Dylan at 80: It Used to Go like That, and Now It Goes like This. Edited by Gary K. Browning and Constantine Sandis. Exeter, U.K.: Imprint Academic Ltd, 2021. x + 176 pp.
REVIEW BY Anne-Marie Mai, University of Southern Denmark
As a researcher in Bob Dylan’s art and poetry, I have found myself on my own never-ending tour. Public interest in learning more about Bob Dylan is growing among both young and old, and audiences eagerly note titles of new books and research articles whenever I give lectures on Bob Dylan at libraries, university extension courses or general education societies. I often end my lectures by noting that posterity will speak of us as an audience that was there when Dylan was alive. Just as we today talk about someone who saw and heard Amadeus Mozart play live and followed the making of his opus, our descendants will talk about us as people who were actually present and experienced Dylan’s giant opus coming into being. We might be envied because we witness how Dylan has generously shared his art, given numerous concerts, and engaged in film, radio, and visual arts. It can actually be quite demanding to follow Dylan’s eighty-year pace.
In 2020, when the world was first suffering from the coronavirus pandemic, Dylan released his album Rough and Rowdy Ways. In the summer of 2021 he appeared in a new online show, Shadow Kingdom, where he, along with a group of young musicians, played some of his early songs in masterful new interpretations. By the end of 2021, Dylan was again on tour and in 2022 announced a new book release, The Philosophy of Modern Song. He has not reduced his productivity now that he has gotten older, but thrillingly, he has increased it.
The new release, Dylan at 80, edited by Professor Gary Browning and Professor Constantine Sandis, is as thrilling as the artist himself. The publication consists of thirty-five short essays on a variety of intriguing and surprising topics: everything from Dylan’s Stratocaster, to Dylan’s ghosts, to the love of Dylan, become the subject of fine essayistic considerations. The publication dares to confront the reader with scores of diverse topics, each interesting object giving way to the next. The editors have mixed research with personal recollections and testimonies of people who have lived a long life with Dylan’s art. It is characteristic that the publication does not repeat old truths about Dylan but sees its topics from new perspectives.
It may seem hard to say anything new about well-known Dylan topics – like the famous July 25, 1965, electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival – but there is more to reveal. Professor Garry L. Hagberg’s fine analysis of Dylan’s playing on his new Stratocaster is put into relief by Jimi Hendrix’s use of the Stratocaster on “All Along the Watchtower,” where Hendrix also uses the acoustic guitar as the foundation that gets the Stratocaster to sing. No wonder Dylan himself declared: “It’s Jimi’s piece, I just wrote it.” Hagberg adds to the well-known drama of Dylan’s performance at Newport that it opened the history of the vigor of his songs: “When Dylan walked onstage with that Stratocaster, he (knowingly or otherwise) created a line of implication concerning the fecundity of his songs; what they could call for and what they could mean” (55).
Dylan at 80 also includes famous Dylan researcher Michael Gray’s analysis of the endings of Dylan’s songs. Gray notes how the young Dylan to some extent follows the rules of folk music for how a musician should end a song on an album, not by fading out the music, but by coming to an end and making it clear that the song is finished. According to Michael Gray, Dylan sticks to the rule of no fade-outs when he sings the traditional songs on his first album, Bob Dylan (1961), but when he brings in his own song, “Talkin’ New York,” he uses a fade-out. In his live performances he starts using a significant harp break before the last verse of the song as he did in the recorded version of “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” (1964) and he also begins to fade out more tracks on his albums (229). Or he challenges the idea of the absolute end of something, importing his characteristic contradictions and oxymorons into the endings of his songs as in “To Ramona” (1964), the ending of which includes the contradiction: “everything passes, everything changes” (233).
Among the more personal recollections of and reflections on Dylan, readers can delight in Stephen Sedley’s tale of a brief encounter with Dylan at a London club in 1962, in the days of Cuban Missile Crisis, when Dylan was recognized as a new American star and asked to play. Dylan borrowed Stephen Sedley’s guitar and fell into the ongoing session. The beauty of Sedley’s account is that he confesses his memory may have added something and subtracted something else; but the memory is his, as are the youthfully old-fashioned reviews he writes about Dylan’s London concerts in 1964 and 1965. A nice photo of the guitar that Dylan borrowed and quotations from Sedley’s old reviews are included (18-19, 20).
Among the personal accounts, we also notice the songwriter and musician Robyn Hitchcock, who tells of how, as a young man, he experienced Dylan’s songs and began to look at him as an older brother: “He must have fulfilled that role for millions by now” (148). Songwriter and singer Emma Swift talks about how she got hooked on Dylan during the coronavirus pandemic, when Dylan released “Murder Most Foul” with a special greeting to his fans and followers: “stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you” (151). Emma Swift finds that Dylan’s fans and followers come together in online communities, help one another, and keep each other’s spirits up during this difficult time, and that Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways gives the group new material to enjoy, analyze, and share with each other. And while Hitchcock calls Dylan an older brother, Swift wants to expand the family relationship: “Bob Dylan is not merely the world’s finest songwriter – he is the charming, elusive, sage, handsome, poetic and life-affirming brother, father, uncle and grandfather we never had” (152).
All contributions in this anthology are worth reading, and they cover everything from Dylan’s first songs and lyrics to his very latest works. I’m particularly fond of Emma-Rose Sear’s excellent reading of Dylan’s poem, “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie,” in which she shows how Dylan understands Guthrie as a kind ghost, neither living nor dead, who haunts his own work and thus never quite disappears from his universe. Guthrie is placed in a special presence, an “out of time” that Dylan returns to in other songs. The essay provides the reader new avenues to pursue the ghostly themes of Dylan’s universe, themes that seem to increase as Dylan continues to create, such as the ghostly atmosphere in Shadow Kingdom.
It’s also inspiring to follow Laura Tenschert’s article on the song, “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” from Rough and Rowdy Ways. Tenschert explains how Dylan’s song can be seen in relation to his Nobel lecture, as well as the song “Mother of Muses,” also from Rough and Rowdy Ways. The Nobel lecture ends with Homer’s plea to the Muse: “Oh Muse, sing in me,” while the song “Mother of Muses” asks the mother of muses, Mnemosyne, to bestow on the singer the Muse of epic poetry, Calliope: “why not give her to me?” Dylan thus surrounds himself with several muses that he hopes will come to him. “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” can be seen as a love song about devotion, but it also has a deeper layer where the singer reflects on his art and realizes that it is not a matter of his winning the Muse and making her his own; rather, he must devote himself to her. Tenschert provides a fine analysis of Dylan’s use of Jacques Offenbach’s opera “The Tales of Hoffmann” as musical and textual inspiration in the song. Tenschert asks, is it really necessary for Dylan to assure himself, and the rest of us, that he has indulged in art? It is of course good that he does, because beautiful songs come out of his statements, but perhaps the relationship with art must constantly be reformulated and restored. Although Dylan has long since been able to celebrate his golden wedding anniversary with poetry, it has never been a safe marriage, but a dramatic love affair that must be constantly renewed.
There are several very readable essays in this collection about Dylan’s latest songs, his voice, and his stage performance. There is also a very careful linguistic corpus analysis of Dylan’s word choices in the 20th and 21st centuries. The linguist and translator Jean-Charles Khalifa is hesitant to draw big conclusions; however, he does note that the verb “change,” which was very prominent in Dylan’s songs from the 20th century, has almost disappeared in the 21st century (95).
Several of the writers are interested in comparing Dylan to other artists. Dylan himself has not shied away from comparing himself to Shakespeare, who is perhaps one of his most important inspirations. When Dylan first gave a concert in Denmark in 1966, he rushed to Kronborg to see Hamlet’s castle and climb onto the bastion where Hamlet’s father’s ghost first appeared.
Professor Katharine A. Craik, a Shakespeare specialist and poet, discusses Dylan’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, where he mentions Shakespeare, and she notes that Dylan’s use of Shakespeare’s dramatic works is often pointed out. But there’s also reason to look at parallels between Shakespeare’s sonnets and Dylan’s songs. With the sonnets Craik hears a “melody” (195) and, like Dylan’s songs, the sonnets are about existential conditions: youth, age, memory, and death. Craik compares Shakespeare’s sonnet No. 66 from 1609 to Dylan’s song, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” It is her point of view that the two texts are similar: they represent “a wake-up call, through repeated acts of witnessing, to a world which is terribly depleted by untruthfulness, prejudice, carelessness, cruelty and neglect” (196). The essay is a good introduction to the study of poetry across the years and shapes itself as a newly enriched approach to literary history. Craik elaborates on Dylan’s point that he has never thought about whether what he is doing is literature by highlighting that what Dylan and Shakespeare share is the awareness of the risk and vulnerability inherent to artistic work.
In her essay, Fleur Jongepier, who works in ethics, compares Bob Dylan and Iris Murdoch’s notions and practices in relation to “unselfing,” a process in which one experiences through self-expression that there is something else in the world that is real apart from oneself. It is practicing “unselfing through selfing,” which is an important point of Murdoch’s philosophy, that can be found in Dylan as he expresses himself through characters of his songs like Jimmy Reed, Johnny in the Basement, or Franky Lee, and arrives at a spiritual unselfing comparable to a Buddhist experience (205). It’s an intriguing thought that sheds new light on Dylan’s steady moving between characters and roles as thematized in Todd Haynes’ film, I’m Not There (2007) (206).
Another artist Dylan is compared to is Pablo Picasso. The art historian Ray Foulk, who specializes in modern art, discusses the differences in Dylan’s and Picasso’s significance and breakthroughs. Picasso contributed to a renewal of the realm of art with one stroke – cubism – while Dylan’s revolutionary impact had to do with stages: first he renewed folk music and then he went electric. But both became seminal. Foulk also discusses the two artists’ relationship with God and their inclusion in other arts: film, acting, and photography. The interest in the two artists illuminates the transformative power of their work.
Natalie Ferris takes a closer look at Dylan’s visual art, especially his major works in iron. She emphasizes that iron as a material has always interested Dylan and characterizes some of his gates created out of industrial iron waste. She points out the gates are tributes to craftsmanship, but that they also mark a transition from a modern industrial culture to a more uncertain future. This is neither modernism or postmodernism – rather, the artwork marks transitions while also referring to a non-place, standing both inside and outside without being fully either. Ferris considers why Dylan has sold a very large iron portal to a casino in Washington, D.C., observing the portal marks the transition from a universe governed by one logic to a universe with a different logic. The portal protrudes from the smooth marble surface and the delicate colors at the casino’s entrance.
The editors for this project, Dylan at 80, have engaged innovative writers who demonstrate that Dylan’s oeuvre is a growing field of research. Dylan’s unflagging productivity constantly puts new material on the table, and it is seized upon by many kinds of writers and Dylanologists. There are many great new ideas in this anthology that readers will want to hear much more about, and the mix of memoirs with analytical articles works well. It is promising that so many knowledgeable and committed people seek out Dylan’s work, draw comparisons to other artwork and poetry, and show their enthusiasm. I would have liked to have heard more about Dylan as a performer and about his involvement in films. It would also be interesting to look at how the different arts he engages in work together. Is there an interaction between, say, painting and songwriting, or are these isolated endeavors? Dylan’s involvement in advertising, too, could merit closer analysis. All the same, Dylan at 80 is a rewarding anthology that I’ll come back to and work on, a formidable inspiration for anyone preoccupied with Dylan, and an obligatory work on the list of books I would recommend on my own personal never-ending lecture tour.