Greil Marcus. Folk Music: A Dylan Biography in Seven Songs. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022. 288 pp.
REVIEW BY Christopher Rollason
Greil Marcus’s latest book joins his other studies of Bob Dylan: Invisible Republic (later renamed The Old, Weird America) on the basement tapes; Like a Rolling Stone on the song of that name; one third (on “Ballad of Hollis Brown”) of the volume Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations; and the essay collection Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus. This is already quite a haul, and with this newest offering we have a further distillation of its author’s lifetime of attentive Dylan listening.
The choice of seven songs consists of six original Dylan compositions and one cover version, “Jim Jones,” from Good As I Been To You. The other songs are “Blowin’ in the Wind” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the title track and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” from The Times They Are a-Changin’, “Desolation Row” from Highway 61 Revisited, “Ain’t Talkin’” from Modern Times, and “Murder Most Foul” from Rough and Rowdy Ways.
Marcus devotes a chapter to each song, with some sections offering a comprehensive overview and others confining themselves to specific aspects. Inevitably, some portions have been published before, as duly noted in the acknowledgments. In particular, the material in the “Blowin’ in the Wind” chapter on Blind Lemon Jefferson and “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” formed part of a paper delivered at the major Dylan conference held in Tulsa in 2019, subsequently published in Sean Latham’s collective volume The World of Bob Dylan.
Marcus’s aim is to demonstrate what he sees as a major quality of Dylan’s songwriting, namely empathy – “the desire and the ability to enter other lives” (5), by means of which “he can take anyone else’s life as his own” (7). On that basis, the author offers his sequence of analyses as “an attempt at a biography [of Dylan] made up of songs and public gestures” (7). The term “folk music” in the title might raise eyebrows, as by no means all of Dylan’s vast musical output is usually classified in that category. In the “Blowin’ in the Wind” chapter Marcus speaks of “the milieu of folk music … the state of mind of folk music, in a certain sense, truly a state, its own country” (21). Folk music is of course the medium practised in the New York circles frequented by the early Dylan, and the chosen genre of numerous artists evoked by Marcus in various parts of the book. On that time and place, he quotes Suze Rotolo: “Folk music was taking hold of a generation” (37). “Folk music” as a term may not fit too well with other facets of Dylan’s career, but that is where it all started. It is from there that Marcus begins, and the way he narrates the song histories is such as to leave the reader with the sensation that since all of Dylan’s work is rooted in a tradition of one kind or another, in a sense, yes, for certain purposes and in certain contexts it can all be seen as folk music.
The first chapter, on “Blowin’ in the Wind,” is the longest and most detailed. The author recounts how he first heard Dylan’s version of the song (as opposed to the ubiquitous Peter, Paul and Mary cover) on a Berkeley FM station in summer 1963 (12, 87). Marcus traces its live debut to Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village on April 16th, 1962, and its first appearance on record to the version released by the New World Singers later that year. He recalls the well-known circumstance that Dylan’s melody can be sourced to “No More Auction Block,” the Civil War anti-slavery anthem as interpreted by Odetta and later by Dylan himself. With regard to Dylan’s use of the song for “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Marcus opines:
The melody was a social fact, something none of the Gerde’s regulars would have missed; there was nothing in hiding. “Blowin’ in the Wind” borrowed authority from that melody.(23)
Indeed, in Dylan’s version of “No More Auction Block” Marcus finds “one of the deepest performances of his career” (28), as well as an early instance of that notion which underpins the book, namely Bob Dylan’s capacity for empathy.
Marcus recalls how “Blowin’ in the Wind” saw publication in both Broadside and Sing Out!, and tells us how the not always sympathetic Little Sandy Review (from Dylan’s own Minnesota) dispelled its doubts to label “Blowin’ in the Wind” as “Dylan’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’” and declare that “the song should be with us at least as long as the folk revival (and probably a lot longer)” (48). Then came Dylan’s own commercial release of the song on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in May 1963, following which many “couldn’t listen to anything else, because [they] heard something in the Bob Dylan version that wasn’t there at all when Peter, Paul and Mary sang the song” (57). Nonetheless, years later in 2015, Dylan expressed his gratitude to the folk trio for turning his song into a hit: “Not the way I would have done it – they straightened it out. …[but] I don’t think it would have happened if it wasn’t for them” (57).
Marcus discusses other songs in this long chapter. He offers a close examination of Dylan’s first-album version of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” to show how the young upstart revolutionized “folk music,” turning conventions inside out. He also includes an interesting discussion of “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” stating that in this song “it seemed that Bob Dylan was some sort of fictional character that someone else named Bob Dylan was singing about,” reading it as “a dream in which all sense of dream is gone”: “the song rejected youth and walked away” (58).
There are latter-day reminiscences too. Marcus recalls the performances of the song at the Rolling Thunder Revue concerts, and how Dylan said in 1975:
“Blowin’ in the Wind” holds up. I felt that song. Whenever Joan and I do it, it really is like an old folk song to me. It never occurs to me that I’m the person who wrote it. (63)
Marcus also reminds us of how many artists covered the song from early on, all the way from the Staple Singers to the Bee Gees, and how Dylan performed it in 1985 at Live Aid in Philadelphia, and in 1997 in Bologna before Pope John Paul II, who for the occasion transformed himself into a Dylan interpreter – the wind, said the pontiff, is “the breath and voice of the Spirit, a voice that calls and says ‘Come!’” (17). Marcus also recollects how in 2011 he wrote the afternotes for a children’s book of the song, and how it still seemed somehow “unfinished” and “still didn’t sound as it was written by a particular person” (13). He recalls, too, the well-known story of how Dylan’s song inspired Sam Cooke to write “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Finally, Marcus recontextualizes “Blowin’ in the Wind” and its debt to “No More Auction Block” within the contemporary environment: in the chapter’s final citation, Minnesota State Representative Ruth Richardson, present at the site of George Floyd’s grave, quotes those same words from Dylan’s refrain, “blowing in the wind” (81).
This chapter could have been simply a reprise of stories already known to Dylan’s followers via Chronicles, Volume One or Suze Rotolo’s A Freewheelin’ Time. In fact, the chapter goes well beyond those memoirs, emerging as a selective early Dylan biography with “Blowin’ in the Wind” as leitmotif. At chapter’s end, homing in on the book’s key themes, Marcus admits the song into the hallowed precincts of “folk song” and declares: “‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ lived its own life as if it were a person: it made its own biography” (61). Thus for Marcus, a song may not only support its author’s biography: it can also have a biography of its own.
Chapter two continues the focus on the protest years, foregrounding “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” written in late 1963 and released in 1964 on The Times They Are a-Changin’. The song, which Marcus tells us he has been listening to constantly for near on sixty years, was already in circulation in 1965, the year when, the author recalls, he first began writing about music – or more correctly music and politics, for it was his faith that “the connections between the two were simple, obvious and overwhelming” (85). In the case of “Hattie Carroll,” “the story goes,” says Marcus, that Dylan first learned of the case in the pages of a Maryland newspaper, and – according to Dylan himself in 1985 – wrote the song in New York in a restaurant on 7th Avenue (99). The discrepancies between song and fact are duly noted. Marcus has nothing but praise, both conceptually and aesthetically, for Dylan’s tale of a lonesome death, “a song that would itself become part of history, and make its own history” (100). He shows how the “unfinished judgement of the chorus” as the song advances generates outrage and fear (101), and praises the dramatic force of Dylan’s writing and the empathy that it manifests: “You were implicated in the drama. You were forced into every role and there was no exit” (93).
Marcus goes on to juxtapose “Hattie Carroll” with a song from 1981 (and a major hit in the U.K.), “O Superman,” sung by New York performance artist Laurie Anderson. Anderson’s song, he stresses, emerged from “a world completely different” from that of “Hattie Carroll,” with the stakes now transformed as the Thatcher/Reagan years advanced (106). Marcus doesn’t really compare the two songs, giving each piece of social criticism its separate analysis, but at chapter’s end he is surely thinking as much of Dylan’s song as of Anderson’s when he says of the latter: “Songs not only mark history, or even make it, but become part of its fabric” (117).
Chapter four (we will leap chapter three till later, keeping Dylan’s rather than Marcus’s chronology) once again focuses on the protest years, specifically “The Times They Are a- Changin,” the title track of the 1964 album where it rubs shoulders with “Hattie Carroll.” Marcus finds this famous song a shade formulaic, claiming it “was so programmatic it could have been written by a committee” (158). He juxtaposes it with a much later song, 2000’s “Things Have Changed,” which he reads less as an exercise in cynicism than as an attempt to enter the minds of others, of those who “used to care” (160). Marcus asks rhetorically whether Dylan’s song from 1964 is today anything more than an “old warhorse,” a superannuated protest song – and answers in the affirmative (162). He concludes the chapter by narrating a case of racial violence: the killing at police hands in 2016 of a young African-American man, Philando Castile, in Saint Paul, as denounced in a 2017 painting by Los Angeles artist Henry Taylor, captioned by the artist with the pregnant legend [as cited by Marcus] “THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGIN, FAST ENOUGH!! [sic]”
Following the Dylan chronology, next up is chapter five, entitled “Desolation Row.” It should be stressed that Marcus is here offering not a full analysis of this long and complex song – something he has done elsewhere – but, rather, a commentary on its opening. What is at issue is essentially the first stanza, with its opening line “They’re selling postcards of the hanging,” followed by circus imagery (“the circus is in town”). As others have done, Marcus links the first line of Dylan’s song directly to the episode in Dylan’s birthplace Duluth in 1920 when a white mob lynched three African-American performers in a travelling circus. A lynching, Marcus reminds us, was “entertainment, spectacle, even sport” (174). He explicates the postcard phenomenon thus: “In the first decades of the twentieth century there had been a craze for postcards of lynchings of black Americans,” adding that “a postcard depicting the lynching of three black circus workers … in Duluth in 1920 … was among the most popular of all” (169).
The author states that we have no way of knowing whether the young Dylan knew of the lynching through his family, his father and grandfather who might have been there. Be that as it may, Marcus calls it “a cataclysmic event [that] implicated everyone” (170). Marcus further compares its impact (and subsequent silencing) to the aftermath of another near-contemporaneous act of racial violence, the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, and speculates whether “Desolation Row” somehow bears the marks of the erasure from history of the Duluth episode, with what the official records suppressed returning through the medium of song. He concludes that whether or not Dylan’s family members were present on the fatal day in Duluth, the fact that Dylan as “imaginative artist” has integrated the episode into “Desolation Row” means that “he could have imagined that they were” (175). For Marcus, then, Dylan’s art symbolically reshapes his family history.
Chapter six extends the book’s scope to take in one of the multitude of songs covered by Bob Dylan, namely the Anglo-Australian ballad “Jim Jones.” Much of the chapter, however, is less about Dylan, though he makes his appearances, than about folk music in general and its early-60s US scene in particular. Marcus evokes the “sense of folk music as its own world, as a negation of the ordinary, the predictable, the life one was meant to live” (202). The chapter begins with a conspectus of the Greenwich Village folk scene, in the shape of a kind of annotated guest list of a party held in April 1961 for Cisco Houston in the apartment of folk music patron Camilla Adams. Marcus’s source here is none other than Dylan’s own account of the event in chapter two of Chronicles. Along with Dylan, the guests ranged from Harry Belafonte to Pete Seeger, with Marcus dwelling in particular (as Dylan did) on Pete’s brother Mike Seeger and his trio the Lost City Ramblers. Marcus quotes a Dylan overwhelmed by Mike’s impromptu interpretations of folk songs and – as he says in Chronicles – deciding: “I’d have to write my own folk songs, ones that Mike didn’t know” (191).
That is what Dylan went on to do – but years later, as Marcus recalls, at a certain point in the 1980s, Dylan began in performance to “sing the old songs again, the songs Mike did know” (193). This development was followed by his return to folksong material on record with Good As I Been To You in 1992 and World Gone Wrong in 1993. Out of the songs covered by Dylan in this period, Marcus focuses on “Jim Jones.” This ballad, with its theme of transportation, has been dated to the early-to-mid nineteenth century. Starting out from the studio recording on Good As I Been To You, the author, commenting in detail on the vocal and instrumental aspects, ranges across Dylan’s thirty-one live performances of the song, all of which took place in 1993 (he thanks the anonymous fan who supplied him with the complete collection of live versions!). Marcus the attentive listener tracks Dylan across the gamut of performances, “trying to find the right way to play it. And then the next right way” (218). In “Jim Jones,” he concludes, Dylan was “staking his claim to the tradition Mike Seeger and others had opened up for him” (221); he was now able to sing the old songs “as if he had written them himself and had been written by them” (223).
We will now turn the pages back to chapter three and its out-of sequence discussion that jumps to 2006 and “Ain’t Talkin’,” the most ambitious song on Modern Times, and praised by Marcus as “one of [Dylan’s] most distinctive songs” (126). He offers a close analysis of Dylan’s tormented narration of a doomed circular quest and a seeker unable to escape from himself. Marcus refers throughout to the Modern Times version: the outtake that appeared on Tell Tale Signs is not mentioned, though Bettye Lavette’s cover is. Marcus sees the song’s “deliberate and slow,” violin-tinged opening as magisterial, ushering in a world of “resentment and hatred and vengeance and regret, and the wish to bury it all in some cynical peace of mind” (125). He tries to make sense of the song’s chaos by tracing its links to multiple traditions, that of folk song included – and to Dylan’s own more visionary quest in “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” a “great song” (136) also evoked in the chapter. Marcus reminds us that the opening of “Ain’t Talkin”, “As I walked out…,” is that of a myriad folk songs (not forgetting Dylan’s own “As I Went Out One Morning”). He acknowledges Dylan’s borrowing of lines from Ovid (now an established fact of Dylan criticism, courtesy of Cliff Fell, Robert Polito and Richard Thomas), also taking in the traditional rootedness of the refrain’s words “Ain’t talkin’ / Just walkin,” embodying what he calls “a rhyme embedded in American English” (121). Curiously, though, Marcus does not mention Dylan’s direct debt in his refrain to the Stanley Brothers’ “Highway of Regret.” The author sees in “Ain’t Talkin’” “a song about someone facing his own oblivion,” but also “a reflecting back on Bob Dylan’s career” (151), an ironic revisiting of the notion of folk music as the badge of a community that saw itself as special: hence, it may be, the song’s ambivalent line “I practise a faith that’s been long abandoned.”
Marcus’s book concludes, fast-forwarding to February 2020, with his observations on “Murder Most Foul.” This song, which prior to its appearance later that year on Rough and Rowdy Ways was released as a single against the backdrop of the pandemic, is notable, first for being Dylan’s longest composition ever and second for its division into two discrete parts, one chronicling the Kennedy assassination and the other created around a litany of (mostly musical) quotations and titles. For Marcus, this song is a major Dylan work that “seems to bear more weight every time” (227): nor is he alone in this, as is clear from the numerous accolades he quotes, from Elvis Costello to The Wall Street Journal. He reads its opening as a limit case of Dylan’s capacity for empathy as he enters the dying president’s brain and relives his last moments – and its ending, coiling around its own title with the challenge “Play ‘Murder Most Foul’,” as impelling the listener to reboot the circle and go right through the song again. He does not attempt to interrogate the historicity of Dylan’s take on the assassination, nor does he try to catalogue the rosary of titles and allusions (others have done that), though he does see the song as a logical extension of Dylan’s recent phase of interpreting standards. The last words of the book, implying Dylan’s role as inheritor of a tradition and keeper of the flame, pose a question to the future as Marcus asks: “What will go out of the world with him?” (239).
This book is a welcome enrichment of Greil Marcus’s already remarkable contribution to Dylan studies, and the discussions of individual songs, while varying in length and breadth, are without exception valuable additions to those songs’ critical corpus. The author eloquently demonstrates how his chosen songs manifest Bob Dylan’s capacity for empathy and his ultimate rootedness in the folk tradition. As always, Marcus’s take on Dylan is both sedulously researched and eminently personal, and he once again demonstrates his highly individual capacity for getting inside a song and extracting its signifying potential. With criticism like this, the Dylan community can be assured that whatever the future holds, much, very much, will remain in the world thanks to Bob Dylan.
 Russell, Bob. “Bob Dylan and The Stanley Brothers.” Dylan Review, vol. 4.1, 2022