You” and “Mother of Muses.” I also did an episode on Shadow Kingdom that I’m really proud of. I enjoy the challenge of working on Dylan’s recent output, and it really is a challenge because you can’t just say, “Well, scholar X thinks this, scholar Y thinks that,” but instead, it’s uncharted territory, which allows me to present my own thoughts, which is so exciting. I think what I do is different in a few ways: I’m younger than the bulk of Dylan scholars, and I’m a woman, and I also work in a different medium, which allows for a new approach, and maybe finds a different audience, because the people who listen to podcasts might not be the same people who check Expecting Rain, or read Christopher Ricks, but they might listen to a podcast while they do the dishes. And I try to make these episodes sound as good as the podcasts I like to listen to, which usually have a big team of producers and editors and engineers. On Definitely Dylan, it’s just me. It’s a labor of love, although I started a Patreon this year, where people can support my work, and that really helps me out.

DR: How did you feel when you were asked to become a board member for the Institute of Bob Dylan Studies in Tulsa?

LT: I felt very honored because going to this Tulsa conference was exciting on so many levels, including getting to know the people that I had been reading for years, and to meet some of the people involved in the Bob Dylan Institute, and at the Bob Dylan Archive, and the Bob Dylan Center. It was very exciting that they apparently saw what I do, and heard what I have to say, and wanted to make my voice in some way part of what they’re doing.

DR: At the Dylan@80 virtual conference in May 2021, you led a panel called Twenty-First Century Dylan. So let me ask you a question you yourself posed: How do we talk about Dylan in the twenty-first century?

LT: I came up with the topic of the panel because I think it’s important to consider how we talk about Dylan in the twenty-first century, and to consciously be aware that things have changed since the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. There is now a new generation of fans that are talking about Dylan. To people who are now in their sixties, seventies, eighties, who grew up with and alongside Dylan, he was the artist who stood for the promise of the 60s, and they placed a lot of hope in him. Younger people might be aware of that, but they have their own associations. They might have first encountered him as the guy in the wacky wig in the “Must Be Santa” video, for instance. They can view the trajectory of his career in hindsight, and that can really help put things in perspective.

In the spirit of my 2019 presentation, I wanted to invite three speakers with perspectives that I felt were really interesting, different, and otherwise underrepresented. Ludovic Foster spoke about “Bob Dylan’s Queer Gesture,” Scott Warmuth presented some of his extraordinary findings in “Puzzles and Treasure Maps: Subtext Through Appropriation,” and Rebecca Slaman spoke about internet-native Dylan fandom in “Bob Nation: Twitter, Tweens, and Twinks.” In my introduction, I argued that what we need as part of Dylan studies in the twenty-first century are new perspectives, new media, and irreverence, and the speakers all reflected one or several of these. I already made my case for new perspectives, and new media is perhaps self-explanatory too, especially coming from a podcaster. To me, a more irreverent tone when talking about Dylan is the result of all of these. Bob Dylan is not a god, and he shouldn’t be put up on a pedestal. For one, thinking of Bob Dylan only as “serious artist” and “Nobel laureate” is incredibly boring—I can’t even bring that together with how I think about his music. But also, great art is relatable because it’s created by flawed human beings, so let’s not take Bob Dylan nor ourselves too seriously, and rather enjoy the memes, silly Twitter threads, TikTok skits, and lighthearted podcasts. I think it’s good to continuously question how we approach Dylan and this work.

DR: Do you feel like there are enough diverse people working in new media platforms to keep Bob Dylan studies going and to make a difference?

LT: No, I don’t think there’s enough diversity yet, but I hope that’s about to change over time. There is no shortage of young Dylan fans. And because of social media, it’s easier than ever for them to find one another and to have conversations. They might not all be part of Dylan studies yet, but you know, neither was I when I was a teenager or my early twenties. I think it’s in part also up to us and to the more established Dylan outlets to invite those people in and to encourage them, and to ask their opinion, and if they do show interest, to create a welcoming space for them. Because they have a lot of things to say that we can learn from. Having Rebecca Slaman, who is in her early or mid-twenties as part of the panel at Dylan@80 not only meant that the older attendees learned about a culture that they were likely unaware of, it also attracted a few younger people to the conference, who felt represented by Rebecca. She’s an excellent writer, and I hope she will continue sharing her thoughts on Bob Dylan.

DR: What have you learned about yourself through the Definitely Dylan podcast?

LT: Oh, a ton! The reason why I’m so drawn to Bob Dylan as an artist is because I really believe that we can learn about life from art. We can see the world with somebody else’s eyes through their art, and therefore expand our own horizon. I mean, Bob Dylan, he’s an entire universe, right? And I think in addition to drawing inspiration from his songs themselves, I’ve also learned so much from Dylan’s approach to his art, and his approach to his performance. His career has now spanned six decades, and he has continuously kept challenging himself. In my Shadow Kingdom episode, I talk about “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” which is a song that is very important to Dylan, I think. In the New York Times interview with Douglas Brinkley, he talks about the song and says something like, but even if you do paint your masterpiece, what will you do then? Well, you have to paint another masterpiece. So it becomes a never ending cycle, and this continuous creative pursuit, together with Dylan’s strong work ethic, is something I really admire. He’s a genius, but he’s also worked hard to get where he is today. I guess that is more an answer to the question, “What have you learned about yourself through being a Dylan fan?” but the answer to your question is really an extension of that. I find it really rewarding to spend time thinking about an artist that I find so inspiring.

But Definitely Dylan has also given me some confidence in my abilities as a writer. When I was doing my PhD and working on authors who have been written about so much, the imposter syndrome was inevitable. As I said, with Dylan, everything was just kind of effortless, and I was confident that I had some interesting things to say, even though Bob Dylan has also been written about a lot.

I have to say, too, I’m really grateful for the community of Dylan fans I’ve found, a lot of whom have become friends. We have a great monthly discussion group over Zoom with some of the Patreon members, and these conversations are always interesting and inspiring. I put a lot of myself into Definitely Dylan, so it means a lot to me that it resonates with the listeners.

DR: What are the benefits and drawbacks of being a British rather than US American Dylan scholar?

LT: Actually, I’m German. I’m based in the UK, but my native language is German. And, by the way, I basically learned English with the help of Bob Dylan and his lyrics. I mean, I learned English in school, but I really developed my passion for the language through Dylan’s work. For a while I was carrying around a little dictionary, and whenever I came across a word in Dylan’s lyrics I didn’t know, I looked it up. And if you have it in the context of a song, you will retain that word and its meaning. But apart from that, as someone who has lived in the UK for a while, I do think that the approach to Dylan in the UK is a bit different than in the US. I think there’s actually a lot of reverence for Dylan in the UK. I think he’s taken very seriously here, whereas in the US, I have the feeling that he’s, you know, just Bob, a part of the culture. I get the idea that British people sometimes see him as an artist first, and a cultural icon second, whereas maybe in the US it’s the other way round.

DR: You recently traveled from London to Washington, D.C. to catch Dylan in concert. What motivated your journey? How did it go?

LT: It was a spur of the moment decision. When the tour began, I had no plans to fly over, but hearing the recordings from those early shows, I had a really visceral response. Not only was Dylan sounding amazing, but he was playing all these new songs from Rough and Rowdy Ways, which I had spent so much time with since its release. Dylan’s music and my work for Definitely Dylan were a lifeline for me throughout the pandemic, and considering what we’d all been through, his return to the stage after a nearly two-year break felt monumental. So I realized that I wanted to attend one of these concerts, and I’m so glad I made that call, because it was such a wonderful experience. I did a whole podcast episode about it, about the performance and the setlist. I think I was also lucky that the show fell just into the time window before the Omicron variant made travel even more complicated.

DR: What haven’t we asked that we should be asking?

LT: How about, “What’s next for Definitely Dylan?” The problem is, that’s not an easy question to answer. I’m still working on my series on Rough and Rowdy Ways, which is almost done, I’m just waiting for a chance to sit down and finish it. As I said, the podcast episodes are very in-depth and sometimes it takes me months to create an episode, especially because this is not my main gig.

I have a long list of episodes, or even ideas for a whole series that I’m hoping to realize one day, and Bob Dylan also keeps putting out new stuff and going on tour, which means I can get sidetracked because I want to do an episode about something like Shadow Kingdom. I’m constantly inspired by lots of things, not just Bob Dylan, but other art, films, books, podcasts. I like creative storytelling, and I’d love to play with that more in the future. I won’t be running out of ideas anytime soon.

Christopher Star, Middlebury College

“I and I”: Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare’s King Richard III

With the release of The Bootleg Series Volume 16: Springtime in New York 1980-1985, I’ve been revisiting tracks from my favorite album from that period, 1983’s Infidels. I’ve always thought that the song “I and I” is one of the record’s strongest. I’m not alone in that assessment. Rolling Stone classifies “I and I” as one of Bob Dylan’s best songs from the 1980s.[1] Dylan has performed this song more times than any other from Infidels: 204 times from May 28, 1984 to November 10, 1999, according to his website.[2] The title phrase, repeated several times in the song’s chorus, has long fascinated me as a pithy statement of the complexity of selfhood and individuality. How can we unpack the modalities of “I and I” both in terms of the phrase itself and the song as a whole?

The phrase “I and I” has several possible levels of significance. It is a key part of Rastafarian vocabulary. The sociologist Ernest Cashmore states that Rastafarianism’s “acknowledgement of the inherence of God in man” came to be expressed “in the principle of ‘I and I’ the unity of all people” (Cashmore 1979: 26). The song’s genesis and recording have strong connections to the Caribbean Islands. The liner notes to Springtime in New York cite several interviews from the time of Infidels’ release: “‘That was one of them Caribbean songs,’ Dylan told interviewer Paul Zollo about ‘I and I.’ ‘One year, a bunch of songs came to me hanging around down in the islands. . .’ Talking to Kurt Loder in 1984, he named ‘Jokerman’ another. ‘It’s very mystical: the shapes there, and the shadows, seem to be so ancient.’”[3] The song has something of a reggae feel and the personnel involved with the album’s recording furthers the Caribbean connection. The legendary Jamaican duo of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare play drums and bass respectively on all of the album’s tracks. It is plausible that Dylan was aware of the significance of “I and I” for the Rastafarian community. Yet this connection simply treats “I and I” alone and does not seem to me to address the complexity of the song, which is focused less on unity and more on self-division. There may be another level of significance to the title that better links up with the song’s themes of sleep, dreams, justice and self-division that may be traced back, paradoxically, to the namesake of the track’s bassist.

In an album that is largely a jeremiad on the direction of US and international politics and society, the penultimate song, “I and I,” might initially appear to be the record’s most personal track. As the title suggests, the song is an investigation of the nature of selfhood (Riley 1992: 271-2). Yet the song does more than simply offer a contrast between a false public and a pure private self, especially, if, as I believe, one of this song’s key intertexts is Shakespeare’s King Richard III. In this drama, the Duke of Gloucester and later king of England is a master at playing different roles. Throughout the play he presents one face, often of kindness, purity and concern, to other characters, while revealing his true, violent intentions in a conspiracy with himself and the audience. The possible links between Richard and the speaker of “I and I” problematize any easy notions that a purity of intentions automatically comes from listening to one’s heart. “No man sees my face and lives,” sings Dylan in the chorus. Indeed, throughout the play, seeing Richard’s true face leads to death. By the end of the play, when Richard finally confronts himself, when his criminal self and his guilty conscience come together, he too is destined to die. The justice served in this play is like the justice the speaker has learned in “I and I:” “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This version of justice is applied to Richard when, for example, he is cursed by his mother, “bloody thou art; bloody will be thy end” (4.4.195) and by the ghosts of his victims (5.3.154-5).

William Shakespeare’s arch-villain, King Richard III, uses the phrase “I and I” in one of his most famous soliloquies after a night of horrifying dreams before his defeat and death at the Battle of Bosworth Field (August 1485). The speech comes in act 5.3, after the ghosts of Richard’s victims appear to him. Each promises that he will die in battle and that his adversary, the Earl of Richmond, the future King Henry VII, will be victorious. Richard, awaking in great fear and confusion, cries out:

Give me another horse! Bind up my wounds!

Have mercy, Jesu!—Soft, I did but dream.

O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!

The lights burn blue; it is now dead midnight.

What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by;

Richard loves Richard, that is, I and I.

Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am!

Then fly. What, from myself?


Antony Hammond comments on the significance of “I and I” in this passage: “Richard . . . is distinguishing between aspects of his personality: the clever, witty, self-reliant villain, and the conscience-smitten coward he is just now discovering. He is Legion, devil-in-man; and now the fearful self . . . surfaces and stands beside the willful Vice-demon self that rules Richard’s conscious mind” (Hammond 1981: 340). In other words, “I and I” in this play does not signify unity, either of self or between self and other. Rather, the phrase is part of Richard’s recognition of the other within the self. This recognition leads to condemnation, judgment and death.

In addition to this lexical connection, the opening of Dylan’s song “I and I” gives an ironic twist to the setting in Shakespeare’s play: “Been so long since a strange woman has slept in my bed / Look how sweet she sleeps, how free must be her dreams.” If we take the play as our starting place, the theme of self-division is already apparent. While Richard responds to his own nightmares, the narrator in the song looks at the “strange woman” and imagines that she is sleeping sweetly with “free dreams.” Of course, the narrator cannot know this about his partner, and can only guess about the interior life of another. In Shakespeare’s play, peaceful repose is granted to Richmond, who declares after Richard’s fearful monologue: “The sweetest sleep and fairest-boding dreams / That ever entered in a drowsy head / Have I since your departure had, my lords” (5.3.227-9).

The narrator of the song imagines that his “strange woman” must have been a queen in the past: “In another lifetime she must have owned the world, or been faithfully wed / To some righteous king who wrote psalms beside moonlit streams.” The “righteous king” writing psalms is likely a reference to King David, who according to tradition, had several wives and concubines and was the author of the Biblical Psalms. Dylan’s song may initially seem to set up a key contrast between two visions of kingship: the righteous King David who composes songs peacefully in the moonlight, and the iniquitous King Richard who is awoken by nightmares and engages in monologues of self-division. Yet the Biblical portrayal of King David is ambiguous. God grants David success in battle (2 Samuel 8:6, 8:14) and David rules with “equity and justice” (2 Samuel 8:15). Nevertheless, David’s familial relationships lead to crises throughout his reign. These problems begin when he has sexual relations with Bathsheba while she is still married to Uriah the Hittite. David has Uriah killed in battle, so that he may marry Bathsheba. She laments the loss of her husband (2 Samuel 11:27) and God punishes David with the death of their son, who was conceived out of wedlock. Later David becomes embroiled in a civil war with his son, Absalom. When Absalom is eventually killed, David laments bitterly (2 Samuel 18:23). While David generally has a reputation as an ideal king, his story in the Bible also presents his reign as troubled due to his relationship with Bathsheba while she was another man’s wife (“a strange woman”). This dichotomy also serves as background to the opening verses of “I and I.”

To return to the Shakespearean connections, before his soliloquy, “a strange woman” visits Richard III. The ghost of his wife Queen Anne appears as the penultimate of his victims (5.3.160-67). Anne was not “faithfully wed” to Richard. In the opening of the play Anne condemns Richard for killing her husband and his father, King Henry VI. But through his rhetorical abilities and confessions of love, Richard succeeds in convincing Anne to marry him, even as she is following the funeral cortege of her dead father-in-law (1.2). Once they are married, Anne never enjoys peaceful sleep, but is always wakened by Richard’s nightmares: “For never yet one hour in his bed / Did I enjoy the golden dew of sleep, / But with his timorous dreams was still awaked” (4.1.82-4, see also 5.3.160). Once Richard is king he starts a rumor “that Anne, my Queen, is sick and like to die” (4.2.57). Richard feels that her death is necessary. The sons of his brother Clarence must also die so that he can marry their sister, his niece, Elizabeth (4.2.60-3). Richard tells the murderer of his nephews, James Tyrrel, that the boys are “two deep enemies / foes to my rest, my sweet sleep’s disturbers” (4.2.71-2).

“I and I” also brings together several key ideas that run through Dylan’s corpus. In other writings, Dylan explores the multifaceted nature of the “I.” He does this humorously, playing on the homophony between “I” and “eye” at the end of the liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited: “I cannot say the word eye anymore….when I speak this word eye, it is as if I am speaking of somebody’s eye that I faintly remember….” Writing decades later, at the end of Chronicles, Vol. One about his early influences, such as Robert Johnson and Bertolt Brecht’s “Pirate Jenny,” Dylan notes the importance of Suze Rotolo’s introducing him to Arthur Rimbaud. Dylan writes, “That was a big deal, too. I came across one of his letters called ‘Je suis un autre,’ which translates into ‘I is someone else.’ When I read those words bells went off. It made perfect sense. I wished someone would have mentioned that to me earlier” (Dylan 2004: 288).

His repositioning and reimagining of Shakespeare is well known, from writing of the bard “in the alley / With his pointed shoes and his bells” in “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” (1966), to Desdemona giving Othello “poison wine” in “Po’boy” (2001), to “Murder Most Foul” (2020, see Hamlet 1.5.27-8).[4] “I and I” goes deep into questions of selfhood, self-dialogue, authenticity, and masks. Dylan’s polyvalent personae do not need recounting here. Already early in his career, he could joke to the audience in the Philharmonic Hall Concert on Halloween, 1964, that he was wearing his “Bob Dylan mask.” Shakespeare’s Richard III, too, is a master dissembler. In order to fulfill his plans to become king, he stages himself praying with two priests and pretends that he does not want the crown (3.7).

While I haven’t come across any direct evidence that Dylan was reading Richard III when he was writing “I and I,” in recent years, he has made his interest in the play apparent. In a 2008 interview with Eurozine, Christopher Ricks describes his meeting with Dylan in which the two discussed King Richard III:

Shortly before the concert I received word to come backstage, so my wife and I went half an hour before the show. And Dylan said, “Mr Ricks, we meet at last.” My reply was, “Have you read any good books lately.” . . . And he said, “Richard III.” . . . But Dylan wasn’t at all surprised by my question and he really did want to talk about Richard III. I think it was partly because there had been some films of it and partly because I’d mentioned Richard III in something I’d written about his song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”[5]  

In Dylan’s Visions of Sin, Ricks identifies traces of Richard’s opening monologue not only in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (Ricks 2003: 226, 229), but also in “Seven Curses” (Ricks 2003: 236). More recently, Dylan has slightly reworked the opening words of the play, “Now is the winter of our discontent” (1.1.1) in “My Own Version of You” (2020 “Well, it must be the winter of my discontent”). Here Shakespeare/Richard III meets Shelley/Dr. Frankenstein. This recent reference to King Richard III brings out issues of bodily integrity and deformity in the play that only remain latent in “I and I.” A central aspect of Shakespeare’s play is the conviction that bodily appearance reveals moral character. Thus, Richard III is hunchbacked, has a withered arm and a limp, the last of which may have been Shakespeare’s invention (Siemon 2009: 3). Richard himself declares that his body will not allow him to enjoy the current time of peace and so he must be a villain (1.1.14-31). Throughout the play, characters draw attention to Richard’s body, as when his future wife, Anne, calls him “thou foul lump of deformity” (1.2.57). Thus, if we connect the mysterious and bodiless speaker of “I and I” with Richard III, it is important to keep in mind the appearance of Shakespeare’s character.

The song “I and I” might seem like a simple exploration of private vs. public persona, or of the words that one says in public vs. the reality of one’s true self within. This reading might be made especially clear in the line, “Someone else is speakin’ with my mouth, but I’m listening only to my heart.” Yet the connection I have been trying to establish between this song and King Richard III troubles any simple expression of pure internal self that remains hidden behind public words. Richard III’s famous soliloquies represent a “sinister interiority” (Maus 1995: 40) that displays his desire for power, mastery of rhetoric, hypocrisy, ruthless violence, and self-referential dark humor. Richard’s dramatic self-reference and self-reliance can be traced back to Roman drama, both comedy and tragedy. Terence’s comedy Andria has a speaker declare “I myself am nearest to myself” (proxumus sum egomet mihi, 635).[6] A closer parallel to King Richard III can be found in Seneca’s tragedies, which also contain examples of similar declarations of self-reliance as well as self-division. For example, in order to punish Jason for his faithlessness, Seneca’s Medea takes her own self as a model, but also is afflicted with visions of the Furies and of her murdered brother (893-977).[7]

As his soliloquy continues, Richard brings himself before his own internal court and speaks the opposing arguments:

I am a villain. Yet I lie; I am not.

Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter.

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,

And every tongue brings in a several tale,

And every tale condemns me for a villain.

Perjury, perjury, in the highest degree;

Murder, stern murder, in the direst degree;

All several sins, all used in each degree,

Throng to the bar, crying all, “Guilty, guilty!”


Richard’s “court of the self” can be traced back to the ancient philosophical practice of submitting one’s conscience before a judge each evening in order to investigate and correct the wrongs one has committed throughout the day. Here again Seneca, this time in his philosophical work, On Anger, provides the paradigmatic example: “Anger will stop and become more moderate if it knows that it must come before a judge each day.” Seneca notes that he uses this technique of self-judgment each night after his wife has fallen asleep. The sleep that follows is “tranquil . . . deep and free” (On Anger 3.36.2-3).[8]

Dylan’s song explores this idea of self-dialogue and self-judgment. In addition to the violent exchange between “I and I” (“one says to the other, no man sees my face and lives”), the chorus of Dylan’s song focuses on justice: “I and I / In creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives.” The third stanza points out the centrality of the lex talionis: “Took a stranger to teach me, to look into justice’s beautiful face / And to see an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” On one level, we can note an echo of Dylan’s earlier playful interest in the homophony between “I” and “eye.” On another level, the vision of justice in the song can be traced back to the Law Code of Hammurabi. “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” also appears numerous times in the Pentateuch (Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:19-21, Deuteronomy 19:21). Dylan’s song makes a significant change, however. While the ancient law codes enjoined retaliation against another, the phrase “I and I” suggests a mode of self-judgment and self-punishment.[9]

There remains, however, a major objection to my argument. If you look at the most accessible version of the play at, you come to the line under investigation and read, “Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.”[10] If you pull a copy of the play off your shelf or from your local library, it is likely that you will read the same phrase: not “I and I,” but “I am I.” And so it would seem that my entire argument about the key connection between the song and the Shakespearean soliloquy “stands on brittle glass” (4.2.61). In order to address this issue, at times this exploration must enter upon the arcana of textual variants in Shakespeare’s plays that are reminiscent of those explored by Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. The reading “I and I” is found only in the first Quarto (Q1) of the play, which was printed in 1597. When the second Quarto (Q2) was printed in the following year, the passage read “I am I.” Every subsequent Quarto (Q3-Q8) and the Folios of the complete works adopted “I am I,” and so it was for modern editions until the late twentieth century. At this point, some scholars began to believe that the reading of Q1 was correct. In 1976, G. Blakemore Evans argued that the reading was mistakenly changed in Q2 due to a typesetter’s “eye skip” (Evans 1976: 46). In other words, Evans surmised that while assembling the type for the end of line 184 (“I and I”) the setter’s eye “skipped” down to the similar end of the next line (“I am” 185) and erroneously changed the “and” to “am.” And so the error remained for centuries until the reading of Q1 was adopted with a lengthy note of justification by Antony Hammond in his second series Arden edition of 1981 (Hammond 1981: 340).[11] Thus the then-new, standard scholarly edition of Richard III was published right around the time that Dylan wrote “I and I” for 1983’s Infidels.[12] Is it too much to think that Dylan got a hold of this text soon after it was released? Was Dylan reading the then-new scholarly edition of King Richard III while writing his “Caribbean songs,” and was he struck by the return of Shakespeare’s startlingly bold description of the self as “I and I”? Admittedly, these possibilities are a stretch. Nevertheless, it is striking that this song shares this phrase.

But what if Shakespeare “really” wrote “I am I”? The scholarly debate concerning these three words from King Richard III continues today. Hammond’s restoration of the reading of Q1 was subsequently adopted by John Jowett in his edition of the play for the Oxford series (2000). Nevertheless, the reading of the later Quartos and the Folios has been adopted by James Siemon in the third series of the Arden edition of King Richard III (2009). In his note (Siemon 2009: 397), Siemon acknowledges the reading of Q1 and of his predecessors, but he does not accept the theory that “I and I” is correct and that the error possibly originated in an eye skip down to the end of the next line (“I am”) by the typesetter of Q2. He dutifully draws attention to other passages that are similar to “I am I” in the Shakespearean corpus, as well as God’s self-definition “I am that I am” in the Bible (Exodus 3.14).[13]

A crucial parallel passage for Siemon is Richard’s earlier “claim to singularity” at the conclusion of Henry VI, Part Three: “I am myself alone” (5.6.83). Yet Siemon misses a key point in the development of Richard from his murder of King Henry VI to his final impending death in his eponymous play. Richard may have fulfilled his determination “to prove a villain,” but in doing so, he eventually realizes that he cannot live up to the declaration of undivided “singularity” that he made at the conclusion of Henry VI, Part 3. Richard’s “I and I” deconstructs the divine ideal of tautological unity (“I am I”) implied by his earlier declaration “I am myself alone” to reveal the self-division and self-judgment that lies at the core of humanity. At the end of his play, Richard is not himself alone, as is implied by the reading “I am I.” Rather, in addition to being joined and judged by the ghosts of his victims, including King Henry VI, Richard is feeling the division inside of him produced by his guilty conscience. This recognition of self-division is best expressed by “I and I.” The tenets of contemporary scholarship and the often unquestioned expectation that print books offer the definitive text may make us feel that we have to choose one version over the other as being correct and genuinely authored by Shakespeare. Nevertheless, Dylan’s own composition and performance method reminds us that we need not accept one version as authoritative to the exclusion of the other.

In his acceptance speech for the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, Dylan compared his method of composition to that of Shakespeare (See analysis of Thomas 2017: 304-10). Questions of meter, music, rhythm, how a passage or line might work when performed matter more to both authors than questions of whether they were composing “literature.” The printed corpus of Dylan’s works is nevertheless very different from that of Shakespeare. We have his notebooks, we have his archives, and we can go to his website to find the copyrighted texts of his songs. We do not have any autograph copies of Shakespeare’s works. The earliest surviving print texts are individual Quarto editions of several of his plays. King Richard III has a particularly long history of eight Quarto editions, which continued to be published even after the 1623 First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s complete works. There are often great differences in the texts of the Quartos and that of the First Folio. These printed editions were likely in part put together from actors’ memories of their performances. Herein lies the problem with relying on one text as providing the “definitive” version of Shakespeare’s plays. They first lived multiple times in performance. Lines and entire scenes were added and removed from performance to performance. Sometimes we can gain a faint view of this practice when we compare different early print editions. Yet we cannot discount the fact that in some early performances the actor playing Richard III said “I and I” and in others said “I am I.” Judging from the number of Quartos produced, King Richard III was a very popular play. Performances could have varied drastically from night to night. Despite the time and effort I have spent researching and writing this piece, I find it doubtful that Shakespeare himself would have cared much whether his actor said “I and I” one night and “I am I” another. He might not have decided which version to use and might have reveled in the richness of both possibilities. In delivering the line in the middle of such a heightened and emotional soliloquy, Shakespeare’s actors themselves might not have been able to remember what exactly they said after their performance. Different members of the audience may have heard different versions during the same performance, if they were able to accurately hear the actors’ words at all. The difference of a couple of consonants likely would not have concerned Shakespeare as much as the overall effect of the play—and how full the theater was.

Herein lies the connection between Shakespeare and Dylan.[14] While we may have the official versions of Dylan’s lyrics, this does not stop Dylan the performer from changing them in concert, either intentionally or unintentionally. Sometimes, these changes are major but “authorized,” such as the versions of “Tangled Up in Blue” from Blood on the Tracks and from Real Live and More Blood, More Tracks, or of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” from Nashville Skyline and from the live version during the Rolling Thunder Revue. In some cases I feel that the printed version of a Dylan song does not match what he sings on the album. The controversy over “I and I” further shows how Shakespeare and Dylan are closely related when it comes to scholarly questions of performance and printed text.

It serves as testament to Dylan’s songwriting artistry that a brief song from a largely overlooked period can take us on such a wide-ranging intellectual journey. According to my reading of “I and I,” this journey takes us not only to Shakespeare’s King Richard III, but also to scholarly debates about the text of the play, to themes that run through Dylan’s oeuvre, to questions about his reading and song-writing process while in the Caribbean, to Rastafarianism, as well as to the Bible, and ancient drama and philosophy. The themes of self-division and self-judgment in the song are reminiscent of Richard III’s (or Rimbaud’s) realization that the self is an other. “I and I” contains multitudes.



Cashmore, E. 1979. Rastaman: The Rastafarian Movement in England. London.

Dylan, B. 1983. “I and I.” Infidels. Columbia 38819, released November, 1983. 

_____. 2004. Chronicles Volume 1. New York.

Evans, G. B. 1976. “Shakespeare Restored – once again!” in A. Lancashire, ed. Editing Renaissance Dramatic Texts. New York. 39-56.

Hammond, A. 1981. King Richard III. London.

Love, D. 2021. Liner notes to Bob Dylan. Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 1980-1985. Columbia/Legacy19439865802.

Maus, K. 1995. Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance. Chicago.

Miola, R. 1994. Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy: The Influence of Plautus and Terence. Oxford.

Muir, A. 2019. Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare: The True Performing of It. Cornwall, UK.

Perry, C. 2021. Shakespeare and Senecan Tragedy. Cambridge.

Ricks, C. 2004. Dylan’s Visions of Sin. London.

Riley, T. 1992. Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary. New York.

Siemon, J. 2009. King Richard III. London.

Thomas, R. 2007. “The Streets of Rome: The Classical Dylan.” Oral Tradition. 22: 30-56.

_____. 2017. Why Bob Dylan Matters. New York.


[1] Bob Dylan’s Greatest Songs of the 1980s – Rolling Stone

[2] I and I | The Official Bob Dylan Site

[3] Love 2021: 19.

[4] See Muir 2019.

[5] A lesson in Dylan appreciation | Eurozine. See also Muir 2019: 165.

[6] This connection is made by Hammond 1981: 340. The translation is my own. On Shakespeare and Roman comedy, see Miola 1994.

[7] On King Richard III and Senecan tragedy, see Perry 2021: 37-72.

[8] See Siemon 2009: 398 on Richard’s “imaginary courtroom,” and Maus 1995 on the theme of inwardness in Renaissance drama.

[9] In the Gospel of Matthew (5:38-48), Jesus critiques the law of retaliation.

[10] Richard III: Entire Play (

[11] Evans, who along with J. J. M. Tobin, served as general editor of The Riverside Shakespeare. In the second edition (Boston 1997), the line reads “I [am] I.” The New Pelican Text of Shakespeare’s complete works (S. Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller, general editors, London, 2002), prints “I and I.”

[12] The 1983 BBC production of King Richard III also uses “I and I.”

[13] Simeon 2009: 397 cites the following Shakespearean parallels in support of Richard’s “I am I”: King John 1.1.175, As You Like It 4.3.134-6, Twelfth Night 3.1.142 and Othello 1.1.64.

[14] On Dylan’s links with Homeric composition, see Thomas 2007: 48-54.

Graley Herren, Xavier University

Resurrecting Dying Voices in “Every Grain of Sand”

On November 5, 2021, at the end of the third concert of his Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour, Bob Dylan surprised and delighted the Cleveland audience by closing with “Every Grain of Sand.” He had not played the song since 2013, but from November 5th onward he concluded each show with poignant performances of the album closer from 1981’s Shot of Love. In the midst of the global pandemic, it took a shot of vaccine to get into the venue for Dylan’s first concerts since COVID-19 forced an end to the Never Ending Tour. For many fans lucky enough to nab a ticket, and for thousands more following the shows online through almost instantaneous bootleg recordings, the sublime tour provided the medicine we desperately needed, as did the album Rough and Rowdy Ways (released in summer 2020) which formed the backbone of the concert setlists. For other listeners tuned into a different frequency, “Every Grain of Sand” is a more somber reminder that our individual and collective fates are still very much “hanging in the balance,” as the singer puts it, and the scales could tip either way—toward salvation or damnation. No one knows the ingredients of the skeleton’s syringe on the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour poster [see Figure 1 below], but it sure doesn’t look like a shot of love.

“There’s a dying voice within me reaching out somewhere,” sings Dylan in the opening verse of “Every Grain of Sand.” It’s difficult not to hear this line as self-referential in 2021, as if the forty-year-old Dylan who wrote the song half a lifetime ago is speaking again through the medium of the eighty-year-old performer, crossing time and space and reaching out across the footlights to communicate with audiences in a very different historical moment. “Every Grain of Sand” meant one thing (well, several things) in the context of Dylan’s art and spiritual journey in 1981; it assumes additional layers of meaning in the context of 2021, and more specifically within the context of the tour’s setlist. The present article will raise more questions than it answers, but they all stem from two initial curiosities: Why did Dylan resurrect “Every Grain of Sand”? And what impact does it have on listeners in 2021?

Following closely on the heels of Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980), Shot of Love (1981) is generally viewed as the final installment in Dylan’s Christian trilogy. The initial reception of Shot of Love was mixed, though its stature has steadily risen over the intervening years.

Figure 1: Poster for Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour

 A treasure trove of songs from the recording sessions have since been released, and it now seems that Dylan had a great album in the master tapes even if that’s not what made it into record stores. The one song from Shot of Love that was instantly hailed as a masterpiece was “Every Grain of Sand.” Even Paul Nelson, in his otherwise scathing two-star review for Rolling Stone, paused his evisceration long enough to spare one vital organ: “‘Every Grain of Sand’ is something special: the ‘Chimes of Freedom’ and ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ of Bob Dylan’s Christian period. . . . For a moment or two, he touches you, and the gates of heaven dissolve into a universality that has nothing to do with most of the LP” (Nelson). Wordsmiths like me tend to focus disproportionately on lyrics, but it’s important to note that much of the song’s appeal has always been musical. Nelson was an avowed apostate when it came to Dylan’s born-again songs, but he was sonically enraptured by “Every Grain of Sand”: “Dylan’s beautifully idiosyncratic harmonica playing has metamorphosed into an archetype that pierces the heart and moistens the eye” (Nelson). Likewise, for Paul Williams, the most sensitive and perceptive commentator on Dylan’s Christian music, the magic of “Every Grain of Sand” comes primarily through the music. Unlocking the song’s power in the second volume of his Performing Artist series, Williams writes, “The key to the performance is its motion: it moves like the sea, forth and back and forth and back, filled with a quality of restfulness but never resting” (205). The rhythms of those motions have shifted over time—from the official release on Shot of Love (1981), to the demo on The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 (1991), to the rehearsal version on Trouble No More, The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13 (2017), to the most recent live incarnations in 2021. But the musical power of “Every Grain of Sand” to enthrall listeners has continued undiminished for generations.  I love the touching story Laura Tenschert tells about “Every Grain of Sand” in the first season of her fantastic Definitely Dylan radio show and podcast. She recalls growing up in Switzerland and singing in a church choir. When she was sixteen her music teacher decided to have the group perform some of Dylan’s Christian songs, so he gave her Shot of Love and recommended she learn “Every Grain of Sand.” She had never heard the song at that point, and she admits to having a general aversion to Christian rock. Nevertheless, she recounts,

I took that cassette tape [. . .] and I listened to it at home—and it completely blew me away! I’m not even sure whether my English was good enough at the time to completely understand all the lyrics. But I remember that I was completely spellbound by the song and its imagery. Who knew that a harmonica could sound like that—you know, like actually good and expressive and melodic, instead of just shrill. I don’t want to be corny and say “the rest is history.” But let’s just say that there is a very direct line that leads from that moment of me hearing “Every Grain of Sand” to me being here on the radio talking about Bob Dylan every week. In the words of “What Can I Do for You?” this song “Every Grain of Sand” “opened up a door that couldn’t be shut and it opened it up so wide.” (Tenschert)

Before playing it on air, she introduces “Every Grain of Sand” as “the song that made me a Dylan fan.” The song has been winning fans and captivating listeners for four decades now, and it is sure to convert more devotees on the 2021 tour.

Apparently the first person caught in the song’s spell was Dylan himself. In a discussion with Bill Flanagan about the craft of songwriting, Dylan singles out “Every Grain of Sand” as a mystery that simply arrived from nowhere. His job was to remain receptive and committed long enough for the song to finish writing itself. He told Flanagan,

Sometimes you’ll write a song where you’ll just stick with it and get it done. You’ll feel that it’s not coming from anyplace, but it’s for you to do. There’s nothing to base it on. You’re in an area where there isn’t anybody there and never was. So you just have to be real sensitive to where you’re walking at the time. Not try to go one way or the other, just stay balanced and finish it. “Every Grain of Sand” is a song like that. Writing that song was like, “This is something that I’m going to have to stay steady with.” Otherwise it could get out of hand. You must keep it balanced. And there’s no footnotes around. It’s the kind of area where there’s no precedent for it. (831)

Dylan doesn’t often praise his own songs in such exalted fashion, so he clearly finds something extraordinary about “Every Grain of Sand.” He stresses the unprecedented nature of the piece, springing from “an area where there isn’t anybody there and never was,” covering a subject for which “there’s no footnotes around.” But critics have traced several footprints behind “Every Grain of Sand” and provided footnotes leading back chiefly to the Bible and William Blake.

In his short but influential book The Bible in the Lyrics of Bob Dylan, Bert Cartwright identifies numerous scriptural allusions in “Every Grain of Sand.” Michael Gray builds upon Cartwright’s work and extends well beyond it in Song & Dance Man III, devoting an entire chapter to explicating “Every Grain of Sand” and teasing out the eclectic threads of its rich intertextual tapestry. In the first refrain the singer declares: “In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand / In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.” The second refrain offers this variation: “That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.” And the final refrain offers a third set of similes: “Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.” Within the context of Shot of Love, “the Master” unmistakably refers to God, and the imagery comes from the Gospels. Matthew reports Jesus as saying: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore” (10:29-31). The scriptural antecedent for the title image comes from David in Psalms: “How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! How great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand” (139:17-18). So far, so good: the song would appear to fit squarely within Dylan’s Christian oeuvre, espousing faith in God’s omnipotence and omniscience.

However, the song owes just as many lyrical debts to William Blake, who uses the scriptures as leaping-off points into the mystic. Blake inspired the Beats with his visionary poetics, and Dylan’s initial exposure probably came from Allen Ginsberg. “Every Grain of Sand” reflects noticeable influence from Blake’s shorter lyrics and self-described “songs.” The most direct echo comes from Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence,” which begins:

To see the World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour. (Blake 209)

Blake’s focus is less on divine power than on the powerful potential of human perception. Michael Gray makes a compelling argument that “it is William Blake who, re-writing the Bible in his own unique way, hovers all around Bob Dylan’s song in relation to its themes, its language and the rhythms of that language.” Gray further observes, “Blake’s interest in taking biblical text and flying it to mystical heights is evident everywhere in his work, as is Bob Dylan’s interest in that work by his mystic predecessor; and never more so than around the texts behind ‘Every Grain of Sand’” (412). The song is no mere scriptural pastiche or restatement of pious platitudes. Like Blake, Dylan strains against the boundaries of conventional morality. And unlike Dylan’s earlier proselytizing work, which sometimes pushed listeners away with its judgmental sermonizing or zealous proclamations of righteousness, “Every Grain of Sand” is a humble, vulnerable, conflicted, ambivalent description of spiritual crisis. The singer is haunted by his past, his present strength is flagging, his future pathway is uncertain, and God’s grace and mercy do not seem guaranteed at all.

The dramatic conflict in “Every Grain of Sand” hinges upon a tension between looking back and moving forward. The singer begins with his eyes fixed toward the past and filled with tears of shame and regret: “In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need / When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed.” What a vivid image! The singer has much to confess, and the memory of his prodigious sins makes him cry so much it’s as if he’s standing in a puddle of his own tears. He invokes familiar Christian imagery and tenets of belief, but he applies them in unorthodox ways. Pools typically have positive Christian associations with baptism, but a pool of tears troubles the waters. Similarly, confession and repentance are supposed to be crucial first steps in moving forward on the righteous path toward God. In this song, however, confession seems oriented backwards, functioning more as an impediment than a catalyst for personal progress. The singer’s excessive tears threaten to wash away his seeds along with his sins, inhibiting his growth by making rejuvenation impossible. He concedes as much in the second verse: “Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake.” Don’t look back. The song suggests that dwelling too long or obsessively upon the past prevents one from moving forward. The time of confession, it would seem, is coming to an end. In retrospect, Dylan appears to be signaling a pivot in his spiritual and artistic journey. “Every Grain of Sand” was the last song on the last album of his Christian trilogy. Before recording Shot of Love in spring 1981, he had already embarked upon “A Musical Retrospective Tour” in fall 1980, where he began reintegrating secular music into his setlists. Religious themes, imagery, and warnings continued to preoccupy him on Infidels (1983) and have periodically resurfaced ever since, but this song seems to mark an important milestone and turning point in Dylan’s road.

“Every Grain of Sand” is not a metaphysical battle with God so much as a civil war between opposed selves. The singer reports, “There’s a dying voice within me reaching out somewhere / Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair.” Dylan the Gemini has made numerous references over the years to his struggle with adversarial alter-egos. For instance, the line “I fought with my twin, that enemy within” in “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey through Dark Heat)”; or “Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within” in “Jokerman”; or “I and I / One says to the other no man sees my face and lives” in “I and I.” Given the theme of dueling dual selves, and given the knowing games Dylan sometimes plays with acronyms (cf. BOB, JWH, TOOM), I wonder if he was conscious of the fact that the initials for “Every Grain of Sand” is EGOS. I and I indeed! “Every Grain of Sand” stages an internal battle for the soul of the singer, a “psychomachia” where the singer’s Good Angel struggles against his Bad Angel. It is not clear which of these figures is represented by the “dying voice within me.” The song raises a slew of essential questions with life-altering stakes: Does the dying voice emanate from the “good” self or the “bad,” from Cain or Abel? Will he confess and dwell upon his former sins? Will he backslide and return to committing those sins [cf. “I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame / And every time I pass that way I always hear my name”]? Is the dying voice better left for dead? Or is the dead voice in need of resuscitation, heeding the vocation of his true calling? “Every Grain of Sand” implies so many fundamental questions, but definitive answers elude the listener and interpreter just as surely as they elude the singer himself. Yet the singer must pursue them. Everything hinges upon the decisions he makes at this pivotal moment and the pathway he chooses. The fate of his soul hangs in the balance.

For a song poised upon a fulcrum point, it seems telling that Dylan has been torn over how to end the song. On Shot of Love he sings, “I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man / Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.” I’m frankly not sure what that first line is supposed to mean, but it is the copyrighted lyric posted on his official website. The sentiment is clearer in the demo version of the song released on The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3, as well as the rehearsal version on Trouble No More, where he sings, “I am hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan.” He retains this lyrical variation for the 2021 tour. The invocation of “a perfect finished plan” is more readily recognizable as an expression of faith in God’s divine plan, the belief that, no matter how bad things get, everything happens for a reason and ultimately serves a higher holy purpose. That said, we should not pay so much attention to the affirmative “perfect finished plan” that we forget the outcome is still irresolutely “hanging in the balance.” Gray wisely guides us back to the full context of that sparrow reference in Matthew. In this passage Jesus commands confession and obedience—or else:

Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven. Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace but a sword. (10:31-34).

Gray comments, “Far from throwing God’s infinite care over every tiny creature in his universe, as the early part of his speech might imply, it’s a severe and conditional vision: it mentions the sparrows only to devalue them in the comparison with men and it excludes from God’s care all but true Christian believers” (405). In “Every Grain of Sand” the singer may be trying to obey God’s commandments, at least some of the time, and he pledges faith in the Master’s “perfect finished plan.” He just doesn’t know if that plan will end up with him on the saved or damned side of the ledger sheet. It could still go either way, for the singer and by extension for his listeners, in 1981 and in 2021.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the deliberate dramaturgy of Dylan’s setlists. The prompting came first from Erin Callahan and Court Carney, who are editing a forthcoming collection of essays on the subject. There have also been a lot of discussions on this topic led by Laura Tenschert on Definitely Dylan and her affiliated Patreon group. In particular, her treatment of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “Baby Blue” as bookends for Shadow Kingdom (listen to the podcast “Shadow Kingdom: A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) has helped to clarify my thoughts about Dylan’s setlists on the fall 2021 leg of Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour. The reintroduction of “Every Grain of Sand” is no coincidence. The song is highly compatible with the Rough and Rowdy Ways-centric setlist, and it serves a pivotal function as culmination of and release from the theatrical experience Dylan and crew deliver each night.

Figure 2: Title Page for Songs of Innocence and of Experience by William Blake (1826 edition)

What summoned the song up from the depths of Dylan’s deep back catalogue? In part it must have been auguries of experience from William Blake. After decades of unnamed influence, and following a direct allusion to Blake’s “The Tyger’” in Tempest’s closing song “Roll on John,” Blake finally earns a public shout-out by name in “I Contain Multitudes,” the opening track on Rough and Rowdy Ways, and the first song from the album played in each of the 2021 concerts. The title “I Contain Multitudes” is taken from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” and a number of other influences across the cultural spectrum get named in the song. He numbers Blake among the multitudes: “I sing the songs of experience like William Blake / I have no apologies to make.” Two things are interesting about this allusion. The first is that he hacks off half of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience [see Figure 2 above]. Dylan is long past innocence at this point, and so are his audiences. In fact, Rough and Rowdy Ways might just as well have been titled Songs of Experience. The other interesting thing is that second line: “I have no apologies to make.” This might seem at first like a non sequitur, but it is not. “I have no apologies to make” is a paradoxical echo of the opening of Dylan’s most Blakean song, “Every Grain of Sand”: “In the time of my confession.” From confession in 1981 to no apologies in 2021. Except that Dylan’s dramaturgical sequencing of the setlist actually reverses the trajectory, going from the braggadocio of “I have no apologies to make” early in the show to the contrite “In the time of my confession” by the end. Dylan’s individual songs function as scenes within the dramatic arc of his live performances. The songs build upon and respond to one another—reinforcing and refuting, complementing and complicating—working in tandem to create a holistic theatrical experience for each show. “Every Grain of Sand” means one thing considered in isolation, it means something different reconsidered in context with the other songs on Shot of Love, and it sends new and distinct signals in live performance as epilogue for the 2021 concerts.

In “Thunder on the Mountain” (a staple of Dylan’s tours in recent years, but absent from the 2021 shows) he declares, “I’ve already confessed—no need to confess again.” But the hour of his (and our) deepest need seems to have returned with a vengeance since 2020, and accordingly an impulse for confession has crept back into Dylan’s most recent work. Two other Rough and Rowdy Ways songs in the setlist explicitly use the word. The magisterial “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”—the anchor of the 2021 shows—foregrounds confession from the start: “McKinley hollered—McKinley squalled / Doctor said McKinley—death is on the wall / Say it to me if you got something to confess.” The setlist moves from deathbed confession to a raunchier roadhouse variation in “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” the song that immediately precedes “Every Grain of Sand” in concert. There the singer leers at a “Transparent woman in a transparent dress / It suits you well—I must confess.” Feeling an urge to confess again, the time is ripe for a revival of “Every Grain of Sand.”

Dylan could have placed “Every Grain of Sand” anywhere in the setlist, so why give it pride of place as the concert’s closer? He probably doesn’t overthink these things. It felt right: good enough for him. Ah, the hours we readers and contributors to the Dylan Review could save if that were simply good enough for us! But it’s not, obviously, and it never will be. Dylan creates; Dylanologists review. His intuitive calculus may have been primarily musical. He described the song as a “mood piece” to Flanagan (832), so maybe it simply fit the mood he wanted to end the show with. Whether he arrived at this decision intellectually or instinctively (one assumes the latter), he must have sensed what a compatible bookend “Every Grain of Sand” as closer makes with the tour’s regular opener, “Watching the River Flow.”

Many common lyrical elements run through both songs. First let’s dig into the sand. Alongside associations with God’s particularized knowledge discussed earlier, sand is also associated very closely with time, as measured by sand falling through an hour-glass. The most overt reference to time in “Every Grain of Sand” comes in the line: “The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way.” Really, though, the entire song is a meditation upon the ravages of time, and the competing impulses to return to the past or move ahead into the future. The sands of time play a crucial part in “Watching the River Flow,” too. This song also features a singer who is stuck between his current life and his next life. He dreams of returning to the city and reuniting with his distant love. The song is rollicking and upbeat, and the lyrics contain lots of movement: trucks roll, birds fly, winds blow, and the river ceaselessly flows. But not the singer. He is a stone gathering moss. He makes his way from a café to the riverside, but that’s as much get-up-and-go as he’s got. Instead, as he repeatedly declares, “I’ll sit down on this bank of sand / And watch the river flow.” This water song is no “Proud Mary” “rollin’ down the river,” but rather “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” resituated on a sandy riverbank. In a sense the concert travels a great distance only to return full circle where it began: from the sandy riverbank of “Watching the River Flow” to the sandy seashore of “Every Grain of Sand.” No dancing beneath a diamond sky on circus sands here. These bookend songs feature characters whose hour-glasses are clogged.

Yet “Every Grain of Sand” has more forward momentum than “Watching the River Flow,” even if moving forward does not necessarily equate to hopeful progress. Lines like “every time I pass that way” and “onward in my journey” suggest a character who has gotten off his knees and has begun to walk again, even if he’s not yet sure where he’s going. The final verse of “Every Grain of Sand” begins, “I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea / Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.” Many listeners, myself included, immediately think of the kitschy poem “Footprints in the Sand” when hearing these lines. Such an association presupposes that the entity following the singer is a supportive Lord. However, given the moral ambivalence and uncertainty surrounding the singer’s fate, listeners shouldn’t take salvation for granted. Those ancient footsteps behind him might just as well be hellhounds on his trail. Or is time catching up with him? At this point in the concert, maybe we should hear an echo in the “ancient footsteps” of “Every Grain of Sand” back to the “ancient footprints” in an earlier song (and exact contemporary with “Watching the River Flow”), “When I Paint My Masterpiece”: “Oh the streets of Rome are filled with rubble / Ancient footprints are everywhere.” Time eventually reduces all human constructions to rubble; give it some more time and the rubble will erode into sand (ask Ozymandias). Or maybe those foreboding footfalls come from time’s enforcer, the Man in the Long Black Coat, the Grim Reaper himself; better known in this concert as Black Rider: “Black Rider Black Rider all dressed in black / I’m walking away and you try to make me look back.” [Hint: don’t look back]. This reading resonates with the tour poster, which adapts the cover for The Shadow #96, featuring dapper Death calling to collect his next victim [see Figure 3 below]. In 2020 this same modified image was used for the cover of the “False Prophet” single, another song filled with Blakean references as Bob Jope shows in his piece for the website Untold Dylan.

Figure 3: Cover for The Shadow #96 (July 15, 1942) by Maxwell Grant

Speaking of shadows, those footprints in the sand might just as well come from the adversarial shadow self, since doppelgängers always crave to track down their doubles. After all, the precise phrasing in “Every Grain of Sand” is “Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.” Is the dying voice within now externalized in the form of a stalking alter-ego, shadowing the singer and gaining on him from behind? “You could almost think that you’re seeing double.” Rob Reginio drew my attention to another Blake allusion from “My Spectre,” encompassing the shadow self as well as the dying voice and pool of tears:

My Spectre around me night & day

Like a Wild beast guards my way

My Emanation far within

Weeps incessantly for my Sin. (Blake 195)

The spectral shadow self also intermingles suggestively with the Rough and Rowdy Ways World Tour poster, where the creepy skeleton in the foreground is rendered even more menacing by his silhouette shaped like a hanged man [see Figure 1]. How’s that for hanging in the balance? Musically, even without Dylan’s beautiful harmonica in 2021, “Every Grain of Sand” is so serene, viscerally imparting a sense of calm tranquility. Lyrically, however, it elicits starkly different sensations, dramatizing a singer who might be escaping on the run or might be stumbling into an ambush.

Confession: I think too much about Dylan’s words. If this is a sin, my punishment is that I couldn’t be content with my initial elation as I walked out of the Aronoff Center into downtown Cincinnati after seeing Dylan in concert on November 9, 2021. I felt what others felt—what a gift! My immediate sensation after hearing the final song was like I had just received a fast-acting inoculation against danger, bitterness, despair, and loneliness. I walked away feeling healed by “Every Grain of Sand,” which is exactly the power Paul Williams ascribes to the song: “‘Healing’ is an appropriate word. The song is intensely personal, for listener and singer both; the intimacy of confession, the honest sharing of a sense of sinfulness and despair, creates a possibility of genuine assurance. ‘Every Grain of Sand’ cuts through doctrine and proselytizing and speaks directly to the listener’s need” (205). The listener’s need: I suppose I heard what I needed to hear. As we’re all learning, however, vaccines (including shots of love?) begin to lose some of their efficacy over time. I haven’t lost the magic of that night’s performance; if anything, in listening to subsequent concerts I have become increasingly awed by the time-defying, life-renewing power of Bob Dylan as a live performer. Nevertheless, my understanding of “Every Grain of Sand” has become more complicated and shaded the longer and deeper I’ve contemplated what it says, and what it doesn’t say.

“Every Grain of Sand” actually doesn’t say that everything is going to be okay, certainly not for everyone. Describing the effect of “Every Grain of Sand” on the first night at the Beacon Theatre (November 19, 2021), Anne Margaret Daniel writes, “His performance of it now is something beyond, and above, elegy: a goodbye that has its original meaning of God be with you” (Daniel). God will certainly be with us, according to the song, but we might not like what God does with us. Dylan evidently believes firmly in God, believes in a divine plan, and believes that individual and collective fates are governed by the Master’s hand. But that Master has a right hand and a left: he has a plan that saves some and damns others. One doesn’t have to interpret the song within the strict Christian framework in which it was written to hear its contemporary relevance. Things might be all right. They might be getting better. Or they might be getting worse. As Andrew Muir recently reminded me, “Every Grain of Sand” echoes not only the Bible and Blake, but also Hamlet’s moment of acceptance, when he recognizes he can neither predict nor fully control his destiny: “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now; yet it will come. The readiness is all” (Shakespeare 5.2.197-200).

A full appreciation of “Every Grain of Sand” means acknowledging both its exquisite, uplifting beauty and its irresolute, unsettling uncertainty. These same Janus-faced qualities and animating tensions are on forceful display throughout Dylan’s recent recordings and live performances. The title Rough and Rowdy Ways sounds to me like a road sign at another Dylan crossroads: the rough road of righteousness heading one direction, the rowdy road of iniquity heading the other. It’s the location and condition of some of Dylan’s greatest work, including “Every Grain of Sand,” in both its nascent form from the evangelical period and its resurrected form by an octogenarian who has apparently been gulping from the fountain of youth. Listeners may or may not share Dylan’s theological framing of the problem, but by this point in the pandemic—to name only the most immediate and pervasive of our shared threats—we all know what life lived “hanging in the balance” feels like. We know the steady accumulation of troubles like grains of sand into a heap, as Clov describes it at the beginning of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame: “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. [Pause.] Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap. [Pause.] I can’t be punished any more” (93). Dylan cannot cure all that troubles us, but he sure has been a welcome, reliable, generous, sure-footed guide “in the sorrow of the night.”

 Those dangers still await audiences as they exit the auditorium and return to the world outside. But inside the world he crafts for us in the theater, Dylan gives us a light to take with us back out into the darkness. Ultimately, I find myself as a listener thinking about “Every Grain of Sand” in much the same way Dylan described it as the songwriter: “‘What’s this like?’ Well, it’s not like anything. ‘What does it represent?’ Well, you don’t even know. All you know is that it’s a mood piece, and you try to hold onto the mood and finish. Or not even finish, but just get it to a place where you can let it go” (Flanagan 832). Dylan conjures the mood, finishes the performance, then lets us go, leaving us to meditate upon what we’ve experienced, and releasing him to rev up the tour bus and head down the road to dispense his musical potions again.


Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. Endgame. The Complete Dramatic Works of Samuel Beckett. Faber and Faber, 1986, pp. 89-134.

Blake, William. “Auguries of Innocence.” Blake’s Poetry and Designs, Norton Critical Edition, edited by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant, W. W. Norton, 1979, pp. 209-12.

—. “My Spectre.” Blake’s Poetry and Designs, Norton Critical Edition, edited by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant, W. W. Norton, 1979, pp. 195-96.

Cartwright, Bert. The Bible in the Lyrics of Bob Dylan. Wanted Man, 1985.

Daniel, Anne Margaret. “A Triumphant Bob Dylan Comes Home to New York City.” Hot Press (20 November 2021),, accessed 26 November 2021.

Dylan, Bob. “Black Rider.” The Official Bob Dylan Website,, accessed 27 November 2021.

—. “Every Grain of Sand.” The Official Bob Dylan Website,, accessed 25 November 2021.

—. “Goodbye Jimmy Reed.” The Official Bob Dylan Website,, accessed 27 November 2021.

—. “I and I.” The Official Bob Dylan Website,, accessed 25 November 2021.

—. “I Contain Multitudes.” The Official Bob Dylan Website,, accessed 26 November 2021.

—. “Jokerman.” The Official Bob Dylan Website,, accessed 25 November 2021.

—. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” The Official Bob Dylan Website,, accessed 27 November 2021.

—. “Watching the River Flow.” The Official Bob Dylan Website,, accessed 25 November 2021.

—. “What Can I Do for You?” The Official Bob Dylan Website,, accessed 25 November 2021.

—. “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” The Official Bob Dylan Website,, accessed 25 November 2021.

—. “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey through Dark Heat).” The Official Bob Dylan Website,, accessed 25 November 2021.

Flanagan, Bill. Interview with Bob Dylan (March 1985). Every Mind Polluting Word: Assorted Bob Dylan Utterances, edited by Artur Jarosinski, Don’t Ya Tell Henry, 2006, pp. 831-40.

Gray, Michael. Song & Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan. Cassell, 2000.

The Holy Bible. King James Version.

Jope, Bob. “False Prophet: ‘Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?’” Untold Dylan (2 October 2020),, accessed 20 December 2021.

Muir, Andrew. Personal correspondence with the author (5 December 2021).

Nelson, Paul. Shot of Love Album Review. Rolling Stone (15 October 1981),, accessed 25 November 2021.

Reginio, Robert. Personal correspondence with the author (6 December 2021).

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Second Quarto, 1604-05. Arden Shakespeare Third Series, eds. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, Bloomsbury, 2006.

Tenschert, Laura. “Season 1, Episode 12: Easter Special.” Definitely Dylan (1 April 2018),, accessed 26 November 2021.

—. “Shadow Kingdom: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Definitely Dylan (14 September 2021),, accessed 26 November 2021.

Williams, Paul. Bob Dylan, Performing Artist, 1974-1986: The Middle Years. Omnibus, 2004.

Don’t Look Now: Reading Aloud to Ghosts

By Thomas G. Palaima, University of Texas


“You ever seen a ghost? No
But you have heard of them.”


The blind side, they say,

is what hits you by surprise.


It can drive you

to your knees,

tap your shoulder,

caress you gently.


The sudden smell

of smoke

upon the air.



poured on cereal.



on the soil

in a flower pot.



poured on coffee

in your coffee cup.


A place of one’s own,

they say, too.


How was that

on the blind side?

And when?

And just that?


Sometimes the blind side

is a mirror.


Or conjures up a phrase

from Bob Dylan.


“You give something up

for everything you gain.”


Sometimes the blind side

is not there.


Never was.


How can you take

precautions against

what never was?


“So pay for your ticket

and don’t complain.”


A ticket delivered

from the blind side

can have exorbitant

handling fees.


It can admit you

to the blind side

in the mirror.


To see the father

fallen short.


The lover


by love.


The person

placing belief in

what is

no more.


And maybe

never was.


In others.


In oneself.


A deep breath

is calming, they say.


It takes

the blind side

into the spirit



Like light tendrils

of cream

spreading through

strong hot coffee.


Like water


in darkening



Like milk

that makes cereal


or sink.


Like the caress

that had

no meaning.


The touch

that called


to nothing



The force

of a

sledge hammer





A whispering





What’s that?


Don’t look.


But you




And you’re

“left looking

just like

a ghost.”

Two years ago in this column I wondered what a Dylan scholar would look like in the coming years. Now I’m wondering something different: if a Dylan scholar is the same creature as a Dylan critic. And since critics multiply faster than scholars, what is the function of a Dylan critic—or, to use a phrase from D.H. Lawrence, what is the proper function of a Dylan critic?

In Studies in Classic American Literature, Lawrence advised—in what became one of his most quoted aphorisms—“Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.” Ripped from its context, this mot is, paradoxically, both enigmatic and prescriptive. In context, though, Lawrence’s terse directive describes a conundrum all too familiar in Dylan studies:

The artist usually sets out—or used to—to point a moral and adorn a tale. The tale, however, points the other way, as a rule. Two blankly opposing morals, the artist’s and the tale’s. Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.[1]

The phrase “To save the tale from the artist,” however, while brilliantly evocative, puts the cart before the horse. By implying it’s possible to dislodge the moral of the tale from the moral of the artist, Lawrence assumes there are two morals to begin with. But that assumption has no foundation, unless, as Charles Olson seems to have done, we give the “morals” different names. Olson claimed that Lawrence (along with Homer, Euripides, Plato, and Christ!) “somehow chose the advantage of moral perceptions to those of the intellect.”[2] I take this to mean that the artist’s moral equates to Olson’s perceptions of the intellect, whereas, according to Lawrence, we should really focus on the tale’s moral—what Olson terms, simply, “moral perceptions.” For Lawrence, then, disentangling the moral perceptions (the tale’s) from the intellectual perceptions (the artist’s) of a work of fiction—or poetry, I presume—is tantamount to separating the two “blankly opposing morals” so that we can then trust the tale, not its producer.

But if this act of disentanglement is the proper function of the critic, then most Dylan critics stand on shaky ground. Unexamined conflation is prevalent. Moral perceptions and perceptions of the intellect tend to occupy the same space in expositions, explications, and analyses. Dylan criticism is rife with efforts linking Bob Dylan the artist to the meaning of a song, a lyric, a performance. To some, this hermeneutic phenomenon is inevitable—or irresistible—because of the ubiquitous first-person narrator who is identified (or confused) with the singer. Thus, “I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow” means Dylan met a young girl who gave him a rainbow; and, while much heavy weather might be made of the rainbow symbol, few (if any) critics question the “I.” Similarly, the voice that sings “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there” or “I paint landscapes—I paint nudes . . . I contain multitudes” is, first, taken to be the same persona (thirty years apart) and, second, to be Dylan himself—composer and hero of his own lyric, despite the fact that he’s obviously quoting Walt Whitman. Dylan critics rarely try to “save the tale from the artist who created it,” or divide the moral import from the intellectual perception. On the contrary, the artist is consummately part of the tale. Lawrence would squirm in his grave (while Olson might compensate by scanning Dylan’s breathing as projective verse).

Of course, we aren’t bound to Lawrence as our guru (as much as he might relish the role). Many self-respecting critics at some time in their careers contribute a definitive treatise or ars poetica on “the function of criticism”—a popular Anglophone title. Matthew Arnold kicked it off with The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, in which he uttered the famous (or infamous) call for criticism “simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas.”[3] Dylan critics have followed this guideline admirably, attending to “the best that is thought and known,” not only in Dylan’s work or in his ambient milieu but also for our cultural moment in general, thus creating a “current” of new ideas. The recent Bob Dylan conferences and the outpouring of books and articles testify to the vitality of this current of new ideas—Dylan critics are not just sitting by and watching the river flow; they—or we—are creating that new current, stirring the waters.

According to Arnold, however, criticism must obey one fundamental rule: disinterestedness—by which he means “keeping aloof from what is called ‘the practical view of things’” and, pertinently, “steadily refusing to lend itself to any of those ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas . . . which criticism really has nothing to do with.” And it is here, in connection with this rule, that it becomes challenging to define the proper function of the Dylan critic. If disinterestedness means aloofness from ulterior, political, and practical considerations, then engagement with Dylan’s work makes the proper function of the critic a minefield of interestedness. The Dylan of the early 60s seemed very clearly, in Lawrence’s words, to “[set] out . . . to point a moral and adorn a tale.” The clarity blurred a bit as the decade went on. But what better way to define the anthemic songs and such social plaints as “North Country Blues” and “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”? The phrase “point a moral and adorn a tale” is, evidently, Lawrence’s revision of the more familiar translation of Horace’s famous phrase, “to instruct and delight” (prodesse…aut delectare).[4] Most singer-songwriters of Dylan’s generation set out to instruct and to delight: some of the instruction was, to say the least, heavy-handed, but the music, for all its experimentation with supposedly primitive forms, set out to delight audiences, young and old alike.


In 1994 Dylan sang “John Brown” on MTV Unplugged. Little known at the time, the song is a bitter indictment not only of war itself, but more so of the proud mother who pushes her son to be a soldier: “Do what the captain says,” she urges, “and medals you will get.” Dylan is unsparing as he sets her up for a fall: “she bragged about her son with his uniform and gun / And this thing she called a good old-fashioned war.” But her bragging ends in shock and disgust. As if flinging the mother’s jingoism back in her (turned-away) face, Dylan ends the song with a graphic description of her horribly maimed soldier-son.

Oh his face was all shot up and his hands were all blown off

And he wore a metal brace around his waist

He whispered kind of slow, in a voice she didn’t know

And she couldn’t even recognize his face.

Finally, the son caps this nightmarish homecoming with a cruelly ironic gesture:

As he turned away to walk, his Ma was still in shock

At seein’ the metal brace that helped him stand

But as he turned to go, he called his mother close

And he dropped his medals down into her hand[5]

What is the proper function of a Dylan critic in analyzing this song—and not just the song but also the context of the MTV Unplugged performance? For example, the Persian Gulf War occurred in 1991 and the US intervention in the Bosnian conflict in 1994-1995. Should this recent militarization be part of the critic’s analysis? After all, Dylan was deliberately reviving a very old 60s song written in an era of protest. The comparison to “Masters of War” is inevitable.

The 1962 live recording of the song, released on Live at the Gaslight, features Dylan alone on his acoustic guitar. His voice is more insistent, even more unforgiving than in the Unplugged version. This performance brings back the undistilled Dylan experience that mesmerized listeners and critics alike. And, pace Lawrence, I challenge critics to disentangle the artist from the performer, or the composer from the song, when the young Bob Dylan sings “John Brown.” I don’t hear “two blankly opposing morals.” What I hear instead is Yeats’s perennially pertinent question, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”[6]

Is it possible to write disinterested criticism of this performance? Does disinterested mean separating the singer from the songwriter? Does it mean separating the songwriter from the performer somehow, when, as with all singer-songwriters, the two roles are indivisible?

Which returns us to the act of disentanglement, of saving the tale (moral perspective) from the artist (intellectual perspective). Are there always “two blankly opposing morals” in Dylan’s songs, “the artist’s and the tale’s”? Is the moral perspective always distinguishable from that of the intellect? In what way does the moral of “When the Ship Comes In” point in a totally different direction from the composer’s intellectual perspective? How does the composer’s performance affect the artist-tale division? This kind of separation might be perceptible in, say, “Neighborhood Bully,” where the song seems to outstrip the topicality of the lyrics. But what about “All Along the Watchtower” or “Mississippi”?

Gérard Genette used the term metalepsis of the author to characterize the incapacity of critics to separate the artist from the hero in fiction. Invoking the nineteenth-century rhetorician Pierre Fontanier, Genette explains:

This variety of metalepsis consists—I remember it in Fontanier’s terms—in “transforming poets into heroes of the deeds that they celebrate or representing them as themselves carrying out the effects that they only paint or sing”; when an author “is represented or represents himself as himself producing that which he basically only tells or describes.”[7]

Metalepsis is a bugbear of mine. It seems to me that, even more than Lawrence’s artist and tale, Genette’s (or Fontanier’s) objection to critics’ “transforming poets into heroes of the deeds they celebrate” has crucial importance to the proper function of Dylan criticism. It might be easy to separate the poet from the anti-hero in “Joey,” but do critics exercise the same disinterestedness with “You’re a Big Girl Now” or “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight,” not to mention “Idiot Wind”? Doubtful: metalepsis is too often the rule in Dylan studies.


“How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Oscar Wilde would probably say we shouldn’t bother trying to answer Yeats’s question. In “The Critic as Artist,” Wilde rejected the whole idea of criticism, or at least rejected criticism as separate from the creative act. “Why,” he asked, “should the artist be troubled by the shrill clamor of criticism?” He imagined the unveiling of a statue in a critic-free Golden Age:

In the best days of art there were no art-critics. The sculptor hewed from the marble block the great white-limbed Hermes that slept within it. The waxers and gilders of images gave tone and texture to the statue, and the world, when it saw it, worshipped and was dumb.[8]

But the Golden Age never existed, not in ancient Greece or in the streets of Rome or even on MacDougal Street.

One thing is for sure. There’s no room for worshipping and being struck dumb among Dylan critics. That time has passed and the new Dylan scholarship has justifiably hastened its exit. But the proper function of the Dylan critic needs to catch up with that development. Disentanglement might be futile. Separating the morals of the performing artist (intellectual perspective) from the morals of the tale (moral perspective) might not be worth the hermeneutic candle. But there is, I think, another choice. In my view, the proper function of the Dylan critic ought to be to trust the teller of the tale. And the teller is not the artist, or even the performing artist—only metalepsis allows a critic to think that. As Dylan once remarked about the nine questions in “Blowin’ in the Wind”: “The first way to answer these questions in the song is by asking them. But lots of people have to first find the wind.”[9] The same might be said about Dylan criticism. And that wind we need to find is not the “divine afflatus” of poetic tradition, but the presence, unpredictable, mercurial, yet always palpable, that animates Dylan’s songs—in other words, the teller of the tale.



[1] D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (1923) (New York: Viking 1969), 2.

[2] Charles Olson, “D.H. Lawrence and the High Temptation of the Mind,” in Collected Prose, ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997), 135.

[3] Arnold’s essay first appeared in the National Review in 1864 but was reprinted several times between 1865 and 1923, when, inevitably, T.S. Eliot published “The Function of Criticism” in Criticism (vol. 2.5). Literary critics later took up the standard and produced treatises or essays of the same name, though often with wildly different aims: e.g., inter alia, Terry Eagleton’s The Function of Criticism (1984), whose first sentence is “Modern European criticism was born of a struggle against the absolutist state.”

[4] Horace, Ars Poetica (or Epistle Ad Pisos), ll.333-34: “Aut prodesse volunt aut delectare poetae / aut simul et iucunda et idonea dicere vitae. [Poets aim either to benefit, or to amuse, or to utter words at once both pleasing and helpful to life.] See Horace, Satires, Epistles, and Ars Poetica, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough (Loeb Classical Library, 1978), 478-79.

[5] Dylan sings slightly different lyrics in all the available versions of the song: Broadside Ballads vol. 1 (1963, singing under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt); Unplugged (1994); Live at the Gaslight 1962 (2005); The Bootleg Series Vol. 9, The Witmark Demos 1962-1964 (2010); Live 1962-1966: Rare Performances from the Copyright Collection (2018).

[6] W.B. Yeats, “Among School Children,” The Collected Poems, ed. Richard J. Finneran (New York: Scribner Paperback Poetry, 1983), 217.

[7] Gérard Genette, Métalepse (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2004), 10: “Cette variété de métalepse consiste, je le rappelle dan les termes de Fontanier, ‘à transformer les poètes en héros de faits qu’ils célèbrent [ou à] les représenter comme operant eux-mêmes les effets qu’ils peignent ou chantent’, lorsque’un auteur ‘est représenté ou se représente comme produisant lui-même ce qu’il ne fait, au fond, que raconteur ou décrire.’” Translation is mine.

[8] “The Critic as Artist” is a dialogue-essay included in Intentions (1891).

[9] Liner notes, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

Illustration of Bob Dylan holding a cigarette and a harmonica