Christopher Rollason. Read Books, Repeat Quotations: The Literary Bob Dylan. Gateshead (UK): Two Riders, 2021. 221 pp.
REVIEW BY Dave Junker, University of Texas at Austin
Not every book title is worth explicating. But Read Books, Repeat Quotations: The Literary Bob Dylan, is more than “a lure, a come on, a puzzle,” to borrow Stephen Scobie’s phrasing in his preface to this valuable contribution to the study of Bob Dylan (4). As a recognizable quote from “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” the title of this collection of essays serves as a wink and an invitation to those familiar with it—a not-that-exclusive club of rock fans, Dylan fans, and scholars. Thematically, it is also a useful quote for raising the curtain on Rollason’s main show: the “literary” aspects of Dylan. Yet after reading the book from cover to cover, one might also picture the phrase as the command of an imperious God, sung into the critic’s ear, translated something like this: “Go forth, Dr. Rollason, and find the sources of every literary allusion and intertextual crumb in these selected Dylan songs and bring them to me in an orderly fashion, with no mistakes, or else.” While this quest may not sound as entertaining as a picaresque Dylan narrative, the rewards of Rollason’s methodical quest are always bountiful, and should please not only his task-master muse, but also a wide audience of readers.
The intention behind the book title, of course, is to bring our attention to a specific understanding of “the literary,” one that privileges textual and formalistic elements, in particular the “complexity, ambiguity, figures of speech” and “multiple interpretability” of song texts. The literary tradition most relevant here is a decidedly canonical one: the King James Bible; Homer; Ovid; Shakespeare; Keats, Wordsworth and Shelley; Edgar Allan Poe; T.S. Eliot and the Beats. It is important to note that in identifying such a focus, Rollason situates this collection of essays within a field of Dylan studies that he himself has played a significant part in establishing. In fact, he is currently on the editorial board of this publication, the Dylan Review. Proving Dylan’s literary bona fides is another way of saying Dylan matters, and Rollason provides further proof that Dylan belongs in the company of our great writers and that a literary analytical framework can enrich his work and our experience of it. In his detailed and scrupulous way, Rollason outlines an impressive array of literary evidence that shows Dylan as a poet “in [whom] the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously,” a measure of greatness T.S. Eliot outlined in his famous essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”
Certainly, there are limitations to Rollason’s circumscribed field of the literary. But the rewards of this collection of essays, many published over the course of the past twenty-five years, far outweigh the limits of its clearly defined scope. Seeing where the treasures appear, and in what hidden forms, offers surprises, revelations, and reconsiderations that more than compensate for the book’s inattention to voice and sound, for example, which themselves have legitimate claims as literary elements. Further, as those who have read some of the book’s previously published chapters well know, Rollason is an engaging guide, graceful writer and generous fount of knowledge far beyond the Western literary tradition. Above all, Rollason’s scholarly pathways are always well-lit by his deep affection and profound respect for the art, the artist, and the critical endeavor itself.
One of the most noteworthy things about the book is its coherence, consistency and efficiency, despite the fact that so many of the essays (ten of thirteen) have been previously published. As Scobie writes in his preface, in the chapters that focus on songs, Rollason “always begins with establishing a ‘default’ text . . . which may then be subjected to the conventional procedures of literary criticism” (6). This is indeed the case in all nine of the chapters dedicated to detailed readings of individual songs. These include insightful readings of some widely known and canonical songs such as “Desolation Row” and “Shelter from the Storm.” Other chapters feature lesser-known compositions like “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” “Lay Down your Weary Tune,” “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power),” and the recent “Murder Most Foul.” Nuanced and engaging chapters on “Man in the Long Black Coat,” “Dignity,” “Ain’t Talkin’,” and “Red River Shore” provide deserved recognition for a small sample of Dylan’s many diamonds in the rough. Despite the fact that some of these essays have two decades of space between, they never feel that way, as Rollason employs the same structure and critical voice throughout—as if he had always planned to assemble them as a book.
While some might wish to skip over Rollason’s “painstaking, meticulous” (Scobie 6) efforts to establish a default text, and get straight to the main course of song analysis, his careful diligence is a thing to witness. Every song is not just a case to be solved, but a sacred mystery requiring ritualistic devotion. I say ritualistic because, in most cases, the process fails to alter the seemingly predestined course of action—to defer to the original studio recording as the default text. In his analysis of “Shelter from the Storm,” for example, Rollason concludes, after a lengthy parsing of minor variations among printed and recorded versions, that “the discarded variants” are in “virtually all cases inferior to what we find in the Blood on the Tracks version” (81). This tone of abrupt finality is a little jarring at first. Why go through all the trouble of eliminating the significance of other song variants, if this is where we almost invariably end up? For non-Dylan scholars, this question will echo like a refrain throughout the book. But patient readers will come to appreciate the practical value of this process. As he explains later in the same essay, acknowledging the litany of variants has merit as “part of the song’s intertext” even if the variants are “not absolutely essential to its understanding” (81). This wisdom is borne out in many of the close readings: Rollason frequently calls upon this knowledge of textual variants to enrich the intertextual literary dialogue, add nuance to his close readings, and to reinforce or problematize currents in the critical conversation.
Rollason is also meticulous about classifying and categorizing relevant critical views, outlining the elements of prosody in every line and stanza, and rehearsing the facts at hand regarding self-evident allusions. He traces barely visible intertextual clues with microscopic focus while attempting to identify sources and contexts for intertextual echoes and literary allusions. He is always generous and judicious in recognizing scholarly precedent. Dylan critics Aidan Day, Michael Gray, Greil Marcus, Andrew Muir, Christopher Ricks, Richard Thomas, and Scobie make frequent appearances.
In less capable hands, Rollason’s method might make for a tedious, repetitious read. But Rollason is attentive to the needs and interests of a range of readers, not just the true believers. Most chapters are readable in a short sitting, and the arrangement of essays creates both a theoretical framework and narrative arc that makes this an accessible and informative read rather than a dense and lifeless tome. As the book jacket notes, Rollason has published roughly seventy articles on Dylan, from conference papers to blog posts to album reviews. Writing for such forums has no doubt honed his knack for short-form essays that serve a potential range of readerly expertise. All efficiently organized, no chapter is longer than twenty pages and most are fewer than ten (when excluding endnotes and bibliographies). Ten of the thirteen chapters are expanded versions of previously published articles or conference papers, in sources ranging from the Bob Dylan Critical Website and Rollason’s own blog, to an Edgar Allan Poe conference in Spain and a critical volume on Indian Writing in English. Those already familiar with any of these, or with Rollason’s work more generally, will be pleased to know that the three previously unpublished chapters are among the most engaging and insightful of the collection: these include one comparing Dylan’s views of nature in “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” and “Every Grain of Sand”; to a fine-tooth explication of “Desolation Row”; and a deserving treatment of the under-appreciated “Red River Shore.” In keeping with his style and method, these chapters provide critical context, technical classification, and the sources of every conceivable literary echo from the King James Bible and Shakespeare, to Shelley, Wordsworth and Poe.
Another wise structural choice Rollason makes is to open the book with a 2016 essay defending Dylan’s selection for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Whether one cares about the controversy or not, Rollason’s agile defense of the award and shrewd interrogation of naysayers will still impress. By virtue of its position, the essay also becomes a justification for Rollason’s focus and methodology and a deeper view into his proclivities as a critic and scholar. His main line of argument is direct: For a prize “in the field of literature,” it would stand to reason that Dylan should be defended on strictly literary grounds, while other arguments can be dispatched by slotting them into “five types, namely:”
generic/categorical (“I have nothing against Dylan’s songwriting, but songwriting just isn’t literature”); generic/qualitative (“rock lyrics can’t be poetry and this award dumbs down the Nobel”); individual-centered (“Dylan doesn’t need the Nobel or the money”); politically correct/“lefter-than-thou” (“Dylan wrote against war, so he should refuse the prize”); and feminist/identitarian (“Dylan is just another white male”). (13)
To his credit, Rollason takes up each one with specific instances, though I did feel that he gave short shrift to the “feminist/identitarian” argument, ignoring the gravity of the cultural moment (the convergence of #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and the election of Donald Trump). Despite this, I walked away from the essay with a sense that not only was the award justified, but it was a triumph for artistic freedom, as he argues, and a hopeful note for a renewed public engagement with Dylan. At the close of this first essay, unchanged from the article’s initial publication, Rollason provides a rationale for Dylan the Nobel winner that could not have been more appropriately phrased if it had been conceived as the rationale for this book, published five years later:
By looking in this article at the objections to his Nobel I hope to have helped better establish the case in favour. However, in the end that case can only rest on Bob Dylan’s song texts, and in the wake of the Nobel, I invite those who do not know his songs to discover them, and those who know them to return to them—to read the words first, and then listen to the texts as song (20).
One might argue that Rollason gets the order wrong—that listening to the recordings and performances should come first, as Dylan is first a songwriter and singer. But the rebuttal he has just made to such “generic/categorical” anti-Nobel claims is enough to incline any reader to accept Rollason’s invitation to join him on his guided tour of chosen “song texts.”
In his chapter on “Desolation Row,” and the chapter comparing “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” and “Every Grain of Sand,” Rollason highlights Dylan’s technical gifts as a poet, his engagement with the forms and ideas of Romanticism and Modernism, and his astonishing absorption of the core texts of Western high culture as well as “low” culture vernaculars. In dexterous prose, Rollason weaves partial quotes in with critical summary, along with identification of intertextual cues, full quotes of stanzas, and commentary on the implications of prosody and allusion. In his analysis of “Every Grain of Sand,” Rollason identifies subtle allusions to the diction and syntax from Genesis 4:1-15 and Mathew 10:30. Such references, when discussed in their Biblical context, help draw clearer distinctions between the “healing” depiction of nature in “Weary Tune” with the potentially “intimidating and oppressive” power of nature in “Every Grain of Sand” (53). His analysis in this chapter is also a good example of when Rollason’s disclosure of lyric variants ends up playing a meaningful role in his textual analysis. In the song’s closing couplet, “perfect finished plan” has a “comforting finality” that the variant “reality of man,” a phrase that “exclude[s] the natural world,” does not. Putting his conclusions in dialogue with Michael Gray’s, Rollason also considers the line “every sparrow falling” as an allusion to Mathew 10:29 and its echoes in Hamlet, “when the prince declares: ‘There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.’” As a result, Rollason questions, or at least adds complexity to, Gray’s conclusion that the song’s narrator experiences a “reconciliation with God.” What kind of reconciliation is it, Rollason asks, where such an “image of cruelty” prevails?
For those who know the oeuvre of Rollason’s writings on Dylan, it may not come as a surprise to find his essay on “Bob Dylan’s Dream” (first published in 2000) positioned as the second chapter of the book, for it demonstrates a notable synergy between scholarly sleuthing and critical speculation. The implications extend not only to the interpretation of the song, but also to the conventional understanding of Dylan’s move away from protest. Setting his analysis of this “very strange song” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in dialogue with other commentary, sparse as it is, Rollason reveals a subtext that foreshadows Dylan’s later ambivalence about, if not outright renunciation of, protest. While this attitude came into clearer view on Another Side of Bob Dylan, Rollason shows us the seeds of disillusionment two records prior, a stunning suggestion given that it preceded one of the greatest protest albums of all time, led by the eponymous title track “The Times They Are a-Changin’” (1964). Nonetheless, after a lengthy discussion of “Lord Franklin,” the English folk ballad on which Dylan based his melody and some elements of the song’s narrative, Rollason makes a persuasive case that “’Bob Dylan’s Dream,’ . . . seems to be anticipating the death of the 1960s, expressing the fear that the decade’s hopes of liberation would disintegrate even as they were being spun” (36). Such a view might be glimpsed from an imaginative reading of the lyrics themselves. But backlit by “Lord Franklin,” Rollason shows how the song implicates “the problem of authority” with which the “radical youth movement” had to “come to terms.” Rollason elaborates:
Dylan’s group of friends, “quite satisfied” with their values and lifestyle, appears deceptively fixated on youth autonomy, with authority seemingly erased altogether. The new consciousness will not survive unless it manages to deal with authority, not as a purely external force (“the wicked world outside”), but as a presence within—the other voice in that inner dialogue between authoritarian and libertarian selves which Dylan, years later in the Infidels album in 1983, was to dramatize memorably as “I and I.”
Whether you reach the same conclusion as Rollason, it may not be possible to un-hear the intertextual echoes of this reading every time you re-listen to “Bob Dylan’s Dream.”
The chapter is one of many edifying moments in “the Literary Bob Dylan” that will influence my own experience of particular songs and of Dylan more generally. This is especially true of Rollason’s chapter on “Dylan and Edgar Allan Poe,” one of the few chapters that does not focus on particular songs (The others being his opening chapter on Dylan and the Nobel Prize, “Dylan and Salman Rushdie,” and his very brief concluding chapter, “Dylan Studies: The Future”). Here Rollason’s expert knowledge of Poe’s work and influences shows Dylan’s own deep knowledge of Poe’s work. Rollason goes far beyond instances of direct quotation, embedded quotation, and allusion to identify interesting parallels as cultural figures and between their shared aesthetics. Since Rough and Rowdy Ways, the presence of Poe in Dylan’s work would be hard for most people to miss. But Rollason shows how Poe’s gothic sensibility and imagistic landscape have been there all along.
Despite its contributions to Dylan scholarship, however, this chapter underscores what is a fair criticism of the book’s version of the literary. The endeavor of cataloging and classifying in minute detail, as worthwhile as this review has shown such an endeavor to be, can sometimes have the effect of watching a spelling bee. The discussion on the page can start to feel more like a contest, where the naming of references and echoes, like the spelling of long or obscure words —removed from the dynamic world of language—becomes an end in itself. I sometimes found myself asking, what is the point of this detective work? What are we learning? For Dylan scholars, the answers may be obvious, but even to learned and culturally literate fans, the answers may be less clear.
Another point of criticism is what feels like an unstated edict in this collection to banish all talk of music, sound, texture, and performance. Limiting the field of analysis is necessary, but in many chapters I found myself questioning the ability to reach general conclusions about the meaning of a song text without serious attention to music, sound, texture, and vocal performance. In analyses of the dead poets, after all, we are encouraged to imagine the sound of things, and how poets cultivate personas that call on our experience of the spoken word in all its dynamic wonder. Why then can’t the sound of Dylan singing, within the context of music and song, be at least a reference point when it is right there in front of us? Such consideration would sometimes complicate text-only interpretations and at other times simplify them. But doing so seems important and justified, given the larger objectives of better understanding and appreciating Dylan’s songs and art. Ignoring sonic and performative dimensions makes textual analysis more controllable but can render the work of art inert and lifeless. As I reflect on this problem, the persistent echo of “Ballad of a Thin Man” echoes in my head:
Ah, you’ve been with the professors and they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well-read, it’s well-known
But something is happening here and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
No one could accuse Rollason of not being “very well-read.” But Dylan’s sneering criticism of erudition for its own sake, or for its use as a tool to legitimate status and power, offers a relevant counterpoint to Rollason’s strict adherence to the textual field and to traditional modes of literary analysis. On the page, this song’s disapproval of conventional respectability is impossible to miss. Despite all your learning, he is saying, you can’t see the deeper reality, whatever it is. This skepticism of the established order could be dismissed as one of the trite pronouncements of the 60s counterculture Dylan helped articulate. But it reaches another level of intensity entirely, like getting stabbed with a knife, when you can hear Dylan singing it. And isn’t this sound of Dylan’s voice, reverberating in the smoke-rings of our minds, an element of intertextuality as well?
Despite some misgivings about Rollason’s narrow definition of the literary, this book, for what it aspires to be, is a remarkable collection of criticism. It will appeal to a wide range of readers and help lay the foundation for a legacy of Dylan scholarship that will inspire new readings and new directions for years to come.