The Dylan Review spoke to writer and avid Dylan researcher Scott Warmuth in spring 2022. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Dylan Review: You’ve called Dylan an “outlaw appropriation artist,” especially in his late era. What does that mean?
Scott Warmuth: There’s the notion of being an outlaw, and I think that’s always been a part of what Dylan’s approach to art is in terms of rule breaking. You know, “to live outside the law, you must be honest.” The romantic notion of the outlaw. When I was using that term, I was thinking about the approaches Dylan has used in his writing, whether it’s lyrics, or prose, his memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, or the film script Masked and Anonymous, and especially the paintings, a lot of them – fifty-plus easily – based on images from films. And the notion of the appropriation artist: a constructive way to put it into context is to see who Dylan’s contemporaries are for that. Let’s talk about Joni Mitchell, or Leonard Cohen, or Warren Zevon. But I think especially since Dylan’s gotten more into visual work, that Richard Prince is another touch point. They’ve collaborated in different ways. Prince wrote a foreword for The Asia Series (of Dylan’s paintings). He quotes Dylan endlessly, online and in his writing, and he’s talked about going to Dylan’s studio and it didn’t look like any art studio he’d ever seen. So how does someone who’s accused of similar things that Dylan’s been accused of respond? There’s a book that’s just Richard’s deposition where he’s asked on the stand by a hostile interrogator about his artistic processes, and it’s a wonderful read. Richard Prince refers to this experience as “Deposition Row.”
I think Bob Dylan is laying the notion that he’s thinking of appropriation art as an outlaw component. He talks about a party at Camila’s in the early 60s in Chronicles, the people that he meets there. It’s Cisco Houston, and an artist named Robin Whitlaw. And as they go back and forth he uses some dialogue from Hemingway’s “The Killers.” Later on, Whitlaw broke into someone’s house and stole some artwork and then was acquitted, because she said that was her artistic process. As it turns out, Robin Whitlaw doesn’t exist. She’s a character invented by art critic and writer Ralph Rugoff, an imagined outlaw appropriation artist who got away with her appropriation crimes. Dylan appropriates her, puts her in his book, which is like saying, “I met Zorro,” you know, “Godzilla and I had a conversation.” It’s not a real person. And I don’t know how that slipped past, how nobody called that out at the time. He’s planting that notion that he’s aligning himself with an imagined outlaw appropriation artist.
DR: Your specialty in the Dylan world is finding the source texts of Dylan’s writings, his lyrics, his prose writings, and his paintings. But how does his work from 1997 on compare to the borrowing he did earlier in his career? Are there distinctions to be made?
SW: There’s a much more fine-tuned intentionality with Time Out of Mind moving forward. Certainly you can find things that are similar, little bits from Jack Kerouac in “Desolation Row,” where specific images pop up. In some of the 80s songs there’s a lot of film dialogue, or lines from Star Trek, but I don’t see that as being the same. With Time Out of Mind, and especially “Love and Theft”, it becomes much more intentional. He’s tying together two different lines that have similar context, if you know the source material, and placing them together. He’s pairing high culture and low culture, thinking about how these things go together. Or creating a subtext by using material from other sources that you don’t see in some of those 80s songs with film dialogue, especially in Chronicles. There’s other things going on beneath the surface, if you know what those components are. So I think it’s a two-step approach. Part of it is recognizing what those pieces are. Can you identify them and capture their components? They don’t necessarily have to have a meaning, or have to make sense, but very often you can build a case: “Well, there’s too many of these for this to be unintentional,” and “what is this telling us?” And in that ability to have two or three conversations at the same time: the one that’s on the surface level with the song, and the multiple threads going on behind the scenes that you wouldn’t know about unless you had a laundry list of source materials. How do they appear in the different contexts? And how does he make them bounce off each other? I think that’s where some of the sparks come in, some of the alchemy comes in.
DR: In terms of finding those connections, the source texts, is there a threshold of similarity that it takes for you to draw the connection?
SW: Some are easy to spot. The likelihood goes up when you already know that, well, this is a writer Dylan likes a lot. And then, for instance, in Chronicles, it’s probably Jack London, who’s used the most. Then there’s lots of Ernest Hemingway, or Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels, and on and on. Sometimes there are multiple uses. You get one hit, maybe via Google Books, and read the paragraph before, the paragraph after, the pages before, the pages after, the entire Hemingway short story. And then you might notice other bits turning up. It’s the same phrase, or it’s on the page that has another phrase that’s so long and so distinct, that it has to be from this Hemingway short story, and that raises the likelihood of finding another one there. There’s some that you could argue, “Well, it’s just happenstance, there’s only so many letters and words in the English language.” I’ve heard plenty of that. But I think some of those arguments fall flat when there are just so many examples. There’s this intentionality going on. The example I like to use, because I think it’s one of the clearest, is in Chronicles. He’s writing about recording Oh Mercy in New Orleans, and he goes to the movie theater to see Homeboy. And he talks about how every time Mickey Rourke appeared on the screen, the movie went to the moon. And on the same page, he’s using a peculiar passage that turns up in The First Men in the Moon, from H.G. Wells. It’s like he’s aware.
Everyone’s going to have their own threshold of what’s going to pass the sniff test. I’ve got a “maybe” file, and I try not to spitball in public. If I’m going to present something it’s, “Here’s what I’m seeing, here are all the moving parts.” And if you can find there’s something he might be doing with those moving parts, I think that’s where it really gets interesting.
DR: You’ll read the short story, or read the novel, or watch the film Dylan got the line from, or listen to the recording. One could argue you’re consuming more of the media that Bob Dylan is consuming than anyone. So what can you say about Bob Dylan’s reading and listening habits from going through that practice?
SW: You know, I go to anybody’s house, I want to see what’s in your record collection and I want to see what’s on your bookshelf. That’s just the way that I’m wired. As a reader, Dylan is very broad. He seems to have interests that range from 20th-century literature to Homer or Chaucer to one-offs that are peculiar. There are a couple lines from a book called The Encyclopedia of Desks, a description of a desk he uses to describe Ray Gooch’s desk in Chronicles, and it’s too many things for it to not be this particular desk, and so I’m wondering, “How do you end up with The Encyclopedia of Desks?” I have a Pinterest page I’ve been building for years called “A Bob Dylan Bookshelf” that has over 100 different titles. There’s biographical stuff; jazz bios; Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues; and Beneath the Underdog, the Charles Mingus memoir. There’s a book by Lewis MacAdams called Birth Of The Cool that he uses a couple of little bits from in Chronicles. It’s a book that mentions him, and he uses books by people he knows sometimes. A book he uses a number of times in Chronicles is American Rhapsody, that Joe Eszterhas wrote about the Clinton-era scandals. And, of course, they worked together on Hearts of Fire. He’s Bob Dylan’s neighbor. Joe Eszterhas writes about Dylan’s dogs making a mess on his Malibu front lawn, and in American Rhapsody, there’s a passage that says “Dylan our Elvis.” You know, Dylan can’t be his own Elvis, so how does he respond to that? And then he’s also bouncing off these ideas. Like, what does Joe say about this? And how does Eszterhas do that? Or he’ll combine voices where it’s a little bit of Hemingway mixed with a little bit of this or that. Sometimes there’s a big loud voice in a passage and there’s a smaller one hiding underneath. It’s harder to see, unless you really go in and dig it apart phrase by phrase and get lucky.
DR: In terms of the still images from films that Dylan uses as source texts for his paintings, how does that creative process compare to his lyric and prose writing process? How is Dylan doing something similar or different with the paintings from the text works?
SW: There is some overlap. I don’t know that they’re exact. With the ones where he’s got drawings that accompany handwritten lyrics, sometimes they’re much more obvious images. There’s a drawing of a sheriff’s badge for “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Here’s a drawing of Napoleon, who’s mentioned in the song. Sometimes they’re much more direct in those.
I think it’s a visual language that he’s going for, and that he’s incorporating literary ideas into some of those paintings. There’s one batch of paintings that really doesn’t get represented at all in Retrospectrum, the big retrospective they did in China, and then they did it again at the Frost Museum in Florida, which is a sprawling exhibit. There’s hundreds of pieces, but nothing from Revisionist Art, which are these peculiar magazine cover paintings, but they look like photographic images. Some are revised magazine covers or imagined magazine covers, but with real photographs of real people. They’re filled with text, and I think there’s more to go on with the explanation of the text within those. There’s just so many of them. That material needs to be looked at more closely, because some of the text is just gags and jokes or non sequiturs, or commentary on magazine culture. Dylan being from a magazine generation where magazines are important. I’ve heard Sean Latham talk about that, the notion of Dylan as someone who magazines are important to. And I think that plays a role in why Revisionist Art should be looked at that way. I think he’s making commentary with some of those. He’s got a whole series of paintings of Times Square in the 70s from a range of different films people know, like Taxi Driver, as well as from films that aren’t as well known, genre films like Fleshpot on 42nd Street or Massage Parlor Hookers, which wouldn’t be films that your average person would would know or go to. So what is going on there? And is he doing other things within those paintings? I think the answer is yes.
I’ve got a list of close to fifty different films. These range from film noir to 70s films, action movies, home movies, it’s all across the board: foreign films of different sorts from Asia and from Europe. And the notion of Dylan as someone who has been interested in film forever, it’s interesting to see what those choices are. Also there’s plenty of that type of work that we’d never get to see done for private audiences for high ticket prices that never hit a gallery. We won’t get to see them until they turn up in the secondary market when these collectors decide to sell or they die and their family sells. And that might not be for decades.
DR: Your own work has not been without controversy. What do you say to someone who might say that your work, perhaps, is tarnishing Dylan’s legacy?
SW: What you need to do is take a look at the body of work over the last 25 years. It’s undeniable how this use of appropriation, of recrafting, of stitching bits together from other sources, in a deliberate way to create subtext, I think, is an avenue that deserves exploration.
If you’re just having a surface discussion, it’s easy to go for big, clunky ideas. I’m not really all that interested in plagiarism. If I was – if I wanted to out Bob Dylan as a plagiarist – I wouldn’t waste my time. I wouldn’t spend time with things I wasn’t interested in. Sometimes when I see things I’ve written get picked up in larger media, it’s boiled down to this lowest common denominator that is perhaps a little simplistic. And I can see how, if that’s all you saw, that may not appeal to you. Plenty of people are emotionally invested in many of those songs, because they touch us in certain ways. That’s why he’s so popular, the way this material works. And if you’ve been with that for a long, long time, and suddenly you’re seeing something different, I could see that as a threat, potentially. Or the notion that I want Bob Dylan to be a self-contained genius with this stuff just pouring out of him. That break can be dissonant for some folks. I wish I had enough imagination to create these things and invent them and make them up. I’m just noticing the things that are there, cataloging them, and then saying, “Hey, take a look at this.” And “Compare this, it might mean something to some of the other things going on here.” I think that’s a legitimate discussion. To boil it down to a plagiarism article or a gotcha game is not all that interesting. I don’t think it does service to the work. I think there are a vast amount of things going on in Dylan’s work we haven’t even started to discuss, and these starting points can open the doors.
So I try to slough off a fair amount of that criticism, because I know what my tone sounds like, I know what my intent is. I’m a fan of this work. Not everybody wants to go through Chronicles phrase by phrase, but if you do, it’s a rewarding exercise. And there’s a lot going on there. Same with “Love and Theft”, and some of those records, you can enjoy the music without knowing any of those components, or that writing. They all work that way. But they work on these other levels as well. And I think there’s still plenty going on we haven’t even spotted.
I’ve seen where someone was dismissive early on saying, “No way,” or “I believe this one, but this one? No no no no, no way.” It’s like steering an ocean liner. Ten years later, that same person comes to me and says, “You know what, I found something just like you were talking about, take a look at this.” They got on board, it just took a decade.
If you think about critical writing and thought on Bob Dylan, you’ve got Michael Gray who did a lot of groundbreaking work and I really respect the stuff he’s done. But there’s people digging the same holes again and again, and I think if you start digging different holes, there’s different things there and you can have different discussions, or at least open up thoughts and people’s ideas. A lot of that just takes time. A lot of this research that we’re talking about I did over a decade ago, mapped out and wrote about in different places, wrote about on my blog, got picked up in different places. But now it’s a decade later, there’s a whole new group of Dylan fans. How do you touch those folks and see a different generation who hasn’t been listening to Bob Dylan since the first album came out, or since 1965, where they may have different perspectives or different approaches?
So I’ve been trying to revisit some of that stuff, break it out into a million different pieces. Twitter is great for that: “Hey, take a quick look at this.” Or Instagram: “Let’s take a snapshot of this piece, compare, contrast, look here, do you like that? There’s more.” So you can fill in some of those pieces. Some might click, and someone may go, “Let me get the complete works of Jack London, go through page by page, and highlight the passages that Dylan uses, dog ear those pages and make a concordance for those pieces.” It’s there if people want to do it.
DR: I was looking at an early essay of yours…
SW: The one that’s on the New Haven Review?
DR: Yes, which is titled “Bob Charlatan.” And that word “charlatan” has a bit of a negative connotation. Would you use that same word today?
SW: There’s a book, I think it’s Time Out of Mind by Ian Bell. The late Ian Bell writes about that essay, and he was concerned with the title. And I don’t know that his statements all ring true, but he writes, “you must assume the title was his.” And actually, I would have done that title a different way, but you’re working with editors, it’s just the nature of working with folks. But my initial title had that flipped: “Charlatan Bob.”
Thinking of Another Side of Bob Dylan, but many different sides of Bob Dylan, I’d written a piece called “Sideshow Bob,” but about Dylan’s use of writing from a book of sideshow photography that turns up in the script for Masked and Anonymous. Some of the Jeff Bridges scenes use it a bunch, and I broke that all out, and Dylan uses others sideshow books, and you’ve got the Simpsons reference there too, so I couldn’t resist Sideshow Bob, the Bob that’s interested in sideshow. I like the Bob Dylan who’s interested in rockabilly: Rockabilly Bob, he likes Warren Smith, and he likes Sun Records, and he goes to hang out with Billy Lee Riley. And he invited rockabilly artist Glen Glenn, who just passed away recently, to join him and play a show in Los Angeles in the 90s. So I like Rockabilly Bob, and I can relate to Sideshow Bob, and that title (“Bob Charlatan”) was meant as a challenge to the reader. It’s a little antagonistic, and some of that is on purpose. You want to have a title that’s got something going on with it. But I would’ve had Charlatan Bob as just another one of those Bobs: Sideshow Bob, Rockabilly Bob, Charlatan Bob.
For some, that title alone, they wouldn’t go past that. They tossed it away, and they wouldn’t dive into it. That’s fine. That was part of the intent: to be a challenge. The core of why I chose that title is there’s a passage in the essay about Dylan using bits from a book that’s a bit like Machiavelli’s The Prince, by Robert Greene called The 48 Laws of Power. And Dylan uses a whole series of different elements from that book. But there’s this one section, where he’s talking about music theory, and things going on in threes. It’s very… it’s oblique. You can’t walk away from it going, “Okay, I’m going to apply these lessons and I’ll really be on my way to Bob Dylan.” It turns out he’s using these components from one of the lessons on the science of charlatanism, or how to start a cult in five easy steps, which is a wonderfully strange thing to find. And it turns out, Dylan’s messing with the audience while also applying those lessons. To me, that was a wonderful discovery.
DR: To bring it back to the present day, the tenor of the conversation surrounding Dylan’s appropriations has changed and evolved, thanks in part to your own work. People have a better understanding of his late-era borrowings. So how have you altered your own approach to finding the connections and to getting the information out there to people?
SW: It certainly has changed over time. I initially got drawn into all of this with “Love and Theft” in 2001. I still remember putting it into the CD player for the first time and just being knocked out by what a fantastic record it is, and then seeing the components and learning more about how musically it’s built, because a lot of those songs have got an antecedent. “Summer Days” is a Big Joe Turner song called “Rebecca.” They’re very similar. “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” has “Uncle John’s Bongos,” the Johnnie and Jack song. So I just started mapping out the musical connections, and then seeing where people were writing about the lyrical bits. That bit from The Great Gatsby is easy to spot, then a few others bubbled up. And then Dylan’s use of material from the oral history of a Japanese gangster turned up, so I was fascinated with all of that. As early as 2004, I was doing a radio presentation about Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft” and its musical resources. I had served as music director at a radio station on Long Island called WUSB, the largest non-commercial radio station on Long Island. And in 2004, they were doing a 12-hour Dylan marathon. I’d been living in Albuquerque for a long time at that point, but I sent the CD to one of my friends there, and we did about an hour on the air talking about “Love and Theft” specifically, and how some of those pieces were constructed.
Now the resources have certainly changed from when I started working through “Love and Theft”. Google Books has played a huge role in the ability to search for phrases, and to go through them, it just speeds that up so much. I grew up in an analog world, I’m really comfortable with a card catalog. I know how to thread a microfilm machine and get what I want in the newspaper. I love to go to a library and sit and do research. Now you can just do that faster. And that’s gotten easier over time.
One thing I think is, once you find he’s using a certain resource again and again, to get a hard copy of it, and to actually sit and read it slowly. And then just wait for those parts. Sometimes I might read something a couple different times, or go back to something years later and notice, “Oh, how could I miss that?” Or that you’re likely to have the edition that Dylan is reading, because the lines he’s using are at the top of the page, the bottom of the page, the chapter ends with a paragraph halfway through the page, and your eye is going to be drawn to that. You can get a notion for how Dylan’s eyes scan a page. Sometimes he starts on one page and then borrows across the page, so they’re totally different paragraphs, but you can see the highlighter goes across. Training your eye to see what might jump out to Bob Dylan. And if you do that for years, you can get better, and the resources have gotten better.
I can have a hard copy of a book that I know I want to look through, or say the Masked and Anonymous script printed out in front of me, but if I’ve got a digital copy of the book that I want to work with, it’s searchable. I can go through and search through areas that I know are hotspots. And then I’ll run every single phrase through my Kindle. So some of it is speeded up, you don’t have to sit in front of a computer. Now I can sit on my couch with a book and a tablet and just do it because it’s like fishing, you know, just let me cast a line with this phrase. And let me cast it again. Let me cast a line with another phrase and do that hundreds, thousands of times. A lot of people might not have the patience to do that, but you know, even a bad day fishing is still a good day, and I like to listen to music and read books. What am I doing? I’m reading books, I’m reading magazines, and then when you find ones like, “Oh, I know he’s read this.” And then you can start to piece together, What else might be going on there? How closely did he read this? Are these ideas he was reading about when he was writing this component? It changes how you think about that piece.
Over time, it’s gotten easier. For instance, we talked about the films that he’s using as sources for his paintings. Some of those I was able to find because there’s text in the painting, and I can search for the text, and here it is, let me watch the rest of the film. Oh, there’s another image that he used. You just get lucky that way. Some of them I recognize because I’ve seen the movie. And it’s Urban Cowboy, it’s The Lords of Flatbush, I know what that movie is. But he likely has a subscription to the Criterion Channel, and there’s a fast forward option where it gives you a screen grab every 10 seconds, and you can scroll through an hour-and-a-half movie in 15 minutes and rule it in or rule it out, if you’ve got an eye that’s focused. Sometimes you have to be really focused. Someone on Twitter had suggested The French Connection was a movie that Dylan was likely doing paintings on, and I’d watched The French Connection a couple of days earlier with that notion in mind, knowing he’s using gritty movies from the New York area from the 1970s, and I didn’t spot it. And I watched it again and the image jumped out at me. It was a quick shot, only a few seconds long, but I was able to spot it. Sometimes you get lucky.
DR: What motivates you to keep doing these deep dives into Dylan, to devote so much of your time and energy and life to this quest?
SW: It’s fun. I’m a huge music fan, worked as a disc jockey for years, have a huge music collection. Bob Dylan’s work was certainly always a part of that since I was a little kid. And his work is so interesting, it’s moving and it touches you in different ways. With “Love and Theft” and Modern Times, and Chronicles and Masked and Anonymous, you can start to piece it together. It’s like a sweater that’s unraveling, you tug that thread and just keep pulling. It’s got payoffs, too, when you find, “Oh, I never would’ve thought of that, that way.” Or, how does Bob Dylan read an Ernest Hemingway short story? What’s gonna jump out at him? Why would he pick this story? Or just to get an idea of the creative process. How do you write a Bob Dylan song? Certainly there’s got to be a lot of different ways. There’s a lot of different songs, but the material will tell you that if you take some of that apart and see what those moving parts are. I like to take apart my toys and see why they work that way. And I think that’s part of it. It’s something I do for fun.
One of the things that I was really astounded to find out was that this process I’m really interested in began in earnest with Time Out of Mind. I love Time Out of Mind – so many great songs there. It’s a perfect record if you want to drive from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, and then back later in the day, because you get “Highlands” for the drive home and the sun setting. It’s something I’ve done dozens of times, but I hadn’t thought of it in this other way. And there was this time when Edward Cook and I were going through Chronicles, and just trading notes back and forth. And he had found a passage in Chronicles, it’s unmistakable, where Dylan is riffing off of some ideas about being on the road that Henry Rollins is writing about in a book called Black Coffee Blues. And he had found these parallels that were undeniable. As soon as I started looking, I was like, Ed, you’re on the right track.
Ed graduated high school the year I was born, so we’re from different generations. I’d seen Henry Rollins with the Rollins Band in the 80s. So I got a copy of Black Coffee Blues. I’m reading it, and then a few pages after the passage that Ed pointed out, Rollins uses the terms “dreamless sleep” and “mind polluting words,” within like two or three lines. That’s it. Oh, that changes everything. Now I’ve got a different path. And I’ve got to go and read all of these Henry Rollins books and see what’s there. This iceberg just poked its head up, and there’s a lot more below the surface. I wouldn’t be doing my due diligence if I didn’t take a look to see what was there. And then to be able to see it’s in “Mississippi.” It’s all over these songs on Time Out of Mind. It’s showing up in “Love and Theft” in different ways that I wouldn’t have seen, and how is Dylan commenting on this? And that’s just so rewarding to see he’s reading this.
The Rollins books really impact the tone of Time Out of Mind, which is somber, it’s dark in a lot of ways. And those particular Rollins books are very dour. He’s dealing with depression, with the murder of his best friend and the horror of that and also the notion of, “I’m on the road forever.” What’s it like to be on the road? Okay, Dylan’s been on the road for decades. Which parts might interest him? In the piece Ed found, Rollins is actually talking about listening to Roy Orbison on the radio. If you’re Bob Dylan reading about someone talking about listening to Orbison on the radio, while you’re on the road, when you actually knew Roy Orbison, and you were in a band with him, this guy who’s also obsessed with Sun Records, how do those things rub together? Questions like that would keep me coming back.
This is an artist who’s talking to us in different ways. What does he have to say with this hidden method? Less so now, but certainly in 2001, people weren’t really talking like this, and he continues to do it in Rough and Rowdy Ways. We’ll see what he does in Philosophy of Modern Song. I’m kind of wired that way. I want to read books and listen to music for life. So this is a way to do that. It’s a way to engage with things. I wouldn’t have had a chance to talk with John Cohen and walk him through Dylan’s use of material that had been recorded by the New Lost City Ramblers on “Love and Theft”. We had a long discussion about it, and he asked me, “Why do you do this?” And one of the things I said to him was, it puts me in a position to read things I might not have read otherwise.
And who else would you want to recommend books to you besides the guy who’s written all this great stuff. What does he read? How does he read it? It just enriches my life and keeps me active, keeps me from being stagnant and listening to all the same records I listened to when I was sixteen.
DR: Did you expect your work to have to gain as much traction as it has when you started doing this research?
SW: I’m happy that it has. Most of the time, people are appreciating it and maybe building upon it, so that I find rewarding. I joke that I love being in an index of a book if Andy Warhol is also in the book, because it’ll be Andy Warhol and then my name. I’m in the books next to Andy Warhol because I was doing this. Nothing makes me happier.
I love footnotes, indexes, reference materials. One thing I really like is when people come on board and find things that I wouldn’t have thought of, or they get lucky when I didn’t. It saves me the legwork of having a crack open so many different pieces. I find that rewarding, but there’s still a way to go, because there’s so much of it going on. I’ve got like 100 different books I know he’s using material from and tons of records. Things still come up. I find it thrilling when someone takes a look at something I’ve written, goes back to those materials and spots things I didn’t spot. And I know they’re right, and they let me know.
There’s a fellow from Canada who’s been doing some of that. He went through some of the Rollins books and he showed a line out of “Can’t Wait” that I didn’t spot. It’s opposite a page Dylan used something else from and I missed it. And I’m thinking, How did I miss it? I’d done a video on YouTube about Dylan’s use of material from a specific box set on the Bear Family label, all of these Nashville country records from the late 40s to the mid-50s that are particularly obscure. He uses line after line after line after line. One of my favorite bits is that passage in “Summer Days,” “Well I’m drivin’ in the flats in a Cadillac car” that stitches together lines from four songs on that boxset, with internal pieces he’s hiding in there and playing with. The same fellow listened to that boxset and found a song I had missed, by Smiley Burnette called “Swamp Woman Blues,” which has lines in its final verse about “doing the double shuffle” and “throwing sawdust on the floor.” There’s no question he’s listening to this, I just hadn’t heard it because there are 160 songs and I put it on repeat in my car and just didn’t catch it. It gives me more to work with. There’s all these different moving parts and potentially meanings behind them that we haven’t spotted yet.
There’s still pieces where I’m going, there’s something going on there but I don’t know what it is. And some I’m still coming to terms with that I want to write about where he’s using spiritual materials and prayer type materials that aren’t typically my wheelhouse, things I wouldn’t read or comment on. You know, people insult me in all sorts of different ways. Nobody likes that. But you have to have a complete lack of critical thinking skills to look at my work and say, “he’s an idiot,” or “he’s stupid,” or “he’s crazy.” I’m just saying, hey, take a look at this, contrast, compare. There’s enough here and here’s what else might be going on. That’s always where I’m coming from. Some of the responses used to be so negative and so ugly. Now it’s kind of flipped, and I’ve got people coming to me saying, “Yeah, I saw that. And how about this piece?” Or, “You know, I didn’t believe you about that New Orleans travel guide ten years ago, but now I do. And I found another travel guide, take a look and see what you might see here.” So you know, especially with the launch of the Bob Dylan Archive, being able to go through and look, and Bob Dylan getting the Nobel Prize in Literature. It’s changed, I think, how some people look at some of that work. And there’s always new groups of listeners coming up that have different approaches, which is refreshing. Hopefully it will continue.
DR: What do you see as the next horizon of Dylan scholarship, for you and for the field?
SW: I think about mapping out that midden field. There are hundreds, thousands of pieces, little pieces, of text and music, and not ending up like someone who’s got one of those conspiracy theory maps with all the strings drawn through it, but there’s certainly some golden threads that pull through. So I’d love to see a collection of pieces on those golden threads: here’s the usage of other material, here are subsets, here’s how it works across different pieces. I mentioned the annotated Lolita, which is fantastic. I love a good annotated book. There’s the annotated Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a few that are like that. I’d love to see the annotated Chronicles, though I don’t know that we’ll ever see that. There is the Italian version that Alessandro Carrera translated. He also translated lyrics into Italian where he has footnotes meant for an Italian audience, you know, the worldwide piece. So how do you make this intelligible for a different audience?
I’d love to see annotated components, collections of music and art, like all the songs, or a whole lot of the songs incorporated into “Love and Theft” because it’s a range of interesting and odd things and they still come up. To say, here’s the palette Dylan’s working from, and to see what those pieces are. I’d love to see a gathering place for all of those different pieces, and I’ve tried to do some of that in ways that are digestible, that’ll give entry points for people who may be interested, where they can grab onto something. The use of Twitter or Instagram, where we can break things down into little pieces, YouTube videos where I’ve tried to telescope things down. In a couple of minutes, you can get a whole lot of ideas. And if you want, you can spend a couple of hours or weeks or months or years unpacking some of those. You can make use of Pinterest as well.
I did something called A Tempest Commonplace, the notion of a commonplace book. Bob Dylan talks about “the box,” it’s got all those pieces and scraps and he puts them together. Larry Charles has talked about it, Joni Mitchell has talked about it. So creating a virtual version of material that went into that box. A clearinghouse of all of that detail. Bob Dylan as outlaw appropriation artist, Bob Dylan as rockabilly fan, Bob Dylan as a fan of American popular music, Bob Dylan as a guy who read Ernest Hemingway and feels comfortable taking the best bits out of it, and then combining them with other voices and creating third or fourth voices. To see what that strategy is, and how is he going there. There’s still more to do. I’ve unearthed a lot, and I certainly haven’t worked alone. People come up with things I wouldn’t have thought of, often, and I’d love to see more of that. I think there’s more scholarship now with the access to the Archives because if you haven’t listened to a specific boxset 100 times until it’s internalized, you won’t be able to recognize those pieces. Some of them are far too obscure.
There’s a draft of “Bye and Bye” that appears in later versions of the lyrics book that has verses that aren’t included in the recording. And there’s that Bear Family box set of Nashville records that I talked about. I took a look at that, and the lines were glowing on the page: That’s this line, that’s that line, this is another line from that song he used over here. You can’t know that, you wouldn’t be able to recognize it. Some of the bits are too obscure, unless you had this specialized knowledge. And what’s the payoff? Down the road, I can look at a draft of “Bye and Bye” and spot things you wouldn’t be able to spot otherwise. It’s too obscure and too peculiar and too hidden. So trying to do more of that, and ultimately to get back to Tulsa, dive in and see what else is there.