Ain’t Talkin’. Copyright © 2006 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

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

Blowin’ in the Wind. Copyright © 1962 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1990 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream. Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight. Copyright © 1983 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Fourth Time Around. Copyright © 1966 by Dwarf Music; renewed 1994 by Dwarf 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.

Highway 61 Revisited. Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

I Shall Be Free No. 10. Copyright © 1971 by Special Rider Music; renewed 1999 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

I Want You. Copyright © 1966 by Dwarf Music; renewed 1994 by Dwarf Music. All rights

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding). Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 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.

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

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. Copyright © 1964, 1966 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992, 1994 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Maggie’s Farm. Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Masters of War. Copyright © 1963 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Nettie Moore. Copyright © 2006 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

North Country Blues. Copyright © 1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below). Copyright © 1975, 1976 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2003, 2004 by Ram’s Horn 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.

Only a Pawn in Their Game. Copyright © 1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Oxford Town. Copyright © 1963 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Pay In Blood. Copyright © 2012 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Red River Shore. Copyright © 1997 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Rollin’ and Tumblin’. Copyright © 2006 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Someday Baby. Copyright © 2006 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Spirit on the Water. Copyright © 2006 by Special Rider 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.

Visions of Johanna. Copyright © 1966 by Dwarf Music; renewed 1994 by Dwarf Music. All rights reserved.

You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go. Copyright © 1974 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2002 by Ram’s Horn Music. All rights reserved.


All songs written by Bob Dylan.

Mark Davidson and Parker Fishel, editors. Bob Dylan: Mixing up the Medicine. Callaway Editions, 2023.

François Guillez, Bob Dylan in the 2020s: Rough and Rowdy Ways, Shadow Kingdom, and All That Philosophy. Tangible Press, 2023.

John Lewis, Whirly Gig: Inside Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind Sessions. Cambridge, Maryland: Dorchester Power and Light, 2022.

Ray Padgett, Pledging My Time: Conversations with Bob Dylan Band Members. EWP Press, 2022.

Owen Boynton works at Collegiate School in NYC. He earned a PhD in English from Cornell University in 2013, with a dissertation focusing on Victorian poetry and the experience of time.

Erin C. Callahan is Professor of English at San Jacinto College in Houston, Texas. She has published on gender in the Star Wars Saga, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts and contributed an essay to 21st Century Dylan: Late and Timely.

Court Carney is Professor of History at Stephen F. Austin State University. He is the co-editor of a collection of essays on Bob Dylan’s setlists entitled The Politics and Power of Bob Dylan’s Live Performances: “Play a Song for Me,” published with Routledge later this year.

Justin Hamm is the author of four collections of poetry – Drinking Guinness With the Dead, American Ephemeral, and Lessons in Ruin. A 2022 Woody Guthrie Poet, his work has appeared in Nimrod, Southern Indiana Review, and a host of other publications.

Christine Hand Jones is Assistant Professor of English at Dallas Baptist University, where she teaches writing, literature, and songwriting courses. She has a PhD in literary studies from the University of Texas at Dallas, earned largely by writing about Bob Dylan.

Graley Herren is Professor of English at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He is the author of books on Samuel Beckett, Don DeLillo, and Bob Dylan. He writes a newsletter on Dylan called Shadow Chasing and serves on the editorial board of the Dylan Review.

Harrison Hewitt is a writer from Canada. He’s been a Bob Dylan fan since he was a boy.

Matthew King is a freelance journalist and essayist based in New York. His writing on culture and technology has appeared in The Atlantic and the Boston Globe Magazine, among other publications. In a past life, he studied jazz and folk music as an aspiring saxophonist.

Jeffrey S. Lamp is Professor of New Testament and Instructor of Environmental Science at Oral Roberts University, Tulsa. His primary interests are in the ecotheology and Bob Dylan Studies. He was a translator and editor for the Modern English Version of the Bible.

Jon Lasser is University Distinguished Professor and Regents’ Professor in the School Psychology Program at Texas State University. He holds a doctorate in School Psychology from the University of Texas at Austin.

Harold Lepidus is the author of Friends and Other Strangers: Bob Dylan Examined. His writing has been referenced in Rolling Stone, Uncut, and American Songwriter, and he hosts The Boston Harold podcast.

Christopher Mitchell teaches composition and literature. He has written about Marshall McLuhan, Herman Melville, Nathanial Hawthorne, and Elvis Presley. In 2019 he spoke at the World of Bob Dylan about The Waste Land and “Desolation Row.”

Jim Salvucci is an English professor by training and taught a course on Dylan for many years. His writing is published in 21st-Century Dylan and The Politics and Power of Bob Dylan’s Live Performances: Play a Song for Me. He is also the founder of The Dylantantes.

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. He has played guitar since he was nine years old.

Evan Sennett a graduate student at Indiana University specializing in American literature. His interests include American Transcendentalism as well as twentieth century Kentucky authors Wendell Berry and Harlan Hubbard.

Rebecca Slaman is a freelance writer and editor. She has a BA from Fordham University in English and Classics. Her writing specializes in fan communities on social media, particularly Twitter. She has presented at University of Tulsa and Florida International University.

Stevan M. Weine is a psychiatrist, researcher, and author. He is Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois College of Medicine. His most recent book is Best Minds: How Allen Ginsberg Made Revolutionary Poetry from Madness (Fordham University Press, 2023).

Bernard Wills is Professor of Humanities at Grenfell Campus Memorial University. He is a poet and scholar who has on Cohen, Blake, Davies as well as on Ancient, Medieval and Modern philosophy. He currently resides in Corner Brook Newfoundland and Labrador.

“‘Unheard Melodies’: Ekphrasis and Possible Gaze in Dylan’s Lyrics.” World of Bob Dylan 2023, June 2023, Tulsa, OK.

BY Raphael Falco, University of Maryland


In recent decades, Dylan has exhibited his painting and sculpture at major venues around the world. But this efflorescence of artistic production shouldn’t come as a surprise. The 1973 publication of Writings and Drawings indicated that he’d always sketched, and by Dylan’s own assessment, his painting lessons with Norman Raeben in 1974 had a significant influence on his songwriting. The intensity – and success – with which Dylan “performs” in the visual arts should encourage us, in turn, to focus on passages in his songs where he describes or discusses works of visual art.


These passages – which, in critical terminology, would be called ekphrases – are often brief, but they inevitably reveal a valuable relationship between the work of art and the observer. That relationship is based on what I will refer to in this paper as “possible gaze” – specifically, Dylan’s lyrical awareness in describing visual artifacts that every description is an interpretation and every interpretation is conditional, inevitably to be superseded by the next one.


The term ekphrasis has a long history as a rhetorical figure. During the Greco-Roman period ekphrasis referred to any sort of discrete description of things appearing within different forms of discourse, from narrative poetry to formal argument. Renaissance authors inherited this broad definition of ekphrasis and, gradually, the notion of “verbal pictorialism” developed from it. Christopher Johnson explains the use of the term this way:


An “ornamental digression that refuses to be merely ornamental,” ekphrasis often provides a “rival narrative” that sets image and word at odds, partially because the static, spatial nature of the image tends to forestall the passage of narrative time…The mimesis of a mimesis, ekphrasis generally suspends narrative time and flow, as the reader’s attention is redirected towards a physical object, whose connection with the narrative, at first glance, is only ornamental.[1]


If we think of ekphrasis as what Johnson calls a “mimesis of a mimesis,” then the idea of an ornamental digression inevitably expands into something much more than simply a rhetorical ornament.


In fact, “things have changed.” In today’s literary-critical terminology the term ekphrasis refers almost exclusively to descriptions of art in poetry or prose. The term is best understood as a set piece within a large work, an automatically problematized ornamental digression, such as Homer’s description of Achilles’s shield – which is the foundational model of all ekphrasis in western literature – or Virgil’s description of the Trojan wars on the walls of Juno’s Temple, Enobarbus’s description of Cleopatra’s barge in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Milton’s description of Satan’s shield, or Ludovico Ariosto’s description of the terrestrial palace in the Orlando Furioso. Here is Gustave Doré’s engraving inspired by the passage, which constitutes an illustration of an ekphrasis. The translation is by A.S. Kline:


Black and white image of a figure riding a winged animal through an ancient town

Gustave Doré, Orlando Furioso, 34: 51-52


There, on the heights, a palace, with its towers,
Uprose, to which some living flame had lent,
It seemed, such splendour, a glow so bright
That, beyond mortal fashion, shone its light.
It covered more than thirty miles around,
And towards it Astolfo turned his steed,
Moving slowly, at his ease, o’er the ground,
(All, to his gaze, seemed beautiful indeed)
And thought that all that down below was found
In wrath Heaven and Nature had decreed;
Brutish and ugly, this sad world we face,
So sweet and clear and happy was that place.
(Orlando Furioso, 34: 51-52)


As with most ekphrases, Ariosto’s description of the palace serves as a structural mirror – a mise en abyme – in which the palatial architecture represents the poem’s structure as well as the journey toward heavenly grace. Leave your stepping stones behind, mount your hippogriff, and fly toward the moon.


Dylan has no extended passage of ekphrasis to match Ariosto or other epic poets. His ekphrastic phrases are much briefer, tucked into a line or two, yet it nevertheless makes sense to analyze his allusions and references to art in ekphrastic terms. Claire Preston distinguishes what she calls “iconic, referential ekphrasis” from longer “fully enumerated” descriptions.[2] The former type would apply to Dylan, while the latter might apply to Homer and Shakespeare, or, for example, to John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” one of the most famous “enumerated” ekphrastic meditations in English.


Keats’s poem offers a kind of clinic in ekphrastic perspectives. As you might recall, the poem’s narrator stares at a scene painted on an ancient piece of pottery and remarks “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.” The unheard melodies in the ode amount to the narrator’s speculations – or fantasies – about the “leaf-fringed legend” of shepherds and coy shepherdesses dallying “In Tempe or the dales of Arcady.” The image of a priest with his sacrificial heifer inspires the question – “To what green altar, O mysterious priest, / Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies”? In fact, the whole poem is a question, a speculation on what’s going on in the urn’s pastoral scene – “Cold Pastoral,” the narrator calls it, because the painted figures lack the heat of living flesh.


The poem in its entirety is an ekphrasis, a description of a work of plastic art. But, at the same time, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is more than merely a description: it is an open-ended interrogation of visual representations. And, like most ekphrastic passages, Keats’s poem asks a double question: First – how should the narrator inside the poem interpret the different images on the urn? And – second – how should the reader interpret the narrator’s interpretation of the visual images?


This doubleness is a good starting place to understand how Dylan uses his referential ekphrastic passages to destabilize the idea of the gaze. In his most familiar ekphrasis, Dylan chooses to give a highly normative slant to his narrator’s interpretation of arguably the most renowned portrait in the world. Here are the famous lines from “Visions of Johanna”:


Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, “Jeeze
I can’t find my knees”…
(“Visions of Johanna,” my emphasis)


Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci, Mona Lisa (1503)


a cultural icon and an art historical topos when Dylan wrests it away from the academic critics and places it firmly in a genealogical line with Cisco and Sonny and Lead Belly too. Moreover, the self-consciously anachronistic “highway blues” highlights how personally tailored the speaker’s interpretation is, how tenuous, and how different an interpretation the gaze of the “jelly-faced women” – and all the rest of us who haven’t done any hard travelin’ – might produce.


In a brilliant analysis, Stephen Scobie reads the word “f-r-e-e-z-e” as “f-r-i-e-z-e,” which he defines as “a horizontal band of painting or decoration on a wall.” In this reading, Scobie awards Dylan another ekphrastic line to follow those pertaining to the portrait. According to Scobie, “These two senses [of freeze/frieze] coexist in the line, neither one canceling out the other. What we are asked to ‘see’ is something we can only hear: the indeterminacy of the freeze/frieze pun. Both senses convey an image of delicacy and fragility – the wallflower frozen out at the dance, the frieze preserved in the museum – which stands in stark contrast to the grossness of the image that immediately follows – the ‘jelly-faced women.’”[3] Scobie’s “two senses” are a perfect model of the instability of the gaze–both theoretically and in terms of an individual viewer. They mirror each other as versions of ekphrastic perspective and, at the same time, as evidence of an alternating possible gaze. Moreover, the homonymic pun doubles up Johnson’s notion of a mimesis of a mimesis, adding an extra layer of ekphrastic complexity to the Mona Lisa passage.


But there’s more to the pun than just this added complexity or mimetic ornamentation. And perhaps this is the place to recall that the working title of “Visions of Johanna,” after all, was “Seems Like a Freeze-Out.” While it might be true that neither sense of “freeze/frieze” can cancel out the other as long as we’re listening to the lyrics and not reading them, more than delicacy and fragility are conveyed by the double image. Linking a human wallflower with a wallflower mural enforces the idea that art is somehow tantamount to being trapped by social neglect or personal ineptness. This ekphrastic re-interpretation connects the narrator’s skeptical, tendentious observations about the Mona Lisa’s smile with the beginning of the stanza: just as the primitive wallflower – in both senses of “freeze” – is trapped, Infinity itself is trapped and judged inside the museums.


The theme of entrapment in connection with the plastic arts recurs in “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” from Infidels. This is perhaps Dylan’s most radical, and puzzling, image of possible gaze. The speaker in the song finds himself trapped, not only inside a museum, but also inside a painting, and maybe even inside his own self-portrait:


it’s like I’m stuck inside a painting
That’s hanging in the Louvre
My throat start[s] to tickle and my nose itches
But I know that I can’t move


The “Louvre-move” rhyme superbly posits opposite ideas. It captures a mirror image: on one side there’s the museum as a straitjacket for art and artist alike, a place where the wallflowers freeze and Infinity goes up on trial. Reflected on the other side of the mirror, in the word “move,” there’s the opposite image: physical freedom and, just possibly, freedom from self portraiture. Heard as ekphrasis, this passage is a kind of parody of indeterminacy and plausible interpretations – the art object itself has a perspective and, cartoonishly, is coming to life as the song’s speaker starts to sneeze. A museum-goer (or a jelly-faced woman) might be fooled by convention into thinking that the work of art was static and observable, when in fact the painting is alive and trying to escape the entrapment of the paint, the frame, and the Louvre museum.


The song “Jokerman,” also from Infidels, contains two brief ekphrastic passages. In the first Dylan might well be playing on Claire Preston’s idea of an “iconic” ekphrasis by describing a literal idol:


Standing on the waters casting your bread
While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing


Dylan uses the ekphrastic line to introduce a possible, or alternative, gaze on religion. The two images of religious figures abut in the passage, one standing on the waters, the other with glowing eyes. On an album called Infidels the irony is thick. Which of the two religious figures, the Christlike one casting bread or the iron-headed sculpture, do non-believers worship?


In the MTV video of “Jokerman” George Lois, a well-known Madison Avenue advertising figure, compiled a collage of lyrics and still images. For the first ekphrastic passage he inserted the following image:


Photo of a statue with large eyes. The text on the image reads "While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing"

Sumerian Idol (2700 BCE)


Unfortunately, the image preempts the interpretative quandary suggested by the ekphrastic passage.


Lois’s image for the second ekphrastic passage in the song is less preeemptive, though somewhat less readable. The lines are:


In the smoke of the twilight on a milk-white steed
Michelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features


A close-up of the right hand of Michelangelo’s David statue

Michelangelo, David (1504)


The image in the video is a detail of Michelangelo’s David showing a close-up of the right hand, although you’d probably have to be Irwin Panofsky to identify the sculpture’s fleeting appearance on the screen. Most importantly, however, the passing image cannot capture the conditional tense of Dylan’s verb in the lyric. To say that Michelangelo could have carved out the Jokerman’s features places the action in an unseeable context, a timeless imaginary. The name Michelangelo becomes a kind of metonymy for the artist – otherwise the Jokerman would have had to live in the sixteenth century. As a result of this metonymic naming, we can hear Dylan’s ekphrastic passage as the consummate embodiment of a possible gaze – only “possible” because the ekphrastic model in fact does not exist. There is no Michelangelo artistry. The ekphrasis is simultaneously a pseudo-ekphrasis and a proto-interpretation of a yet-to-be-sculpted Jokerman statue.


In an interview conducted by Mitch Blank (and available on, Larry Sloman claims that he and George Lois – who is usually credited as the sole producer of the video – decided that “we would use great artworks to illuminate [Dylan’s] art.” Sloman has it backwards, however. The images in the MTV video, which, along with those already shown, include a Henry Turner landscape, a Blake painting, and the famous Milton Glaser poster, illustrate the ekphrastic passages in “Jokerman.” They don’t illuminate them – in fact, the video images are often a distraction, undermining the lyrics with a distracting and incoherent visual narrative. Dylan’s ekphrastic passages are swallowed up in this irrelevant narrative. Lois interpolates what purport to be matching images for Dylan’s ekphrases, and, but, ironically, this is a case of illustration, not ekphrasis: “Jokerman” supplies the description that Lois later uses for his image.


Another example of a conditional predicate in an ekphrastic passage occurs in “Angelina,” from The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3.


His eyes were two slits that would make a snake proud
With a face that any painter would paint as he walked through the crowd
Worshipping a god with the body of a woman well endowed
And the head of a hyena
(“Angelina” The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3)


The conditional verb “would paint” again, as in “Jokerman,” confounds time: it is impossible to determine the occasion of the observer’s description. And again, this is an example of ekphrasis produced by a possible gaze, a possible sighting of the “eyes with two slits” and the Jokerman’s face. But the speaker’s observation – which is also an interpretation of the facial features – is inevitably tenuous and impermanent, a stopgap until the painter, or the next observer, sees the face. The indeterminacy of the ekphrastic moment in “Angelina” seems resonantly to confirm what I suggested at the beginning of this paper – that Dylan is “lyrically aware” of a possible, indeterminate gaze when describing visual artifacts.


In conclusion, I’d like to note that, ironically, there is no truly ekphrastic passage in “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” But maybe there’s a reason for this. Maybe there’s no space for indeterminacy or possible gaze in a masterpiece. Maybe – at least in the streets of Rome – a masterpiece is a fixed commodity, always already complete and, for that reason, already in ruins. The possible gaze in the song cannot be found in ekphrastic passages but in the very elusiveness of the masterpiece itself. The entire song suggests a kind of future conditional context – an ekphrasis yet to come.



Raphael Falco is Founding Editor of the Dylan Review. Although it is normally our policy not to publish articles by our editors, Falco contributed this paper to the World of Bob Dylan 2023, and we felt it appropriate to reproduce it for this special section.


[1] Christopher Johnson, “Appropriating Troy: Ekphrasis in Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece.” in Fantasies of Troy: Classical Tales and the Social Imaginary in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Edited by Alan Shepard and Stephen D. Powell (Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2004), 193-212.

[2] Claire Preston, “Ekphrasis: Painting in Words,” in Renaissance Figures of Speech (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press), 115.

[3]Stephen Scobie, Alias Bob Dylan Revisited, (Calgary Alberta Canada: Red Deer Press, 2003), 267-68.

“‘Blood on Your Saddle’: Bob Dylan’s Homicidal Voices.” World of Bob Dylan 2023,  June 2023, Tulsa, OK.
BY Paul Haney, Emerson College


On May 8, 2020, amid the uncertain early days of Covid, Bob Dylan released the third and final single from his latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways. That single, “False Prophet” – which takes its arrangement nearly wholesale from Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s 1954 Sun Records single, “If Lovin’ Is Believing” – seems to confront the decades old notion that Bob Dylan himself is some kind of prophet, a speaker of unbounding truth, a proclaimer of God’s will. Dylan toys with this notion, which goes all the way back to the folkniks in the early 60s who proclaimed “he speaks for us!”; runs through the late 60s hippies who were prone to centering Dylan and his self-proclaimed “vision music” in their cosmic hallucinations; became all too literal in the “Dylan-as-prophet” gospel era; and persist even today in a strain of Dylanology that holds Dylan as some kind of codemaster whose writings we can decipher for deeper truths.

“I ain’t no false prophet,” Dylan declares in that 2020 single, which would become the album’s second track. “I just know what I know / I go where only the lonely can go.” The declaration leaves open the possibility that Dylan, or his lyric speaker, the voice of his song, could be a true prophet, confirming all of those timeworn suspicions – though it seems more likely the speaker, as sinister as he is reverential, perceives himself to be no prophet at all. No matter what he is, though, or what he fashions himself to be, this speaker is powerful, passionate, fierce – an entity which cannot be ignored.

The next verse after that first “false prophet” refrain rumbles with pomposity, braggadocio, and contempt: “I’m first among equals, second to none / Last of the best, you can bury the rest.” Soon the speaker claims to have “climbed the mountain of swords on my bare feet,” reveals his “ghostly appearance,” and by the end of the second refrain divulges, “I’m just here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head.” Who that somebody is – or who the speaker is even speaking to – seems to shift around with each verse, if not couplet. To one subject he beckons, “open your mouth / I’ll stuff it with gold.” Then there’s a “poor devil” looking upon the “City of God”; a “stranger” who “ruled the land” and who might be one in the same as the “lusty old mule” with the “poison brain,” the one whom the speaker promises to “marry … to a ball and chain.”

The subjects shift as readily as the speaker’s tone, approach, agenda. Behind Dylan’s weathered yet elastic growl, and the band’s borrowed blues, the song encompasses everything and nothing at once, congealing behind the song’s shape-shifting persona, a persona equal parts reflective and flattering, philosophical and funny, bombastic and homicidal. It’s the homicidal part that I find most interesting as a lyrical mode, a rhetorical device, a facet of Dylan’s songwriting identity that has been there from the beginning, finding its roots perhaps in the murder ballads Dylan performed on the streets and in the clubs of Dinkytown, Greenwich Village, and elsewhere. This murderous voice bleeds into Dylan’s “finger-pointin’ songs” of the early 60s and rears its head occasionally in the decades to follow before becoming a cornerstone of Dylan’s twenty-first century songwriting, increasing in scope and intensity with each new record.

These homicidal voices, strung through Dylan’s lyrics, challenge the listener to take Dylan’s side, or face his wrath, or both. Aesthetically, they imbue Dylan’s music with a hard edge that gives him swagger and poise, like a boxer in the ring, a hitman in a hollywood noir, a fugitive outlaw trying to stay alive, or simply a strongman responding to an insult, whether personal or political, real or perceived. These voices sometimes parody the violent masculinity they enact; other times the bloody threat lands square on the nose. Combative, biblical, and fundamentally patriarchal, Dylan’s murderous threats provide an oppositional guise within his catalog of faces as he builds and rebuilds his multifaceted persona.

Before Dylan began writing and performing his own murderous songs, he was learning and singing murder ballads. Laura Tenschert is currently in the midst of a two-part series on Bob Dylan’s murder ballads double episode on her show, Definitely Dylan. In that first episode, Tenschert digs into folk ballads like “Omie Wise” and “Pretty Polly” from Dylan’s early repertoire, when he was singing about betrayed and jilted lovers exacting their revenges, all to grab the attention of listeners filtering through the coffeehouses and city streets of Greenwich Village. When Dylan started writing and performing his own songs, those themes of death and devastation melded with the social consciousness of the folk movement to create, as Tenschert points out, such sophisticated songs as “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Ballad of Hollis Brown.” In the first, a wealthy southerner whacks a server with his cane, killing her, while in the second the conditions of poverty in South Dakota lead to the murder-suicide – a kind of mercy killing – of a farmer and his family. In both cases, Dylan recounts the deadly scenes from a distant perspective; while he does engage in second-person moralizing (“You who philosophize disgrace…”), he never slips into the first-person “I.”

More germane to my purposes, though, are two other early Dylan folk songs that harness the murdering impulse from a first-person perspective. The existence of a first-person speaker – one a singular “I,” the other a plural “we” – allows Dylan to sing these songs with even more venom and invective. The first is “Masters of War,” containing arguably Dylan’s most brutal proclamation: “I’ll stand o’er your grave ‘til I’m sure that you’re dead.” This promise, coming on just his second album, harnesses a youthful disgust post-World War II, and the Korean War, at the start of the Vietnam War, but also takes its aim at all the bloodthirsty warmongers past, present, and future. One might imagine the folkies in their legions of knit caps and corduroy pants peering contentedly over Dylan’s shoulder at the warhawks in their graves. Likewise, “When the Ship Comes In” constructs a watery grave for the speaker’s foes who will “jerk from their beds and think they’re dreamin’ / But they’ll pinch themselves and squeal / And they’ll know that it’s for real.” When that crew tries to surrender, however, a collective “we” emerges, Dylan promising “we’ll shout from the bow ‘your days are numbered’.” Whereas the Masters of War are buried in the earth, these transgressors are “drowned’ed in the tide.”

A zeal for this brand of retribution through social reform circulated through the folk revival, and Dylan harnessed this sentiment in song. After he expanded as an artist beyond folk music, however, that brand of righteous anger seemed to flag. Sure, Dylan harnessed hostility in “Positively 4th Street,” intoning, “you’ve got a lotta nerve to say you are my friend.” He wasn’t so kind to Miss Lonely in “Like a Rolling Stone,” and he argued Mr. Jones should be stripped of his senses and made illegal, but these are less self-righteous proclamations with the weight of social history behind them than the complaints of a young hipster who’s made it on the scene, who’s made his own scene, one filled with flashing Beat images, jokey surrealism, the whole complex drama of young love and scorn. Save for some risible taunts to Cassius Clay, later Muhammed Ali, in “I Shall Be Free No. 10”: “14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, Gonna knock him clean right outta his spleen,” it would be many years, and many albums, until direct threats, or at least prognostications of death, would reappear in Dylan’s lyrics.

In one song from the mid-70s, Dylan reprises the deadly voice. “You hurt the ones that I love best / And cover up the truth with lies” Dylan sings in the fourth verse of “Idiot Wind,” a venomous side-one track from 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. “One day you’ll be in the ditch / Flies buzzin’ around your eyes / Blood on your saddle.” Here the I-speaker seems not to threaten as much as predict that the “idiot, babe” second person of the song will find her fatal end, most likely due to her own idiocy. Eight verses, four choruses, and nearly eight minutes long, the snarling, driving rock tune drips with resentment and disdain, the speaker informing the subject “your corrupt ways have finally made you blind” and musing, “it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe,” even while he calls her “sweet lady” and points out her “ragin’ glory” and her “holiness.” Now, I’m not here to tell you Dylan based “Idiot Wind” on his marital separation, and that he had a real person in mind for his descriptors and invectives. That kind of biographical reading is superficial at best. We have to take the song for what it is, beyond the biography. But Dylan himself told an interviewer, Bill Flanagan, in 1985, “I thought I might have gone a little bit too far with ‘Idiot Wind.’ … I didn’t feel that one was too personal, but I felt it seemed too personal. … ‘Cause usually with those kinds of things, if you think you’re too close to something, you’re giving away too much of your feelings, well, your feelings are going to change a month later and you’re going to look back and say, ‘What did I do that for?’”

So, what did Dylan do that for? Self-expression? Poetic effect? Simply to get the song across? Whatever the case, he seemed to have discovered a danger inherent in embodying the voice of masculine rage – namely that it can put people off, make people uncomfortable, especially if they can imagine the person behind the castigations. And though “Idiot Wind” still stands as one of Dylan’s most powerful tracks, perhaps Dylan scared himself, because going forward through the 70s and 80’s, he rarely used the first person in such a menacing way. “Go get my pistol, babe,” he commands in “Baby Stop Crying” from 1978’s Street Legal: “Honey, I can’t tell right from wrong.” But here the speaker isn’t threatening to shoot the woman, but protect her, avenge her honor, if she would only stop crying. “Why would I want to take your life?” he asks on 1981’s “Shot of Love”: “You’ve only murdered my father, raped his wife / Tattooed my babies with a poison pen / Mocked my God, humiliated my friends.” Here at the far end of Dylan’s gospel era, he seems to have synthesized his truculent religiosity into one verse. In fact, in 1983 Dylan called “Shot of Love “my most perfect song. It defines where I am spiritually, musically, romantically and whatever else. It shows where my sympathies lie.” From this view, Dylan has landed on a rationale for righteous condemnation that ends in bloodshed, framing such behavior as a mandate from God, yet that mandate, chilling as it is, fades into the background for the rest of the decade. Dylan, again, seems to have said his piece and moved on.

In 1990, however, midway through Dylan’s album Under the Red Sky, the jumpin’ blues number “10,000 Men” begins with the kernel of a lyrical style Dylan would go on to leverage with great success in what we now refer to as his late era. “Ten thousand men on a hill,” Dylan relays. “Some of ’m goin’ down, some of ’m gonna get killed.” This suggestion of some epic battle ever-unfolding lends the song historic depth, the glory and agony of warfare, even as he belted out “Masters of War” just five months later at the Grammys while accepting his Lifetime Achievement Award. The twin facets of Dylan’s bellicose late-era songwriting – the personally affronted, the historically aggrieved – appears briefly on Dylan’s subsequent album of originals, 1997’s Time Out of Mind. “I don’t know if I saw you / If I would kiss you or kill you,” Dylan sings. “It probably wouldn’t matter to you anyhow.” One would think it would matter if one were to be kissed or killed – that nothing could matter more – though the line goes by breezily, almost like a smoky tune from the song’s “jukebox playin’ low.”

Of course, between 1990’s Under the Red Sky and 1997’s Time Out of Mind, in order to fulfill a contract with Columbia Records, Dylan reached back into the folk canon and interpreted two albums of old British and American folk songs and, tellingly, murder ballads. Those two albums, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong contain such haunting and pointedly vengeful songs as “Frankie and Albert,” “Delia,” “Stack a Lee,” and my personal favorite, the leering and lecherous “Blood in My Eyes.” Accepted wisdom goes that this roots return helped reconnect Dylan to some ancient inspiration he’d been lacking for a decade or more, and it does seem clear the 90s saw a broadening of Dylan’s aesthetic range. He met the twenty-first century with the jaunty film single, “Things Have Changed,” and the stylistically diverse album, “Love and Theft”, expanding his musical persona into even more genres of American music, and various forms of lyrical expression.

In the span of Dylan’s discography, 2001’s “Love and Theft” is as colorful and eccentric as any other release. Characters spring forth, like Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, the one who is a “low down, sorry old man,” the other who “will stab you where you stand.” More significantly, that first-person speaker reigns over the proceedings with humor, emotion, and yes, homicidal rage. From the broad, epic view, that speaker claims in “Bye and Bye” that, “I’m gonna establish my rule through civil war.” Juxtaposed with his “lover’s sigh” and jokes like “I’m sittin’ on my watch so I can be on time,” though, this civil war threat actually falls in service to proving “how loyal and true a man can be.” Similarly, in “Honest with Me,” Dylan claims “I’m here to create the new imperial empire / I’m gonna do whatever circumstances require.” In this song, however, the speaker concedes some of his power, moaning, “I’m glad I fought / I only wish we’d won.”

But don’t take Dylan too lightly, either. “I might need a good lawyer,” he hypothesizes in “Cry a While”: “Could be your funeral, my trial.” Meanwhile in “Floater (Too Much to Ask),” he warns, “If you ever try to interfere with me or cross my path again / you do so at the peril of your life / I’m not quite as cool or forgiving as I sound.” Part of these lines Dylan cribbed from John Bester’s English translation of Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza, and it does seem that oftentimes when Dylan mines other texts for lyric material, he gravitates toward the gruesome and the deadly. The same holds true on Modern Times, which features darker tones, denser sounds than its predecessor, even as it continues its romp through American musical forms. From within its thick blues and spare ballads spring lines like:

Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches
I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages (“Thunder on the Mountain”)

I can’t go back to paradise no more
I killed a man back there (“Spirit on the Water”)

Sooner or later you too shall burn (“Rollin’ and Tumblin’”)

I’m going to make you come to grips with fate
When I’m through with you, you’ll learn to keep your business straight (“Nettie

Gonna get myself together, I’m gonna wring your neck
When all else fails I’ll make it a matter of self respect (“Someday Baby”)

If I catch my opponents ever sleepin’
I’ll just slaughter them where they lie
I’ll avenge my father’s death and then I’ll step back (“Ain’t Talkin’”)

Some of the lines have antecedents in earlier songs, poems, and Shakespeare plays, and others don’t. As is widely known, on Modern Times Dylan borrows lines not just from old blues and lounge singers, but writers such as the so-called Poet of the Confederacy, Henry Timrod, and notably, the ancient Roman poet, Ovid. While the most murderous lines seem to belong to Dylan himself, these notions of both the Civil War and of Ovid’s exile to the barren and desolate Black Sea infuse the album with both belligerence and yearning. Akin to Ovid, Dylan himself has claimed, “I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be, and so I’m on my way home.” On Modern Times, Dylan’s and Ovid’s voices intertwine, deepening the historical valence of Dylan’s own voice, proving Dylan’s grievance with this world is nothing new. And since he’s not actually a murderer, as far as we know, it’s through his lyrics that he exacts his revenge.

Released just two years later, Together Through Life is an aberration in this rising tide of bloody voices. Yes, on “My Wife’s Hometown,” Dylan sings, “One of these days, I’ll end up on the run / I’m pretty sure she’ll make me kill someone.” In Jolene, “I’ve got a Saturday night special, I’m back again.” And on “It’s All Good,” Dylan threatens, “I’ll pluck off your beard and blow it in your face / This time tomorrow I’ll be rolling in your place.” But that’s all the violence Dylan dispenses for the entire album, and this tameness we can safely attribute to Dylan’s lyrical collaboration with Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead. With 2012’s Tempest, however, the rampage returns. The sweet, melodious “Soon After Midnight” finds that “they” – whoever “they” are – “chirp and chatter,” but “what does it matter / They’re lying there in their blood.” As for “Two Timing Slim,” Dylan will “drag his corpse through the mud.” The threats are then directed outward on “Narrow Way,” the speaker “armed to the hilt and struggling hard / You won’t get out of here unscarred.” For “Early Roman Kings,” the speaker will “strip you of life, strip you of breath / Ship you down to the house of death.” And right in the middle of this snarling, gravelly album, perhaps the bloodiest Dylan song of all, one he relished during live shows up until the pandemic, “Pay in Blood” operates on a double meaning. “I pay in blood / But not my own.” Whose blood is the speaker paying with as he “could stone you to death for the wrongs that you done?” Is it the listener’s? Jesus’s? With cagey confidence, Dylan observes, “Sooner or later you’ll make a mistake / I’ll put you in a chain that you never can break / Legs and arms and body and bone.” These words are tactile, visceral, all the more so because they spill blood as they unfold. “I got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim / I got dogs could tear you limb from limb.” This is not someone you’d want to meet in a dark alley, or sit next to on a train. In fact, murdering seems to be this speaker’s reason for living:

This is how I spend my days
I came to bury, not to praise
I’ll drink my fill and sleep alone
I pay in blood, but not my own

Floating on the surface here is Marc Antony’s burial speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” Antony begins, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” In lifting and trimming this line, Dylan invites us to read on: “The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones.” If evil lives on, then it’s through evil, not good, that Dylan’s lyrical personas will succeed him. No wonder his work becomes more violent by the year.

Given the bloody trajectory of Dylan’s late-era albums, it’s no surprise that Dylan’s latest album, 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, wields this rhetoric of violence to enhance his patchwork of historical episodes and moody vignettes. The first single released, before the album was even announced, was “Murder Most Foul,” the epic, groaning ballad about, to cite Dylan’s own allusion, “a day that will live on in infamy.” On her recent podcast episode Laura Tenschert says “It would take Bob Dylan over 56 years to release a murder ballad based on the story of JFK’s assassination, and even that song still seems to struggle to make sense of it.” In the voice of JFK’s killers, Dylan threatens, “You got unpaid debts and we’ve come to collect / We’re gon’ kill you with hatred and without any respect.” Later, the third-person narrator observes, “They mutilated his body and took out his brain / What more could they do, they piled on the pain.” The sense Dylan can make of this pivotal U.S. American tragedy lies in the murder itself, along with the equally bloody post-mortem exam. The meaning’s in the violence, a topic he’s long been exploring.

Elsewhere on the album, Dylan asks “Can you look in my face with your sightless eye / Can you cross your heart and hope to die?” Here he’s playing Dr. Frankenstein, but he still invokes the listener with a second-person “you,” commanding, “Show me your ribs – I’ll stick in the knife” before resuming character: “I’m gonna jump start my creation to life.” In “Black Rider,” the speaker seems to be speaking to the titular character himself. “Go home to your wife stop visiting mine” he says before warning, “One of these days I’ll forget to be kind.” Later, the speaker admits, “My soul is distressed my mind is at war.” But don’t try to comfort him, either: “Don’t hug me – don’t flatter me – don’t turn on the charm / I’ll take out a sword and have to hack off your arm.” Likewise, in “Crossing the Rubicon,” a vulnerable position makes the speaker defensive as he can “feel the bones beneath my skin and they’re tremblin’ with rage / I’ll make your wife a widow – you’ll never see old age.” The threats create distance between the speaker in his moments of weakness and any sort of sympathy. “Others can be tolerant,” the speaker says, “others can be good / I’ll cut you up with a crooked knife and I’ll miss you when you’re gone.”

What does all of this violence, warfaring, and cold murder add up to? Is Dylan just cranky and dishing out idle threats? Grouchy? Hangry? In a mood? These lines I’ve enumerated certainly do create a mood, one that contrasts and enhances many of the other moods characteristic of Dylan’s late-era songwriting: the romantic, the historic, the sublime. Of late, Dylan’s songwriting has not only reanimated the past, but it has embodied the virtual jumble of voices that typify contemporary existence. After all, we live in a digital era where messages stream at light speed, where all music is available at all times, where information is cheap and always at the ready. Or, as Dylan told Jeff Slate in a recent interview, “We seem to be in a vacuum. Everything’s become too smooth and painless. We jumped into the mainstream, the big river, with all the industrial waste, chemical debris, rocks, and mudflow, along with Brian Wilson and his brothers, Soupy Sales, and Tennessee Ernie Ford. The earth could vomit up its dead, and it could be raining blood, and we’d shrug it off, cool as cucumbers.” In this age of oversaturation, Dylan’s own music has doubled down on a polyvocal, multifarious quality. In other words, as the first track of Rough and Rowdy Ways claims, paraphrasing Whitman, Dylan contains multitudes, and even that song finds Dylan fighting blood feuds, carrying “four pistols and two large knives,” showing his heart, “but not all of it – only the hateful part,” selling you down the river, putting a price on your head, sleeping “with life and death in the same bed.” Dylan, as much as any other major artist, has managed to pack his persona with a multitude of voices that reflect our twenty-first century reality. The murderous impulse – whether in the personal or historical sense – is only one facet of that protean persona, but it’s the one snarling, sneering face that often catches your attention and lingers in your mind. It’s the face of mortality that reminds you you’re alive.


Paul Haney is Editor of the Dylan Review. Although it is normally our policy not to publish articles by our editors, Haney contributed this paper to the World of Bob Dylan 2023, and we felt it appropriate to reproduce it for this special section.

“I and I.” World of Bob Dylan 2023, June 2023, Tulsa, OK.

BY Bernard Wills, Grenfell Campus Memorial University


“I and I” is a track on Dylan’s 1983 album Infidels. The title, of course, refers to the phrase “I and I” used by Rastafarians to assert a logic of identity rather like the Fichtean A=A. Unlike in German idealism however, this is an experiential not a logical proposition. “I and I” states the experience that God and humanity are one: that I in my subjectivity and self-hood am the divine subjectivity. The human and divine I are distinguished to be identified. This knowledge is a revolutionary act of appropriating dignity, the dignity of I itself, to myself, in my fallen and oppressed condition and is the condition of any assertion of freedom and decolonization. Indeed, with the division of the world into subject and object (not “I and I” but “I and it”) other human subjects are reduced to “objects” to be used and exploited.[1] In the Rasta world all is “I” not “you and I” which entails division and subordination. As Bunny Wailer puts it, “In the beginning there was one concept” that of I. (“Armagideon,” 1976) Division emerges (the problem in all Gnostic type systems) through the arch nemesis “Apollyon” or “Satan” who first enunciates the sentence “you and I,” thus dividing the unity of I into subject and object. This is how, in one of his accounts at least, Plotinus accounts for the emergence of mind from the simplicity of the one: an act of “daring” that breaks the original unity and introduces the possibility of evil (1991; 5, 1, 1). What, however, does Dylan make of all this from a Judaic perspective for which God utterly transcends the human so that “his thoughts are not our thoughts”? In this essay I will explore this question by explicating the lyric for “I and I.” As we shall see, Dylan (perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not) has evoked some of the most fundamental problems about the divine and human identity-in difference. It is perhaps not usual to bring German idealism into one’s consideration of Dylan as I did above. Nor is it usual to bring in the beliefs of the Rastafarians. Yet to crack the complexity of what Dylan has done in this song we shall have to do both as occasion serves.[2]


Dylan, notoriously, had a period of intense immersion in Evangelical Christianity. This period seemingly ended with the release of Infidels and on this and later records Christian and Judaic imagery seem poised against each other in what we might call a dialectical way. Though Dylan is, before all else, mercurial, I think I can say with some confidence that these later explorations of Judaism reflect a dissatisfaction with strict Evangelical theology. This is because it is a theology of rupture. The fissure between the old self and the new, nature and grace, the saved and the unregenerate is posited as absolute. This fissure is dramatized in Dylan’s trilogy of gospel albums: Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love. On these records the divine has entered history, radically, in the person of Christ. This moment of revelation forces an absolute choice: “You either got faith or you got unbelief/there ain’t no neutral ground” (“Precious Angel,” 1979). The divine drama unfolds in a moment of pure crisis where the will must give itself unreservedly to the standpoint of faith or remain divided: “No time to prepare for the victim that’s there / no time to suffer or blink / and no time to think” (“No Time to Think,” 1978). This crisis presents a binary option, an either/or. At its most radical it entails the logic of the early heresiarch Marcion, with his absolute division of nature and grace and his absolute separation of the Christ of the Gospels from the Torah. In many ways, this Gnosticism, as Harold Bloom points out, lies at the heart of American Protestantism, especially in its popular modes (1992; 21-23). A radical separation is sought from what is simply given in nature or history. The self is radically transformed, reborn in redemptive suffering. This new Christian self is in the most basic sense a revolutionary self, a radical recreation, and we should give the word “revolutionary” its full resonance for an American context.


Dylan, though, is a poet of continuity as well as rupture. Transformation and recreation of the self is a reaching back as well as a looking forward: looking forward to a redeemed self and back to an ahistorical point of origin: deep in the soul there is no past (see Day, 1988; 118). What propels us forward is an effort to recapture the integrity of the beginning through a recovery of the past. As another poet, T.S. Eliot, put it “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” (1971; 145). The beginning point is always present; Jewish experience, to be specific, does not disappear from Christianity. The legitimacy of the new faith is predicated on the old[3] (John 5.45 46). Dylan seems to want to explore this fact to a far greater degree than Evangelical Protestantism would readily countenance. One might say that for him, Judaism and Christianity align insofar as both are religions of expectation and insofar as the object of this expectation is one and the same. How he would work this relation out is difficult to say; however, it must be emphasized that such discursive tasks are not typically for poets. What they utter in their divine madness the reader must turn into prosaic commentary. We will, then, consider the lyrics of “I and I” and consider how they manage (linguistically) the complex task of rendering a space within and somehow beyond the contested boundaries of Hebrew and Christian tradition.


The song is in one way very simple. A man goes out for a walk to avoid talking to a dreaming woman. The “walk” however is clearly a metaphor for another type of experience: the mystical experience of a realm outside time, change, and even language. As the chorus indicates, this is an encounter with the transcendent creator of the Hebrew Bible. Dylan’s source here is Exodus 33 vs. 19-23 in which Moses encounters the living God and receives a glimpse of divine glory. This is the principle of absolute beauty and justice before which creation is reduced to nothingness: “No man sees my face and lives.” This is the principle which “neither honors nor forgives” (i.e. in “creation” we are not honored or forgiven if we do not honor and forgive).[4] The paradox of the song revolves around the mediation between the creature and this absolute principle. The Rasta phrase “I and I” adverted to above immediately evokes an encounter between an “I” and another “I” or (presumably) two subjectivities. Yet the phrase yokes these subjectivities together such that each “I” can see the other “I” as “I,” as itself rather than another. Difference and unity are evoked at the same time and in the same respect: that of the “I.” Earlier in Exodus 33 it says “and the Lord spoke unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.” Paradoxically, the self can attain union with that which it cannot behold and live. This may seem a naked contradiction, but Dylan is purposefully honing a paradoxical discourse which tests the limits of finite reason. Readers unable or unwilling to distinguish between a sloppy contradiction and a fruitful paradox should probably avoid Dylan and the Hebrew Bible! At any rate, this paradoxical union/disunion is enacted by the mediation of the word which speaks its own ineffability: “One says to the other.” At the very limit of communication consciousness is saturated with what is too intimately present to be divided discursively by a “Mind that multiplies the smallest matter” (“The Wicked Messenger,” 1967).


This points to another possible interpretation of the phrase “I and I.” “I and I” could be read as a circumlocution for God’s name “I am who I am” in which, despite the assertion of identity, the “I” is taken twice. Yet the very fact that the “I” must be duplicated for God to speak his name suggests that this assertion of absolute unity slides into difference, even duality, even as it is spoken. One can take this further. “I and I” may be attributing the reflexivity of consciousness to the one God: the “I” knowing itself as another “I” which, if one takes the copula binding “I and I” as a third element, would anticipate the Christian (though not Plotinian) Trinity.[5] On this reading we have an assertion of identity and difference packed in the ambiguity of Dylan’s terse phrases. Somehow the mystical identity of the soul with the one beyond comprehension, the identity with what is absolutely different, is grounded in the possibility of the one being different from itself in the word which mediates its transcendence: the “I” can saturate and suffuse another “I.” It can be “I” in another “I.” Thus, Moses can speak face to face with He whom no man can look upon. Even in the gap, the distance opened up between “I” and “Thou,” the “I” can encounter another “I” as its own most intimate self.[6] The boundaries erected by ordinary object-consciousness and discursive logic may, after all, not apply in the heightened state of poetic, and indeed prophetic, inspiration. Here the poet/prophet/visionary may be as much God as not God and vice versa.


This suggestion seems to lie behind the third verse, a mysterious conflation of Ecclesiastes 1, 9-11 and Timothy 2, 15-16. The Ecclesiastes text laments the power of time and chance over all human endeavor while the Pauline text enjoins Christians to avoid vain and foolish babbling and to rightly “divide” the word of truth. The way Dylan joins these two texts (one Hebrew and one Greek and Christian), they carry the sense that he who divides rightly the word of truth shall gain the goal which strength, wisdom, speed, and cunning cannot attain: salvation from time and chance. Most striking is the notion that a “division” of truth as truth, traditionally, is one. The phrase “the word of truth” implies that the one truth can be spoken in the dividedness of language. To divide the word of truth rightly would be to properly split up the one truth into many words. There is another kind of proper division consequent on this: the proper division of honor into equal portions through justice, hence the next two lines. Here there is not only divine unity but “just” division and “just” speaking. Language breaks up the unity of the one into discourse as nature breaks up God into creation and indeed, as human society “divides” the unity of justice into “equal shares.” One might almost think of the “breaking” of the vessels of light in the imagery of the Kabbalah. These lines attribute to a “stranger” the teaching of the true character of justice. In a brilliant play on words Dylan (the speaker) learns to “see an I for an I,” the absolute equality of one subject with another, and is hence placed under the law which demands an eye for an eye, which this equality entails. If one sees an “I for an I,” one must also see an eye for an eye and “a tooth for a tooth.” This is learned from beholding justice in the face of a “stranger.” We cannot see justice in ourselves but only in the face of the other. Exodus says to honor the stranger among us (22-21), so the primary meaning here is that the measure of our justice is how we treat the stranger for nature itself inclines us to be kind to our own kin but to fear and hate the other.


This image also suggests the traditional representation of justice as a blindfolded woman holding a pair of scales. To look into her face would be to see the beautiful countenance of justice and justice, after all, may be something to which all us fallen humans are a stranger. This, a visible icon of justice, may be the face we can look into and live, or look into and die, depending on what is in our hearts. Here one is tempted to sum up all these strands of meaning by pointing out that in Christian discourse it is Christ (the stranger among us in John, he who is not of this world but sent from the Father) who is the visible icon of justice. Thus, we have the assertion that truth and justice can be mediated by words and images, just as we can be one with that which no eye (or I) can look upon and live through the speaking of the word. This meaning, if we accept it, links beautifully with the first for it is through the face of the stranger, the face of the other, that we see the face of Christ: “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). It would be fruitful, though beyond the scope of this paper, to consider this focus on the stranger as the icon of justice in relation to the “face of the other” which for Levinas constitutes the sphere of the ethical.


The final verse presents this result as the conclusion of the speaker’s journey. Language (“talk”) which the speaker had sought to escape in the second verse is here reaffirmed. The journey has continued past the night: the natural alteration of light and dark has been suspended by a deeper darkness. A “darkness at noon” that outshines the natural sun. The speaker, pushing himself through this darkness at noon (the totalitarian horrors of the 20th Century as in Arthur Koestler? The “divine darkness” of negative theology? Both at once?) must force himself forward yet cannot stumble or stay put into the narrow lanes of quotidian existence.[7] Freedom and compulsion seem to exist at once. In this state, the speaker experiences something of the infinity of the divine itself: “Into the narrow lanes I can’t stumble or stay put.” Dylan divides this line with a scoff, the divine scoff at the constraints of the finitude which cannot contain it. One can almost hear the voice of God here taking over the speaker’s voice. Indeed, this is what is described in the very next line: “Someone else is speaking with my mouth”. This seems to mean two things: a. the divine is speaking in me as in prophecy; and b. I, God, am speaking through another. Exactly as in Rastafarianism the divine and human interchange pronouns in a division without confusion. As the speaker (presumably the human “I”) focuses on the sound of his own heartbeat, the word is delivered: “I’ve made shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot.” Shoes may here stand for images or artifacts, perhaps even words or (for the human speaker Dylan) songs. The word of the divine is that no image can contain him; though a maker of shoes he is himself not shod. The God beyond words can speak of his wordlessness and this speech cannot be exhausted because it cannot exhaust him. The word of ineffability saves speaking itself from its own exhaustion.


This brings us to the figure of the woman mentioned in the first, second, and fourth verses. The woman sleeps throughout the song wrapped in the dreams of her past. She is the power who evokes speech, perhaps she is language herself or, to use Ginsberg’s phrase from the liner notes to Desire, “Lady Language Creator.” Her speech, however, is focused on the past, on “whatever was.” Perhaps then she is memory as well. Her sleep seems a sleep of exhaustion as if satiated with her own fullness. Indeed, there is an air of unreality about her dream state: she would sleep through the end of the world if it occurred. This exhaustion or fullness invokes weariness and disgust reminiscent, again, of Ecclesiastes 1, 9.: “there is no new thing under the sun.” It is from this state of world weariness that the speaker ascends to other realms, realms beyond memory and decay. In the process he is raised from the silence of self-satisfied dreams to speak a deeper silence. This is possible for God can reveal himself to creation. The power whose glance would consume the world can, through its ineffable condescension, maintain the creature in relation to itself. It is its very nature to mediate itself to what is other. Thus, one can be intimate to the point of identity with what is other to a degree which can neither be imagined or comprehended. This identity is not only the core of Christian mysticism but of Neo-Platonic henosis as well. It is also core to the Islamic Sufi tradition (rarely, to my knowledge, explicitly evoked by Dylan) which speaks of fana or loss of conscious self-hood in the divine ecstasy.[8] Indeed, the mystic al Hallaj uttered the phrase “I am the truth” in one of his ecstasies: his “I” was, in that moment, the divine “I” and one might say that “I and I” was almost what he uttered were it not that he proclaimed the distinction of the I’s annulled. Does “I and I” leave a shadow of difference in its assertion of identity?


Divine power, we are told, will soon fill and renew all creation in an eternal spring which will come “smoking down the track” as the “two men on a train platform” wait for the “gospel train” to appear. It was once suggested to me that these men are a Christian and a Jew and this seems to me plausible as in Dylan’s mind this is who would be waiting for the “Slow Train Coming”: the two religions of eschatological hope join in waiting for the same consummation (as does Islam but that does not seem to be on Dylan’s radar at least here). One might take this song as poised teasingly between Christian and Jewish standpoints on speaking and silence, God and creation, image and what cannot be imaged. This would certainly mark an advance (if this word applies to poets and artists) over Dylan’s more nakedly confessional records of the late 70’s (though these are in their own way compelling). Christianity leavened with a Jewish sense of paradox and “negative capability” seems no worse for wear to me and Dylan certainly weaves as much into this “Judeo-Christian” lyric as a lyric can contain. Poetry of this sort might even seem to some even overloaded, an unusual criticism for a pop song to be sure. Still, Dylan has difficult things to say and such things cannot always be said in a simple manner. Moreover, he has difficult things to say about the most difficult things. Indeed, he here performs one of the poet’s most important tasks, bending the resources of language to say what cannot, after all, be said. With apologies to Wittgenstein, it is the poets who face the task of speaking of that “whereof one cannot speak.” It is their task to push language to the point of failure and beyond.


Works Cited

Bloom, Harold American Religion (New York, Simon and Shuster, 1992).

Day, Aiden Jokerman (Cambridge Mass Basil Blackwell ltd, 1988)

Dylan, Bob Blonde on Blonde (New, York, Columbia Records, 1966)

Dylan, Bob Infidels (New, York, Columbia Records, 1983)

Dylan, Bob John Wesley Harding (New York, Columbia Records, 1967)

Dylan, Bob Slow Train Coming (New York, Columbia Records, 1979)

Dylan, Bob Street-Legal (New York, Columbia Records, 1978)

Eliot, T.S. The Complete Poems and Plays (New York, Harcourt Brace and World, 1971)

Hegel, G.W.F. The Science of Logic trans. A.V. Miller (N.J., Humanities Press

International, 1969)

Ricks, Christopher Dylan’s Visions of Sin (London, Harper Collins, 2003)

Plotinus, Enneads trans. S. MacKenna (London, Penguin Books, 1991)

Schelling, F.J.W. System of Transcendental Idealism trans. Peter Heath (Charlottesville,

University of Virginia Press, 1978)

The Wailers Burnin’ (New York, Island Records, 1971)

Wailer, Bunny Blackheart Man (New York, Island Records, 1976)


[1] Dylan is, of course, making a gesture, perhaps critical, to Martin Buber’s formulation of “I and Thou.” The human I encounters the divine in the form of thou, an otherness not reducible to the condition of the ordinary object world. This “thou” is irreducibly personal as irreducibly numinous. It overflows the category of thinghood and presents itself as an object of address not as an empirical object or notional category. It is to “thou” that one says, with Abraham (and with Leonard Cohen!) “hineni” or “here I am.” Understood this way, the formula “I and I” is an intensification of Buber’s “I and Thou.” It asserts a fusion and identity (as in mysticism) whereas Buber’s “I and Thou” emphasizes a dyadic encounter (where neither term is reduced or assimilated to the other). Of course, the ultimate limit of the assertion of “I and I” is the identity of human and divine in Christ. Is this what is being evoked through the appropriation of Rasta discourse for which, as Peter Tosh sings “Almighty God is a living man” (“Get Up, Stand Up,” 1971)?

[2] Aiden Day, in his study of Dylan Jokerman: Reading the Lyrics of Bob Dylan, invokes Dionysius and Eckhardt and in general the tradition of “negative mysticism” as a way of approaching Dylan’s lyrics (1988; 110). In the early modern period this Christian tradition absorbed a good deal of Jewish Cabbalism through figures like Jacob Boehme and Athanasius Kircher. This tradition, in turn, marked the tradition of German idealism through Schelling, Baader and, ultimately, Hegel. This is why convergences between Dylan and German Idealism, though indirect as far as I know, are not as surprising as they would seem at first blush. Western esoteric thinking (which might get by any number of routes to Dylan and, indeed, the early Rastas) has already blended Jewish and Christian themes in just the way we shall see “I and I” does. Fans of Dylan might be surprised what they find in Schelling’s essay Of Human Freedom!

[3] Dylan’s biblical references are to the Authorized Version so that is what I employ here. Dylan, after all, is an English poet, steeped in the tradition of that language, and English poetry, consciously or not, is haunted by the phrasing and cadence of the King James translators. What’s more, Dylan’s precise word play cannot be replicated using more modern translations.

[4] Citations from “I and I” are from the version on Infidels (1983).

[5] Considering the mystery of the name of God in Exodus would take us far afield. God names himself as “being” in Greek and Latin translation and as something not exactly “being” in Hebrew. I will not enter into the philological question here as it is outside my competence. I will note, though, that even in its tautological identity the divine name retains a triadic structure: pronoun, copula, pronoun. As Schelling says, even in the form of the law of identity, A=A, the A is taken twice (1978; 30). Its identity is constituted out of a moment of internal difference with the equal sign functioning as the copula or logical link. Identity, even in its most immediate universality, is also triadic procession and ordering.

[6] In Visions of Sin Christopher Ricks makes a number of indirect references to “I and I,” though he does not treat it directly. Dylan, he notes, plays constantly with pronouns and indeed the “I,” whether in “I and I,” “I and you” or “I and they” (2003; 344-36). Day makes the same observation (131-132) citing Dylan himself. The referent of this “I” is indeterminate, wavering between the divine I and the human self, or perhaps even the poetic mask. This fluidity may remind us of what Coleridge held about the creativity of the human I as an image of the divine self-hood and absolute, self-positing freedom. At any rate, we might say that for Dylan, pronouns are entangled and that the binary drawn in discursive language between “I and Thou” or “I and I” may readily, indeed dramatically, collapse. This is as much as to say that binaries are constituted in inner identities and inner identities constituted as external binaries as in Hegel’s Science of Logic (see Chapter 2 ‘On Determinate Being’ for an extended account). This is manifested in the instability of fixed, over-determinate linguistic categories, pronouns included.

[7] From Boehme to Schelling to Buber there has been a tradition of conceiving of the divine as manifesting a light/dark polarity. Of this Aiden Day says: “There is an honest and fearful consistency in the brooding apprehension of absoluteness in “I and I.” The lyric grasps profoundly that to approach the synthesis of the absolute may be to venture beyond the very structures that enable distinctions between contraries to be made. Admitting neither division nor condition the absolute may exclude or, equally, may include neither the light nor the dark, neither the positive nor the negative” (130). Day gives Isaiah 59,10 as a possible source for the image of darkness at noon (130).

[8] Dylan mentions the “Persian drunkard” Omar Khayyam on Blonde on Blonde. Others have found links to Rumi in Dylan’s lyrics and this is, at very least, not implausible. Certainly, Dylan seems aware of this tradition but I am not prepared to say how deep this influence may go.


“Dylan’s Indeterminate Enjambments.” World of Bob Dylan 2023, June 2023, Tulsa, OK.

BY Owen Boynton

Enjambment occurs in a poem when the syntax of a phrase is interrupted by the ending of a line. In some cases, we feel certain, as we round the corner of the line, that something else is needed; the syntax leaves us hanging. In other cases, we are surprised to find that the syntax of a line was not complete, so that, for instance, a verb finds an unexpected object. Bob Dylan makes much of the possibilities for surprise inherent in enjambment in the lines of his songs. It’s of course no simple matter to say what counts as a line in a song, since in performance, a line can be suggested by the vocal delivery as much as by the language, but Dylan’s insistence on rhyme as a feature of his song structures permits him to both suspend vowels and insert pauses with great variety from performance to performance against the awareness that the lines are marked, for the most part, by rhymes.

Dylan’s enjambments are most interesting to me when they generate something that is not quite fulfillment of an expectation that more is needed and also not quite the shock of surprise that more is being said. Instead, Dylan’s enjambments often hover between the two: we know, in some way, that something more should, syntactically, be offered, but the context and occasion of the phrasing also make it quite easy to feel that enough has been said, and that a phrase contained within a line makes self-sufficient sense even if syntactically insufficient. The colloquial register of the songs afford him opportunities to do this. One of the limits Dylan must overcome as a songwriter, and that some of his peers fail to recognize, is that rock songs, folk songs, and blues songs cannot accommodate a formal rhetoric and register without straining English; Latinate language, associated with both, does not fit nicely into the lyrical structure of songs. That is also probably why Dylan has recourse to Biblical English, which offers a source of phrasing that can take on great weight without the high style. But colloquial English, and the commitment to its conventions, allows Dylan other strengths. Christopher Ricks has written on present tense verbs and ephemerality in American English, demonstrating how much Dylan can make of these. Enjambments that are indeterminate – that depend on lines that both feel self-sufficient as units of sense and also prompt us to recognize their insufficiency syntactically – is another consequence of his commitment.

When Dylan wants conspicuous enjambments, the sort of lines that leave us hanging and feel ourselves to be hanging on the end, he gets them. From “Tombstone Blues”:

The sweet pretty things are in bed now of course
The city fathers, they’re trying to endorse
The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse

From “Fourth Time Around”:

I waited in the hallway, she went to get it, and I tried to make sense,
Out of that picture of you in your wheelchair that leaned up against
Her Jamaican rum
And when she did come

From “Red River Shore”:

Well, I sat by her side and for a while I tried
To make that girl my wife

We can easily see – and we are asked to hear, in the performances – how these enjambments are expressing something essential to the songs. In “Tombstone Blues,” the enjambment of “endorse” is an overflow of lyrics in the midst of a triplet, part of the abundance of verses that are set against the scarcity of a refrain that shows us mama without shoes. “Fourth Time Around” is about dependency and self-sufficiency, perhaps a response to, or flaunting theft from, the Beatles, and also about not the dependency that grows with intimacy, which Dylan wants none of; and so the lines are jarringly dependent, one upon the next, neither conceivably standing alone, even one verse leaning for support against the next. In “Red River Shore,” the interruption of the line-break after “tried” is the futility of the effort, which will soon be met in her words, when she tells the singer to go home and lead a quiet life.

In “I Want You,” we find these fairly clear enjambments, the enjambments that announce themselves at the end of a line by making us certain that more needs to be said, but we also find what I’ve called “indeterminate enjambments”:

The silver saxophones say I
Should refuse you

The cracked bells and washed-out horns
Blow into my face with scorn
But it’s not that way, I wasn’t born
To lose you

And I wait for them to interrupt
Me drinking from my broken cup
And ask me to open up
The gate for you

She knows that I’m not afraid
To look at her

No I wasn’t very cute
To him, was I?

Ah, because time was on his side
    And because I
Want you, I want you

Only three are clear enjambments: “And because I / Want you”; “The silver saxophones say I / should refuse you”; and “I wasn’t born / To lose you.” Christopher Ricks has drawn attention to the nonchalance of the refrain: how naturally, breezily Dylan sings “I want you,” afloat over the swirling musical lines. But against the lightness of performance, the enjambments tug ever so slightly, and they tug each time on the “I,” so that we come to feel that the entire song turns not just upon the first-person but the uneasiness, awkwardness, of the first-person; it’s both very simple for Dylan to sing, “I want you,” but there is a self-conscious unease whenever the “I” triggers an enjambment; it’s not just dependency being expressed, as if “I” need to be continued and completed in my relationship with you (though there is that). It’s something else also: an uncertainty of how he stands in relation to her and in relation to his own wanting her.

I said there are only three clear cases of enjambment. The others are especially interesting because of how they contribute to the song: “I wasn’t very cute / To him, was I?” and “I wait for her to interrupt / Me drinking from my broken cup” and “And ask me to open up / The gate for you” and “She knows that I’m not afraid / To look at her.” In each of these cases, we might hear the first line as not being enjambed at all. And these are the sorts of cases that I’m going to pay attention to for the rest of my talk: the times when Dylan offers lines that might be or might not be enjambed: lines of indeterminate enjambment.

How does this work? When we hear “I wasn’t very cute,” we wonder “in whose eyes.” But at the same time, if someone says, “I wasn’t very cute,” it implies “to anyone” and so seems a moment of stark vulnerability – it’s a moment of potential embarrassment, which Dylan then resolves in “To him,” because that means he might still be cute “to her.” He asks her “was I,” since that is the sort of endearing question that demonstrates he does think he’s still cute to her.

When we hear “I wait for them to interrupt,” nothing more needs to be said, and the “me” does not feel like a necessary resolution: but “me drinking from my broken cup” is unexpected, since even if we knew they’d be interrupting him, we didn’t know the action they’d be interrupting. Dylan is playing a game here: he anticipates an interruption, but we don’t see it except in hindsight when we recognize where the rhyme and line-break fell in relation to the phrasing. And there’s a further game: the rhyme of “interrupt” finds completion in “cup,” so even as the phrasing is broken, the rhyme mends. On a very small scale, this emblematizes something much larger happening in this song, which is a tug-of-war between independence and incompletion, between being broken and whole, vulnerable and impervious to harm: it is a song that expresses both at once, and this indeterminacy of the situation is captured by the indeterminacy of enjambment.

This becomes especially clear in the next instance: “Ask me to open up” might easily stand on its own: open up, talk about yourself. But instead, it’s something physical – a gate – that he will open up. Again, the prospect of vulnerability, exposure, and embarrassment is admitted and let to stand and then foreclosed. It’s not surprising that Ricks likes the song so much – he wrote the best book on embarrassment and literature around. And this is a song that is about opening oneself up to the embarrassment of the direct statement, “I want you,” but that also tangles itself – burdens oneself, to go to the French root “embarrassed” – in the self-exposure that such a statement entails, no matter how nonchalant it tries to be.

Very briefly, it’s worth pointing out that we can hear it also in the last of my examples: “She knows that I’m not afraid | To look at her.” “Not afraid” might stand alone: not afraid at all, of anything. But then it dwindles into a posture of crouching anxiety: not afraid to look, but maybe afraid to do much else.

Dylan’s indeterminate enjambments repeatedly bring together two perspectives – making the point that there is more that needs to be said from one perspective, but from another perspective not more that needs to be said. It’s a deep ambiguity, suspending two contradictory judgments: more is needed; no more is needed. William Empson: “Life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can’t be solved by analysis.”

The same thing happens in “Sooner or Later (One of us Must Know)” – the title gets at a related tension: what can be said aloud and what, being set in parentheses, cannot be. The full force of the effect is felt in the refrain of the song:

But sooner or later one of us must know
That you’re just doing what you’re supposed to do.
Sooner or later, one of us must know
That I really did try to get close to you.

“Know” does not find a rhyme, but it finds its exact double – though I think the sense of the two words is interestingly distant, since it might be said that the first “know” refers to what she knows (she knows she’s doing what she’s supposed to do) and the second “know” to what he knows (that he tried). What’s fascinating here is the mix of perspectives: One of us must know, but which? And saying “One of us must know” is to suggest that both cannot or need not know, and also to occupy a detached perspective, making him a third party to the breakup; since he is the one saying what each one must know, he must be the one to know. But there’s knowing and there’s knowing (small k, big K as Dylan sneered at the poor reporter from Time Magazine), and so it might be that Dylan is saying, he knows that one of them really, at a profound level, know that she’s doing what she’s supposed to do, and this someone is her; he knows it, but doesn’t really accept it. It’s an astonishing representation of the fissures in self-knowledge that accompany break-ups.


And the uncertainty of the enjambment has a crucial part to play. Dylan not only echoes “know” in “know,” but he affirms the line break in the vocal, pausing after the word. Syntactically, we want to find out what it is that one of them must know… know what? And the “that” after the line-break is crucial syntactically: it completes “know.” But the joke or dig of the line is that he shouldn’t have to say, that “Sooner or later one of must know” is sufficient as a unit of sense for the person who does know: for that person, the verb doesn’t need completion. She knows she’s supposed to leave; he needs to spell it out for himself. He knows he did try to get close to her; he needs to spell it out for her. It’s all a matter of perspective whether the line stands on its own or whether it needs to be continued, whether more needs to be said, and this in a song that is about not understanding, not knowing, not wanting or needing to go on explaining, and that, somehow, in performance of the song, explains just that.

The trick in “Sooner or Later” depends on the “mental state” type of verb that requires a “that”-clause to follow it: I believe that, know that, fear that, etc. In two other songs from the 1960s, Dylan seizes on these verbs for his most interesting indeterminate enjambments. In “Like a Rolling Stone,” we have a few:

You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin’ out

“Laugh about” what? But also, “laugh about” as a verb phrase like “hang about” or “gad about”: something that one does, here and there, implying that she was moving about as she laughed. The possibility of this meaning isn’t erased by the following line, either: “hangin’ out” is static. They are just sitting around, hanging out to dry, and she is running around them, encircling them with her laughter. And from the same song:

You say you never compromise
With the mystery tramp but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
     And say do you want to make a deal?

Dylan drops the “that” from after “realize” – but if there had been a “that,” not only would the rhyme have been scuttled, but he would have been giving us more than we needed. “Now you realize” leaves the “that you do in fact compromise” or “that you do in fact need to compromise” implicit. From our perspective, the listener – and from Dylan’s perspective, the sneerer – the verb says all that is needed: it contains what is realized. What’s wonderful in this case is that the song never does say that she realizes that she does need to compromise; that is not how the verb “realize” is resolved. Instead, she realizes something else entirely: “he’s not selling any alibis.” And that in and of itself can’t be taken to mean “you realize that you will need to compromise.” Instead, the lines mean something like, “you realize he’s not selling any ways for you not to have to compromise, and you are pulled into the nothingness of his eyes and made to ask if he wants to make a deal.” Why do it this way? Because the instant of realization that she will have to compromise doesn’t happen consciously; she is just pulled into the need to compromise without realizing what is happening. That makes her more pathetic somehow; she gives up her word without even fully realizing it.

One more example from the same song:

You used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain’t it hard when you discovered that
He really wasn’t where it’s at
      After he took from you everything he could steal

“Ain’t it hard when you discovered that” asks to be completed…discovered what? But then “discovered that” is already enough: somehow, the strangeness of the imagery that has come before seems like it might be a hard enough discovery: “you didn’t discover did you” that he was carrying a Siamese cat on his shoulder? Or else the “that” can be felt to take in something more elusive and free-floating: it was hard to discover “all of that” situation you were in. Dylan needs to leave this line suspended as potentially self-sufficient because he doesn’t want it to simply find completion in the line that comes immediately next. Instead, “discovered that” finds completion, separately, in both of the lines that follow. She discovers a) that he wasn’t really where it’s at and, relatedly, but not identically, b) that after he took everything he could steal. The word “that” refers to more than one thing: it is a discovery of a whole pit of snakes that she finds herself in, and when I re-listen to the song, I hear the breadth and indeterminateness of its reach.

There’s a question in this sort of paper of how many instances I should provide. More are to be had. From “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” we again find enjambments expressing what it is to know and not know, or else to know more or less than one knows.

To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
    That not much is really sacred.

“It’s easy to see WHAT without looking too far?” But of course, we already see and know: he has already told us, and it’s so easy to see that you don’t need to be told. And in the same song:

A question in your nerves is lit
Yet you know there is no answer fit
To satisfy, insure you not to quit
To keep it in your mind and not forget
That it is not he or she or them or it
That you belong to

“Forget” what? Well, this one is more complicated because of the tangle of syntax that precedes, “There is no answer fit to keep it in your mind,” “There is no answer fit to insure you do not quit keeping it in your mind and not forgetting”: there’s no answer that might not escape, and there’s no answer that might not, in escaping, cause you to forget…to forget what? The answer, for one; but the question also, since it is the question itself that is lit and most important; but also the premise of the question, which is neither an answer nor a question, but a ground for asking and answering: “that it is not he or she or them or it / that you belong to.” By suspending “not forget” as an indeterminate enjambment in the midst of so much other indeterminately coordinate syntax, the question of what is asked, what is answered, what is known and not known, is intensified; the phrasing lives what it describes.

In the opening verse of “Masters of War” Dylan offers an enjambment at the “know” verb quite differently by dropping the “that” for suggestive effect. This is a song with line-endings that do not follow the rhyme scheme, alone, but that follow the folk-ballad meter with a silent beat after a set number of beats in each line. The rhymes are present, but they do not operate alone in determining line-endings, and it would be foolish to look only to them:

You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

“I just want you to know” needs a “that,” but Dylan refuses: “I just want you to know” exactly what? Speaking with the “just” of justice in mind: Everything, more than he can say in the line that follows, but also what he does say in the line that follows. And at the same time not “I just want you to know that I can see through your masks,” but “I just want you to know AND I can see through your masks”: both things are true, but paralleled, as the first two lines are parallel descriptions of the masters of war. “I want you to know” and “I can see through” both challenge them in their hiding places, but differently: I want you to know suggests that they are hiding from knowledge; I can see through your masks suggests that they are hiding from the sight of others, and from themselves. In either case, the walls and desks are flimsy barriers, and with “I just want you to know” set in parallel to “I can see through your masks” – rather than continuous with it – we are invited to hear Dylan flinging the barriers out of the way in two movements, rather than one. He doesn’t want too clear an enjambment because the line needs to strike on its own, against those hiding.

Blonde on Blonde is the album with the most sophisticated and incessant play of enjambment. While it’s a risk of criticism to find something good because it contains a lot of the sort of thing we are looking for, whether a word or technique, the lyrics on this album really do something fascinating with enjambments, indeterminate and otherwise. Along with “I Want You,” the song that does the most with what might be enjambed and what an enjambment might be is “Just Like a Woman,” the full lyrics of which are before you:

Nobody feels any pain
Tonight as I stand inside the rain
      Everybody knows
      That baby’s got new clothes
      But lately I see her ribbons and her bows
                    Have fallen from her curls
             She takes just like a woman, yes, she does
          She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
           And she aches just like a woman
                   But she breaks
                         Just like a little girl
Queen Mary, she’s my friend
Yes, I believe I’ll go see her again
     Nobody has to guess
     That baby can’t be blessed
      Till she finally sees that she’s like all the rest
               With her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls
           She takes just like a woman, yes
           She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
           And she aches just like a woman
          But she breaks
                    Just like a little girl
                   It was raining from the first
                   And I was dying there of thirst
                       So I came in here
                   And your long-time curse
                   But what’s worse
                         Is this pain in here
                         I can’t stay in here
                         Ain’t it clear
I just can’t fit
Yes, I believe it’s time for us to quit
     When we meet again
     Introduced as friends
    Please don’t let on that you knew me when
              I was hungry and it was your world
         Ah, you fake just like a woman,
         You make love just like a woman, yes, you do
        Then you ache just like a woman
       But you break
              Just like a little girl

You can see at one glance the shape of the verses and bridge as they appear in the Ricks-Nemrow edition, and you can see, glancing again at what I’ve set in bold, how many of the enjambments turn on verbs of knowing. It’s less a break-up song than a breaking song, cruelly some have thought, but also with the awareness of the other person’s vulnerability; it is a song that depends on having another person in one’s sights and understanding alike, and the whiff of cruelty is occasioned by Dylan’s detachment from the situation. But there is an enormous exception to the detachment and that’s the bridge, where Dylan breaks, and breaks his line-endings in enjambments. His own vulnerability is the point here, especially when he asks not only her, but whoever is listening to the song: “Ain’t it clear?” That line is enjambed: ain’t what clear? But it also is enough: isn’t it so clear that I don’t need to say anything more? The mise-en-page, the setting of lines, in the Ricks-Nemrow edition is excellent in what it does next, allotting “That” its own indentation and its own line. So much turns on “that” and this setting on the page helps us see that with it, with his delivery of it, with its place almost as a bridge of its own, a second bridge between bridge and verse, Dylan creates a second enjambment on the heels of the first, so that “ain’t it clear” is resolved in a moment of further irresolution: evidently, it’s not clear enough, and something else IS needed, but we are still denied that something. Dylan doesn’t want to say, and when he does say, “I just can’t fit,” it draws attention to how the phrasing itself, the awkwardly isolated “that” also doesn’t really fit. And here, in this third verse where he exposes himself to the greatest vulnerability, he also turns from the first-person third-person relationship (I and she had been the axis up to now), and instead, for the first time, as Christopher Ricks noticed, introduces the second person. He sets his sights on her most directly here, but he also sets himself up most clearly to be seen.

And he does so most boldly in the final verse’s enjambment: “Please don’t let on that you knew me when / I was hungry and it was your world” reverses the procedure of the indeterminate enjambments we have seen: the first line definitely calls out for something more, and the second line completes the syntax. But the second line doesn’t just complete the syntax; it exceeds it. “I was hungry and it was your world” stands out as a confession and acknowledgement greater than “you knew me when” can contain. The previous line is eclipsed. What matters is no longer that she knew him when he was hungry, but that she knew that he was hungry and it was her world; she knew him at his most helpless. The line doesn’t just eclipse what comes immediately before, but the entire request that it rounds out: he is asking her not to let on what he now not only admits but confesses and cries to the heavens. We can and should hear that he remains exposed and vulnerable; the self-reproach still stings; he is not over and done with the past. And he didn’t need to say it; the enjambment leads him to turn a corner but what he finds there is a version of his past self that surprises even him. When he comes back to “She breaks / Just like a little girl,” there remains a smug triumph, and a cruel dig, but he has already shown himself to be broken too.

“Rumplezimmerman, Alchemy, and Dylan’s Bidirectional European Influences.” World of Bob Dylan 2023, June 2023, Tulsa, OK.

BY Jon Lasser, Texas State University


“If it hadn’t been for Bob Dylan wanting to be John Lennon and John Lennon wanting to be Bob Dylan, it wouldn’t have been cranked up to the level of literature that makes it OK for rock & roll to be taken seriously” (Steve Earle, 2022)

The well-known folk tale of Rumplestiltskin, collected by the Brothers Grimm in their 1812 Children’s and Household Tales, contains a number of elements that provide a useful framework for thinking about Bob Dylan’s methods, art, and influence. Interestingly, the origins of the story are much older than the nineteenth century, and similar tales can be found as far back as the first century CE in Roman Antiquities (and perhaps a tale known by the “Early Roman Kings”) (Anderson, 2000). Such tales were part of oral traditions all over Europe and beyond. As with all folk tales, many versions exist, but some common plot elements can be found across variants of the story.

Most versions involve an imp or devil who turns straw into gold in exchange for something precious (e.g., the first-born child is demanded in the Brothers Grimm editions). When the woman expresses her desire to keep her child, Rumplestiltskin refuses, unless she can guess his name (hence, the classification of such tales as “The Name of the Supernatural Helper”) (Hans-Jörg, 2004). Once the imp’s name is correctly guessed, he throws a fit. These stories typically feature:

• A name-guessing component

• A deal made with an imp/devil

• A tantrum following the guessing of the name

• A magical transformation of a raw material like straw into something precious like gold

There are a number of ways that Dylan’s life and art map onto this folk tale, including the name challenge. Guess my name: Robert Allen Zimmerman, Bob Dylan, Elston Gunnn, Blind Boy Grunt, Alias, Renaldo, Jack Frost, and Jack Fate are among the names and sobriquets Dylan has used (and he has reportedly used fake names, such as Justin Case, for hotel registries). The use of names and identities in flux appear in Dylan’s songs as well. For example, in Brownsville Girl, “the only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter was that his name wasn’t Henry Porter.” The uncertainty of the name suggests that one is, like a rolling stone, a complete unknown. Perhaps the unknown is the result of a deliberate effort to mix things up. In “Desolation Row,” Dylan sings of a long list of characters for whom he had to “rearrange their faces and give them all another name.”

Dylan’s playfulness with names, particularly his own set of aliases, may be part of the larger effort at rewriting and revising his own story, often impishly with journalists, with fabrications and truths co-mingled about leaving home and joining the circus, riding boxcars in Mexico with Big Joe Turner, and perhaps, as in the Rumplestiltskin story, making a deal with the devil to achieve musical success (Dylan confessed of a deal made with “the Chief Commander of this earth and the world we can’t see” to Ed Bradley in a 2004 interview on 60 Minutes). The parallel, of course, is imperfect, as Dylan at various times has played the imp/devil, or he who makes a deal with the imp/devil. After all, Dylan has shown that character substitutions are part of the process (consider how, in his film Renaldo and Clara, Bob Dylan is played by Ronnie Hawkins, Renaldo is played by Bob Dylan, Mrs. Dylan by Ronnie Blakely, and Clara by Sara Dylan). Names and faces have been rearranged again.

Perhaps these unconventional uses of identities have their roots in Dylan’s early experiences growing up in Minnesota. In the 2005 documentary No Direction Home, Dylan talks about traveling shows that came to Hibbing during his childhood:

Circuses came through. There were tent shows at the carny midways. And they had barkers. Got a horse with two heads! Got a chicken in there with a man’s face! Come see the girl-boy! It was just more rural back then. That’s what people did. You could see guys in blackface. George Washington in blackface… or Napoleon wearing blackface. Like, weird Shakespearean things. Stuff that didn’t really make any sense at the time. (Bob Dylan, 2005)

They didn’t make sense at the time (and by today’s standards are offensive), but perhaps they came into focus for Dylan later, as he felt free to write about Einstein disguised as Robin Hood, Romeo moaning to Cinderella, and Mack the Finger seeking advice from Louie the King.

As for impish tantrums in response to correct name guessing, one can look no further than Robert Shelton’s biography of Dylan. Shelton wrote that Dylan appeared to be quite upset and, much like Rumplestiltskin, “exploded with anger” when, early in his career, he discovered that a journalist in Newsweek revealed his given name (Robert Allen Zimmerman) and middle-class, Jewish origins in Minnesota that Dylan’s fanciful recreations of his origin story had previously obscured (Coleman, 2016).

But perhaps the most compelling comparison of Dylan to Rumplestiltskin is the transformation of straw to gold, or in the case of Dylan, the appropriation of source materials and transformation of those ingredients into his art (they’re called gold records, after all). Many scholars and critics have focused attention on Dylan’s use of material from other songs and books in his own work, and Dylanologists scour the internet for tips and clues about this borrowing. While cries of plagiarism garner much attention, most serious scholars understand that Dylan is not a college freshman copying essays to pass off as his own term papers (Polito, 2009). But something’s happening here, and thoughtful commentators offer some compelling explanations.

Richard Thomas calls Dylan’s appropriations a form of intertextuality, whereby Dylan creates something that’s more than the sum of its parts (Thomas, 2017). This argument suggests that Dylan isn’t hiding the fact that he’s using lines from other songs and books, but rather that he’s providing his listeners the opportunity to hear both the borrowed bits and new content at the same time, thereby elevating the experience. For example, when Dylan first performed “Masters of War,” listeners understood that the melody came from a folk tune of English origins, “Nottamun Town,” and could hear the source and what had been created from it simultaneously. This was no act of deception, for the straw he turned to gold was in plain sight. As Thomas put it, these borrowed bits from the past “provide the elements of his original songwriting, their traces visible but transformed in the process of his own songwriting” (p. 136).

Similarly, Falco has advanced the idea that Dylan’s methods of drawing from source material look less like theft and more like the art of imitatio used by Renaissance poets. Here we are to understand that invention requires an inventory, and that Dylan has been able to “manifest originality in the word’s literal sense, deriving from a source, or origo” (Falco, 2022, p. 8). To unpack this further, Falco uses Seneca’s apian metaphor, in which the method of imitatio is compared to bees’ method of selecting from the best flowers to make honey, which is something new, comprised of the flowers’ nectar and something of the bee. Like Rumpelstiltskin, Dylan turns straw to gold, or nectar to honey (liquid gold), using source material to make something new. In many cases, the “flowers” are songs, but much attention has also been focused on Dylan’s use of nectar from books.

Scott Warmuth has identified numerous instances of Dylan using lines from songs and books, particularly since 1997’s release of Time Out of Mind. Warmuth has looked not only at Dylan’s music, but also finds intertextuality in the book Chronicles, Vol. 1 and the film Masked and Anonymous. What’s noteworthy about Warmuth’s catalog of Dylan’s sources (the Pinterest page, “A Bob Dylan Bookshelf,” includes over ninety titles), is the vast range of materials that have been used (Falco calls the range “staggering,” and Dylan advises, in “Murder Most Foul,” “if you want to remember, you better write down the names.” Among the books Warmuth lists are Carl Sandberg’s collected poems, a travel guide to New Orleans, and a book of photographs from carnival sideshows (In Search of the Monkey Girl). The vast and perplexing array of source materials reflect what Andrea Cossu has called “Dylan’s ability to cross the boundary between high and popular culture (or to soften it)” (p. 235).

A review of the books that Dylan has sampled suggests that he’s omnivorous in his taste, or that he can find bits of language that suits his purposes in just about any printed source (and turn what may be regarded by some as mundane straw into gold). Much has been said about his appropriation of American folk, blues, and country music, and about his indelible mark on American music and culture, and indeed, Warmuth’s list reveals a great deal of American literature (and other, non-literary publications), both high and low. When praised with accolades, critics most often focus on Dylan’s use of and impact on American culture. For example, take Tom Piazza’s speech on the occasion of Dylan’s Kennedy Center award: “Bob Dylan has remained a quintessentially American artist in the largest sense, a true American original” and that Dylan’s work combined distinct “forms and genres (and) transmuted (them) into something both wholly his own and wholly in the American grain” (Piazza, 1997, emphasis mine). Note the similarity here to the apian metaphor, as Piazza is addressing, among other things, that Rumplestiltskinian alchemy discussed earlier, noting that Dylan’s “very activity of incorporating, coming to terms with, those multitudes of influence and utterance is itself somehow at the heart of the American ideal.” But to limit the analysis to American sources and influence would be to leave much straw on the table.

While the source material for Dylan’s alchemy seems to come from all over the world, European sources have remained a constant throughout his long career as an artist. What I aim to demonstrate here is that Dylan has not only drawn from a deep European well for inspiration, but that the gold he has spun from straw has become a well of inspiration for European artists and consumers of art. To be clear, the metaphor is imperfect: Dylan’s European sources should not be regarded as lowly straw, but are precious resources that he has used throughout his career precisely because they are valued.

Thomas (2017) observes that early Dylan compositions borrowed freely from a number of sources, many of which were European. “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” from his 1962 ’ The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, contains both musical and lyrical elements from “Lady Franklin’s Lament,” a British folk song from the 1800s, and as mentioned earlier, “Masters of War,” from the same album, used the tune from “Nottamun Town,” which may have its origins in nineteenth century England.

On the cover of Freewheelin’ is the iconic photo of Dylan with then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo, who noted in her memoir that Dylan was interested in French Symbolist poets, and Dave Van Ronk had similar recollections (Thomas, 2017). As a Classics scholar, Thomas underscores the ways in which Dylan has utilized the works of Ovid, Homer, and Virgil.

More than ten years after Freewheelin’, Dylan name-checked French Symbolists in “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”:

Situations have ended sad

Relationships have all been bad

Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud

On the same album, he referenced Dante in “Tangled Up in Blue” (Mai, 2021):

Then she opened up a book of poems

And handed it to me

Written by an Italian poet

From the thirteenth century

We can look beyond the songs for other European artists and thinkers, as they show up in Dylan’s first book, Tarantula, and include Kierkegaard, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Shakespeare. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Dylan, who addresses the question of why a songwriter and performer would be honored with a literature prize, points to his early experiences with literature as a student, citing Don Quixote, Tale of Two Cities, and Gulliver’s Travels as influences.

Using a method which appears to evolve over the course of his career, “Dylan…unites experimental romantic and modernistic traditions within the European ballad and American folk music” (Mai, 2017, p. 113). For example, a typed set of lyrics to the song “Farewell, Angelina” in the Bob Dylan Archive contains a handwritten note at the top of the document that reads, “Ewan McCall tune,” referring to Ewan MacColl, an English singer-songwriter born in 1915 (BD Archive, Box 34, Folder 07). Dylan’s note probably points to the song “Farewell to Tarwathie,” a whaling song written in Scotland in the nineteenth century and popularized by MacColl, from which “Farewell, Angelina” gets its music.

The point here is not to deny American source material, but to recognize how it was buttressed by a significant amount of European works. As Falco put it,

while American song seems to have provided Dylan with ample space for imitation (and emulation), the broader Western canon supplied him with the models for imagery and for the rhythms of a new vatic voice. The combination of Rimbaud and Mallarmé on one hand, with Whitman, Ginsberg, and the biblical translators on the other, helped him forge the riveting diction that characterizes his work at every stage. (p. 159)

So then, like a sponge (or a honey bee, or an alchemist imp), Dylan has relied heavily on European source material for borrowing, inspiration, influence, and imitatio as a methodology to produce new and unique works of art that are described as original and inventive. To what extent has this golden honey in turn become a source of inspiration, influence, and imitatio for European artists and thinkers?

In “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” a rambling tale is told about arriving on the Mayflower and declaring, “I think I’ll call it America!” Historian Sean Wilentz (2021) described the song as Dylan’s take on America as “a newfound land that is frantic, exasperating, jumbled, and irrational beyond the point of absurdity.” Time and place are jumbled, and in this version of America the narrator encounters a girl from France and an Englishman, who merely says “Fab.” Though our narrator arrives to the continent in the seventeenth century at the beginning of the song, he ends with an encounter from a visitor from the fifteenth century:

I asked the captain what his name was

And how come he didn’t drive a truck

He said his name was Columbus

I just said, “Good luck.”

This sign-off, from one who has just elaborated his sense of the American experience (informed, in part, by Europeans), essentially hands over his America to a European visitor/captain, as if to say, well, see what you can make of this. Good luck! Which raises the question, what have Europeans done with what Dylan has handed them?

Commentary about the British Invasion and Beatlemania in America have overshadowed the impact of Dylan’s creative output on Europe and European artists. Ray Coleman (2016), editor of Melody Maker, wrote that “1965 was the year Dylan conquered Britain, the year ‘Wind’ and ‘Times a-Changin” became favourites of the university students and the pop screamers.” Paul Jones (of the band Manfred Mann) told journalist Elizabeth Thompson that, “Dylan’s influence on the English pop scene was absolutely enormous… You can even look at the Beatles and see how much they were influenced” (Thompson, 2021).

In a letter to Dylan dated January 15th, 1964, British critic George Melly explained that he wanted to write a book about Bob Dylan that emphasized his influence: “Your effect on the Beatles, for example, has been enriching, and the same is true of Donovan. You have also had a liberating effect on many young poets. On the other hand, commercialised- Dylanism is depressing, but then commercialised anything is depressing.” (BD Archive, Box 37, Folder 01).

Even though Dylan’s songs are almost exclusively written in English, he has made a significant impact on artists in European countries where English is not the primary language as well. In his intriguing dissertation, Alejandro Rodríguez de Jesús makes a compelling argument as to why Dylan’s early protest or “finger pointing” songs resonated strongly with singer-songwriters under Franco in Spain:

In the 60s and 70s, Spanish songwriters found in Dylan a character that was worth emulating, for some artistically and for others behaviorally. His lyrics opened the imagination of those who aimed to “tumbar la estaca” (overthrow the stake)… There were many who directly translated and interpreted his lyrics and others who were inspired by Dylan’s mastery of the metaphor and thus decided to compose and perform their songs in public. (p. 97)

Dylan’s influence has also been tremendous in Italy, as documented by Alessandro Carrera (2009) in his chapter, “Oh, The Streets of Rome” (from the edited volume, Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan’s Road from Minnesota to the World). Carrera begins by stating that, “my purpose in this essay is to illustrate the impact Dylan had on Italy and the impact Italy had on Dylan” (p. 84). Curiously, Carrera’s focus on the former falls on Italians’ interest in translating Dylan:

Dylan has been an obvious influence on generations of Italian songwriters. In the 1960s, music and myth preceded the words, but the first Italian translation of his songs was published in 1971, even before Writings and Drawings was available in the United States.[1] Other translations have appeared since then, and each one has been a significant step in Dylan’s growing status in Italy. (p. 84-85)

Translation may not be the craft of turning straw to gold, but it’s a transformative art that, in the case of drafting Italian versions of Dylan’s songs, turns gold into something both old and new. Consider Carrera’s account of the challenges associated with translating the English Miss Lonely (“You’ve gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely, but you know you only used to get juiced in it”) from “Like a Rolling Stone” to Italian. Beyond the literal translation of the words lie the tone, the “slangy quality,” the translation of not only the words on the page, but also how they are sung, and the new meanings generated by translation. For example, should the Italian version of Miss Lonely be “Miss puzza-ar-naso,” (roughly Miss Snotty, or Miss Stiff Upper Lip, suggesting someone who “goes around as if smelling a bad odor under her nose” (p. 98)? Carrera ultimately settled with “Miss Malinconia” (Miss Melancholy) for his translation. But the fact that translators of Dylan care so deeply about bringing his body of work, including Chronicles, to Italian speaks volumes about his importance and influence there.

Another indicator of Dylan’s influence on European art and culture can be found in the partial list of honors, awards, and titles bestowed upon him by European entities. Consider:

Nobel Prize in Literature (2016) (Sweden)

Officier de la Legion d’honneur (2013) (France)

Prince of Asturias Award (2007) (Spain)

Honorary Doctorate of Music, St. Andrews University (2004) (Scotland)

Polar Music Prize (2000) (Sweden)

Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres (1990) (France)

Officially, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Dylan, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” (Nobel Prize, 2016). Though Dylan certainly has created new expressions in an American context, his inventiveness and originality derived, in part, through his creative use of source materials, many European, and transformations into works that have, in turn, inspired and influenced Europeans and beyond.

Well over fifty years ago, a British fan named Hazel Archer, then a student at the University of Keele, wrote to Dylan about how they like to guess “what he’s getting at” in his songs (e.g., “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” was sparked off by the Kennedy assassination”). Archer must have realized that this work may never be complete, noting, “Oh well. In fifty years the academics will doubtless be analysing your lyrics with even less success!” Hazel Archer may very well have been correct.


Works Cited

Anderson, G. (2000). Fairytale in the ancient world. Routledge.

Archer, H. (1966). Letter to Bob Dylan. Letter to Bob Dylan. Box 42, Folder 10, The Bob Dylan

Archive, American Song Archives, Tulsa, OK.

Braun, D. (1972). Letter to Bob Dylan. Box 42, Folder 10, The Bob Dylan Archive, American

Song Archives, Tulsa, OK.

Carrera, A. (2009). Oh, the Streets of Rome: Dylan in Italy. In Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan’s

Road from Minnesota to the World, ed. Colleen J. Sheehy and Thomas Swiss (pp. 140-153).

University of Minnesota Press.

Coleman, E. (2016). Revisit our infamous 1963 profile of Bob Dylan. Retrieved from

Cossu, A. (2013). Poetry, politics, and America: Awards and the memorialization of Bob

Dylan. Celebrity Studies, 4, 235-237.

Dylan, B. (n.d.). “Farewell Angelina” (draft manuscript), Box 34, Folder 3, The Bob Dylan

Archive, American Song Archives, Tulsa, OK.

Earle, S. (2022). Keynote announcement: Steve Earle. Retrieved from

Falco, R. (2022). No one to meet: Imitation and Originality in the Songs of Bob Dylan.

The University of Alabama Press.

Mai, R. (2021). World literature. In J. Latham (Ed.), The World of Bob Dylan, (pp.158-168).

Cambridge University Press.

Melly, G. (1964). Letter to Bob Dylan. Box 37, Folder 1, The Bob Dylan Archive,

American Song Archives, Tulsa, OK.

Nobel Prize (2016). Retrieved from

Piazza, T. (1997). Biographical Essay from the Kennedy Center Honors. Retrieved from

Polito, R. (2009). Bob Dylan’s memory palace. In Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan’s Road from

Minnesota to the World, ed. Colleen J. Sheehy and Thomas Swiss (pp. 140-153). University

of Minnesota Press.

Thomas, R. (2017). Why Bob Dylan Matters. Dey St.

Thompson, E. (2021). “I’m ready to get drunk now! Bob Dylan and his 1965 British Tour.

Retrieved from

Uther, Hans-Jörg (2004). The Types of International Folktales: Animal tales,

tales of magic, religious tales, and realistic tales, with an introduction.

FF Communications. p. 285 – 286.

Wilentz, S. (2021). Bob Dylan, Historian. The New York Review of Books. Retrieved from


[1] A letter in the Bob Dylan Archive from attorney David Braun to Dylan, dated May 17, 1972, reads, “Dear Bob: Someone in Italy has illegally printed a book of your lyrics under the title Bob Dylan’s Blues. Under our subpublishing agreement with your Italian publisher, we have the right to go after this person and stop the sale…”

“‘Everybody Wants You to Be like Them:’” The Menippean Satire of Bob Dylan. World of Bob Dylan 2023, June 2023, Tulsa, OK.

BY Christopher Mitchell


In this presentation, I am going to explore the suggestion that we can listen to and read Bob Dylan’s body of work using Menippean satire as critical apparatus or a translation device. There are two pieces of recent criticism that make this suggestion, so in the spirit of a musical expeditionary, we will take a quick spin to see what this might look like in practice. We will start by reviewing the two pieces of criticism that make this suggestion. From there we will have a brief look at Menippean satire. Some of you know Menippean satire, and those of you who know Menippean satire know that it is a tricky, elusive concept, but once we have here a provisional sense of the concept in hand, we will look at possible routes through which we might navigate Dylan’s work. We’ll look at Chronicles, Vol. One, “Murder Most Foul,” “False Prophet,” and The Philosophy of Modern Song and the ways in which these works demonstrate an affinity with the characteristics or methods of Menippean satire. This affinity should make it possible to understand Dylan’s work as literary, without arguing for that work as literature. The intent is not to define Dylan’s work as Menippean satire but to understand that work on its own terms, terms that coincide with the methods of Menippean satire. I hope to underscore this affinity for Menippean satire and highlight the ways in which Dylan’s work confronts the boundaries of genre, literary or otherwise.

In their introduction to a 2019 collection entitled Polyvocal Bob Dylan, Josh Toth and Nduka Otiono present Dylan’s body of work as an example of the dialogic, Mikhail Bakhtin’s category of novelistic discourse, a category derived from Bakhtin’s formulation of Menippean satire. For Bakhtin, the dialogic stands in opposition to the monologic or poetic discourse, discourse that insists upon authority and unity. The dialogic or novelistic discourse accommodates or encourages heteroglossia, many voices. The monologic is a single authoritative voice; the dialogic is various voices arrayed in defiance of authority or unity. The most well-known aspect of Menippean satire is the mixing of genres or styles or voices. In the classical Menippean satires, this was the mixture of prose and verse – prosimetrum. This mixture of form or style has evolved into hybridity, mixtures of genres or voices, or, as Bakhtin has it, the dialogic. It is the dialogic aspect of Dylan’s work that Toth and Otiono enlarge upon. They proceed from Bakhtin’s observation that there are forces working “to overcome the heteroglossia of language,” forces that seek to create a “stable linguistic nucleus of an officially recognized literary language.” Toth and Otiono argue that Dylan’s work functions “primarily, as a frustration of those various forces” (9-10).

In a 2021 paper, Scott Peeples proposes reading Melville’s Confidence Man concurrently with listening to Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. Peeples isolates an episode from the novel in which Frank and Charlie banter in an exchange of trust and duplicity, and Peeples compares that episode to the “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.” In that discussion, Peeples notes our tendency to describe The Confidence Man as a Menippean satire and then suggests that John Wesley Harding is a Menippean satire, too. Peeples invokes two characteristics of Menippean satire – thematic repetition and a lack of coherent narrative arc – but his observation is an aside, and he does not pursue the Menippean angle further.

Toth and Otiono’s observations about the dialogic might not necessarily entail understanding Dylan’s work as Menippean, and Peeples stops short of exploring the possibility of Dylan’s work as Menippean, but taken together these two avenues of inquiry provoke in us the desire to consider Dylan’s work or parts of it as Menippean satire.

The lineage of Menippean satire takes us from the proto-novels of Apocolocyntosis, The Golden Ass, Satyricon, and A True Story through to the anatomies of Boethius, Erasmus, and Burton, and then to well-known exemplars of the tradition: Gargantua and Pantagruel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Gulliver’s Travels, Alice in Wonderland, Moby-Dick. It is possible to build a formidable reading list, but it is just as possible to sink into a swamp of definition. Let us skirt the swamp by considering here the handful of surviving Menippean satires. Apocolocyntosis and Satyricon are from the first century CE. Apocolocyntosis is the first Menippean satire to be preserved in its entirety. In this work, the Emperor Claudius, upon his death, approaches the gods and sues for apotheosis. He is refused and descends to Hades. Satyricon is not intact but is perhaps the most well-known Menippean satire. Here, a trio of scoundrels rattle around in various seaports, surviving a series of escapades, orgies mostly but also a shipwreck, and in the extended episode for which Satyricon is famous to the present day, they attend a long, debauched banquet hosted by Trimalchio. The Golden Ass and A True Story are from the second century CE. The Golden Ass involves magic, and A True Story involves a trip to the moon. One appraisal of Apocolocyntosis arrives at a short, useful Menippean checklist that encompasses all four of these works: “unreliable source, fantastic journey, serious interlude, and comic reprieve” (Relihan 77). We should also note the same critic’s assessment of Satyricon which notes that work’s “resistance to coherent interpretation.” These four works underwrite Peeples’ specification of a lack of coherent narrative arc and thematic repetition. In a discussion of Gargantua and Pantagruel, a different critic writes: “The satire of these works can be said to be ‘Menippean’ in the loose, non-technical sense that it is generically hybrid and stylistically mixed, combining the incompatible registers and genres of high and low culture in fantastical comic fictions and freewheeling, antinormative, even subversive criticism” (Duval 72). And if there is anything common to the works that end up being designated as Menippean, it would be that they are loose and non-technical.

Leaving it to Peeples to apply any or all of this to John Wesley Harding, we will begin with Chronicles. While Dylan’s account of his songwriting and performing travails in Chronicles does evoke these stories of visiting strange moonscapes and searching for magic and surviving shipwrecks, I would like to begin by highlighting a correspondence between Chronicles and Apocolocyntosis. While Dylan’s roaming in his autobiography is certainly not analogous to Claudius’s quest in Apocolocyntosis, we do get in the third section of Chronicles a weird inversion of Claudius’s plight: This episode is set within the period of Dylan’s tenure in Woodstock with his family. In the middle of this section, Dylan muses upon Melville’s fate; Dylan writes, “By the time of his death [Melville] was largely forgotten. I had assumed that when critics dismissed my work, the same thing would happen to me, that the public would forget about me” (123). Dylan is not dead, but he has just come away from his father’s funeral. He does not approach the gods, but he proceeds to a meeting with Archibald MacLeish (107). He does not seek apotheosis – if anything, he is seeking to reverse that process. While this inverted correspondence might be as strained as it is suggestive, the characterization of Apocolocyntosis and the other early Menippean works, the “unreliable source, fantastic journey, serious interlude, and comic reprieve,” appears to be equally applicable to Chronicles, which now seems more novelistic than autobiographical. We have the fantastic journey, the serious interludes, the comic reprieves, but those might all be features of an autobiography. Contemporary critics and readers were puzzled by Chronicles, which did not fulfill expectations of celebrity biography. And then the fourth item on that checklist, the unreliable source, became an issue. Scott Warmuth, in chronicling Dylan’s “magpie tendencies,” noted that Chronicles is “meticulously fabricated” (“Bob Charlatan” 71). To choose one example, the thick seafood stew episode on page 170 turns out to be a cryptographic exercise, melding a Hemingway short story and travel book about New Orleans. For some readers this was plagiarism, theft. Those readers felt betrayed; Dylan’s book did seem to provoke in those readers something very like Satyricon’s “resistance to coherent interpretation.” Yet if we are reading Chronicles with Menippean satire in the back of our minds, an unreliable narrator and this resistance to coherent interpretation seem more purposeful than vexing.

But Chronicles is a book, and Dylan is a performer, a recording artist. Let us listen to “Murder Most Foul” with the Menippean in mind: we hear a recitative performance that verges on the liturgical, a profusion of piano amid the bowed double bass and a violin. If here the length of the recording – sixteen minutes – and the somber, elegiac atmosphere were not oppressive enough, the narrative seems to be an account of the assassination of John F. Kennedy told by several voices, all sung by Dylan. There is the narrator: “President Kennedy was riding high / A good day to be living and a good day to die.” There seems to be Dylan himself: “Zapruder’s film, I’ve seen that before / Seen it thirty-three times, maybe more.” There is the president himself: “Got blood in my eyes, got blood in my ear / I’m never gonna make it to the New Frontier.” There are other voices: “Don’t worry Mr. President, help’s on the way / Your brothers are comin’, there’ll be hell to pay.” But the voices are not announced; we cannot see who is speaking; it is a collage; it is all Dylan’s voice; it is pianos and bass and violin; it is a very definition of heteroglossia. This mélange of voices supports Toth and Otiono’s dialogic understanding of Dylan’s work, but we have here also a dead man speaking from the afterlife, a president and the specter of apotheosis, yet another echo of Apocolocytosis. And again, with the strained and the suggestive, can it be entirely that coincidence that A True Story was an account of a trip to the moon, and this president is the one who urged us to go to the moon?

Rough and Rowdy Ways provides more affinities with the Menippean, but I would like to focus here on a second song, “False Prophet.” If we set aside for now the aspects of the narrator and the voicing of the arrangement, the most striking thing about “False Prophet” is the direct reference to Billy Emerson’s “If Lovin’ Is Believin’.” To some ears this would seem to be another instance of Dylan’s theft from earlier poets and musicians; to other ears this would seem to be another instance of Dylan’s continuing in the folk process; but in our current discussion we would see it as Menippean hybridity. Using Emerson’s record, Dylan anchors his own record in Memphis of 1954, in Sun Records, providing a reckoning point but also an underpinning of his work, as if his voice has been recorded over Billy Emerson’s, as if his work has been recorded over a reel of tape from the Memphis Recording Service, as if Billy Emerson’s voice bleeds through amid Dylan’s voice, or maybe as if Dylan’s voice bleeds through amid Emerson’s voice. If the question once was whether Dylan could sing, the question now would seem to be who is it that is singing? And even if we cannot say, we have in this profusion, this indeterminacy of voices, our Menippean prosimetrum.

Once attuned to these aspects of Dylan’s work and this affinity for aspects of Menippean satire, we hear these strains of the dialogic, of digression, of the negotiability of the narrator’s voice, of the distortion or confusion of fact and fabrication, as a single driving activity. In The Philosophy of Modern Song, we are presented with sixty-six chapters about sixty-six records. One of the first things we notice is Dylan’s extensive use of the second person. The effect of this upon the reader is that You is in the song, and You is listening to the song. We have here another instance of method that Toth and Otiono remark upon in their discussion of Dylan’s Nobel lecture performance: “All the while, he shifts between first, second, and third person – placing (and confusing) himself and his listener in the heart of the action” (6). This scrambling of identity is familiar to us. We might have first noticed it in the various iterations of “Tangled Up in Blue”; we might have come to it lately in “Murder Most Foul.” If The Philosophy of Modern Song seems like a jukebox of sorts, we are familiar with that, too, most likely in the form of Theme Time Radio Hour, and we realize that the book is less a jukebox than a spinning of a radio dial. And once we have made that short hop, we hear it too in the Sun Pie episode from Chronicles. Dylan and his wife are tooling through Louisiana on their motorcycle when they stop at “an obscure roadside place, a gaunt shack,” a chimerical emporium “run by an old-timer named Sun Pie.” Some of the details in this extended vignette catch our eye: “There were iron works around the entryway” (203), but in the wake of this discussion, we now hear a radio “from beyond a wall and the sound was coming through in static.” Throughout this episode, the radio plays a constant, familiar soundtrack, “Do You Want to Know a Secret” by the Beatles, “I’m Leaving It Up to You” by Dale and Grace, “Sea of Love” by some local singer. We are reminded now of the role of the radio station in “Murder Most Foul”: the assassinated president phoning in requests, but before he begins his litany of songs he wants to hear, it is again the Beatles who alert us to the presence of the radio. A short while after the Beatles, the president (or someone in the car) says, “Turn the radio on, don’t touch the dials.” In the very next section of the song, we witness the assassination, the sacrifice, and immediately following that we catch snippets of song, “What’s new, pussycat? What’d I say?” A couple of lines after that “Wolfman Jack, he’s speaking in tongues.” Dylan compounds heteroglossia with glossolalia. From that point the song is given over to the president’s requests, the dead man’s Philosophy of Modern Song, interspersed with snippets of dialogue from that Lincoln Continental. The voices of the characters, the voicings of the music, the voices of the records playing over the radio, all of this is cacophony to the ears of listeners and readers expecting veracity, authority, unity. But the cacophony, or as Toth and Otiono would have it, the polyphony, is exactly the point.

Howard Weinbrot, in his effort to define the Menippean, stipulates a method wherein the satirist sets “a work against its own approximate genre” (6-7). The very idea of someone setting “a work against its own approximate genre” puts us in mind of Dylan going electric or Dylan making John Wesley Harding or Dylan making Self-Portrait or Dylan making Slow Train Coming. Certainly, Dylan has never been confined by genre, whether we are talking about the distinction between folk music and rock and roll or the differences between Dylan’s songs, recordings, performances, and books and his movies, radio show, paintings, sculpture, whiskey, and television commercial for women’s undergarments. But it is here that we arrive at the purpose of Menippean satire, that it is satire, that it has a target, specified by Weinbrot to be a “threatening false orthodoxy,” a “danger to the world” (298). Eugene Kirk writes, “Menippean satire was essentially concerned with right learning or right belief. That theme often called for ridicule or caricature of some sham-intellectual or theological fraud” (xi). Menippean satire ridicules “the pretensions of authoritative claims to wisdom” (Marenbon).

It seems that Dylan knows that Meaning is hardly the issue. The “threatening false orthodoxy” that Dylan is attacking would be the expectation of meaning, the expectation of authority, of unity, of a “finite or hegemonic” form, a strictly policed line between “mercurial performance and the fixity of print” (Toth and Otiono 4). Toth and Otiono underscore this in their discussion of the polyvocal Dylan, that his work is “confronting the exhaustion (or restrictiveness) of literary forms as such” (5), but their enthusiasm for Dylan as an exemplar of the dialogic can be yoked to Peeples’ observation about thematic repetition and a lack of coherent narrative arc. In this direction we can use the Menippean to hear in Dylan’s work that thematic repetition, hear those radios playing through the walls, “the country music station plays soft,” through the text, through the voices, through the static.


Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: U of

Minnesota P, 1984.

Duval, Edwin M. “Rabelais and French Renaissance Satire.” Quintero 70-85.

Dylan, Bob. Chronicles, Vol. 1. Simon and Schuster, 2004.

– – – . The Philosophy of Modern Song. Simon and Schuster, 2022.

– – – . Rough and Rowdy Ways. Columbia, 2020.

Emerson, Billy. “If Lovin’ Is Believin’.” Sun Records, 1954.

Kirk, Eugene P. Menippean Satire: An Annotated Catalogue of Texts and Criticism. New York:

Garland, 1980.

Marenbon, John, “Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

(Winter 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =


Peeples, Scott. “Listening to ‘The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’ While Reading The

Confidence Man.” Leviathan, vol. 23, no. 2, 2021, pp. 73-81.

Relihan, Joel C. Ancient Menippean Satire. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.

Toth, Josh, and Nduka Otiono. “Introduction: The Foreign Sounds of Dylan’s Literary Art.”

Polyvocal Bob Dylan, Nduka Otiono and Josh Toth, eds., Palgrave Macmillan, 2019,

pp. 1-19.

Warmuth, Scott. “Bob Charlatan: Deconstructing Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume One.”

New Haven Review, No. 6, 2010, pp. 70-83.

Weinbrot, Howard D. Menippean Satire Reconsidered: From Antiquity to the Eighteenth

Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2005.

“My Generation Destroyed: Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg in Witness.” World of Bob Dylan 2023, June 2023, Tulsa, OK.

BY Stevan M. Weine, University of Illinois, Chicago


Seeing and not seeing atrocities permeate Bob Dylan’s protest songs:

I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
(“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”)

Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
(“Blowin in the Wind”)

But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
(“Masters of War”)

The far reach of Dylan’s sight is reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’s introduction to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which focuses on the poet’s remarkable ways of seeing:

This poet sees through and all around the horrors he partakes of in the very intimate details of his poems. He avoids nothing but experiences it to the hilt. He contains it. Claims it as his own.

Say you are the twenty-year-old songwriter Bob Dylan, and you want to write about civil rights and war, but in songs which do not resemble sermons. You could find much to love in “Howl,” which captures the brutality of the times but also the possibilities for new insights, and does so in fabulous long lines which somehow manage to embolden listeners.

“Howl” achieves this because of how Ginsberg occupies the position of a witness to a destructive force and the damage it has done. “Howl” famously begins: “I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” This stunning declaration calls for a whole new world of storytelling, which Ginsberg fills in the poem’s 112 long lines with an extensive catalog of madness through the intimate details of personal experiences among his generation:

who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,

This particular line refers to Ginsberg’s 1948 visions, a key transformative event in the poet’s life. Yet the madness in “Howl” is for the most part not the poet’s own. He witnessed it among others, including friends and family:

who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,

This madness is shared in intense and precise apocalyptic language which convinces the reader that nothing is avoided and everything is claimed. The pulsating language of commitment to extremity, would be modified by Dylan and find its way into his protest songs:

A bullet from the back of a bush / Took Medgar Evers’ blood
(“Only a Pawn in Their Game”)

Two men died ’neath the Mississippi moon / Somebody better investigate soon
(“Oxford Town”)

You hide in your mansion
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud
(“Masters of War”)

When writers and critics examine Allen Ginsberg’s influence on Bob Dylan, they tend to focus on Dylan’s pivot away from topical songs and towards subjectivity in and extending into his mid-60’s electric trilogy. When unbound by the topical constrictions of protest songs, Dylan embraced Ginsberg’s free verse poetry and surrealistic long lines – which are also very present in “Howl.”

Unmentioned is how Ginsberg’s influence on Dylan’s songwriting, and Dylan’s creative working with what he took from Ginsberg, very likely began even earlier than 1964, which was just after they first met. Influence is hard to prove, and it is rarely a matter of a single influence, but in my study, I find signs of Ginsberg at work in Dylan’s protest songs of the early 1960s.

Before arriving in New York City in 1961, Dylan read the Beat writers, who signaled to Dylan “a new type of human existence.” Dylan steeped himself in the “street ideologies” of Corso and Kerouac, and the “jail poems” of Ray Bremser who he mentioned in his “11 Outlined Epitaphs” along with “the love songs of Allen Ginsberg,” which Dylan adored.

I sought to understand how Dylan drew from Ginsberg’s poems of madness, especially “Howl” but also “America” and “Kaddish,” and reworked them in different directions so as to confront racism, violence, and war in his protest songs.


Let’s clarify one important distinction. In 1961, when Dylan visited Greystone Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains, New Jersey, which he renamed “Gravestone,” he came with his guitar to meet his idol Woody Guthrie.

This cannot be compared to Ginsberg, who as a nine-year-old took the bus on weekends with his father to see his seriously mentally ill mother Naomi between her damaging treatments of insulin, metrazol, and electroshock therapies.

Decades later, in 2004’s Chronicles, Vol. 1, Dylan confessed that upon first arriving in Greenwich Village in 1961, he “shucked everyone” by replacing his placid Midwest upbringing with farcical hard knocks origin stories.

Dylan was the grandson of Jewish immigrants who fled the pogroms in Ukraine. The Minnesota winters were long and cold, but as far as we know he had an unremarkable middle class childhood with no known adverse or traumatic experiences of his own. Yet as Dylan later testified in “Blind Willie McTell”, he fully absorbed the blues and all its adversity and suffering.

We know well that for many people, experiencing social adversities and traumatic life events can have a major, distinctive impact on their brain, behavior, communications, identity, relationships, and worldview. Even witnessing violence to another can be a traumatic experience. We also know for some, these kinds of experiences can become the focus of artistic work, as they were for Allen Ginsberg and many other artists.

What if you don’t have any of those experiences to draw upon yourself from the life you have lived? Then you must go find and engage them, as Dylan did, through listening to the radio and recorded or live music, and through reading, including Ginsberg and the Beats.

Dylan also absorbed folk ballads (“No More Auction Block”) and literature (All Quiet on the Western Front he called a “horror story” in his Nobel Prize lecture) gaining access to murder, loss, injustice, and war. The intense and genuine qualities of his absorption were necessary for his writing brilliant original songs protesting injustice and atrocity.

In Chronicles, Dylan revealed that for much of his songwriting career, his imagined landscape was the Civil War and post-Civil War. At The New York Times’ offices in the early 1960s, he combed through microfilm copies of newspapers published from 1855 to 1865: “I crammed my head full of as much of this stuff as I could stand and locked it away in my mind out of sight, left it alone.” He worked at internalizing a world of slavery, racism, and hate-driven murders.


Like several other notable twentieth century artists and thinkers before him, Allen Ginsberg derived inspiration and techniques from his encounters with mental illness and psychiatric treatment. Beginning in his childhood, Ginsberg was exposed to his mother’s serious mental illness and damaging psychiatric treatments, which for him was highly traumatic. As a young adult he faced his own mental health problems and inpatient psychiatric treatment and psychotherapy. He also had a close-up view of madness and its mixed outcomes among his friends, such as Carl Solomon, a fellow patient at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and many others documented in “Howl.”

Drawing from these life experiences, Ginsberg’s poetry enlivened, explored, and elaborated a madness which for him became more than a mental illness, but a disruptive and potentially redemptive life force. Madness encompassed many experiences, including hardship, suffering, ecstasy, visions, inspiration, liberation, valued knowledge, deviancy, derangement, sexuality, freedom, and more. Through his poetry and countercultural leadership, Ginsberg offered himself as a witness to both the liberatory and destructive powers of madness.

By doing the work of an artist, he reworked his troubled family and personal history, and the madness of others and society, into powerful literary works which broke into the public consciousness. Dylan took notice of and admired how Ginsberg had broken into popular culture.

Dylan praised “Ginsbergian language” and especially “Howl,” “America,” and “Kaddish.” What is Ginsbergian language and why does it matter to Dylan? Did Ginsbergian language help Dylan to write songs about this world of racism, violence, and war?


From the very first words of “Howl,” Ginsberg is a witness who “saw” firsthand what happened with madness. But for Ginsberg, this madness is not always a bad outcome, as it could also be linked with some of the “best minds.” The act of destruction may have caused the madness, or may be a reaction to it, or may be the madness itself. Further, madness is far more than individual mental illness. It can also be social, cultural, and political processes which manifest in oppression, displacement, hatred, warfare, heartlessness, blindness, and fascism. All are possible and these so-called best minds of the generation destroyed by madness clearly have Ginsberg’s attention and sympathy.

Ginsberg invites his readers to join him in this empathetic though highly ambivalent endorsement of the best minds. Readers chant along in solidarity – “Carl Solmon I’m with you in Rockland” – and with him share victorious visions (“where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs”).

As readers, Ginsberg encourages us to ask: Can you grasp this madness which society generates and then seeks to destroy? Can you free yourself from the institutions engineered to entrap and destroy your soul? Can you identify with and learn from those who are trying to free themselves? Ginsberg asks us to see how his generation is being destroyed, yet shows us how from this confrontation emerges new awareness, perspectives, and insights which could be keys to a more hopeful future.

Ginsberg’s engagement with and questioning of madness makes “Howl” a powerful liberating experience for so many readers. He invites us to: Join in acknowledging that this madness of our generation is a major force of change in our world.


When in 1963 Ginsberg first heard Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” at a friend’s party, he cried, saying he knew a torch had been passed. I can appreciate why.

“Hard Rain” builds on “Howl”’s poetic acts of witnessing the ongoing destruction of the speaker’s generation due to madness with fantastical observations of a feared future apocalyptic landscape. Dylan’s song certainly sounds much like “Howl” in places, with many of its long lines bolstered by anaphora and alliteration, and juxtaposing opposing characteristics, as in:

I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken


I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
(“A Hard Rain’s)

In “A Hard Rain’s,” the “blue eyed boy” tells the listener about all the frightening places he’s gone and all the destruction he’s seen, depicted with startling beauty and language. He witnesses planetary destruction (“dead oceans” … “sad forests”), personal dangers (“sharp swords” and “wild wolves”), and communication breakdowns (“tongues were all broken” and “nobody listening”). He sees multiple fatalities as in a “dead pony,” “one person starving,” “a poet who died in the gutter,” and a “young woman whose body was burning.”

Yet as in “Howl,” Dylan is not defeated, and in the final verse, he commits to being an active and engaged witness of all that he has seen and taken in: “And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it / And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.”

In “Howl,” Ginsberg goes further in explaining his artistic method (“trapped the archangel of the soul between 2 visual images and joined the elemental verbs and set the noun and dash of consciousness together jumping with sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus”); whereas in “Hard Rain,” Dylan dispenses with methodological explanations and simply exudes confidence and purpose: “I’ll know my song well before I start singing.” His audience was folkies not poets, and the folkies cheered.

But how did Dylan come to know about the apocalyptic? It could be from bearing direct witness, or secondhand from poems, songs, or stories he heard or read, or it could be from just knowing his own lyrics so well.

In “Hard Rain,” Dylan sets the song up in such a way that he doesn’t really have to explain in order to possess at least some of the necessary legitimacy of the witness. A good magic trick to use if, unlike Ginsberg, you weren’t a direct witness. For the listener, what matters is the truth of the song and Dylan certainly got that right.


In “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the singer is neither a victim of nor a direct witness to any specific act of violence or injustice. Yet he knows enough to ask questions that matter in a world of rampant oppression, injustice, and war. He questions the lack of acknowledgement or effective actions to put an end to war, to slavery, to unnecessary suffering, or to unjust death:

Yes, ’n’ how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?

He possesses the knowledge and moral urgency of a witness without explicitly confirming the circumstances of his witnessing and instead shifts the focus to the listeners’ own capacities for witnessing.

He invites the listener, with the intimacy one would use to approach a friend, to reach out and find the answers. The song asks the listener to look into their own mind, and to look at the world. At the same time, however, the answers are both painfully obvious yet difficult to grasp.

Dylan takes the ambivalence and uncertainty of Ginsberg’s witnessing madness in “Howl” (e.g. does madness make them the best minds of our generation?) and in “Blowin’ in the Wind” makes the listener own the ambivalence and take responsibility for finding the answers. Instead of being committed to a life of passive acceptance of atrocities near and far, Dylan gives listeners permission to live a life of engagement – observing, documenting, reflecting, knowing, and acting.

Dylan is not simply protesting, but is a witness to witnessing, or disrupted or failed witnessing, to turning your head and not seeing. His songs address those atrocities which exist amidst the mundane. He pleads with his listeners to keep listening.

Indeed, there’s also a howl of protest within “Blowin’ in the Wind,” if the listener can hear it. But instead of being about madness, it’s about war, civil rights, and oppression which were central in the minds of the youth in the early 1960s. What’s more, the widespread lack of acknowledgement or refusal to see atrocities could itself be called a madness, and thus can also be traced back to “Howl.”

In “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Dylan invites the listener to join a community or generation which is united by their knowing and sharing important questions and answers. This was a younger generation that had to decide where they stood on the Vietnam war and civil rights. Should they accept or reject the older generation’s values, priorities, and institutions? Or should they try to build a new America, and a more peaceful and equitable world?


“Blowin’ in the Wind” asks the listener to do the work which Ginsberg said was needed to keep the country on the right path in his poem “America” which declares in its final line:

America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

In other words, it may take a queer eye to find alternative perspectives, to think outside of the box, to do the work of building a new community and country.

In “America,” Ginsberg talks directly to the country personified, humorously and critically observing his own mind, and even imagining: “It occurs to me that I am America.

I am talking to myself again.” He calls out the prejudices, small-mindedness, nationalism, and greed, as well as the hopes and demands which he and America share:

Asia is rising against me.
I haven’t got a chinaman’s chance.
I’d better consider my national resources.

This fluidity between self and society is a key dimension of “Howl” and “Kaddish,” where madness is presented not just as an individual mental health problem, but as a social diagnosis, in a world inflamed by fascism, war, mass migration, the Cold War, nuclearism, and civil strife. Ginsberg’s mother Naomi, a Jewish immigrant woman from the Russian Pale, and many others were driven to madness by the conflicts, deprivations, violence, and failed institutions of modernity. If not for better luck, Dylan’s own paternal grandmother, Anna Zimmerman, may have ended up dying in a psychiatric hospital like Naomi, crushed by history.

In “Howl” and especially “Kaddish” we hear about Naomi’s politically focused paranoid delusions (“who demanded sanity trials accusing the radio of hypnotism”). Ginsberg’s “America” frames this in the language of the country’s political paranoia, with its “Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.”

This ridiculous paranoid rant was a template for “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” with the singer “lookin’ everywhere for them gol-darned Reds / I got up in the mornin’ ’n’ looked under my bed / Looked in the sink, behind the door / Looked in the glove compartment of my car.”

In “America,” Ginsberg imagines a path back from madness by doing creative work from a position which embraces both madness and queerness. To escape the prism of paranoia, Dylan deploys humor and sarcasm, a well-developed, hilarious, and underappreciated strategy.

In subsequent songs in the electric trilogy, such as “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and in press conferences with preposterously dumb and square journalists, Dylan would further unfurl his queer, absurdist, and mad assault on the unthinking paranoid reasoning of the times.


“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” details the circumstances of one hate driven attack, the attacker, the miscarriage of justice, and the failure and hypocrisy of the criminal justice system to serve as a just witness.

The song’s propulsive rhythm and the internal rhymes and repetition, starting with the assailant’s own name, William Zanzinger, are positively Ginsbergian, and even punctuated by a few who’s reminiscent of “Howl”:

Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage,
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn’t even talk to the people at the table,
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table,
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level,
Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane
That sailed through the air and came down through the room,
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle.

The protagonist victim is an innocent woman, as was Naomi Ginsberg in “Kaddish.” The chorus shines a light on the lack of honesty and the distancing from, and avoidance or neglect of responsibility, in which many just stand around doing nothing in the aftermath of such attacks.

But you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face, now ain’t the time for
Your tears.

Again, the singer is a witness to the witnessing or its cruel disfigurement or failure, on top of being a witness to the attack itself. Perhaps this nuanced layering of witnessing is one attribute that helps make it one of Dylan’s greatest protest songs.

The song is not nearly as hopeful as “Blowin in the Wind,” but need it be? In calling out the common shortcomings in individual and societal responses to hate driven attacks, “Hattie Ca roll” is courageous and emboldening: Dylan renders the ambivalence with which “Howl” approaches madness into different sociocultural mechanisms for minimizing a horrendous crime. It proffers a complete rejection of the self-serving evasion which holds up the denying witness into some kind of victim.

Ginsberg’s other great poem of madness, “Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg” figures far less explicitly in Dylan’s protest songs, but one senses its presence in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which is unique among Dylan’s protest songs by focusing on a woman. The poem is also present in 1976’s “Hurricane,” which tells the story of decades of unjust imprisonment – “While Ruben sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell / An innocent man in a living hell” – which brings to mind Naomi in her locked ward at Pilgrim State. However, in “Hurricane,” the emotions are less of mourning, and more of anger over yet another racial injustice.


Dylan’s protest songs portray an upside-down world reminiscent of the scrambled circumstances of “best minds destroyed,” where the best minds may actually be the “mad ones.” In On the Road, Kerouac writes, ““The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn.” Mad to bear witness rather than be blind.

In “Masters of War”, Dylan takes aim at the U.S. military industrial complex, including those who build arms but “hide behind walls” or “masks.” Though he is young and unlearned, he knows things the smart and experienced ones do not. As an upstart, he is claiming he is nonetheless one of the best minds.

In “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” the leaders of the poor whites were manipulate them into hatred for Black people, one of the oldest games in town. But the songwriter knows better.

In “The Times They are A-Changin’,” change is going to upend the existing order:

The loser now will be later to win,
The slow one now will later be fast
The first one now will later be last.

Dylan is prophesizing change, warning leaders and parents to get out of the way while finger pointing, almost scolding. He sounds preachy like the Dylan of Slow Train Coming and the other Christian albums, yet without evoking Jesus or mercy. One suspects that by now, Dylan himself was growing weary of this posture for embodying too much of the judgmental tone of the older generations he was trying to shrug off.


In “Howl,” Ginsberg was not only fighting for social and political change, but he also had named a mystical enemy. In the poem’s Part II, Ginsberg rails against Moloch, the Canaanite fire demon, as embodied in armies, madhouses, and oppressive institutions. Ginsberg bears witness to the destruction Moloch wreaks, and to its embodiment in destructive states of mind, which he recognizes even in himself. He celebrates Moloch’s overturning through “Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! Ecstasies!” of the “Mad Generation” which has the quality of the queer overturning of the politics of heteronormativity.

Here it is relevant to mention something I learned in researching my recent book, Best Minds: How Allen Ginsberg Made Revolutionary Poetry from Madness and discussed with Ginsberg himself when I discovered papers for a key event which was not yet public knowledge: at age 22, Ginsberg signed consent for his mother’s prefrontal lobotomy. In other words, he himself bought into the then conventional mentality which said this was the right thing to do. Thus, Ginsberg’s protesting Moloch was also tempered by the humility that he was little better than others in terms of his vulnerability to participating in its destructiveness.

If Ginsberg is the poetic witness to madness and its liberatory and destructive potential, Dylan is the songwriter bearing moral witness to the possibilities and limitations of a society marked by racism, violence, and war. Both Ginsberg and Dylan want us to see, but Dylan also wants us to acknowledge our penchant for not seeing, and to take corrective actions. He lets each listener know that it is up to them to clarify what they stand for or against regarding these key political and moral issues which divide society.

Finally, let us also note that Dylan became a witness to experiences of violence and destruction which he accessed through journalism and art, not personal traumatic experiences. Thus, he demonstrates that direct experiences of violence are not necessary in order to serve as a powerful artistic witness, and to shine a light on the challenges of that witnessing.


Dylan didn’t keep writing protest songs, just as Ginsberg did not write about madness for all that long. By the end of 1963, Dylan disavowed protest songs. At the March on Washington he said, “This here ain’t a protest song or anything like that, ‘cause I don’t write protest songs…I’m just writing it as something to be said, for somebody, by somebody.”

In December 1963, he said: “There’s no Black and white, Left and Right to me anymore, there’s only up and down, and down is very close to the ground, and I’m trying to go up without thinking about anything trivial such as politics.”

It was Ginsberg’s model of vision inspired transformation which helped set Dylan free from the folkies, and connected him evermore with Rimbaud, the Beats, and literary legitimacy. Ginsberg, bound to his own traumatic autobiographical narrative, was never able to sever the ties that bound him to his mother, his muse, through a transformation of madness. He could shift from a focus on madness to a focus on changing consciousness. He could travel the world and expand his perspective on death. He could become a teacher, like his father Louis Ginsberg. But he could never leave behind Allen Ginsberg in the more radical ways that Dylan could separate from himself.

As an artist, Dylan has been unbound to any such narrative. Dylan disappeared and reinvented himself far more wholesale, as we have experienced over the decades. Being unbound to his own autobiographical narrative, deeply empathic towards historical traumas, especially the ravages of the Civil War, being able to inhabit stories and songs in an unusually intense way, became bedrocks for Dylan’s creative journey.


In 1977, Ginsberg said “When you get old is when all your dreams come true, if you have the right dreams. When I was younger, I always wanted to go out on a rock ’n’ roll tour.” He got to join Dylan, his artistic heir, on the Rolling Thunder Revue. This is the stuff of Beat and rock ‘n’ roll legends, but the glimmer of celebrities should not outshine the coming together of the darker themes I have discussed here.

Rolling Thunder featured some of the most powerful live performances ever of the protest songs written fifteen years earlier, now in loud full band versions, plus a new protest song, “Hurricane,” and Ginsberg reciting his poetry, including an emotional reading of “Kaddish” at a mah-jongg tournament at the Seacrest Hotel.

On the long and independent creative journeys of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, this crossing of paths in New England theaters brought forth the many sides of madness, the horrors of war, and the terror of hate-based violence, and also offered the consolation and critical reflection of the witness, in poetry and song.