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. 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.
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 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…”