Entries by



Conor McPherson. Girl From the North Country. Directed by Conor McPherson, 12 Nov.
2021, Belasco Theatre, New York.

REVIEW BY James O’Brien


Girl From the North Country, written and directed by Conor McPherson, is one of two Broadway productions since 2006 that prominently incorporate Bob Dylan’s songs. Critics have attributed both of these productions to the genre, or sub-genre, of jukebox musicals – featuring songs by artists predating the given show’s creation, typically recorded by known and famous musical artists – in these cases, Dylan.


The earlier of the two was Twyla Tharp’s production of The Times They Are a-Changin’, its story set in a circus and focusing on a father-son relationship. Opening in 2006, the musical closed on Broadway after twenty-eight performances and critical reception that questioned its reportedly literal staging of Dylan’s lyrics and music. While critical reception to Girl From the North Country has been significantly better than reviewers’ take on Tharp’s work, McPherson’s presentation of Dylan’s songs is challenging in its own way, and the production warrants attention in light of how it incorporates music and lyrics, and to how audiences experience new versions of known songs within a jukebox musical.


Girl From the North Country is set in a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota (where Dylan was born in 1941) in the winter of 1934, during the Great Depression. The house’s proprietor, Nick Laine, lives in and runs the place while caring for his wife, Elizabeth, who has dementia and is dependent on the town doctor for steadying narcotic doses. Laine strives to persuade his son, Gene, a would-be writer, to take work with the railroad and so help support the household. Meanwhile, Nick’s business partner and lover, Mrs. Neilsen, also lives in the house, and the two plan for the day her inheritance will allow them to escape together to another town. With them lives Marianne, whom Nick took in as a child, and who is now pregnant, but by whom it is not clear. Laine plans to marry Marianne off to Mr. Perry, an elderly cobbler in town.


These relationships occupy act one. Also entering the mix are a preacher, Mr. Marlowe, and his coincidental traveling companion Scott, a boxer just out of prison for a robbery he denies committing. They arrive on a stormy night. Fights ensue, and arguments include a sloppy punch-up between Gene and Scott. However, when Scott meets Marianne, they kindle a new and hopeful spark. Complicating the development, though, is the character of Mr. Burke, a washed-up businessman staying in the house with his bitter wife and their son, Elias, a grown man with a child’s mind. Burke recognizes Scott from watching him in the ring and pressures him to hire his services as a manager. Meanwhile, Marlowe, the preacher, suspects that Elias has killed a child, and he attempts to extort money from Mr. Burke to keep the information from the police.


These scenes play in the run-up to the night of the second act, the eve of Thanksgiving. It is a night of strife. Lodgers run out of credit, characters disclose old traumas, lose inheritances, plan escapes, attempt robberies, and Elias mysteriously drowns during a walk with his father near the river. As the dust settles, Nick gives his son Gene some money and suggests that he and Elizabeth will soon take their own lives to end their troubles.


Throughout these scenes, characters sing and perform parts of nineteen works from Bob Dylan’s catalog. Songs also play from an on-stage radio, or the actors play them on pianos and other instruments as part of the action story during a party or a moment alone in the house. The selections encompass albums Dylan released between 1963 and 2012, with nine of the nineteen drawn from records issued in the 1970s – New Morning, The Basement Tapes, Blood on the Tracks, Planet Waves, Street Legal, and Slow Train Coming.


When it comes to the jukebox musical, a framework under which audiences and critics can consider Girl From the North Country, the roots of the production approach rest in the 1970s and 1980s. Jukebox musicals achieved significant popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the production of Mamma Mia! (drawing on songs recorded by the group ABBA).


Before then – at least since the 1940s – musicals typically wove songs into the narrative, advancing the story and revealing new details of the characters, their motivations, and the plot. However, the jukebox musical positions the songs as a primary draw, especially in the cases of well-known songwriters and groups. In examples such as Mamma Mia!, there is an original story featuring the songs with a degree of narrative or thematic integration that does not explicitly reference the creators of the songs. In other cases, the jukebox musical presents a tribute to a genre or an era – such as Rock of Ages, focusing on rock music of the 1980s – and the concept of the genre or era is central to the audience’s experience. And then, sometimes, the focus is on the biography of a given musical artist, such as Lennon, and the action of the musical’s book presents the story of that artist’s life and often traces the creation of the songs performed. Still, other approaches blur the framework, and boundaries soften, as they do when genres and formats overlap. For example, there is something of the jukebox musical in Springsteen on Broadway, but in performance (and marketing), it was the artist in person, performing from a script and playing his own songs. Given time, formats tend to exceed tidy definitions.


Likewise, Girl From the North Country takes more than one approach from the jukebox musical’s book. For example, at the start of act one, when the ensemble forms a band and performs “Sign On The Window,” Dylan’s song serves primarily as diegetic music for the scene. It does not convey a narrative or give information about the characters or the setting, save perhaps setting a mood with the help of lyrics that speak of loneliness and crowded quarters. Similarly, when the company opens act two with “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” – segueing somewhat unexpectedly into “Jokerman” – the performance is arguably thematically relevant but no more explicitly narrative than “Sign On The Window.” Shortly after the singing stops, the doctor dispenses narcotics, and the characters talk about infidelity, suicide, and addiction. While there is some relevance to be noticed in the lyrics of the immediately preceding performances – topics of stasis, the lure of comfort, or perhaps the nature of a “joker man” in one’s midst – the incorporation of Dylan’s lyrics is not specific or pertinent to the action on stage.


In other cases, the show gives Dylan’s songs in ways that suggest a more narratively linked approach. In the first act, Gene and his departing girlfriend Kate lament the end of their relationship. They sing parts of Dylan’s song “I Want You.” The song’s sentiment is in the right place, and the lyrics correlate with what the script has told us about these characters. We can even consider these lines in light of inner desires – the couple is parting, yet their longing for each other remains. Still, Girl From the North Country confounds neatly arrived at expectations. In the same scene, as Kate returns a necklace to Gene – a token of their relationship – the action is accompanied by kaleidoscopic lines: “The guilty undertaker sighs / The lonesome organ grinder cries / The silver saxophones say I should refuse you.”


The constructions and imagery of Dylan’s more freewheeling lyrics tilt toward being at odds with the actors in action, complicating the literal action with the introduction of undertakers and organ grinders and a chorus of silver saxophones. The performance and its forlorn delivery speak to the themes of Gene’s and Kate’s relationship. Still, it also uncouples those themes from the plainness – and plains-ness – of the setting and characters, the prosaic, penniless plaid and dungarees of a Minnesota heartbreak in 1934.


Another complication is that Dylan’s lyrics do not always sync with the given details of the characters and setting. For example, while it’s possible to correlate some of the lyrics of “Hurricane” with the character Scott, the fugitive boxer who sings part of it in the second act, the details of Rubin Carter’s plight provided in Dylan’s lyrics are significantly different from the story Scott tells in Girl From the North Country. As the song goes, its action is set “on a hot New Jersey night” decades later than Scott’s story; the action of “Hurricane” is a long way from winter in Minnesota, 1934. Anachronism is the case McPherson gives us. Approaching “Hurricane” in the context of Scott, the character, one way to frame these convergences of lyrics and script is to consider them as layers, as a way of situating and deepening Scott’s story. His is one of many similar tales; he isn’t the only Black person “in the joint serving somebody else’s stretch” (as he says in a line from the script). If so, the gain of layering “Hurricane” into Scott’s scene is to elevate the character from one time and place – an everyman of some sort – to one that spans times and places. Under this light, the mentioning of characters in the song Scott sings – Patty Valentine from the upper hall, a man named Bello, and so on – means that the role of this lyric, and perhaps a function of other instances throughout McPherson’s production, is to move the musical around mysteriously. Dylan’s songs comment in some way on the story, but obliquely and occasionally in a fashion that seems out of time with the action on the stage.


One factor at work within an audience that goes to see a musical such as Girl From the North Country is a desire to see and hear performances of the songs that Bob Dylan wrote. In that context, any jukebox musical performance markets to and attracts its attendees with the same dynamic. At the core of the experience is the lure of the cover version: new renditions and interpretations of the songs.


There are aspects to the experience of the cover song, whether performed for an audience or issued on a recording, that are often part of the audience’s expectations. Audiences and listeners commonly expect a cover song by an artist or group to present an interpretation of a well-known version of the work. A significant driver of the cover song’s reception lies in the differences – and the similarities – as apprehended in the context of the well-known version that the covering artist is referencing. Given an artist that changes his own recorded songs in sometimes radical ways, on record and in performance (though it would be problematic to refer to these variants as cover versions), much of Dylan’s audience is deeply familiar with the underlying concept of differences between versions and the pleasure or displeasure (or indifference) these introduced changes can elicit.


However, in the case of jukebox musicals, cover versions performed on stage often manifest differently. The performances can be diegetic, part of the story and not referencing, acknowledging, celebrating, or being explicitly bound to any knowledge of the songwriter or their catalog directly (while a cover song, by its nature, is almost always bound to its referent). Conversely, the cover versions in some jukebox musicals do present a celebration or an accounting of an artist’s music and career that explicitly references and acknowledges the songwriter of focus. There are also differences in how audiences can experience the cover versions of the songs that a jukebox musical incorporates. Chief among these are the cast albums released for listening without the context of the on-stage actors and sets. Each of these manifestations is significant in terms of the songs and their consideration as cover versions.


For example, in Girl From the North Country, the differences between the well-known versions of the songs in question and the versions performed on stage are almost always rooted in the diegesis. The characters sing the songs Dylan wrote in the context of the musical’s scripted setting and action. A dance. A lament for a lover. A flight of imagination or release. It is not clear that an audience watching the production receives these performances as cover versions in the traditional sense, as far as the root definition goes: a performance or recording that prioritizes attention to the differences and similarities from a well-known preceding work. Instead, for the audience in the theater, while a listener may note the differences between the way “I Want You” is performed on stage in Girl From the North Country and the version they’ve heard on Blonde on Blonde, within the context of the musical the differences in the arrangement are tied to character, plot and setting. This is an experience distinct from, say, listening to a recording of Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” in which his electrified interpretation is considered against Dylan’s subdued performance on John Wesley Harding, which is the primary – and perhaps only – context at work.


That said, the experience of the cover version is different yet again when it comes to the cast recording of Girl From the North Country. The album released in 2021 does not include dialog or any other audible context for the songs. So, a listener who puts on the album with no knowledge of the characters, plot, or setting of the musical almost certainly approaches these recordings as cover versions free of diegesis. This would be an experience more like listening to Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower.” What are the differences in play? What are the similarities? Pleasure, displeasure, or indifference. The same feelings may well arise for the spectator in the theater seat, but the whole of the experience is no longer coupled to the primary context of the cover version and the recorded artist’s interpretation; instead, the experience of the differences and similarities is couched in the on-stage action and story.


The cover version, then, and its pleasures (and risks) must be a term and an experience bound to the circumstances of its presentation. Girl From the North Country knows this, and the dynamic becomes especially evident during one of two concert-style performances of Dylan’s songs within the production. There is a moment when the character Elizabeth, played by Mare Winningham, sings “Like A Rolling Stone,” which starts as a spare, slow piano-based lamentation and then turns into something closer to the version first released in 1965 on Highway 61 Revisited. About a minute and a half into the song, a band enters the arrangement, ramping up to a solo drumbeat, a sudden measure of silence, and then the performance reemerges as an upbeat gospel-rock version of the song buoyed by a chorus that would have sounded at home on Dylan’s 1979–80 gospel tour.


When Winningham performed the song on November 12, 2021, at Belasco Theatre in New York, she stood at the stage’s apron, bent at the knees, leaning into the music and Dylan’s lines. There was something familiar at work in even the blocking and choreography. If a member of the audience in 2021 had happened to see Dylan sing in years recently preceding, especially in the 2010s when he often performed without playing an instrument, letting the band take the parts, wielding only a microphone, occasionally dipping at the knees, then Winningham’s knee-bending, song-and-dance moves suggested a point of reference or tribute, or cover, there in the moment at the edge of the stage. Such tribute is also the work of a jukebox musical, and the closest Girl From the North Country comes, on stage to giving the cover version in its common context, a significant role to play.


Works Cited

Braun, Kimberly. Jukebox Musicals. Masters thesis, Gustavus Adolphus College, 2019, 1. Accessed

April 23, 2022. https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6107&context=etd

Kennedy, Michael and Joyce. “cover (version).” The Oxford Dictionary of Music, edited by

Tim Rutherford-Johnson, Sixth ed., Oxford University Press, 2103, p. 192.



Raphael Falco. No One to Meet: Imitation and Originality in the Songs of Bob Dylan. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2022. xii + 260 pp.1

REVIEW BY Richard F. Thomas, Harvard University


A generation after the sack of Rome in August 410 CE, a Roman by the name of Macrobius, probably a Christian though his writings show no sign of that, wrote a dialogue set a generation before the sack. Entitled Saturnalia after the three-day pagan festival that opened on December 17, 382 or 383 CE – eventually morphing into Christmas – it is ostensibly a manual of sorts for the writer’s son, gathering writings from pagan literature that had formed the author’s education. For Macrobius that manual included first and foremost Virgil’s four-centuries-old Aeneid, a “sacred poem” for Christian writers though its author was a pagan.


In the fifth book of his dialogue Macrobius collects and juxtaposes what we would now call the Greek, mostly Homeric, intertexts of Virgil’s poem, the lines that critics had accused him of plagiarizing even in the poet’s lifetime – evoking the now well-known response from Virgil: “Why don’t my critics try the same thefts? They will soon realize it’s easier to steal Hercules’ club from him than steal a line from Homer.” In his preface Macrobius, without naming either of his sources, borrows from Seneca, who had quoted Virgil in saying “we ought to imitate the bees, who wander about and pluck from flowers then arrange what they have gathered and distribute it in the cells of the honeycomb and transform into a single taste the different types of nectar, through mixing in the individual quality of their own spirit.”


Virgil’s friend Horace, Rome’s greatest lyric poet, who himself draws from the Greek lyric poet Pindar, had compared himself in Odes 4.2 to the tiny bee who roves about the woods and riverbanks of Tivoli, fashioning his elaborate song. Nothing new under the sun – Ovid said that. Having in Why Bob Dylan Matters addressed the issue of Dylan’s borrowings or thefts from classical Greek and Roman poets, I was of course struck by Raphael Falco’s title, No One to Meet, and particularly the subtitle, Imitation and Originality in the Songs of Bob Dylan. So when a co-editor of the Dylan Review asked me to review the book I gladly accepted. Although I am on the Editorial Board, I have not met Professor Falco, who rightly recused himself from the process that now culminates in this review.


It is not easy for academics to write successfully on Dylan, many of whose fans and followers – not without reason when it comes to much academic writing in the humanities – would side with David Crosby’s take on Dylan’s fellow honorees on that Princeton stage during the locust infestation of 1970: “dickheads on autostroke.” I got my share of such sentiment from The Times on November 18, 2017 (“Is Bob Dylan inspired by classical poets? James Marriott yawns at nerdy analysis”) and the next day when The Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan wrote under the headline “An academic’s attempt to shoehorn Dylan into the pantheon of literary greats misunderstands the singer’s appeal.” Dylan of course quotes Crosby in Chronicles, Volume One, and himself sang “The world of research has gone berserk / Too much paperwork” – and that was before the cascade of post-Nobel publications, podcasts and blog posts. And yet, he also gave a vivid and informative defense of precisely this intertextual aspect of his art in Rolling Stone, just two weeks after the release of Tempest in 2012, the album on which through the songs’ Homeric intertextuality he effectively “became Odysseus.” Interviewer Mikal Gilmore had left the trickiest question till the end: “I want to ask about the controversy over your quotations in your songs from the works of other writers.” Among the colorful responses that diverted readers – “wussies and pussies complain about that stuff … all those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell” – Dylan also gave us a glimpse of his understanding of his place in a long tradition:

It’s an old thing – it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back … I’m working within my art form. It’s that simple. I work within the rules and limitations of it. There are authoritative figures that can explain that kind of art form better to you than I can.


Falco, professor of Renaissance English literature, is one such figure. He announces the book’s purpose on page 25: “I analyze the growth and development of Dylan’s unparalleled lyrical authority through his practice of imitation, appropriation, and self-imitation.” Among the many things reborn in the Renaissance’s discovery and recreation of classical antiquity were theories of intertextuality: “mimesis,” to use the Greek term; for the Romans, “imitation” and its more competitive cousin “emulation.” It is notable that “influence,” though from a Latin word, did not exist in antiquity. No Greek or Roman would have been able to think or say “Homer influenced Virgil,” “Virgil influenced Dante,” “the Odyssey influenced Dylan.” Cicero used the verb in Laws 2.38, agreeing with Plato that “nothing so influences[2] impressionable young minds as the varied sounds of song, whose power for good and evil can scarcely be put into words.” Nothing new again – think of parental views of Elvis for the evil bit. The noun is from a neo-Latin coinage, mostly early-modern and astrological in essence, the “flowing in” of an element from certain alignments or positions of the stars, such as the supposed cause of ‘flu (or influenza).


What Virgil, Dante, and Dylan do with their respective traditions is a complete inversion of “influence,” and Falco begins his first chapter with Swedish Academy Professor Horace Engdahl’s words in his presentation speech of 2016: “all creativity begins in imitation.” In other words there is – more or less until the Romantics – no notion of “originality” in the sense critics of Dylan’s intertextual or transfigurative method of composing have in mind. “Originality” with the meaning “independent of and different from anything that has gone before” (OED 3a) is like “influence,” a late-comer to the English language. In college I knew an aspiring poet who refused to read other poets for fear of maiming his “originality.” I wonder what he is doing now – not writing poetry I would guess. Falco, whose mission is in part to introduce Renaissance theories and practice of imitatio to a broader audience, puts it this way in his introduction:

Imitatio is the means by which poets like Dylan manifest originality in the word’s literal sense, deriving from a source, or origo. But imitatio also allows poets to express originality – in the modern sense of creativity – through new combinations and revisions of past works. The poetic practice of imitation, which extends to the other arts, predates the Romantic perspective on originality and creative imagination.

In other words originality is not that in which the origin lies, but rather that which has an origin. This might feel like a semantic sleight of hand, but it is surely borne out by pre-Romantic realities, in antiquity and the Renaissance.


This approach allows Falco to demonstrate that originality lies in the transformation of the origins into a new creation. On page 6 he looks at the way Dylan, from early on, “recasts forms that are already familiar” – “Masters of War” out of “Nottamun Town,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Come” out of “Lord Randall,” and later “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” – melody, meter and all unmistakably coming out of “I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night.” We hear the shared four first words, which announce the origin, and we hear the last four syllables of each, metrically and prosodically identical but semantically different in fundamental ways. That sets up a narrative that replaces the workingman’s anthem, whose vision and message urge us to go “on to organize,” with pure art and genius, particularly in the stunning final verse, where the singer played a central role in the death of the Christian martyr: “And I dreamed I was among the ones that put him out to death.”


Lest things seem to be getting too textual, it should be said that Falco, like many of us whose fields are rooted in writing and textuality but who follow the art of Bob Dylan, is fully aware that writing is only the beginning of Dylan’s art, and that its essence exists ultimately in the performance, the particular inflexions and meanings coming across only in each version. That is why in the concerts of recent years he can sing the same songs every night; they are not the same songs. Dylan himself warned on that score and directly corrected the Nobel Committee’s defensive claim that Dylan’s words could be read on the page: “They’re meant to be sung, not read.” Falco “would have liked to insert links to Dylan’s ‘delivery’ at every quotation” (p. 4) but is constrained by technological and legal realities. Yet his book is constantly aware that its subject is a performative artist, though one who does not exist without his words and his voice in song. On page 32 Falco aptly quotes Betsy Bowden’s assessment, as true to reality now as it was back when she offered it in 1982, “It was his voice that spoke so directly to and for each individual listener: Dylan’s whining, grating, snarling voice that could drip scorn or comfort, could stretch or snap off words to disregard their literal meaning or to fulfill it.”


At the end of the introduction, Falco sets out the themes of the four chapters. One of the strengths of the book is in the practical criticism, imbued with a deep knowledge of Dylan’s oeuvre that is, for the most part, integrated into his theoretical system, its presence lightly felt. We never lose sight of the fact that this is a book about the art of Bob Dylan. Space does not allow me to go into all of his observations and arguments, which tend not to be linear, but rather flit from topic to topic in an engaging way, and not unlike Horace’s bee.


Chapter 1, “Past the Vernacular,” demonstrates how Dylan’s imitation draws from his vast mnemonic capacity and creative genius to produce new art whose components are visible but unobtrusive. That is the sense in which the Renaissance understood imitatio – as did the ancient Greeks and Romans who created the foundation for those Renaissance theories one and two millennia earlier, long before the First Crusade.


Falco distinguishes Dylan’s imitation from the slavish type that comes across as having been copied, not from the artist’s having acquired the vernacular and then going past that vernacular. Here it might be useful to think of Eliot’s much-quoted “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” Falco quotes Dylan speaking to Jonathan Cott in 1978: “I don’t try to imitate Rimbaud in my work. I’m not interested in imitation.” Here Dylan may merely mean, “I’ve lost interest in Rimbaud.” And keep in mind that in the 1974 song it was his “relationships” not his songs that had been “like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud.” “Mr. Tambourine Man” certainly imitated an English translation of the French Symbolist’s “Le Bateau Ivre,” (perhaps Norman Cameron’s version) and I argued in 2017 that “Chimes of Freedom” likewise imitates Rimbaud’s “Poor People in Church.” But that imitation, as I argued, involved barely any use of actual words, and yet “Chimes of Freedom,” the work of an already mature poet, stole from the French poet. Dylan made it his own and in the process replaced the contempt of Rimbaud towards the “timid ones … the epileptic ones … the blind ones” with the empathy that is central to “Chimes” for “the searching ones … the aching ones … the countless confused, accused, misused ones.” That is how imitation worked in classical antiquity – and all the way through the Renaissance until the Romantics changed our way of thinking. Rimbaud had helped give us “Chimes of Freedom,” and Dylan soon moved on, saying within a couple of years, “I can’t read him now.” But Rimbaud’s specific poems remain visible, and important even if Dylan had moved on.


Here Falco might have given his readers some of the famous letter from Petrarch to Boccaccio, quoted by Kinney in his fundamental Continental Humanist Poetics, from which Falco rightly draws throughout. The letter was dated October 28, 1366:

A proper imitator should take care that what he writes resembles the original without reproducing it. The resemblance should not be that of a portrait to the sitter[3]– in that case the closer the likeness is the better – but it should be the resemblance of a son to his father … As soon as we see the son, he recalls the father to us, although if we should measure every feature, we should find them all different. But there is between them a certain shared element that indicates one is the impression of the other.[4]

The patrilineal metaphor may not please all, and it doesn’t quite fit the fact that the son in Petrarch’s letter plays no role in creating the imitation, but looking at it from the end result (the appearance of the son), it works well enough. We see Guthrie in the lyrics, melody, performance, and appearance of Dylan in 1962 and 1963, but the features are changed. We see Rimbaud in Dylan’s mid-60s song, but the features are changed. They are new creations.


Chapter 2 (“Savage Innocence: Dylan’s Art of Appropriation”) begins: “In the film The Savage Innocents, Anthony Quinn plays Inuk, an Eskimo hunter … Although no one seems to have cited this film as the source of the song, I have not seen an explanation anywhere as to why the ‘mighty’ Quinn should be an Eskimo.” In fact Oliver Trager on page 505 of Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia – a somewhat hubristic subtitle given the subject – includes a still from the movie, noting that “some Dylan scholars,” left unnamed, cite the film as a source for the song. I mention this not for any “gotcha” purpose, but first of all because it points to a central problem in Dylanology, something of a Wild West in which it is not always easy to find the origins of ideas, and in which many of us have found our own ideas reappearing without acknowledgement. This is in the nature of the field, and it is to be expected that as Dylan continues to be the subject of academic study, things might change. Although it is also the case in the academic world that bibliographic scruples are on the wane.


Falco is a model of how the scholarly face of Dylanology might look. He is scrupulous with his scholarship, with 204 items in his bibliography all to be found in text and notes, fully acknowledging those to whom he is indebted, myself included on the classical material; Andrew Muir on Shakespeare; Scobie, Ricks, Hampton on their particular subjects. And he is balanced and generous in his treatment of others, a welcome feature compared to some writers who seem to feel an exclusive ownership of the art and especially the life of Bob Dylan. Clinton Heylin, to return to The Savage Innocents, makes no mention of the film in Revolution in the Air, nor does Michael Gray’s Dylan encyclopedia, so Falco’s oversight is natural. Be that as it may, Falco’s argument for the connection is generally convincing, and a good path into the chapter’s continuing exploration of what he means by “originality,” which also involves the degree to which the source is easily recognized or known. When Dylan sang the opening words of “Hard Rain,” many or all in the coffee house folk communities would have immediately heard the opening, “O where have you been, Lord Randall, my son.” They would have recognized the father even as they were thunderstruck by the blue-eyed son who was about to open a universe the father had never contemplated. Hearing the old song in the words and melody of the new song is a vital part of the experience, as Petrarch wrote. Likewise, though now coming back to Earth, my appreciation of “Quinn the Eskimo” is increased by the thought that “It ain’t my cup of meat” could find its origin in the bowl of maggot-infested meat that figures in the film.


But Falco’s reading of the song also got me thinking about the double title, “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn),” in the lyrics book and on bobdylan.com. Inuk is mighty enough, but what if Dylan had more than one Anthony Quinn in mind? In the magnificent second chapter of Chronicles, “The Lost Land,” Dylan writes of going to “an art movie house in the Village on 12th Street … I’d seen a couple of Italian Fellini movies there – one called La Strada, which means ‘The Street.’” It is hard to imagine Dylan not being absorbed by the figure of Zampanò, the itinerant character played by Quinn for whom Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina, as the waif Gelsomina, collects offerings as he breaks a chain with only the strength of his chest expansion! Though not so mighty in reality, he certainly comes across as the mighty Quinn to the simple Italians who pay good money to see the act. A bit like the carnival figure Dylan recalls seeing when the circus is in town at Hibbing’s National Guard Armory, as Dylan himself put it: “Gorgeous George. A mighty spirit” (Chronicles, Volume 1, p. 44). He returns to the theme on page 187, now in New Orleans, at the end of the 1980s, when he tells of going to see “The Mighty Quinn,” “a mystery, suspense, Jamaican thriller with Denzel Washington as the mighty Xavier Quinn, a detective who solves crimes. Funny, that’s just the way I imagined him when I wrote the song ‘The Mighty Quinn.’ Denzel Washington.” Sure, Bob, whatever you say, but Zampanò as the Mighty Quinn has my vote.


In a learned section (“Meet Me in the Margin”), Falco goes on to explore the presence of appropriation and how, or whether, it affects our hearing of the song. The answer depends in part on the level of erudition of both Dylan and the listener. Falco is right to distinguish Dylan’s complexity of intertextuality from the polysemous layering of Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Dante’s Inferno, works that come late in their respective traditions. And yet, Dylan’s mnemonic range equals these two when it comes to his absorbing folk and other traditions that have unfairly been considered of a lower register, but which would have been heard by the Gaslight Cafe audiences. He picks up the more recent examples of Dylan’s imitatio of Homer, Virgil, and Ovid. With apologies for immodesty I bring up his treatment of my listening in this context:

It would be misleading to say that Richard Thomas, a classical scholar, hears Virgil where we hear Dylan (as at least one reviewer observed). Not only does this do Thomas a disservice, but, more significantly, such statements do a disservice to all forms of erudition. Thomas hears Dylan and hears Virgil in Dylan: he chooses to write about Virgil or Ovid because he has expertise in this while most of the rest of us don’t. His writing about Virgil does not obfuscate what the rest of us hear when we listen to Dylan. The function of erudition is not to suppress the text or supplant it but to enhance and augment it.

This is a point worth stressing. I first heard Virgil in Dylan in the second-to-last verse of “Lonesome Day Blues” in mid-September 2001, a few days after 9/11. I bought the album in Tower Records in Cambridge, MA, an hour after the second tower was hit, the irony occurring to me as I did so. I had been listening to Dylan for over thirty years, studying and teaching Virgil for a little less. Hearing Virgil in Dylan was an indescribable feeling, not equaled in its immediacy by hearing Ovid in the songs on Modern Times.[5] A close runner-up was hearing Odysseus taunting the Cyclops in the penultimate verse of “Early Roman Kings.”


And so it continues. When I heard “stand over there by the cypress tree, where the Trojan women and children are being sold into slavery,” I knew the words from “My Own Version of You” could only come some 1,100 years before the First Crusade, from 19 BCE and the second book of Virgil’s Aeneid. Others soon decided they had heard the same. Some no doubt went and read the great poem that gives us the gripping narrative of the fall of Troy, Trojan Aeneas’ survivor song, sung in the court of Dido, Queen of Carthage. You don’t need to hear these instances of imitatio precisely along the lines that Falco sets out. You don’t need to hear Homer as you read Virgil, but if you try sometime you just might find you get something out of it all. And if it disrupts your firmly established view of what matters to Dylan, and therefore reject the possibility as academic humbug, that’s your problem. And this happens in performance. I was in Austin on March 16, 2022, the week Dylan started singing the new sixth verse of “Crossing the Rubicon” to which Bob Britt’s guitar flurries draw particular attention, like the Sanctus bells in the Catholic church alerting those in attendance to what comes next:

Right or wrong what can I say? What really needs to be said?
I’ll spill your brains out on the ground. You’ll be better off over there with the dead
Seems like 10 maybe 20 years I’ve been gone
I stood between heaven and earth and I crossed the Rubicon.


Line 1 is the voice of Helen, in Book 4 of the Odyssey, line 2 that of the Cyclops imagining what he will do to Odysseus (“I’d smash him against the ground, I’d spill his brains”) and line 3 that of Odysseus, wandering for all those years. Dylan apparently wanted his familiar Homeric hero to come back into play. You can decide you don’t want to hear Homer, though why you would want not to I wouldn’t know. But you can’t say only I am hearing these specific translations of Fagles’ Odyssey when it is quite clear what Dylan – for whatever reason, a different question – is doing, namely inserting the Homeric lines into a transformed version of “Crossing the Rubicon.”


The third chapter (“Self-Portrait in a Broken Glass: Dylan Imitates Dylan”) turns to what some of us call intratextuality, the ways in which the artist’s own earlier work becomes part of the word hoard, a process whereby the artist “has mined his or her own body of work for as much material to reintroduce, adapt, and weave into songs” (p. 25). I suggested (Thomas 2017:180–187) that the Boston restaurant scene in “Highlands” was such an instance, alluding back to that momentous occasion in the topless place or one of its variants in “Tangled Up in Blue” and updating via the reality of the second-wave feminist waitress whom the singer, wishing someone would come and “push back the clock for him,” now fails to pick up. Skeptics will find unimportant the fact that in his first two performances of “Highlands” he sang it right after the 1975 classic. But if you allow yourself to hear the intratext – and now that I have mentioned it, you will not fail to make the connection – the performative pairing has a transcendent effect.


Falco rightly claims that no major artist in the twentieth century is as self-referential as Dylan. But if you go back, by way of Shakespeare, again to before the First Crusade, you will find a model for this in Virgil. In the Golden Age to which the fourth Messianic eclogue (c. 39 BCE) finds an escape, inside the gates of Eden, “every land will produce everything” (omnis feret omnia tellus). In Virgil’s great next poem, Georgics (29 BCE), which confronts the hard reality in the world of the Iron Age, that earlier Utopian fiction is exploded: “in truth all lands cannot produce everything” (nec vero terrae ferre omnes omnia possunt). In these two examples Dylan and Virgil are doing pretty much the same thing, allowing an earlier song or poem to come into play through intratextuality, if only we have ears to hear.


In reality, much of this third chapter is more focused on the relationship between textual and pictorial, between lyrics and drawing, painting and photography. Falco offers a wide-ranging exploration of the relationship between the two in Writings and Drawings and the ways the images relate to the facing lyrics. He connects these to the worlds of Mondo Scripto, and provides an interesting discussion of the multiple images of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” – graphic translations of self-imitation. He briefly treats five of the sixteen images that illuminate the song in the catalog with different implements (garden rake, baseball bat, iron bar, jackhammer, large crucifix), all being used in fruitless knockings on three different types of doors.


He might also have noted that page 317 in the Mondo Scripto catalog has sixteen images, arranged four per line, thus producing a perfectly iconic image of the song’s verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure. There are ten images of a man knocking on a variety of doors, eight of them taking up the second and fourth lines (choruses), the other two at the end of the first and second verses. The entirety of the song’s lyrics, in case we don’t know them, are written across the sixteen images, allowing simultaneous viewing, reading, and singing of the song. Just when you thought there was nothing much to say about that old favorite, Dylan shows you a new way in. And as Horace said, ut pictura poesis, “poetry is like painting.”


Returning to this page of Mondo Scripto got me thinking about the other six lines of the song, especially the first two: “Mama, take this badge off of me” and “I can’t use it anymore.” We see the same badge in each image, first upright with nothing else in the frame, then lying abandoned on a city street, with only our imagination about how it got there. You don’t have to look too closely to see the words “Maricopa County, Ariz.” You might then be entitled to think of that county’s sheriff, Joe Arpaio, criticized by Amnesty International and the Anti-Defamation League, sued by the ACLU for racial profiling, convicted of criminal contempt of court in July 2017, and pardoned by Donald Trump the next month while Dylan was producing Mondo Scripto. By then Arpaio couldn’t use the badge anymore, having been defeated by Democrat Paul Penzone in the same general election that brought Trump in. To all of this Dylan might reply, “Look again, that’s a Deputy Sheriff badge. Arpaio was Sheriff; he’s not there.”


In the section “Stuck Inside a Painting,” Falco gets to song intratextuality, starting out with Stephen Scobie’s brilliant treatment of the way “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” from 1983 (“But it’s like I’m stuck inside a painting / That’s hanging in the Louvre”) involves itself in the great “Visions of Johanna” with the Louvre’s most famous piece of art (“Inside the museums … Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues”). Falco then connects the “jelly-faced women” who all sneeze in the same verse of “Visions” – a crucial question: are they old, or just obese (“can’t find my knees”)? – to Dylan’s drunken put down of his elderly audience at the infamous Tom Paine Awards: “old people when their hair grows out, they should go out.” That then leads Falco to “My Back Pages,” not only its chorus (“I was so much older then”), but to the opening two lines: “Crimson flames tied through my ears / Rollin’ high and mighty traps”, and the comment that “The ‘crimson flames’ presumably represent the fiery left-wing rhetoric that engulfed Dylan in his ‘finger-pointing’ period.” The strategic adverb [my italics] contains multitudes. It is dangerous to presume too much about the surreal imagery of a song like “My Back Pages” even if we might all agree and hold as a presumption that one of its meanings has to do with the singer no longer relying on the old songwriting that appealed to the older folk aficionados of his first two Newport appearances.


This leads to a central aspect of criticism that involves itself in intertextual or intratextual claims and arguments. I have always thought having a bare majority of readers – though ideally three quarters – consent to your observations and arguments was a prerequisite to successful criticism, not that you can ever know. Falco always has interesting things to say, but in these pages I found myself reluctant to go along, starting with my failure to accept his assertion that “jelly-faced women” meant “old women,” a necessary link in his Tom Paine chain. On page 126 he observes “in terms of self-reference, being ‘stuck inside a painting’ and being ‘stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues’ are comparable.” That seems plausible. Whether that leads to the conclusion that “both songs indict art – painting and the blues – as the agents of physical limitations,” or that with the title “Stuck Inside of Mobile” there is an “ironic pun in that it refers to someone immobilized,” is another matter. The same may be said of a somewhat tendentious next step on page 128. The necessary body parts are telegraphed at the start of the section: “Dylan’s speaker in ‘Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight’ is in effect ‘calling out that he’s been framed.’” He’s doing no such thing, but this allows Falco to bring in the line from “I Shall Be Released” and close the circle. “That he’s been framed” allows a connection that will again fall far short, I suspect, of that 50 percent threshold.


It continues. The last verse of “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” proposes to the woman “getting beneath the surface waste.” “No more booby traps and bombs / No more decadence and charm / No more affection that’s misplaced, girl.” So far so good. But then, “No more mudcake creatures lying in your arms.” My reaction at this point would be “I don’t know what it means, either, but it sounds good,” as Dylan said of that couplet of John Donne in the Nobel Lecture (though I do know what that one means). But Falco is all in: the image “mudcake creatures” “refers to Genesis 2:5-7, where God forms man from the dust of the ground” (King James and New Revised Standard). If you wonder how that works, on the next page we have the answer, that the speaker “renounces mudcake formation and affirms his vow to lie in the girl’s arms, not any more as a mere creature of the clay but as a man newly connected (or converted) to the deity.” Falco is enjoying himself, and there is nothing wrong with that, particularly if that is really what the lines mean to him. But wouldn’t Dylan have written “no more mudcake creature” at the very least if he meant his own transformation exclusively? And for me there is no Genesis imitatio at work here. I’m just not on board. Terry Gans seems the wiser (Surviving in a Ruthless World 72, n. 95): “One of the seemingly inexplicable phrases is ‘mudcake creatures.’ It could refer to a driller, a baker or a sexual practice. Or it could just be three words put together. Your guess is as good as any.” But if you take on such a line, you have to persuade readers that your guess is better than any.


The problem with asserting a single, strong meaning in an argument with many links in the chain is that it then has to fit into the song’s, or at least the verse’s, larger meaning; and the very next line should advise caution: “What about that millionaire with the drumsticks in his pants?” For Falco this too has to be made to fit into a biblical reading of a song that to many seems at home with the unbelieving title of the album (Infidels): “Maybe the millionaire’s bewilderment is brought on by the rejection of his earthy rhythm once the mudcake creatures are no more – once they are saved as Christ’s successors with the promise of spiritual generation.” If the reader has not bought into the born-again reading of the mudcake creatures, the entirety of the chapter’s last seven pages of analysis of a song Dylan never performed will be in vain. I hasten to add that while not going along with the interpretive aspects, I enjoyed these pages, and particularly enjoyed Falco the Renaissance man displaying his scholarly expertise and familiarity with the biblical material as literature – a familiarity lacking in more recent students of literature. In that connection one of the profound aspects of Dylan’s lyrical genius across the decades is his literary engagement with the Bible, quite apart from his own faith practice of any decade.


Chapter 4 (“The Wizard’s Curse: The American Singer as Vates”) promises to be “both a culmination and an expansion, closing the circle on my argument that Dylan’s status as a vatic poet is unique in contemporary culture.” This chapter will be the most demanding for many readers, but it is also in many ways the most successful in its dazzling and generally persuasive connections across the years. Vates, as Falco explains, is Latin for “bard” and “prophet” – a word that suggested old-fashioned poets to the young, avant-garde Virgil and Horace, but which became rehabilitated as they used it of themselves in their higher-register moments when asserting their own status as voice of their generation, in the tumultuous world in which they lived. That is, as they were assuming the classical status they would come to hold – as Dylan has been doing in recent years.


The word vates is probably a loan word, passing into Latin from the Celtic Gaulish, and as such was cognate with Old Norse Ōdin, Old English Wōdan, Old High German Wuotan, the Irish and Welsh terms for “bard” and other terms meaning “leader of the possessed,” “king of frenzy” – none of them false prophets. Falco brilliantly connects such figures to Dylan’s voice in the opening of “False Prophet”: “another ship going out,” going back almost 60 years to the song Dylan sang at the March on Washington, “the hour that the ship comes in.” And he connects the theme to much else, not least the Book of Daniel and the biblical prophets, as he ranges across Dylan’s oeuvre pursuing this topic.


Among the most impressive sections of this chapter is “Visionary Technology,” the treatment of Dylan’s “aesthetic technology,” a “literary phenomenon born of imitation.” Falco develops Timothy Hampton’s work on Dylan’s use of Rimbaud as he returns to later manifestations of that topic, including the Rimbaud collage in the famous “Series of Dreams” video. Though recently remastered and stripped of its highly intertextual images, this video once included a “flash of the famous Rimbaud portrait, whose edges suddenly melt and reform” – a corroboration of Dylan’s disavowal of the French poet’s importance in the years following his patent interest. We don’t know who made that video, whose opening frames have Horace’s line from his closing ode, non omnis moriar, “not all of me will die.” I like to think Dylan somehow found the great Roman poet’s prediction that his poetry would outlast the pyramids. But perhaps, as Milton put it, I fondly dream, and it was just some Classics nerd production assistant.


Falco goes on to open up the whole catalog of Dylan’s songbook as he offers a collective vision of songs that might have seemed unconnected without his persuasive writing:

While “Hard Rain” demonstrates an extraordinary command of vatic expression very early on, Dylan’s later songs from “All Along the Watchtower” to “Dirge” to “I and I” to “Mississippi,” “High Water,” “Not Dark Yet,” and “Highlands” exhibit an ongoing and profound commitment to that same mode of writing and performance. Even the knotty, cryptic, accusing verses of such experimental standards as “Gates of Eden” and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” while eschewing the anthemic voice of the pabulum years, resonate with visionary challenges.

Even the cover of “Arthur McBride,” “Percy’s Song,” and especially “Abandoned Love” come into focus for him. Νο one who has heard Dylan’s Bitter End version of “Abandoned Love” will soon forget that delivery, particularly the final verse with St. John the Evangelist making an appearance, which Falco connects back to the prophetic voices of “Hard Rain,” “Gates of Eden,” “Percy’s Song,” among many others. And it may be useful to think about “Abandoned Love” in terms of those other prophetic songs, particularly on that night, when the singer sends out for St. John. But things get a little out of hand: “About ‘to make a change,’ he calls for Saint John the Evangelist, author of Revelation, apparently for a viaticum” [the final Eucharist administered to a dying person]. Falco would not be the first person to mix up John the Evangelist or Apostle, “the one whom Jesus loved,” with the Revelator of the same common name. Apart from this, it is hard not to hear the delighted laughter of the Bitter End crowd when Dylan got to the end of the verse. It may be time to make a change, but how serious at that point? “But my heart is telling me I love ya but you’re strange.”


Although there is much insight in this final 55-page chapter, as a whole it meanders a little, losing sight of Renaissance “imitatio as originality” that is Falco’s overall theme and the heart of the book. Moreover, it could have profited from some editorial tightening. The word “vatic,” unfamiliar to many but well explained by Falco, occurs 135 times in the chapter, eleven times on page 182: vatic authority (thrice), vatic voice (thrice), vatic imagery, technique, gifts, innovations, song. The very word becomes a distraction. It is unfortunate that this stylistic excess will keep some readers from staying engaged.


More engaging are four pages on “Blind Willie McTell,” wherein Falco examines an important observation by David Yaffe (2011) about this song’s place in what Yaffe calls Dylan’s lifelong “reckoning with [B]lackness.” Yaffe wrote “‘nobody could sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell,’ [Dylan] sang, but nobody sang about not being able to sing those blues like Dylan, which in turn made for compelling blues in its own way.” Falco’s particular expansion of this comes through his own expertise in the area of Renaissance literature. Here as elsewhere, he brings in Arthur Kinney’s valuable introductory chapter to his 1989 book Continental Humanist Poetics, which points to the need for “the audience [to] see the residual traces of the original, which has been the initial impulse or model.” Yaffe and Falco together provide an important way into thinking – by way of the images and sounds of “Blind Willie McTell” – about how Dylan comes to terms with the white appropriation of Black blues traditions. They reveal the daring of the song’s project, but also reveal just how successful this particular transfiguration was. Of the many greatest hits that Dylan left off albums, none is a greater song than this. Perhaps Dylan was as yet uncertain how its purpose in connection to this larger social and cultural question might be received.


Next comes a ten-page section (“You Need the Blood on Your Door”) that picks up on the reference to the mezuzah in the opening line of “Blind Willie McTell”: “Seen the arrow on the doorpost.” Falco develops the notion that the symbol of the arrow, suggesting a “sense of hope, of liberation from slavery, of a future guaranteed by covenant,” puts Moses and the prophetic or vatic Mosaic in play, connecting the Egyptian enslavement of the Jews and that of Black people in the American South for whom Moses became so central in word, song, and soul. Here Falco focuses on the gospel period of 1979–80, ranging impressively through the songs and the often lengthy homiletic preambles to which Dylan treated his audiences across those remarkable months. By now we have become accustomed to Falco’s voice: “Yet Dylan never abandons the Mosaic voice as a viable vatic alternative.” Putting these verbal ticks aside, readers will find Falco impressive in recovering from the voices of those who were in attendance, and especially from the evidence now available on Trouble No More, The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13 1979-1981, just how dynamic these performances were. Drawing from Gayle Wald’s warning that “approaches that focus on the written text overlook the performativity of gospel,” he well notes that release of the performances is a “reminder of how daring Dylan can be in refiguring lyrical and musical forms in performance as well as on the page. His sense of transformative imitation buoys the performances on the live album. We can hear a deep investment of heart in his voice, an earnestness unleavened by Dylan’s usual sense of amusement – except for “Man Gave Names to All the Animals,” perhaps.”


One might note though that the song-changing aposiopesis at the end of the last verse of that song “Saw him disappear by a tree near the lake …” leaves you to supply the final item which takes you back from Old MacDonald’s farm animals – (bear), cow, bull, pig, sheep – to Eden and the “fruit of that forbidden tree” – not so funny after all.


In usefully pondering the imponderable questions of where and how Dylan absorbed the New Testament images and resonances, and particularly how much might have come from Hal Lindsey’s 1970 best-selling born-again manifesto The Late Great Planet Earth, Falco on page 177 prints an image from the Tulsa Archive. Figure 7 is said to be from “Notes, writings, and unfinished lyrics from Shot of Love, c 1981.” As Falco writes, “[Dylan] even prepared an alphabetical concordance of New Testament verses corresponding to an idiosyncratic list of virtues, vices, emotions, and character traits.” One might question the archival dating for such a crib sheet, for which 1981 seems a little late. And yet by then such a list may show not so much conscientiousness about “doing his Christian Bible school homework” – which primarily took place in early 1979 – as constituting a concordance of themes and corresponding New Testament passages for use in his songwriting.


More than 20 of the crib sheet’s 100 references come from that too complex Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), and they constitute rules for Christians to live by, with some hard items. The biographers will be interested that Matthew 15.4 (Jesus quoting the Ten Commandments “God said ‘Honor your father and your mother’”) appears twice, under “Honor of Parents” and “Mother,” but not under “Father” for which there is no entry. And as for “Adultery” there is some understandable cherry-picking: Matthew 5.28 (along with 27 and 32), which is heavy enough: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” But the sequel is not included: 29 “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…”


After exploring the connection of this document with the gospel period, Falco concludes this long, varied, and comprehensive chapter first with a short section on the great Time Out of Mind outtake, “Red River Shore.” Or rather, he homes in on the striking conclusion in its eighth and final verse where the singer seems to be turning again to Jesus and the proto-resurrection story of Lazarus:

Now I heard of a guy who lived a long time ago
A man full of sorrow and strife
That if someone around him died and was dead
He knew how to bring him on back to life.

Whether the singer wants this “guy” to bring him back into the real world from that which only existed for him and the girl from the Red River Shore, or to bring her back into the world of his present day in which she seems to be dead, is not clear. This is a subtle form of imitatio, in which the language, “heard of a guy,” and the place in time (“don’t know … if they do that kind of thing anymore”) distance themselves from any biblical textuality but in which Dylan’s “imitation, digestion, and transformative reproduction of these influences, combined with his own readings – or strong misreadings – of biblical language, provide the weave and weft of his vatic technique.” This seems to me a valuable insight, and one that could be applied to the songs, and the mode of imitatio, of Rough and Rowdy Ways whose intertextuality I have argued returns to a less specifically textual practice than the specificity of the Saga-Virgil-Timrod-Ovid-Odyssey borrowings of 2001, 2006, and 2012.


The final section of the chapter “Shipwrecks Everywhere” focuses on “Tempest,” the titular song on the 2012 album. Falco usefully gathers together the various Titanic song strands, from the Carter Family’s version from which Dylan borrows melody, the watchman and the captain – transforming all to his new purpose – to Prospero and Ariel and the Shakespearean shipwreck that never happened. Falco doubts the sincerity of Dylan’s response to Mikal Gilmore that the song is not to be taken as a judgment on modern times: “No, no, I try to stay away from all that stuff. I don’t imply any of it. I’m not interested in it. I’m just interested in showing you what happened.” Dylan in fact seems quite true to the song here. They all went down, “the good, the bad, the rich, the poor / the loveliest and the best.” And “there is no understanding / On the judgment of God’s hand.” That while drafting the song Dylan wrote “G-d,” as he does throughout the song drafts, can hardly be invoked to support the thesis that for Dylan the ship went down “as the result of a Yahwistic judgment.” I agree with Falco, and against many readers, that the song is magnificent, its melodic monotony contributing to the build-up and conveying the enormity of that day. In that respect it anticipates “Murder Most Foul,” the next epic closer. But the vatic voice seems less audible in “Tempest,” except perhaps in the nobility of the Captain, never mentioned by Falco, redeemed from the insinuation in the Carter Family version (“Cap’n Smith must have been drinking”), who in the Dylan version recalls bygone years as the water rises, reads the Book of Revelation, and fills his cup with tears.


An appendix on “Renaldo and Clara” develops Sam Shepard’s observation of the whole Rolling Thunder enterprise, including the film: “Dylan has invented himself. He’s made himself up from scratch … Dylan is an invention of his own mind. The point isn’t to figure him out but to take him in.” The film shows Dylan in the process of creating his own self-imitation, one reason why it is still worth viewing it, difficult as that can be.


Dylanologists and hard-core fans will find fault with some details, particularly from the 1960s, where Falco is at times puzzlingly inaccurate on details that could be easily checked. On p. 22 Dylan’s famous, and revealing, words from October 31, 1964 at Philharmonic Hall in New York City (“I have my Bob Dylan mask on. I’m masquerading”) are said to be uttered “at Town Hall in 1962.” And on p. 125 the even more famous “Judas! moment” of May 17, 1966 was a little more than “a year away” from release of “My Back Pages” on August 8, 1964. But for most these will be minor distractions. The book ends with a twenty-page discography; it is hard to know why one would consult that rather than the outstanding Wikipedia Bob Dylan discography, which has a great deal more information. The index on the other hand is well done and intelligently compiled.


This has been a rather discursive review. The attractive discursiveness of No One to Meet is in part responsible, but so is Dylan. Falco takes the reader across the ever-changing terrain of the greatest and most prolific songwriter, in many ways the greatest artist, of our time. His theme is vast, how a great artist practices imitation, a phenomenon that is wholly positive once liberated from the prejudices of Romanticism, and understood in the terms developed from classical antiquity by the Renaissance as that form of originality that has an origin, is in a tradition. Falco’s book deserves to be read with attention and deserves to take its place among works, past and future, that put Dylan’s art in the context of the larger history of creative genius in all its ragin’ glory.


[1] Dylan Review Founding Editor, Raphael Falco, author of the book in question, recused himself from any involvement in the procuring and editing of this review. Special thanks to Shelby Nathanson for keen editorial assistance.

[2] literally “flows into” influere (my translation)

[3] Read: “photograph.”

[4] Last sentence my translation of the Italian.

[5] After Cliff Fell, then the rest of us, had heard Dylan as he was reading Peter Green’s Ovid.




Freddy Cristobal Dominguez, Bob Dylan in the Attic: The Artist as Historian. Amherst
and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2022. 192 pp.

REVIEW BY Scott F. Parker, Montana State University


In his conclusion to Bob Dylan in the Attic: The Artist as Historian, Freddy Cristobal Dominguez asks a question that is central to his project: “If – and this is not accepted by all – we ‘traditional’ historians are the makers and perpetuators of myths, if we are, as one recent book puts it, ‘story-tellers, custodians of the past, repositories of collective memory, poetic interpreters of what it is to be human,’ why are Dylan’s songs rendered purely musical or sometimes poetic while the writerly, often stodgy, words of ‘proper’ historians claim legitimacy and superior import?” (137–138). It’s an important question, and one that Dominguez already knows the answer to: they shouldn’t be.


Bob Dylan in the Attic establishes Dylan’s bona fides as a historian, leaving its author in something of an awkward position. In ceding historiography to non-professionals, what does the professional leave for himself?


Dominguez begins the book by announcing his “noncultic relationship to [Dylan]” (ix). Dominguez approaches his subject, he assures the reader, as a scholar not as a fan. And yet, the fan in him will not stay in his place. While Dominguez recognizes the virtue of an academic’s critical distance, he admits (in his acknowledgments) that “There were times when I doubted that Bob Dylan in the Attic would ever be finished, or worse, when I was taking things too seriously and killing the fun” (xi). Intellectual humility is mandatory among Dylan scholars, fans, and disciples alike, who must always compare themselves to the truly devout – the kind of person who can rattle off every setlist of the Never Ending Tour – but there should be no need to apologize for fun or for fandom, no need to offer an “excuse for [a] book” (4). We devote ourselves (in whatever senses) to what we love, and Dominguez loves Dylan – enough to own all of his albums and many of his bootlegs, enough to have seen him in concert nine times on two continents, enough to have spent years writing a book about him. And yet, come the conclusion, he is still feeling the need to “confess” to being among Dylan’s admirers (135). He is writing, he reminds his readers, as a “professional historian,” which if it weren’t clear from the substance of the book would be abundantly clear from Dominguez’s irrepressible habits of qualifying his statements and introducing meticulous distinctions (see “scholar-fans” and “fan-scholars,” (136)). The instincts of an academic are everywhere in the Attic.


This in itself is no knock against Dominguez. It is understandable, even admirable, that a scholar would advance cautiously and make claims tentatively. In the punctilious world of scholarship, where any statement may come under scrutiny, it is better to be sober than impassioned, better to be not wrong than recklessly provocative, better for a position to be defensible than memorable. But as responsible as this kind of writing is, it must confront the fact that we pick up Bob Dylan in the Attic as we pick up any book – not to download its information but to read it.


And I hope we are (reading the book). Dominguez’s treatment of Dylan as historian is fascinating stuff to people who read journals like the Dylan Review. And beginning with the second chapter, Dominguez gets out of his own way and starts hitting his stride. He knows it takes him this long, too. The messy first chapter concludes with Dominguez saying ‘sorry-not-sorry’ for what has preceded: “I hope that the reader has arrived at this resting spot somewhat disoriented, perhaps a little dissatisfied, or, better yet, wanting more” (56). If he really wants his reader to be dissatisfied, he succeeds. The chapter is a hodgepodge of historical sources Dylan may have drawn from punctuated with exquisite Dylanisms such as this gem from a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone: “We can’t change the present or the future. We can only change the past, and we do it all the time” (16). Much of this material, such as the connections between Dylan and The Odyssey, is interesting in its own right even if it fails to amount to more than a string of disparate riffs.


The subsequent two chapters, which treat Dylan as a historian and as a mythmaker, respectively, are the highlights of the book. Here Dominguez achieves his most focused and insightful analysis. Inferring from his (Dylan’s) appreciation of The Wasteland that Dylan was influenced by Eliot’s “ideological underpinnings” (60), Dominguez draws a line from Eliot’s “‘historical sense,’ which he defines as ‘a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence’” (61) to Dylan’s practice of collaging his songs (not to mention his paintings, books, and speeches) from historical sources that feel contemporary to him and that he makes feel timeless to his audience. While the causal link between Eliot and Dylan is suspicious, from a Dylan-like angle, it hardly matters. “‘A songwriter,’ [Dylan] says, ‘doesn’t care about what’s truthful. What he cares about is what should’ve happened, what could’ve happened. That’s its own kind of truth’” (94). In the same way that “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” seems like it was written about the Cuban Missile Crisis, even though it was first performed weeks prior to it, Dominguez is right that Dylan was influenced by Eliot, even if he wasn’t.


At the core of Bob Dylan in the Attic is Dominguez’s engagement with Dylan and myth, which he calls Dylan’s strongest historical register. Dylan’s music and his life (as he performs it publicly) are foremost mythical constructions. Dominguez isn’t the first to make this argument, but he makes it well. As Dylan himself has increasingly been telling us over the last several years – most emphatically in his new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song – and explicitly showing us for at least three decades, dating back to his cover albums Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, the American songbook is mythological to him, in the sense of being truer than the literal or the historically accurate. Dominguez quotes an unusually succinct and direct Dylan making this point in 1997 to David Gates of Newsweek: “‘I find religiosity and philosophy in music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like “Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain” or “I Saw the Light” – that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists. . . . I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs’” (88–89).


Dylan’s listeners believe his songs, too. One consequence of “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and “Hurricane” – to name a few songs that bore so deeply into their biographical subjects that they somehow elevate them from individuals to archetypes and that take less obvious poetic license than, say, “Tempest” – is that the historical liberties Dylan takes with them and the mythologies that result have effectively displaced the relevant facts in the cultural consciousness. Dylan is adept at turning what happened into what should have happened. The truth is often stranger than fiction, and, as Dylan demonstrates again and again, the mythological is often truer than the truth.


Yet Dylan’s mythologizing is often seen as a problem, with his loudest critics resorting to charges of fraud, fake, imposter, phony, and the like. These critics could possibly be right if their literal mindedness didn’t lead them to miss the point entirely. Dylan isn’t a valuable historian because he’s diligent in his evidence gathering. He’s a valuable historian because of his ear for the truth. In the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s foundational conception in On Bullshit, it is “indifference to how things really are” that constitutes “the essence of bullshit.” The bullshitter will say anything that is to his present advantage. But even at his most 1966-caustic, Dylan’s irony always gives the suggestion of pointing toward things (truths) that can’t (or shouldn’t) be put into direct language. If, technically, he lies when he invents an early autobiography that has him running away from home and joining carnivals or when he rewrites history to serve a song’s needs, he must be understood as Dominguez understands him: “Just like Homer, just like Thucydides (the rhetorician), the modern songster can produce a verisimilar past edging toward veracity itself” (18).


Dominguez is right when he tells us that Dylan’s “creative use of a classical textual tradition does not imply ignorance of that tradition; on the contrary, playfulness implies comfort” (10). But while Dylan’s fluid relationship with the past doesn’t expose him as a bullshitter or as someone for whom a little knowledge has proved to be a dangerous thing, he nevertheless presents a slippery case for a scholar.


What distinguishes Dylan’s rewriting of history for the sake of the present from Big Brother’s, if not something like the goodness in his soul? And what harder thing ever was there to locate in the history of American culture than the essence and soul of Bob Dylan? One problem with the accusations of fraudulence pointed at Dylan is that they assume an essential self that is being deceptively misrepresented for personal gain (fame? money? really? at this point?). But Dominguez joins the likes of Greil Marcus and Todd Haynes in challenging this simple assumption, writing, “what if the so-called masks worn by Dylan are not mere costumes? What if, in fact, these masks can be something more akin to embodiments?” (56). To put this another way, recognizing that Dylan is a performer doesn’t indicate that he isn’t also a good one.


Part of the magic of listening to Dylan’s 1964 concert at Philharmonic Hall (The Bootleg Series, Volume 6) is hearing a giddy Dylan tell his audience in the transition between “Gates of Eden” and “If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Got to Stay All Night)” that “It’s just Halloween. I have my Bob Dylan mask on. I’m masquerading.” Dylan is widely thought to have been stoned during this performance and two songs later will forget the opening lyrics to “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met).” And maybe if he hadn’t been so stoned and so giddy he wouldn’t have revealed what wasn’t yet obvious to everyone: that whoever he “really” is, he is capable of becoming whoever the song needs him to be without a moment’s notice. Listen again to the lead-up and false start to, and then the flawless execution of, Bootleg 6’s “I Don’t Believe You.” Once two fans provide him with the lyrics he needs, Dylan is still laughing when he tries to start singing and sputters out. But the switch to singing the song with utter conviction happens instantaneously. No matter how many times you’ve heard it, it happens anew every time before you can realize it. In the time it takes him to say “now” (as in, “It’s the same song, same song, only we start it now.”) he is transformed from one person (the unmasked Dylan) to another (the singer, never unmasked). Don’t look back, indeed. This essence we insist on searching for, how will we know when we find it? As Greil Marcus writes in his new book, Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs, “it may be that his true biography is his inhabiting of other lives” (211).


History, like Dylan, assumes the form its moment requires, and it belongs to whoever voices it best. Applying this pragmatic rendering of Dominguez’s to one lesson of Dylan’s music – that ideas are not distinct from their articulation – we can learn another: that it is better to be good than to be right if what you want is to be heard and maybe remembered.



Greil Marcus. Folk Music: A Dylan Biography in Seven Songs. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022. 288 pp.

REVIEW BY Christopher Rollason


Greil Marcus’s latest book joins his other studies of Bob Dylan: Invisible Republic (later renamed The Old, Weird America) on the basement tapes; Like a Rolling Stone on the song of that name; one third (on “Ballad of Hollis Brown”) of the volume Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations; and the essay collection Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus. This is already quite a haul, and with this newest offering we have a further distillation of its author’s lifetime of attentive Dylan listening.


The choice of seven songs consists of six original Dylan compositions and one cover version, “Jim Jones,” from Good As I Been To You. The other songs are “Blowin’ in the Wind” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the title track and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” from The Times They Are a-Changin’, “Desolation Row” from Highway 61 Revisited, “Ain’t Talkin’” from Modern Times, and “Murder Most Foul” from Rough and Rowdy Ways.


Marcus devotes a chapter to each song, with some sections offering a comprehensive overview and others confining themselves to specific aspects. Inevitably, some portions have been published before, as duly noted in the acknowledgments. In particular, the material in the “Blowin’ in the Wind” chapter on Blind Lemon Jefferson and “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” formed part of a paper delivered at the major Dylan conference held in Tulsa in 2019, subsequently published in Sean Latham’s collective volume The World of Bob Dylan.


Marcus’s aim is to demonstrate what he sees as a major quality of Dylan’s songwriting, namely empathy – “the desire and the ability to enter other lives” (5), by means of which “he can take anyone else’s life as his own” (7). On that basis, the author offers his sequence of analyses as “an attempt at a biography [of Dylan] made up of songs and public gestures” (7). The term “folk music” in the title might raise eyebrows, as by no means all of Dylan’s vast musical output is usually classified in that category. In the “Blowin’ in the Wind” chapter Marcus speaks of “the milieu of folk music … the state of mind of folk music, in a certain sense, truly a state, its own country” (21). Folk music is of course the medium practised in the New York circles frequented by the early Dylan, and the chosen genre of numerous artists evoked by Marcus in various parts of the book. On that time and place, he quotes Suze Rotolo: “Folk music was taking hold of a generation” (37). “Folk music” as a term may not fit too well with other facets of Dylan’s career, but that is where it all started. It is from there that Marcus begins, and the way he narrates the song histories is such as to leave the reader with the sensation that since all of Dylan’s work is rooted in a tradition of one kind or another, in a sense, yes, for certain purposes and in certain contexts it can all be seen as folk music.


The first chapter, on “Blowin’ in the Wind,” is the longest and most detailed. The author recounts how he first heard Dylan’s version of the song (as opposed to the ubiquitous Peter, Paul and Mary cover) on a Berkeley FM station in summer 1963 (12, 87). Marcus traces its live debut to Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village on April 16th, 1962, and its first appearance on record to the version released by the New World Singers later that year. He recalls the well-known circumstance that Dylan’s melody can be sourced to “No More Auction Block,” the Civil War anti-slavery anthem as interpreted by Odetta and later by Dylan himself. With regard to Dylan’s use of the song for “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Marcus opines:

The melody was a social fact, something none of the Gerde’s regulars would have missed; there was nothing in hiding. “Blowin’ in the Wind” borrowed authority from that melody.(23)

Indeed, in Dylan’s version of “No More Auction Block” Marcus finds “one of the deepest performances of his career” (28), as well as an early instance of that notion which underpins the book, namely Bob Dylan’s capacity for empathy.


Marcus recalls how “Blowin’ in the Wind” saw publication in both Broadside and Sing Out!, and tells us how the not always sympathetic Little Sandy Review (from Dylan’s own Minnesota) dispelled its doubts to label “Blowin’ in the Wind” as “Dylan’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’” and declare that “the song should be with us at least as long as the folk revival (and probably a lot longer)” (48). Then came Dylan’s own commercial release of the song on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in May 1963, following which many “couldn’t listen to anything else, because [they] heard something in the Bob Dylan version that wasn’t there at all when Peter, Paul and Mary sang the song” (57). Nonetheless, years later in 2015, Dylan expressed his gratitude to the folk trio for turning his song into a hit: “Not the way I would have done it – they straightened it out. …[but] I don’t think it would have happened if it wasn’t for them” (57).


Marcus discusses other songs in this long chapter. He offers a close examination of Dylan’s first-album version of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” to show how the young upstart revolutionized “folk music,” turning conventions inside out. He also includes an interesting discussion of “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” stating that in this song “it seemed that Bob Dylan was some sort of fictional character that someone else named Bob Dylan was singing about,” reading it as “a dream in which all sense of dream is gone”: “the song rejected youth and walked away” (58).


There are latter-day reminiscences too. Marcus recalls the performances of the song at the Rolling Thunder Revue concerts, and how Dylan said in 1975:

“Blowin’ in the Wind” holds up. I felt that song. Whenever Joan and I do it, it really is like an old folk song to me. It never occurs to me that I’m the person who wrote it. (63)

Marcus also reminds us of how many artists covered the song from early on, all the way from the Staple Singers to the Bee Gees, and how Dylan performed it in 1985 at Live Aid in Philadelphia, and in 1997 in Bologna before Pope John Paul II, who for the occasion transformed himself into a Dylan interpreter – the wind, said the pontiff, is “the breath and voice of the Spirit, a voice that calls and says ‘Come!’” (17). Marcus also recollects how in 2011 he wrote the afternotes for a children’s book of the song, and how it still seemed somehow “unfinished” and “still didn’t sound as it was written by a particular person” (13). He recalls, too, the well-known story of how Dylan’s song inspired Sam Cooke to write “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Finally, Marcus recontextualizes “Blowin’ in the Wind” and its debt to “No More Auction Block” within the contemporary environment: in the chapter’s final citation, Minnesota State Representative Ruth Richardson, present at the site of George Floyd’s grave, quotes those same words from Dylan’s refrain, “blowing in the wind” (81).


This chapter could have been simply a reprise of stories already known to Dylan’s followers via Chronicles, Volume One or Suze Rotolo’s A Freewheelin’ Time. In fact, the chapter goes well beyond those memoirs, emerging as a selective early Dylan biography with “Blowin’ in the Wind” as leitmotif. At chapter’s end, homing in on the book’s key themes, Marcus admits the song into the hallowed precincts of “folk song” and declares: “‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ lived its own life as if it were a person: it made its own biography” (61). Thus for Marcus, a song may not only support its author’s biography: it can also have a biography of its own.


Chapter two continues the focus on the protest years, foregrounding “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” written in late 1963 and released in 1964 on The Times They Are a-Changin’. The song, which Marcus tells us he has been listening to constantly for near on sixty years, was already in circulation in 1965, the year when, the author recalls, he first began writing about music – or more correctly music and politics, for it was his faith that “the connections between the two were simple, obvious and overwhelming” (85). In the case of “Hattie Carroll,” “the story goes,” says Marcus, that Dylan first learned of the case in the pages of a Maryland newspaper, and – according to Dylan himself in 1985 – wrote the song in New York in a restaurant on 7th Avenue (99). The discrepancies between song and fact are duly noted. Marcus has nothing but praise, both conceptually and aesthetically, for Dylan’s tale of a lonesome death, “a song that would itself become part of history, and make its own history” (100). He shows how the “unfinished judgement of the chorus” as the song advances generates outrage and fear (101), and praises the dramatic force of Dylan’s writing and the empathy that it manifests: “You were implicated in the drama. You were forced into every role and there was no exit” (93).


Marcus goes on to juxtapose “Hattie Carroll” with a song from 1981 (and a major hit in the U.K.), “O Superman,” sung by New York performance artist Laurie Anderson. Anderson’s song, he stresses, emerged from “a world completely different” from that of “Hattie Carroll,” with the stakes now transformed as the Thatcher/Reagan years advanced (106). Marcus doesn’t really compare the two songs, giving each piece of social criticism its separate analysis, but at chapter’s end he is surely thinking as much of Dylan’s song as of Anderson’s when he says of the latter: “Songs not only mark history, or even make it, but become part of its fabric” (117).


Chapter four (we will leap chapter three till later, keeping Dylan’s rather than Marcus’s chronology) once again focuses on the protest years, specifically “The Times They Are a- Changin,” the title track of the 1964 album where it rubs shoulders with “Hattie Carroll.” Marcus finds this famous song a shade formulaic, claiming it “was so programmatic it could have been written by a committee” (158). He juxtaposes it with a much later song, 2000’s “Things Have Changed,” which he reads less as an exercise in cynicism than as an attempt to enter the minds of others, of those who “used to care” (160). Marcus asks rhetorically whether Dylan’s song from 1964 is today anything more than an “old warhorse,” a superannuated protest song – and answers in the affirmative (162). He concludes the chapter by narrating a case of racial violence: the killing at police hands in 2016 of a young African-American man, Philando Castile, in Saint Paul, as denounced in a 2017 painting by Los Angeles artist Henry Taylor, captioned by the artist with the pregnant legend [as cited by Marcus] “THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGIN, FAST ENOUGH!! [sic]”


Following the Dylan chronology, next up is chapter five, entitled “Desolation Row.” It should be stressed that Marcus is here offering not a full analysis of this long and complex song – something he has done elsewhere – but, rather, a commentary on its opening. What is at issue is essentially the first stanza, with its opening line “They’re selling postcards of the hanging,” followed by circus imagery (“the circus is in town”). As others have done, Marcus links the first line of Dylan’s song directly to the episode in Dylan’s birthplace Duluth in 1920 when a white mob lynched three African-American performers in a travelling circus. A lynching, Marcus reminds us, was “entertainment, spectacle, even sport” (174). He explicates the postcard phenomenon thus: “In the first decades of the twentieth century there had been a craze for postcards of lynchings of black Americans,” adding that “a postcard depicting the lynching of three black circus workers … in Duluth in 1920 … was among the most popular of all” (169).


The author states that we have no way of knowing whether the young Dylan knew of the lynching through his family, his father and grandfather who might have been there. Be that as it may, Marcus calls it “a cataclysmic event [that] implicated everyone” (170). Marcus further compares its impact (and subsequent silencing) to the aftermath of another near-contemporaneous act of racial violence, the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, and speculates whether “Desolation Row” somehow bears the marks of the erasure from history of the Duluth episode, with what the official records suppressed returning through the medium of song. He concludes that whether or not Dylan’s family members were present on the fatal day in Duluth, the fact that Dylan as “imaginative artist” has integrated the episode into “Desolation Row” means that “he could have imagined that they were” (175). For Marcus, then, Dylan’s art symbolically reshapes his family history.


Chapter six extends the book’s scope to take in one of the multitude of songs covered by Bob Dylan, namely the Anglo-Australian ballad “Jim Jones.” Much of the chapter, however, is less about Dylan, though he makes his appearances, than about folk music in general and its early-60s US scene in particular. Marcus evokes the “sense of folk music as its own world, as a negation of the ordinary, the predictable, the life one was meant to live” (202). The chapter begins with a conspectus of the Greenwich Village folk scene, in the shape of a kind of annotated guest list of a party held in April 1961 for Cisco Houston in the apartment of folk music patron Camilla Adams. Marcus’s source here is none other than Dylan’s own account of the event in chapter two of Chronicles. Along with Dylan, the guests ranged from Harry Belafonte to Pete Seeger, with Marcus dwelling in particular (as Dylan did) on Pete’s brother Mike Seeger and his trio the Lost City Ramblers. Marcus quotes a Dylan overwhelmed by Mike’s impromptu interpretations of folk songs and – as he says in Chronicles – deciding: “I’d have to write my own folk songs, ones that Mike didn’t know” (191).


That is what Dylan went on to do – but years later, as Marcus recalls, at a certain point in the 1980s, Dylan began in performance to “sing the old songs again, the songs Mike did know” (193). This development was followed by his return to folksong material on record with Good As I Been To You in 1992 and World Gone Wrong in 1993. Out of the songs covered by Dylan in this period, Marcus focuses on “Jim Jones.” This ballad, with its theme of transportation, has been dated to the early-to-mid nineteenth century. Starting out from the studio recording on Good As I Been To You, the author, commenting in detail on the vocal and instrumental aspects, ranges across Dylan’s thirty-one live performances of the song, all of which took place in 1993 (he thanks the anonymous fan who supplied him with the complete collection of live versions!). Marcus the attentive listener tracks Dylan across the gamut of performances, “trying to find the right way to play it. And then the next right way” (218). In “Jim Jones,” he concludes, Dylan was “staking his claim to the tradition Mike Seeger and others had opened up for him” (221); he was now able to sing the old songs “as if he had written them himself and had been written by them” (223).


We will now turn the pages back to chapter three and its out-of sequence discussion that jumps to 2006 and “Ain’t Talkin’,” the most ambitious song on Modern Times, and praised by Marcus as “one of [Dylan’s] most distinctive songs” (126). He offers a close analysis of Dylan’s tormented narration of a doomed circular quest and a seeker unable to escape from himself. Marcus refers throughout to the Modern Times version: the outtake that appeared on Tell Tale Signs is not mentioned, though Bettye Lavette’s cover is. Marcus sees the song’s “deliberate and slow,” violin-tinged opening as magisterial, ushering in a world of “resentment and hatred and vengeance and regret, and the wish to bury it all in some cynical peace of mind” (125). He tries to make sense of the song’s chaos by tracing its links to multiple traditions, that of folk song included – and to Dylan’s own more visionary quest in “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” a “great song” (136) also evoked in the chapter. Marcus reminds us that the opening of “Ain’t Talkin”, “As I walked out…,” is that of a myriad folk songs (not forgetting Dylan’s own “As I Went Out One Morning”). He acknowledges Dylan’s borrowing of lines from Ovid (now an established fact of Dylan criticism, courtesy of Cliff Fell, Robert Polito and Richard Thomas), also taking in the traditional rootedness of the refrain’s words “Ain’t talkin’ / Just walkin,” embodying what he calls “a rhyme embedded in American English” (121). Curiously, though, Marcus does not mention Dylan’s direct debt in his refrain to the Stanley Brothers’ “Highway of Regret.”[1] The author sees in “Ain’t Talkin’” “a song about someone facing his own oblivion,” but also “a reflecting back on Bob Dylan’s career” (151), an ironic revisiting of the notion of folk music as the badge of a community that saw itself as special: hence, it may be, the song’s ambivalent line “I practise a faith that’s been long abandoned.”


Marcus’s book concludes, fast-forwarding to February 2020, with his observations on “Murder Most Foul.” This song, which prior to its appearance later that year on Rough and Rowdy Ways was released as a single against the backdrop of the pandemic, is notable, first for being Dylan’s longest composition ever and second for its division into two discrete parts, one chronicling the Kennedy assassination and the other created around a litany of (mostly musical) quotations and titles. For Marcus, this song is a major Dylan work that “seems to bear more weight every time” (227): nor is he alone in this, as is clear from the numerous accolades he quotes, from Elvis Costello to The Wall Street Journal. He reads its opening as a limit case of Dylan’s capacity for empathy as he enters the dying president’s brain and relives his last moments – and its ending, coiling around its own title with the challenge “Play ‘Murder Most Foul’,” as impelling the listener to reboot the circle and go right through the song again. He does not attempt to interrogate the historicity of Dylan’s take on the assassination, nor does he try to catalogue the rosary of titles and allusions (others have done that), though he does see the song as a logical extension of Dylan’s recent phase of interpreting standards. The last words of the book, implying Dylan’s role as inheritor of a tradition and keeper of the flame, pose a question to the future as Marcus asks: “What will go out of the world with him?” (239).


This book is a welcome enrichment of Greil Marcus’s already remarkable contribution to Dylan studies, and the discussions of individual songs, while varying in length and breadth, are without exception valuable additions to those songs’ critical corpus. The author eloquently demonstrates how his chosen songs manifest Bob Dylan’s capacity for empathy and his ultimate rootedness in the folk tradition. As always, Marcus’s take on Dylan is both sedulously researched and eminently personal, and he once again demonstrates his highly individual capacity for getting inside a song and extracting its signifying potential. With criticism like this, the Dylan community can be assured that whatever the future holds, much, very much, will remain in the world thanks to Bob Dylan.


[1] Russell, Bob. “Bob Dylan and The Stanley Brothers.” Dylan Review, vol. 4.1, 2022



Bob Dylan. The Philosophy of Modern Song. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022. 352pp.

REVIEW BY Jonathan Hodgers, Trinity College, Dublin


Dylan’s long-awaited Philosophy of Modern Song defies easy categorization. It’s sixtysix mini-essays on sixty-six songs. Pictures account for much of the content. Despite the title, it is not always a straightforward work of philosophy. If anything, it’s an annotated playlist dotted with philosophical reflections. However, the term playlist doesn’t do the book justice given how elaborate (or tangential) the annotations are. It’s also unclear how essential some of the songs are to the essays. They’re apt to work as jumping-off points for exploring a given subject matter and are not there as simple recommendations.


The book’s unusual presentation finds parallels in the content. There’s no introduction or conclusion, omitting an explanation of the book’s raison d’être. In the interview conducted by Jeff Slate for the Wall Street Journal on the topic of the book, Dylan doesn’t address the book’s inspiration or how he picked the songs.[1] While the content can range widely, the essays follow a template of sorts. He will paraphrase the song’s plot and character dynamics, offer portraits of singers, describe particular performances, and reflect on musicological details or production qualities. He might also extemporize on the song’s themes. Different combinations thereof are regular. He juxtaposes the essays with images. Dylan calls them “running mates to the text.”[2] Sometimes, their connection is oblique. Other times, the images reflect the essays’ topics (the verbal/visual interplay is delightfully basic at times – actual eagles for the Eagles, for instance). The template helps keep the chapters fresh by balancing consistency within variation (not unlike aspects of the songs he praises). It’s not an especially formalist text, which may partly be the point. He heavily emphasizes music’s emotive impact. However, songwriting’s more technical aspects do occasionally come under the microscope.


The writing itself has a distinct style. The tone is erudite but not alienating. It bears comparison to the World Gone Wrong liner notes, but adapts a cleaner, more prosaic approach fit for broader public consumption. At times, it can be blustery or gushing (the Perry Como entry: “[he] could out-sing anybody. His performance is just downright incredible. There is nothing small you can say about it. The orchestration alone can knock you off your feet.”)[3] It can be prolix and prosaic, as with the “‘My Generation” entry: “They don’t like you because you pull out all the stops and go for broke. You put your heart and soul into everything and shoot the works.”[4] It’s vernacular, willfully leaning into cliché. He’s apparently having fun with the clichés too; his stitching them together has its own comedy value (“It’s just a hop skip and jump to cloud nine.”)[5] What they lack in inventiveness or precision, they make up for in tone. It’s the way one might pitch a song or singer to a friend – it’s not all terse, calculated soundbites but draws from common stock locutions that convey unpremeditated enthusiasm. Comma splices, tautologies, and repetitions add to the effect. (These techniques seem to work better when spoken aloud, as attested to by the couple of passages Dylan recorded for the audiobook.) He’ll also link clichés and round them off with a more unusual turn of phrase (“You’re tickled pink and walking on air, and there’s no end to space.”)[6]The blend of the familiar and the individual may be the point in some way. This tendency extends to the content. The combination of esoterica and unusual locutions with more conventional, encyclopaedic information gives the writing its richness (or, as he told Jeff Slate, the “pulling old elements together and making something new”).[7]


Despite the essays mostly adhering to a similar structural outline, there are qualitative and quantitative differences between them. Some songs inspire more fleshed-out ideas and insightful commentary than others. It’s curious what songs defeat him. He can’t seem to do much with the two Little Richard songs (“Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally”) but is clearly taken with “Old Violin” – or specifically, a special live performance enriched by Johnny Paycheck’s presence – which inspires some of the book’s best writing. He highlights both physical gestures and vocal touches that capture the bottled lightening of the performance, conferring upon it a fated quality. Perhaps his commentary succeeds here owing to its audio-visual reference point; his writing magnifies objective features rather than offering subjective impressions. As vivid as Dylan’s more subjective paraphrases can be, his readings sometimes seem off. “Your Cheatin’ Heart” doesn’t work well. Dylan rather perversely sidesteps the obvious romantic dynamic and substitutes it for a less convincing business arrangement. The “Come On-A My House” essay aims to give the song a sinister touch, but it’s just not there, at least not in the Rosemary Clooney rendition. Mostly though, his writing offers evocative vignettes that tease out the song’s depths and elucidate the musicians’ contributions in perceptive ways.


Dylan appears to use these songs to declare allegiances with certain genres quite separate from actually liking the representative song he’s chosen to write about. Something about these songs moved him to write about them, but that’s not to say they’re strictly commendable. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe he finds anything of genuine interest (such as with “Come On-A My House” – in keeping with the food references, he calls it a “little trifle.”)[8] However, it’s not so much his sincerity that matters (“I’m no more sincere than you” from Eat the Document springs to mind), more whether he sells these songs as having the qualities and values he ascribes to them. People’s tolerance levels will differ here. It’s unlikely anyone ever thought of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” the way Dylan does, but he certainly presents an interesting case.


Gradations of rock ’n’ roll, blues, country, and Tin Pan Alley material spur most of the essays. Dylan omits much of the traditional material he made his name covering and adapting in the 1960s (“Jesse James” is the only representative). Perhaps unsurprisingly, he doesn’t care for pop (loosely defined). In reference to Johnnie Ray, Dylan says “his feelings were too direct-hotwired from his brain for a mere pop record.”[9] The term “mere” also appears in the “My Prayer” essay [10] He never makes clear what pop is (certainly, some of the songs he includes were emphatically popular and chart-friendly), yet he’s far from alone in using it as a catch-all term for songs considered inferior. Simon Frith identifies pop as a “residual” category, or “what’s left when all the other forms of popular music are stripped away.” Among other things, “It’s music produced commercially, for profit, as a matter of enterprise not art.”[11] Dylan’s idea of it seems similar.


The way Dylan uses pop exemplifies how he uses contrasts in general to illustrate good-versus-bad performance practices and attitudes. Part of Dylan’s modus operandi is to make antagonists of certain musicians and styles against which good songs and musicians must win out. In the “Your Cheatin’ Heart” essay, Joe Satriani (representing instrumental rock) stands in for guitar pyrotechnics without substance or respect for the song. Satriani is a virtuoso player but can of course play tastefully and judiciously. Satriani defended himself (“I think the great Hank Williams and I could have sorted things out and made some great music together”),[12] but these references have less to do with personal slights than venerating and denigrating types of songs and styles through loose metonymy. Satriani’s not alone either; Dylan does the same with Springsteen and the Beatles. Springsteen’s characteristic sound clouds Costello’s “Pump it Up,” for instance, while the Beatles’ faux-naivete and adolescent appeal contrast poorly with “London Calling.” The entire Chess stable (among them, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Howlin’ Wolf) takes a hit next to Little Walter, who “might have been the only one with real substance.”[13] These performers and styles play oppositional parts, indicating predilections that Dylan portrays as lesser next to the songs, styles, and musicians he promotes. Such artists are collateral damage in Dylan’s dispensing praise.


This praise is where we often find the most philosophical material. While they don’t occupy the bulk of the book, there are philosophical precepts insofar as Dylan draws general principles from specific songs. Many qualities that he esteems are aesthetic evergreens. Lewis Rowell provides a summary in the context of Ancient Greek music philosophy: “simple is better than complex, natural is better than artificial, [and] moderation in all things.”[14] The “Without a Song” essay touches on these facets in reference to Perry Como: “He was a Cadillac before the tail fins; a Colt .45, not a Glock; steak and potatoes, not California cuisine … No artifice, no forcing one syllable to spread itself thin across many notes.” Regarding “Take Me from This Garden of Evil,” Dylan says: “Nothing artificial about this song, nothing manufactured or contrived about it. Nothing cosmetic or plastic here.” He also writes that “Key to the Highway” is “Unadorned, with no histrionics – controlled, nuanced and true.”[15] Given his apparent interest in Greek myth and literature, it’s perhaps telling that Dylan’s criteria have an overall classical inclination. In the “Doesn’t Hurt Anymore” essay, he offers a tell-tale sign: “He’s no rapper. More like an ancient Greek poet; you know exactly what he’s saying and who he’s saying it to.”[16]


Other entries praise judiciousness, balance, and brevity. In the “Your Cheatin’ Heart” essay, he tells us that “The fiddle and steel guitar phrases are a great part of the melody. Each phrase goes hand in hand with the voice. This … takes simpatico players and is done with very simple notes of a chord, played with the exact correct intensity… Phrases like this are worth more than all the technical licks in the world.”[17] Alongside this dig at perceived immoderation and showiness, one can detect a distrust of the glossy professional and respect for the street-schooled amateur. Aristotle would recognize Dylan’s attitude. In referring to music’s role in education, he avers that “pupils … not [be] made to attempt the extraordinary and extravagant feats of execution which have recently been introduced into competitions … Performances should be carried only to the point at which students begin to be able to appreciate good melodies and rhythms.”[18]


À la Plato, Aristotle’s teacher, Dylan also praises the permanent and lasting. What counts is what’s durable. For “Ball of Confusion,” he writes: “The reality of this song is that it’s just as true now as the day it was recorded.”[19] It also crops up in the “Black Magic Woman” chapter; those too in thrall to musical and literary rules “run the danger of never transcending craft to create anything truly lasting.”[20] He’s more explicit in the Wall Street Journal interview: “A great song [is] timeless and ageless.”21 This mindset even extends to his pastimes. He tells Jeff Slate that boxing is “functional and detached from trends.”[22]


As familiar as some of his judgments are from historical literature on music, he brings a host of newer parameters into his critique. Some are recognizable from popular music aesthetics in the rock era and in part stem from standards he himself helped to set. Broadly, we can see Dylan align with what Keir Keightley would see as Romantic authenticity, gravitating towards: “tradition and continuity with the past; roots; sense of community; populism; belief in a core or essential rock sound; folk, blues, country, rock’n’roll styles; gradual stylistic change; sincerity, directness; ‘liveness’; ‘natural’ sounds; [and] hiding musical technology.”[23] Dylan touches on these qualities in his interview with Jeff Slate: “[The songs] were straightforward, and my relationship to them at first was external, then became personal and intense. The songs were simple, easy to understand, and they’d come to you in a direct way.”[24] While his allegiances roughly lie with these Romantic precepts, Dylan does not always fit into them neatly. Individual songs capture his attention based on different criteria (what Keightley would see as modernist authenticity, indicated by a fondness for experimentation and progress). Novelty for its own sake doesn’t impress Dylan, but innovative, trailblazing songs like “Tutti Frutti” and “My Generation” are not overlooked.


Relatedly, mavericks operating within, outside, or against the mainstream garner his sympathy. The criteria are expressed neatly in the “Poison Love” entry when Dylan refers to Johnnie & Jack: “They deserve to be in all the halls of fame, because they are innovators – innovators on the highest level – and don’t jump through hoops for anybody.”[25] In this context, unpretentious journeymen also fare well; as already noted, Dylan writes admiringly of Perry Como, but Bobby Darin too earns his praise. Believability counts for a great deal. We’re told that “When [Como] stood and sang, he owned the song and he shared it and we believed every single word. What more could you want from an artist?”[26] Indeed, believing the singer (over and above adherence to technical norms or conventionally pretty vocals) is part of Dylan’s influence – practically a testament to his own achievements. This leads us to a peculiar quality of the text: its autobiographical quality.


At times, his takes on songs and performers resonate with Dylan’s history. One can see parallels between the people he writes about and Dylan’s own life, as if he were explaining himself through analogous individuals. A reflection on Nuta Kotlyarenko in the “There Stands the Glass” essay offers tantalizing parallels with Dylan. Dylan’s version of Kotlyarenko’s biography practically remixes details from his own: Ukrainian Jewish ancestry; “trying his hand at boxing and acting”; moving from Minnesota to New York; and reinventing oneself.[27] Dylan essentially talks about himself at times; musing on Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea,” he tells us that “Some people create new lives to hide their past. Bobby knew that sometimes the past was nothing more than an illusion and you might just as well keep making stuff up.”[28] Even the name doesn’t need to be changed. He also writes about Johnny Paycheck’s name change in ways that clearly resonate with his own re-branding from Zimmerman to Dylan. In telling us about laudable songwriting, he additionally highlights other writers’ approaches that contextualise his own. In the “Ruby, Are You Mad?” essay, he tells us how “the song morphed and grew … It was still the same song but the tiny grace notes and elasticity kept it alive, shook the dust from its boots. Of course, some people cried foul and those people should’ve stayed home.” Also, in reference to Dion, he says that “Most recently, he has realized one of his early dreams and become some kind of elder legend, a bluesman from another Delta.”[29] One can read a multitude of Dylan’s own experiences into these comments.


While Dylan broadly cleaves to Romantic authenticity as his yardstick, he is still apt to admire songs for contrasting reasons. He regularly praises the flexible and mutable. He appears to favour what Stephen Davies terms ontologically “thin” pieces. Thinner works facilitate more interpretation. Greater latitude is granted to the performer (within certain stylistic constraints).[30] “Thicker” works (for example, a significant amount of classical music) require greater fidelity to specifics, where new interpretations have much in common with earlier iterations. He appears to gravitate to both songs’ and artists’ adaptability: “Bobby Darin could sound like anybody and sing any style”; “[Little Walter] is an amazingly flexible singer”; and “The malleability of [‘Blue Moon’] frees it from being too associated with any single version and allows it to belong to everyone.”[31] He also touches on this in the Wall Street Journal interview: ‘A great song … can be played with a full orchestra score or by a strolling minstrel… A great song mutates, makes quantum leaps … It crosses genres … and can be played in …multiple styles.”[32]


He appears to trust less those “thick” songs too in thrall to arrangements. In the “Blue Moon” essay, he avers that “Some songs, like … ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ … are as dependent on their arrangement as the music or lyrics for their identity. Not so ‘Blue Moon.’ ‘Blue Moon’ is a universal song that can appeal to anybody at any time.”[33] While I’m not sure this is meant pejoratively, one still senses a hint of distaste in context.[34] That being said, Dylan will promote the arrangement as the magic ingredient in a song. He tells us that for “It’s All in The Game,” “the arrangement is key.”[35] This is to say he’s not especially prescriptive. Qualities that get in the way in one song are precisely what another song thrives on.


Dylan also occasionally highlights songwriting techniques; for instance, he appreciates paradox. He unearths unspoken undertows that deepen the song’s meaning. As Cleanth Brooks illuminated in The Well-Wrought Urn (1947), the guise of simplicity or the direct attack (Brooks uses Wordsworth as an example) belies paradoxical situations that give ostensibly straightforward material extra resonance. Dylan astutely draws from The Who’s “My Generation” an anxiety on Townsend’s part that he will soon be the one the younger generation wishes would fade away. That awareness cannot be traced to any specific point in the song or line of the lyrics. Yet, the implicit fear can be intuited through a latent defensiveness. Dylan finds an analogous undertow to “Detroit City.”


Dylan wishes to preserve the capacity for people’s imagination to complete the song rather than have external imagery unduly influence their experience. He considers the background to “I’m A Fool to Want You” to be unhelpful trivia when “It’s what a song makes you feel about your own life that’s important.”[36] In the “Ball of Confusion” essay, he tells us “The song is like an old radio show, where you could just imagine what you’re listening to. And it made for a stronger experience.”[37] In the “Old Violin” essay, he references how the story behind “Save the Last Dance for Me” provides too many specifics that interfere with how the song resonates with an individual. He criticizes music videos for the same reason (“we are locked into someone else’s messaging of the lyrics.”)[38] He prizes imagination when it comes to songwriting too; in the Wall Street Journal piece, he attests that “Creative ability is about pulling old elements together and making something new, and I don’t believe silicon chips and passwords know anything about those elements, or where they are. You have to have a vivid imagination.”[39] Relatedly, one can detect hostility to anything too systematized or scientific. In the “Black Magic Woman” essay, he mentions that “What happens with words and music is more akin to alchemy … People can keep trying to turn music into a science, but in science one and one will always be two. Music … tells us time and again that one plus one, in the best circumstances, equals three.”[40] At times, he sounds like another philosopher with a distaste for a scientific approach to music: Jean Jacques Rousseau (from Rousseau’s “On the Principle of Melody”: “Let us … not think that the empire Music has over our passions is ever explained by proportions and numbers”).[41]


Dylan also has techniques for how he approaches his essays. The more informative sections can give way to speculations on alternative histories. He finds musing on these what-ifs edifying; it’s not at all incongruous with No Direction Home’s “I want a dog that’s going to collect and clean my bath!” (2005) or, more recently, his concoctions in “My Own Version of You” from Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020). In writing about pop music history, Gilbert Rodman points out that “one of the most difficult tricks in doing historical work is recapturing the sense of uncertainty that existed at some prior moment about what would happen next.”[42] Inevitability applied ex post facto has a way of drying up and ossifying the telling of history; instead, the trick is to imbue old facts with a sense of surprise and discovery by taking away that retrospective inevitability and restoring a feeling of uncertainty as to how history might unfold. In this manner, Dylan likes to upend inevitabilities by highlighting alternatives: “You have to wonder, what if Sam had sent Elvis over to Luther’s house instead of to Scotty Moore’s? Scotty and Bill would then have been backing up Johnny Cash, and Luther and Marshall Grant would have been playing with Elvis.”[43] More what-ifs include his speculations on Ricky Nelson’s lost acting opportunities in the “Poor Little Fool” essay. He also mentions alternative stories within the songs themselves, as with “Pancho and Lefty” (“In another life Pancho would’ve been in the bullring and Lefty on the Ryman country music stage.”)[44]


To close: there’s no shortage of work to be done linking The Philosophy of Modern Song up with Dylan’s previous pronouncements on musical aesthetics, but also the wider firmament of musical philosophy in general (at times, it seems as if Dylan has set up his essays to be purposely anti-Adorno – in praising “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy,” he attests that “it follows no line, and one part can easily be replaced by another part.”)[45] And Dylan is engaged in philosophy here, insofar as he’s doing what Sharpe views as part of analytical philosophy: “making us reflect upon unconsidered presuppositions; [which] may lead us to reflect on our lives and our values and cause us either to value things differently or perhaps more directly to alter our conduct.”[46] Dylan throwing his weight behind these criteria counts, in other words, if, by doing so, he steers songwriters and critics towards them and away from others. From his observations, Dylan infers broader principles, suggests evaluative standards, and posits aesthetic verities. Quite apart from promoting any individual work, the book also venerates the medium of song and its ability to enrich our emotional lives through the deep, personal connections we form with their worldviews and sensibilities.


[1] Jeff Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A about “The Philosophy of Modern Song”’, The Official Bob Dylan Site, 20 December 2022, https://www.bobdylan.com/news/bob-dylan-interviewed-by-

[2] Slate.

[3] Bob Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022), 11.

[4] Dylan, 41.

[5] Dylan, 154.

[6] Dylan, 153.

[7] Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A’.

[8] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 283.

[9] Dylan, 101.

[10] Dylan, 184.

[11] Simon Frith, ‘Pop Music’, in The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock, ed. Simon Frith, Will Straw, and John Street, Cambridge Companions to Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 94–95.

[12] David Browne, ‘“Jesus, Bob”: How Some Musicians Feel About Being Dissed by Dylan in “Philosophy of Modern Song”’, Rolling Stone, 16 November 2022, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/bob-dylan-philosophy-of-modern-song-book-backlash-1234630949/.

[13] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 7–10, 159–61, 203.

[14] Lewis Eugene Rowell, Thinking about Music: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Music (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984), 39.

[15] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 11, 17, 202.

[16] Dylan, 198.

[17] Dylan, 165.

[18] Aristotle, Politics, trans. Ernest Barker, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 312.

[19] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 79.

[20] Dylan, 275.

[21] Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A’.

[22] Slate.

[23] Keir Keightley, ‘Reconsidering Rock’, in The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock, ed. Simon Frith, Will Straw, and John Street, Cambridge Companions to Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 137.

[24] Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A’.

[25] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 82.

[26] Dylan, 13.

[27] Dylan, 23.

[28] Dylan, 87.

[29] Dylan, 144, 334.

[30] Stephen Davies, ‘Rock versus Classical Music’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism vol. 57, no. 2 (1999): 199, https://doi.org/10.2307/432312.

[31] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 87, 201, 229.

[32] Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A’.

[33] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 229.

[34] The distaste is more apparent when one looks at Dylan’s other references to the Beatles of late, where he has been apt to view them in a jaundiced light. While I’m sure interpretations differ, I can’t help but hear the “I Want to Hold Your Hand” reference in “Murder Most Foul” as Dylan looking askance at the vaguely disingenuous, infantilising title (“Hush lil children, you’ll soon understand / The Beatles are coming they’re gonna hold your hand”). In the “London Calling” essay, he namechecks the song again, portraying the Beatles and their world as quaint and twee next to the real London as captured by the Clash. Once again, what’s faddish is superseded by the real and true.

[35] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 245.

[36] Dylan, 9.

[37] Dylan, 79.

[38] Dylan, 151.

[39] Slate, ‘Bob Dylan Q&A’.

[40] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 275.

[41] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Essay on the Origin of Languages and Writings Related to Music, ed. and trans. John T. Scott, The Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 7 (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1998), 269–70.

[42] Gilbert B. Rodman, ‘Histories’, in Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture, ed. Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999), 44.

[43] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 17.

[44] Dylan, 59.

[45] Adorno, conversely, criticised this characteristic of popular music, where musical elements could be shifted around without affecting the whole (“Every detail is substitutable; it serves its function only as a cog in a machine”). See Theodor W. Adorno, Essays on Music, ed. Richard D. Leppert, trans. Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), 440.

[46] R. A. Sharpe, Philosophy of Music: An Introduction (Chesham: Acumen, 2004), 9.

Works cited

Adorno, Theodor W. Essays on Music. Edited by Richard D. Leppert,

translated by Susan H. Gillespie, Berkeley, CA: University of

California Press, 2002.

Aristotle. Politics. Translated by Ernest Barker. Oxford World’s

Classics, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Browne, David. ‘“Jesus, Bob”: How Some Musicians Feel About Being Dissed

by Dylan in “Philosophy of Modern Song”’. Rolling Stone, 16

November 2022, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-


Davies, Stephen. “Rock versus Classical Music.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art

Criticism vol. 57, no. 2, 1999, pp. 193–204. https://doi.org/10.2307/432312.

Dylan, Bob, dir. Eat the Document. 1972.

———. The Philosophy of Modern Song, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022.

———. Rough And Rowdy Ways, Columbia – 19439780982, 2020, compact disc.

———. World Gone Wrong, Columbia – COL 474857 2, 1993, compact disc.

Frith, Simon. “Pop Music.” The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock, edited 

by Simon Frith, Will Straw, and John Street, Cambridge Companions to

Music, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 93–108

Keightley, Keir. “Reconsidering Rock.” The Cambridge Companion to Pop and

Rock, eds. Frith, Straw, and Street. 109–42.

Rodman, Gilbert B. “Histories.” Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture, edited

by Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999. 35–45.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Essay on the Origin of Languages and Writings Related to

Music. Edited and translated by John T. Scott, The Collected Writings of

Rousseau, vol. 7, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1998.

Rowell, Lewis Eugene. Thinking about Music: An Introduction to the Philosophy of

Music, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.

Scorsese, Martin, dir. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, 2 discs, Hollywood:

Paramount, 2005. DVD.

Sharpe, R. A. Philosophy of Music: An Introduction, Chesham: Acumen, 2004.

Slate, Jeff. “Bob Dylan Q&A about ‘The Philosophy of Modern Song,’” The

Official Bob Dylan Site, 20 December 2022,

https://www.bobdylan.com/news/bob-dylan- interviewed-by-wall-street-journals-jeff-slate/.


Dylan Review Vol. 4.1, Spring/Summer 2022 – BOB DYLAN LYRICS, COPYRIGHT INFORMATION

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

Dark Eyes. Copyright © 1983 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

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

Jokerman. Copyright © 1983 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

License to Kill. Copyright © 1983 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Summer Days. Copyright © 1983 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.

Ye Shall Be Changed. © 1979 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved.


Dylan Review Vol. 4.1, Spring/Summer 2022 – CONTRIBUTORS

Mitch Blank is a music archaeologist and consultant archivist at the Bob Dylan Center, Tulsa Oklahoma. He is regarded as one of the pre-eminent collectors of Dylan memorabilia and artifacts, and is a longtime resident of Greenwich Village, New York City.


Ronald D. Cohen is Professor Emeritus of History at Indiana University, Northwest. He has received numerous awards including a Grammy nomination for The Best of Broadside liner notes in 2001. His books include Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940–1970 (University of Massachusetts, 2002), Alan Lomax, Assistant in Charge: The Library of Congress Letters, 1935–1945 (2014) and Selling Folk Music: An Illustrated History (2017), both published by University Press of Mississippi.


Barry J. Faulk is a Professor of English at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. His recent work includes “A Matter of Electricity: William Burroughs and Rock Music” in the American Book Review (2020) and an essay on Burroughs, David Bowie, and Bob Dylan in Lit-Rock: Literary Capital in Popular Music, edited by Ryan Hibbett and forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press later this year.


Anne-Marie Mai is Professor of Literature and a chair of the Danish Institute for Advanced Study at The University of Southern Denmark. She nominated Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he won in 2016. She has published Bob Dylan the Poet (University Press of Southern Denmark, 2018), edited the anthology New Approaches to Bob Dylan (University Press of Southern Denmark, 2019), and contributed to The World of Bob Dylan (ed. Sean Latham, Cambridge University Press, 2021).


D. Quentin Miller is Professor and chair of English at Suffolk University in Boston where he teaches courses on contemporary American literature, including one on Dylan and the Beat generation. He is the author or editor of more than a dozen books, most recently Understanding John Edgar Wideman (UP of South Carolina, 2018), James Baldwin in Context (Cambridge UP, 2019), and The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature (Palgrave/MacMillan, 2020). Forthcoming books include The Routledge Introduction to the American Novel and a new edition of the Bedford Introduction to Literature.


Walter Raubicheck is a Professor of English at Pace University in New York, where he teaches American Literature, film, and college composition. He is the co-author of Scripting Hitchcock (2011) and co-editor of Hitchcock’s Rereleased Films (1991), both with Walter Srebnick. He also edited Hitchcock and the Cold War (2019). He has published essays on British crime fiction authors including Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, and G. K. Chesterton, as well as essays on American authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, and Dashiell Hammett.


Bob Russell is a retired IT Manager. He is an admirer of traditional country and bluegrass music, and a longtime listener to the music of Bob Dylan.


David R. Shumway is Professor of English, and Literary and Cultural Studies, and the founding Director of the Humanities Center at Carnegie Mellon University. His most recent book is Rock Star: The Making of Musical Icons from Elvis to Springsteen (2014), and he has published numerous articles on popular music. Some of his other books include Michel Foucault (1989), Modern Love: Romance, Intimacy, and the Marriage Crisis (2003), and John Sayles (2012). He is currently editing The World of Leonard Cohen to be published by Cambridge University Press.


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 been cited as a Bob Dylan expert in speaking engagements at University of Tulsa and Florida International University.


Randy Turley is a retired Missouri teacher and attorney who now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He earned a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Secondary Education at the University of Arizona and a Juris Doctorate Degree from the University of Missouri, Columbia. He has been listening to Bob Dylan since 1966.


Karl Gustel Wärnberg is a PhD student in Philosophy at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He holds an MA in Intellectual History from Uppsala University, Sweden



SUBMITTED BY Graley Herren


I have an update/correction to make to my article, “Young Goodman Dylan: Chronicles at the Crossroads,” which appeared in Volume 2.1 (Summer 2020) of your journal. On pages 82-83, I cite a passage from Chronicles in which Dylan quotes from Archibald MacLeish’s play Scratch – or misquotes, as I claim in the article. Here is precisely what I wrote:


But then Dylan inserts an ellipsis and continues on with the quotation: “…powerful nations suddenly, without occasion, without apparent cause…decay. Their children turn against them. Their women lose their sense of being women. Their families disintegrate” (Chronicles 124). Remarkably, none of this second half of the quotation appears in the play Scratch. My research so far has uncovered no source. I frankly don’t know where Dylan got this quotation. It smacks of the apocalyptic rhetoric of Hal Lindsey, but the passage may be entirely fabricated. In any case, it doesn’t come from Scratch.


The mystery has been solved by the Bob Dylan Center. I was fortunate enough to tour the magnificent new facility on June 3, 2022, during my trip to Tulsa for the excellent “Dylan and The Beats” conference, sponsored by the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies. While perusing one of the display cases, I read with great interest a typed letter sent by MacLeish to Dylan. At the time he wrote the message, the elder playwright still held out hope that his collaboration with the young songwriter might come to fruition. In fact, MacLeish even offers some possible lines for the song “Father of Night,” adding the caveat: “Does that say anything to you? If it’s of any use, take it—rearrange it as you please: it’s yours.” Of course, Dylan would eventually pull out of the Scratch collaboration, using his original compositions instead as part of the album New Morning.


On the first page of the letter, in an effort to nudge Dylan in a darker direction with his songs, MacLeish quotes a lengthy passage from the working draft of Scratch, and it does indeed include, verbatim, the passage that I referred to above. This passage does not appear in the final published script, so Dylan must have been quoting from an earlier draft he retained from that period, or perhaps even from the very letter on display at the Dylan Center.


Either way, it is now clear where the text in question comes from, and it is equally clear that my speculation about it being fabricated was wrong. I would appreciate it if the editors would publish this letter and belatedly set the record straight.


My thanks to the curators of the Dylan Center for sharing this artifact with the public. These are precisely the sorts of revelations and clarifications we can hope to benefit from in the future as Dylan scholars.



The Dylan Review spoke to writer and avid Dylan researcher Scott Warmuth in spring 2022. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Dylan Review: You’ve called Dylan an “outlaw appropriation artist,” especially in his late era. What does that mean?

Scott Warmuth: There’s the notion of being an outlaw, and I think that’s always been a part of what Dylan’s approach to art is in terms of rule breaking. You know, “to live outside the law, you must be honest.” The romantic notion of the outlaw. When I was using that term, I was thinking about the approaches Dylan has used in his writing, whether it’s lyrics, or prose, his memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, or the film script Masked and Anonymous, and especially the paintings, a lot of them – fifty-plus easily – based on images from films. And the notion of the appropriation artist: a constructive way to put it into context is to see who Dylan’s contemporaries are for that. Let’s talk about Joni Mitchell, or Leonard Cohen, or Warren Zevon. But I think especially since Dylan’s gotten more into visual work, that Richard Prince is another touch point. They’ve collaborated in different ways. Prince wrote a foreword for The Asia Series (of Dylan’s paintings). He quotes Dylan endlessly, online and in his writing, and he’s talked about going to Dylan’s studio and it didn’t look like any art studio he’d ever seen. So how does someone who’s accused of similar things that Dylan’s been accused of respond? There’s a book that’s just Richard’s deposition where he’s asked on the stand by a hostile interrogator about his artistic processes, and it’s a wonderful read. Richard Prince refers to this experience as “Deposition Row.”

I think Bob Dylan is laying the notion that he’s thinking of appropriation art as an outlaw component. He talks about a party at Camila’s in the early 60s in Chronicles, the people that he meets there. It’s Cisco Houston, and an artist named Robin Whitlaw. And as they go back and forth he uses some dialogue from Hemingway’s “The Killers.” Later on, Whitlaw broke into someone’s house and stole some artwork and then was acquitted, because she said that was her artistic process. As it turns out, Robin Whitlaw doesn’t exist. She’s a character invented by art critic and writer Ralph Rugoff, an imagined outlaw appropriation artist who got away with her appropriation crimes. Dylan appropriates her, puts her in his book, which is like saying, “I met Zorro,” you know, “Godzilla and I had a conversation.” It’s not a real person. And I don’t know how that slipped past, how nobody called that out at the time. He’s planting that notion that he’s aligning himself with an imagined outlaw appropriation artist.


DR: Your specialty in the Dylan world is finding the source texts of Dylan’s writings, his lyrics, his prose writings, and his paintings. But how does his work from 1997 on compare to the borrowing he did earlier in his career? Are there distinctions to be made?

SW: There’s a much more fine-tuned intentionality with Time Out of Mind moving forward. Certainly you can find things that are similar, little bits from Jack Kerouac in “Desolation Row,” where specific images pop up. In some of the 80s songs there’s a lot of film dialogue, or lines from Star Trek, but I don’t see that as being the same. With Time Out of Mind, and especially “Love and Theft”, it becomes much more intentional. He’s tying together two different lines that have similar context, if you know the source material, and placing them together. He’s pairing high culture and low culture, thinking about how these things go together. Or creating a subtext by using material from other sources that you don’t see in some of those 80s songs with film dialogue, especially in Chronicles. There’s other things going on beneath the surface, if you know what those components are. So I think it’s a two-step approach. Part of it is recognizing what those pieces are. Can you identify them and capture their components? They don’t necessarily have to have a meaning, or have to make sense, but very often you can build a case: “Well, there’s too many of these for this to be unintentional,” and “what is this telling us?” And in that ability to have two or three conversations at the same time: the one that’s on the surface level with the song, and the multiple threads going on behind the scenes that you wouldn’t know about unless you had a laundry list of source materials. How do they appear in the different contexts? And how does he make them bounce off each other? I think that’s where some of the sparks come in, some of the alchemy comes in.


DR: In terms of finding those connections, the source texts, is there a threshold of similarity that it takes for you to draw the connection?

SW: Some are easy to spot. The likelihood goes up when you already know that, well, this is a writer Dylan likes a lot. And then, for instance, in Chronicles, it’s probably Jack London, who’s used the most. Then there’s lots of Ernest Hemingway, or Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels, and on and on. Sometimes there are multiple uses. You get one hit, maybe via Google Books, and read the paragraph before, the paragraph after, the pages before, the pages after, the entire Hemingway short story. And then you might notice other bits turning up. It’s the same phrase, or it’s on the page that has another phrase that’s so long and so distinct, that it has to be from this Hemingway short story, and that raises the likelihood of finding another one there. There’s some that you could argue, “Well, it’s just happenstance, there’s only so many letters and words in the English language.” I’ve heard plenty of that. But I think some of those arguments fall flat when there are just so many examples. There’s this intentionality going on. The example I like to use, because I think it’s one of the clearest, is in Chronicles. He’s writing about recording Oh Mercy in New Orleans, and he goes to the movie theater to see Homeboy. And he talks about how every time Mickey Rourke appeared on the screen, the movie went to the moon. And on the same page, he’s using a peculiar passage that turns up in The First Men in the Moon, from H.G. Wells. It’s like he’s aware.

Everyone’s going to have their own threshold of what’s going to pass the sniff test. I’ve got a “maybe” file, and I try not to spitball in public. If I’m going to present something it’s, “Here’s what I’m seeing, here are all the moving parts.” And if you can find there’s something he might be doing with those moving parts, I think that’s where it really gets interesting.


DR: You’ll read the short story, or read the novel, or watch the film Dylan got the line from, or listen to the recording. One could argue you’re consuming more of the media that Bob Dylan is consuming than anyone. So what can you say about Bob Dylan’s reading and listening habits from going through that practice?

SW: You know, I go to anybody’s house, I want to see what’s in your record collection and I want to see what’s on your bookshelf. That’s just the way that I’m wired. As a reader, Dylan is very broad. He seems to have interests that range from 20th-century literature to Homer or Chaucer to one-offs that are peculiar. There are a couple lines from a book called The Encyclopedia of Desks, a description of a desk he uses to describe Ray Gooch’s desk in Chronicles, and it’s too many things for it to not be this particular desk, and so I’m wondering, “How do you end up with The Encyclopedia of Desks?” I have a Pinterest page I’ve been building for years called “A Bob Dylan Bookshelf” that has over 100 different titles. There’s biographical stuff; jazz bios; Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues; and Beneath the Underdog, the Charles Mingus memoir. There’s a book by Lewis MacAdams called Birth Of The Cool that he uses a couple of little bits from in Chronicles. It’s a book that mentions him, and he uses books by people he knows sometimes. A book he uses a number of times in Chronicles is American Rhapsody, that Joe Eszterhas wrote about the Clinton-era scandals. And, of course, they worked together on Hearts of Fire. He’s Bob Dylan’s neighbor. Joe Eszterhas writes about Dylan’s dogs making a mess on his Malibu front lawn, and in American Rhapsody, there’s a passage that says “Dylan our Elvis.” You know, Dylan can’t be his own Elvis, so how does he respond to that? And then he’s also bouncing off these ideas. Like, what does Joe say about this? And how does Eszterhas do that? Or he’ll combine voices where it’s a little bit of Hemingway mixed with a little bit of this or that. Sometimes there’s a big loud voice in a passage and there’s a smaller one hiding underneath. It’s harder to see, unless you really go in and dig it apart phrase by phrase and get lucky.


DR: In terms of the still images from films that Dylan uses as source texts for his paintings, how does that creative process compare to his lyric and prose writing process? How is Dylan doing something similar or different with the paintings from the text works?

SW: There is some overlap. I don’t know that they’re exact. With the ones where he’s got drawings that accompany handwritten lyrics, sometimes they’re much more obvious images. There’s a drawing of a sheriff’s badge for “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Here’s a drawing of Napoleon, who’s mentioned in the song. Sometimes they’re much more direct in those.

I think it’s a visual language that he’s going for, and that he’s incorporating literary ideas into some of those paintings. There’s one batch of paintings that really doesn’t get represented at all in Retrospectrum, the big retrospective they did in China, and then they did it again at the Frost Museum in Florida, which is a sprawling exhibit. There’s hundreds of pieces, but nothing from Revisionist Art, which are these peculiar magazine cover paintings, but they look like photographic images. Some are revised magazine covers or imagined magazine covers, but with real photographs of real people. They’re filled with text, and I think there’s more to go on with the explanation of the text within those. There’s just so many of them. That material needs to be looked at more closely, because some of the text is just gags and jokes or non sequiturs, or commentary on magazine culture. Dylan being from a magazine generation where magazines are important. I’ve heard Sean Latham talk about that, the notion of Dylan as someone who magazines are important to. And I think that plays a role in why Revisionist Art should be looked at that way. I think he’s making commentary with some of those. He’s got a whole series of paintings of Times Square in the 70s from a range of different films people know, like Taxi Driver, as well as from films that aren’t as well known, genre films like Fleshpot on 42nd Street or Massage Parlor Hookers, which wouldn’t be films that your average person would would know or go to. So what is going on there? And is he doing other things within those paintings? I think the answer is yes.

I’ve got a list of close to fifty different films. These range from film noir to 70s films, action movies, home movies, it’s all across the board: foreign films of different sorts from Asia and from Europe. And the notion of Dylan as someone who has been interested in film forever, it’s interesting to see what those choices are. Also there’s plenty of that type of work that we’d never get to see done for private audiences for high ticket prices that never hit a gallery. We won’t get to see them until they turn up in the secondary market when these collectors decide to sell or they die and their family sells. And that might not be for decades.


DR: Your own work has not been without controversy. What do you say to someone who might say that your work, perhaps, is tarnishing Dylan’s legacy?

SW: What you need to do is take a look at the body of work over the last 25 years. It’s undeniable how this use of appropriation, of recrafting, of stitching bits together from other sources, in a deliberate way to create subtext, I think, is an avenue that deserves exploration.

If you’re just having a surface discussion, it’s easy to go for big, clunky ideas. I’m not really all that interested in plagiarism. If I was – if I wanted to out Bob Dylan as a plagiarist – I wouldn’t waste my time. I wouldn’t spend time with things I wasn’t interested in. Sometimes when I see things I’ve written get picked up in larger media, it’s boiled down to this lowest common denominator that is perhaps a little simplistic. And I can see how, if that’s all you saw, that may not appeal to you. Plenty of people are emotionally invested in many of those songs, because they touch us in certain ways. That’s why he’s so popular, the way this material works. And if you’ve been with that for a long, long time, and suddenly you’re seeing something different, I could see that as a threat, potentially. Or the notion that I want Bob Dylan to be a self-contained genius with this stuff just pouring out of him. That break can be dissonant for some folks. I wish I had enough imagination to create these things and invent them and make them up. I’m just noticing the things that are there, cataloging them, and then saying, “Hey, take a look at this.” And “Compare this, it might mean something to some of the other things going on here.” I think that’s a legitimate discussion. To boil it down to a plagiarism article or a gotcha game is not all that interesting. I don’t think it does service to the work. I think there are a vast amount of things going on in Dylan’s work we haven’t even started to discuss, and these starting points can open the doors.

So I try to slough off a fair amount of that criticism, because I know what my tone sounds like, I know what my intent is. I’m a fan of this work. Not everybody wants to go through Chronicles phrase by phrase, but if you do, it’s a rewarding exercise. And there’s a lot going on there. Same with “Love and Theft”, and some of those records, you can enjoy the music without knowing any of those components, or that writing. They all work that way. But they work on these other levels as well. And I think there’s still plenty going on we haven’t even spotted.

I’ve seen where someone was dismissive early on saying, “No way,” or “I believe this one, but this one? No no no no, no way.” It’s like steering an ocean liner. Ten years later, that same person comes to me and says, “You know what, I found something just like you were talking about, take a look at this.” They got on board, it just took a decade.

If you think about critical writing and thought on Bob Dylan, you’ve got Michael Gray who did a lot of groundbreaking work and I really respect the stuff he’s done. But there’s people digging the same holes again and again, and I think if you start digging different holes, there’s different things there and you can have different discussions, or at least open up thoughts and people’s ideas. A lot of that just takes time. A lot of this research that we’re talking about I did over a decade ago, mapped out and wrote about in different places, wrote about on my blog, got picked up in different places. But now it’s a decade later, there’s a whole new group of Dylan fans. How do you touch those folks and see a different generation who hasn’t been listening to Bob Dylan since the first album came out, or since 1965, where they may have different perspectives or different approaches?

So I’ve been trying to revisit some of that stuff, break it out into a million different pieces. Twitter is great for that: “Hey, take a quick look at this.” Or Instagram: “Let’s take a snapshot of this piece, compare, contrast, look here, do you like that? There’s more.” So you can fill in some of those pieces. Some might click, and someone may go, “Let me get the complete works of Jack London, go through page by page, and highlight the passages that Dylan uses, dog ear those pages and make a concordance for those pieces.” It’s there if people want to do it.


DR: I was looking at an early essay of yours…

SW: The one that’s on the New Haven Review?

DR: Yes, which is titled “Bob Charlatan.” And that word “charlatan” has a bit of a negative connotation. Would you use that same word today?

SW: There’s a book, I think it’s Time Out of Mind by Ian Bell. The late Ian Bell writes about that essay, and he was concerned with the title. And I don’t know that his statements all ring true, but he writes, “you must assume the title was his.” And actually, I would have done that title a different way, but you’re working with editors, it’s just the nature of working with folks. But my initial title had that flipped: “Charlatan Bob.”

Thinking of Another Side of Bob Dylan, but many different sides of Bob Dylan, I’d written a piece called “Sideshow Bob,” but about Dylan’s use of writing from a book of sideshow photography that turns up in the script for Masked and Anonymous. Some of the Jeff Bridges scenes use it a bunch, and I broke that all out, and Dylan uses others sideshow books, and you’ve got the Simpsons reference there too, so I couldn’t resist Sideshow Bob, the Bob that’s interested in sideshow. I like the Bob Dylan who’s interested in rockabilly: Rockabilly Bob, he likes Warren Smith, and he likes Sun Records, and he goes to hang out with Billy Lee Riley. And he invited rockabilly artist Glen Glenn, who just passed away recently, to join him and play a show in Los Angeles in the 90s. So I like Rockabilly Bob, and I can relate to Sideshow Bob, and that title (“Bob Charlatan”) was meant as a challenge to the reader. It’s a little antagonistic, and some of that is on purpose. You want to have a title that’s got something going on with it. But I would’ve had Charlatan Bob as just another one of those Bobs: Sideshow Bob, Rockabilly Bob, Charlatan Bob.

For some, that title alone, they wouldn’t go past that. They tossed it away, and they wouldn’t dive into it. That’s fine. That was part of the intent: to be a challenge. The core of why I chose that title is there’s a passage in the essay about Dylan using bits from a book that’s a bit like Machiavelli’s The Prince, by Robert Greene called The 48 Laws of Power. And Dylan uses a whole series of different elements from that book. But there’s this one section, where he’s talking about music theory, and things going on in threes. It’s very… it’s oblique. You can’t walk away from it going, “Okay, I’m going to apply these lessons and I’ll really be on my way to Bob Dylan.” It turns out he’s using these components from one of the lessons on the science of charlatanism, or how to start a cult in five easy steps, which is a wonderfully strange thing to find. And it turns out, Dylan’s messing with the audience while also applying those lessons. To me, that was a wonderful discovery.


DR: To bring it back to the present day, the tenor of the conversation surrounding Dylan’s appropriations has changed and evolved, thanks in part to your own work. People have a better understanding of his late-era borrowings. So how have you altered your own approach to finding the connections and to getting the information out there to people?

SW: It certainly has changed over time. I initially got drawn into all of this with “Love and Theft” in 2001. I still remember putting it into the CD player for the first time and just being knocked out by what a fantastic record it is, and then seeing the components and learning more about how musically it’s built, because a lot of those songs have got an antecedent. “Summer Days” is a Big Joe Turner song called “Rebecca.” They’re very similar. “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” has “Uncle John’s Bongos,” the Johnnie and Jack song. So I just started mapping out the musical connections, and then seeing where people were writing about the lyrical bits. That bit from The Great Gatsby is easy to spot, then a few others bubbled up. And then Dylan’s use of material from the oral history of a Japanese gangster turned up, so I was fascinated with all of that. As early as 2004, I was doing a radio presentation about Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft” and its musical resources. I had served as music director at a radio station on Long Island called WUSB, the largest non-commercial radio station on Long Island. And in 2004, they were doing a 12-hour Dylan marathon. I’d been living in Albuquerque for a long time at that point, but I sent the CD to one of my friends there, and we did about an hour on the air talking about “Love and Theft” specifically, and how some of those pieces were constructed.

Now the resources have certainly changed from when I started working through “Love and Theft”. Google Books has played a huge role in the ability to search for phrases, and to go through them, it just speeds that up so much. I grew up in an analog world, I’m really comfortable with a card catalog. I know how to thread a microfilm machine and get what I want in the newspaper. I love to go to a library and sit and do research. Now you can just do that faster. And that’s gotten easier over time.

One thing I think is, once you find he’s using a certain resource again and again, to get a hard copy of it, and to actually sit and read it slowly. And then just wait for those parts. Sometimes I might read something a couple different times, or go back to something years later and notice, “Oh, how could I miss that?” Or that you’re likely to have the edition that Dylan is reading, because the lines he’s using are at the top of the page, the bottom of the page, the chapter ends with a paragraph halfway through the page, and your eye is going to be drawn to that. You can get a notion for how Dylan’s eyes scan a page. Sometimes he starts on one page and then borrows across the page, so they’re totally different paragraphs, but you can see the highlighter goes across. Training your eye to see what might jump out to Bob Dylan. And if you do that for years, you can get better, and the resources have gotten better.

I can have a hard copy of a book that I know I want to look through, or say the Masked and Anonymous script printed out in front of me, but if I’ve got a digital copy of the book that I want to work with, it’s searchable. I can go through and search through areas that I know are hotspots. And then I’ll run every single phrase through my Kindle. So some of it is speeded up, you don’t have to sit in front of a computer. Now I can sit on my couch with a book and a tablet and just do it because it’s like fishing, you know, just let me cast a line with this phrase. And let me cast it again. Let me cast a line with another phrase and do that hundreds, thousands of times. A lot of people might not have the patience to do that, but you know, even a bad day fishing is still a good day, and I like to listen to music and read books. What am I doing? I’m reading books, I’m reading magazines, and then when you find ones like, “Oh, I know he’s read this.” And then you can start to piece together, What else might be going on there? How closely did he read this? Are these ideas he was reading about when he was writing this component? It changes how you think about that piece.

Over time, it’s gotten easier. For instance, we talked about the films that he’s using as sources for his paintings. Some of those I was able to find because there’s text in the painting, and I can search for the text, and here it is, let me watch the rest of the film. Oh, there’s another image that he used. You just get lucky that way. Some of them I recognize because I’ve seen the movie. And it’s Urban Cowboy, it’s The Lords of Flatbush, I know what that movie is. But he likely has a subscription to the Criterion Channel, and there’s a fast forward option where it gives you a screen grab every 10 seconds, and you can scroll through an hour-and-a-half movie in 15 minutes and rule it in or rule it out, if you’ve got an eye that’s focused. Sometimes you have to be really focused. Someone on Twitter had suggested The French Connection was a movie that Dylan was likely doing paintings on, and I’d watched The French Connection a couple of days earlier with that notion in mind, knowing he’s using gritty movies from the New York area from the 1970s, and I didn’t spot it. And I watched it again and the image jumped out at me. It was a quick shot, only a few seconds long, but I was able to spot it. Sometimes you get lucky.


DR: What motivates you to keep doing these deep dives into Dylan, to devote so much of your time and energy and life to this quest?

SW: It’s fun. I’m a huge music fan, worked as a disc jockey for years, have a huge music collection. Bob Dylan’s work was certainly always a part of that since I was a little kid. And his work is so interesting, it’s moving and it touches you in different ways. With “Love and Theft” and Modern Times, and Chronicles and Masked and Anonymous, you can start to piece it together. It’s like a sweater that’s unraveling, you tug that thread and just keep pulling. It’s got payoffs, too, when you find, “Oh, I never would’ve thought of that, that way.” Or, how does Bob Dylan read an Ernest Hemingway short story? What’s gonna jump out at him? Why would he pick this story? Or just to get an idea of the creative process. How do you write a Bob Dylan song? Certainly there’s got to be a lot of different ways. There’s a lot of different songs, but the material will tell you that if you take some of that apart and see what those moving parts are. I like to take apart my toys and see why they work that way. And I think that’s part of it. It’s something I do for fun.

One of the things that I was really astounded to find out was that this process I’m really interested in began in earnest with Time Out of Mind. I love Time Out of Mind – so many great songs there. It’s a perfect record if you want to drive from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, and then back later in the day, because you get “Highlands” for the drive home and the sun setting. It’s something I’ve done dozens of times, but I hadn’t thought of it in this other way. And there was this time when Edward Cook and I were going through Chronicles, and just trading notes back and forth. And he had found a passage in Chronicles, it’s unmistakable, where Dylan is riffing off of some ideas about being on the road that Henry Rollins is writing about in a book called Black Coffee Blues. And he had found these parallels that were undeniable. As soon as I started looking, I was like, Ed, you’re on the right track.

Ed graduated high school the year I was born, so we’re from different generations. I’d seen Henry Rollins with the Rollins Band in the 80s. So I got a copy of Black Coffee Blues. I’m reading it, and then a few pages after the passage that Ed pointed out, Rollins uses the terms “dreamless sleep” and “mind polluting words,” within like two or three lines. That’s it. Oh, that changes everything. Now I’ve got a different path. And I’ve got to go and read all of these Henry Rollins books and see what’s there. This iceberg just poked its head up, and there’s a lot more below the surface. I wouldn’t be doing my due diligence if I didn’t take a look to see what was there. And then to be able to see it’s in “Mississippi.” It’s all over these songs on Time Out of Mind. It’s showing up in “Love and Theft” in different ways that I wouldn’t have seen, and how is Dylan commenting on this? And that’s just so rewarding to see he’s reading this.

The Rollins books really impact the tone of Time Out of Mind, which is somber, it’s dark in a lot of ways. And those particular Rollins books are very dour. He’s dealing with depression, with the murder of his best friend and the horror of that and also the notion of, “I’m on the road forever.” What’s it like to be on the road? Okay, Dylan’s been on the road for decades. Which parts might interest him? In the piece Ed found, Rollins is actually talking about listening to Roy Orbison on the radio. If you’re Bob Dylan reading about someone talking about listening to Orbison on the radio, while you’re on the road, when you actually knew Roy Orbison, and you were in a band with him, this guy who’s also obsessed with Sun Records, how do those things rub together? Questions like that would keep me coming back.

This is an artist who’s talking to us in different ways. What does he have to say with this hidden method? Less so now, but certainly in 2001, people weren’t really talking like this, and he continues to do it in Rough and Rowdy Ways. We’ll see what he does in Philosophy of Modern Song. I’m kind of wired that way. I want to read books and listen to music for life. So this is a way to do that. It’s a way to engage with things. I wouldn’t have had a chance to talk with John Cohen and walk him through Dylan’s use of material that had been recorded by the New Lost City Ramblers on “Love and Theft”. We had a long discussion about it, and he asked me, “Why do you do this?” And one of the things I said to him was, it puts me in a position to read things I might not have read otherwise.

And who else would you want to recommend books to you besides the guy who’s written all this great stuff. What does he read? How does he read it? It just enriches my life and keeps me active, keeps me from being stagnant and listening to all the same records I listened to when I was sixteen.


DR: Did you expect your work to have to gain as much traction as it has when you started doing this research?

SW: I’m happy that it has. Most of the time, people are appreciating it and maybe building upon it, so that I find rewarding. I joke that I love being in an index of a book if Andy Warhol is also in the book, because it’ll be Andy Warhol and then my name. I’m in the books next to Andy Warhol because I was doing this. Nothing makes me happier.

I love footnotes, indexes, reference materials. One thing I really like is when people come on board and find things that I wouldn’t have thought of, or they get lucky when I didn’t. It saves me the legwork of having a crack open so many different pieces. I find that rewarding, but there’s still a way to go, because there’s so much of it going on. I’ve got like 100 different books I know he’s using material from and tons of records. Things still come up. I find it thrilling when someone takes a look at something I’ve written, goes back to those materials and spots things I didn’t spot. And I know they’re right, and they let me know.

There’s a fellow from Canada who’s been doing some of that. He went through some of the Rollins books and he showed a line out of “Can’t Wait” that I didn’t spot. It’s opposite a page Dylan used something else from and I missed it. And I’m thinking, How did I miss it? I’d done a video on YouTube about Dylan’s use of material from a specific box set on the Bear Family label, all of these Nashville country records from the late 40s to the mid-50s that are particularly obscure. He uses line after line after line after line. One of my favorite bits is that passage in “Summer Days,” “Well I’m drivin’ in the flats in a Cadillac car” that stitches together lines from four songs on that boxset, with internal pieces he’s hiding in there and playing with. The same fellow listened to that boxset and found a song I had missed, by Smiley Burnette called “Swamp Woman Blues,” which has lines in its final verse about “doing the double shuffle” and “throwing sawdust on the floor.” There’s no question he’s listening to this, I just hadn’t heard it because there are 160 songs and I put it on repeat in my car and just didn’t catch it. It gives me more to work with. There’s all these different moving parts and potentially meanings behind them that we haven’t spotted yet.

There’s still pieces where I’m going, there’s something going on there but I don’t know what it is. And some I’m still coming to terms with that I want to write about where he’s using spiritual materials and prayer type materials that aren’t typically my wheelhouse, things I wouldn’t read or comment on. You know, people insult me in all sorts of different ways. Nobody likes that. But you have to have a complete lack of critical thinking skills to look at my work and say, “he’s an idiot,” or “he’s stupid,” or “he’s crazy.” I’m just saying, hey, take a look at this, contrast, compare. There’s enough here and here’s what else might be going on. That’s always where I’m coming from. Some of the responses used to be so negative and so ugly. Now it’s kind of flipped, and I’ve got people coming to me saying, “Yeah, I saw that. And how about this piece?” Or, “You know, I didn’t believe you about that New Orleans travel guide ten years ago, but now I do. And I found another travel guide, take a look and see what you might see here.” So you know, especially with the launch of the Bob Dylan Archive, being able to go through and look, and Bob Dylan getting the Nobel Prize in Literature. It’s changed, I think, how some people look at some of that work. And there’s always new groups of listeners coming up that have different approaches, which is refreshing. Hopefully it will continue.


DR: What do you see as the next horizon of Dylan scholarship, for you and for the field?

SW: I think about mapping out that midden field. There are hundreds, thousands of pieces, little pieces, of text and music, and not ending up like someone who’s got one of those conspiracy theory maps with all the strings drawn through it, but there’s certainly some golden threads that pull through. So I’d love to see a collection of pieces on those golden threads: here’s the usage of other material, here are subsets, here’s how it works across different pieces. I mentioned the annotated Lolita, which is fantastic. I love a good annotated book. There’s the annotated Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a few that are like that. I’d love to see the annotated Chronicles, though I don’t know that we’ll ever see that. There is the Italian version that Alessandro Carrera translated. He also translated lyrics into Italian where he has footnotes meant for an Italian audience, you know, the worldwide piece. So how do you make this intelligible for a different audience?

I’d love to see annotated components, collections of music and art, like all the songs, or a whole lot of the songs incorporated into “Love and Theft” because it’s a range of interesting and odd things and they still come up. To say, here’s the palette Dylan’s working from, and to see what those pieces are. I’d love to see a gathering place for all of those different pieces, and I’ve tried to do some of that in ways that are digestible, that’ll give entry points for people who may be interested, where they can grab onto something. The use of Twitter or Instagram, where we can break things down into little pieces, YouTube videos where I’ve tried to telescope things down. In a couple of minutes, you can get a whole lot of ideas. And if you want, you can spend a couple of hours or weeks or months or years unpacking some of those. You can make use of Pinterest as well.

I did something called A Tempest Commonplace, the notion of a commonplace book. Bob Dylan talks about “the box,” it’s got all those pieces and scraps and he puts them together. Larry Charles has talked about it, Joni Mitchell has talked about it. So creating a virtual version of material that went into that box. A clearinghouse of all of that detail. Bob Dylan as outlaw appropriation artist, Bob Dylan as rockabilly fan, Bob Dylan as a fan of American popular music, Bob Dylan as a guy who read Ernest Hemingway and feels comfortable taking the best bits out of it, and then combining them with other voices and creating third or fourth voices. To see what that strategy is, and how is he going there. There’s still more to do. I’ve unearthed a lot, and I certainly haven’t worked alone. People come up with things I wouldn’t have thought of, often, and I’d love to see more of that. I think there’s more scholarship now with the access to the Archives because if you haven’t listened to a specific boxset 100 times until it’s internalized, you won’t be able to recognize those pieces. Some of them are far too obscure.

There’s a draft of “Bye and Bye” that appears in later versions of the lyrics book that has verses that aren’t included in the recording. And there’s that Bear Family box set of Nashville records that I talked about. I took a look at that, and the lines were glowing on the page: That’s this line, that’s that line, this is another line from that song he used over here. You can’t know that, you wouldn’t be able to recognize it. Some of the bits are too obscure, unless you had this specialized knowledge. And what’s the payoff? Down the road, I can look at a draft of “Bye and Bye” and spot things you wouldn’t be able to spot otherwise. It’s too obscure and too peculiar and too hidden. So trying to do more of that, and ultimately to get back to Tulsa, dive in and see what else is there.