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WORLD OF BOB DYLAN: “‘God Said to Abraham’: Can Bob Dylan Help Us (Re-)Read the Bible?”

“‘God Said to Abraham’: Can Bob Dylan Help Us (Re-)Read the Bible?” World of Bob Dylan 2023, June 2023, Tulsa, OK.

BY Jeffrey S. Lamp, Oral Roberts University


Framing the present discussion

To fans of Bob Dylan the words are familiar, perhaps more familiar than the biblical text from which the opening verse of “Highway 61” finds its inspiration.

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”[1]

Compare this to the passage in Genesis 22:1–3, a portion of the story known in both Jewish and Christian circles as the “Aqedah,” or “Binding,” of Isaac, and the degree to which Dylan interprets the story becomes quite evident.

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.[2]

To the casual observer, there are a number of differences between the two accounts that become even more evident when the sonics of the song are taken into account. The song opens with a circus-like sound, a siren whistle confronting the listener at the beginning of the song and between verses. Dylan’s vocal performance contributes to the absurdist humor of the song that intensifies lyrically with each succeeding verse. Clearly Dylan’s reception of the biblical story is not the stuff of serious academic biblical commentary. Or is it?

Interpretations of the song are legion, each detail having been scoured for its significance. The present discussion will not contribute to this body of thought, but rather ask another question, one that directs our attention to the reverse order in which such investigations proceed. Rather than ask, “What does Bob Dylan do with Genesis 22:1–3 in his song ‘Highway 61’?,” we will ask, “Is there any way in which Dylan’s use of the passage helps us as Bible readers see this passage afresh, with new eyes, freed from the perhaps cherished vague reminiscences of the passage that often cloud our perception of what the passage is really saying?”

In more recent biblical studies, the methodology of “reception exegesis” has become more widespread as a hermeneutical tool of biblical interpreters.[3] In contrast with its more well- known sibling, “reception history,” reception exegesis asks whether a particular reception of a biblical passage, especially in popular media or artistic receptions of biblical passages, may drive us back to the biblical texts themselves to see if those receptions offer insights that might relieve us from over-familiarity with passages and lead us to a fresh appraisal of the biblical texts in their own contexts. In this discussion, then, we will bypass the typical discussions of the history of interpretation, which ask how more theological, academic, or liturgical treatments of biblical texts have unfolded, and of reception history, which expand the discussion to see how other more popular and artistic treatments have appropriated biblical texts. Rather, we will focus on reception exegesis, and ask whether or not these more artistic treatments might direct us back to the texts in such a way as to ask new questions of familiar passages and perhaps yield new insights into those passages.

So for the purpose at hand, does Dylan’s use of Genesis 22:1–3 in “Highway 61” help us understand the Aqedah better? The contention of this paper is that Genesis 22:1–3 has a history of interpretation that fairly consistently understands Abraham’s response to God in a positive light, as a response that demonstrates an extraordinary degree of faithful obedience. This is true in both Jewish and Christian theological circles up to the present day. But there has been a minority, though persistent, point of view that sees this more traditional, positive history of interpretation as deficient, as concealing a deeper biblical appraisal of the episode. And in the words of the first verse of “Highway 61” Bob Dylan’s reception of Genesis 22:1–3 opens up a fresh (re-)reading of the passage.


A tale of two tellings

Whatever Dylan’s intentions for including this biblical episode into his song, the listener is immediately confronted with a couple of sonic sensations as the song begins. As noted earlier, the music has a circus-like feel to it, highlighted by the sound of a siren whistle. The effect here is comedic, giving a sense of playfulness to the song. Then Dylan begins singing, assaulting the listener with his acerbic vocalization of the opening line, “Oh God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son!’” Right away Dylan plays his hand. The opening verse will provide his commentary on the biblical episode in surreal and absurd tones. This is clearly not the reverence with which the Bible is often approached, especially as concerns this passage. God is shown as making a very stark demand – “Kill me a son!” Using the diminutive “Abe,” Dylan presents Abraham’s response not in the tone with which he typically responds to God in biblical texts with such words as, “Here am I.” No, Abe responds incredulously, “Man, you must be putting me on.” When God confirms he is quite serious about this demand, Abe protests, “What?” Here Dylan depicts God as threatening retribution should Abe not comply, to which Abe finally responds in resignation, “Where do you want this killing done?” With God’s answer of “Highway 61,” Dylan’s interpretation comes to a close.

To say there are discrepancies in the two accounts is understatement. One gets the sense that Dylan has serious issues with this biblical story as evidenced in his terse, unnuanced presentation of it. Something is just not right with this story. Dylan’s performance of the opening verse, apart from lyrical considerations, betrays a sense of absurdity in the whole scene. To be sure, many modern thinkers have shared such an opinion of this passage on a variety of grounds. Common to many such reactions to the story is the ethical objection of a deity demanding the sacrifice of a human being’s child. Does this not amount to a power play from one party over another party to commit a heinous act of child abuse?

Making the passage all the more perplexing is the subsequent traditional interpretations of both Jewish and Christian commentators that laud Abraham’s unquestioning obedience to God’s command. Abraham becomes the prototype of absolute obedience. Moreover, Isaac, in his unquestioning acceptance of his father’s plan to sacrifice him becomes the exemplar of submission to the divine will. In fact, in his submission Isaac becomes both the prototype for Jewish martyrs, especially in the Maccabean Revolt, and the template for Jesus’ own sacrifice of himself in submission to God’s will.[4]

Bob Dylan is not among those who take this traditional tack. There is something wrong here. And Dylan’s interpretation, in these few words, highlights several issues that make the traditional interpretation unpalatable to many, and in doing so, opens us up to other possible interpretations. We will take a look at these features of Dylan’s interpretation in light of a recent monograph by Christian Old Testament scholar J. Richard Middleton on the Aqedah titled Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God.

Middleton’s examination of the Aqedah proceeds by looking first at the positive evaluation of Abraham’s actions in the passage in ancient Jewish and Christian sources. The tyranny of such interpretations was so complete that in the early centuries of the Common Era Jewish Rabbis issued prohibitions against any type of protest against the actions of God, an attitude also reflected in early Christian writings.[5] Middleton’s point of departure for his study is an appeal to Scripture itself. This is strategically vital for Middleton’s argument that there is another approach possible in assessing what is going on in Genesis 22. He takes a reverential approach to God, taking seriously the dynamics of the divine-human relationship, but arguing that Scripture is replete with examples of those who contested with God. He takes this approach by addressing some current Jewish and Christian assertions that negative assessments of the Aqedah proceed from modern sensibilities that were simply not in play in the timeframe of both the Aqedah and subsequent ancient interpreters.[6] Agreeing with these sentiments, Middleton sets out to provide a fresh reading of the Aqedah by reading it in its scriptural context, both in terms of the larger narrative of Abraham found in Genesis and in connection with another biblical book, Job. And we will see that Middleton’s reading is the type of reading that is suggested by hearing Dylan’s words in the opening verse of “Highway 61.”

The first line of the song, in which God demands Abraham kill his son, is Dylan’s casting of the line in Genesis 22:2: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” Dylan’s framing is that of an imperative, a demand. But Middleton notes that English translations such as the one offered here obscure an important detail. God’s command is tempered somewhat by the presence of the Hebrew particle na’, which in this usage should be rendered as something like, “please,” framing the statement more as an entreaty than an outright command.[7] As most English translations, which omit this word entirely, read, it is a less stark presentation of the way Dylan frames the command, but it is essentially the same kind of command as Dylan presents it. But here the Hebrew text offers a clue that might challenge us to reassess what is going on in this passage.

On a related note, Dylan’s characterization of Isaac as “a son” is a blunting of how God describes Isaac to Abraham in Genesis 22:2. God commands Abraham to take, please, “your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love” and go offer him as a burnt offering. In the biblical text the son is identified by his name, Isaac, with the qualifiers that he is Abraham’s son, his only son, and that Isaac is a son whom Abraham loves. These qualifiers might seem unnecessary, but they serve to show Abraham’s relationship to Isaac. He is not just “a son”; God describes the relationship as close and intimate. Middleton sees here a clue that suggests this episode is not just a test to demonstrate Abraham’s obedience.[8]

The second line of the song is perhaps Dylan’s greatest challenge to reread the story: “Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on.’” As Middleton’s book title suggests, the greatest scandal of the passage is that Abraham is silent at this request. In the whole episode in Genesis, Abraham never verbally addresses God about the request. Dylan shows Abe as actually responding verbally to God’s demand. Not only that, Abe is shown questioning God’s request in terms that indicate that Abe is not on the same page as God here. Why is this such a scandalous observation?

Two episodes earlier in the story of Abraham illustrate the issue. First, in Genesis 18, God has determined to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and to tell Abraham of his plan to do so. Once he has been told of God’s plan, Abraham enters into an extended discussion with God highlighting God’s mercy and justice and that surely God would not destroy the city were there to be righteous people present in those cities (vv. 23–33). So Abraham asks God if he would spare the city were there to be 50 righteous people there. God responds that he will not destroy it for the sake of 50. This pattern repeats with Abraham asking about 45, 40, 30, 20, and finally 10. God responds after each request that he would not destroy the city. Abraham seems content with God’s concession of 10 righteous, and the discussion ends with God and Abraham parting ways. Why Abraham did not go further is a question the author of Genesis does not answer. This detail will detain us later. For now, it is noteworthy that Abraham would intercede on behalf of hypothetically righteous strangers and not for his own son.

A similar incident occurs in Genesis 21 regarding Ishmael, Abraham’s son born of Hagar, a slave of Abraham’s wife Sarah. In Genesis 16, after God had promised an heir to the couple in their old age and 10 years having passed with Sarah having no children, Sarah pressured Abraham to have a child through Hagar. In Genesis 17, when God again affirms that Sarah would bear Abraham a son, Abraham beseeches God to let Ishmael be his heir given the ages of Abraham and Sarah (vv. 18, 20). God again promises an heir will be born through Sarah (v. 15–16, 19). Once Isaac is born and has grown some, she sees Isaac and Ishmael playing with each other and becomes angered, urging Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Abraham is distressed at this request (21:8–10). And though the text does not show Abraham interceding for this mother and child at this point, as he did in ch. 17, God comes to reassure Abraham that even though the great nation promised to Abraham would come through Isaac, Ishmael would also become a great nation (Gen 21:12–13). The point here is that Abraham is shown displaying love and concern for his son Ishmael, emotions that Abraham is not depicted as experiencing in the text of Genesis 22:1–3. Dylan’s Abe is shown having at least enough concern for Isaac that he questions God’s demand. Again, in the biblical account Abraham is silent.

Another detail in Dylan’s telling, connected to his depiction of an Abe that engages God on this matter, is that Abe solicits from God the location of this killing. In the Genesis account, God tells Abraham that he is sending him to the land of Moriah to sacrifice Isaac on “one of the mountains that I shall show you.” But God in Dylan’s account says the location is Highway 61. Brian Walsh succinctly describes the significance of Highway 61 in the context of the song, musical history, and Dylan’s career:

All through the song the invitation is to Highway 61, and while no one in the song ever goes there, it is consistently a site of murder, sorrow, betrayal, even of a third world war. This is the blues highway, where Robert Johnson made his bargain with the Devil; the route up the Mississippi from New Orleans to Chicago for African American migration, and from Duluth to the blues for Bob Dylan.[9]

Highway 61 is a location of hardship, despair, the stuff of the blues. There is no redemption, no hope, here. In the Bible, however, Moriah, specifically the mountain on which the “sacrifice” of Isaac was enacted, is a place that is identified as the eventual location of Solomon’s temple (2 Chron 3:1), the symbol of God’s presence with Israel. It is the place of worship, of hope. In Dylan’s portrayal, however, the location of the killing is not a place of “sacrifice,” a term laden with implications of restored relationship between God and human beings. It is simply one of a series of instances where despair is found.

At virtually every point, though there are similarities between Genesis 22:1–3 and the first verse of “Highway 61,” Dylan’s telling of the event challenges the positive evaluation of the episode in Jewish and Christian traditions. Dylan’s verse depicts the command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in ways that highlight the absurdity of the scene. Middleton, for his part, agrees with Dylan’s sentiment and seeks for clues in the text that suggest another way to read the passage, one that itself challenges the positive interpretive hegemony of traditional understandings of the passage, doing so in terms that take seriously the biblical context of the passage. At this stage, we see that Middleton thinks that the passage in context itself suggests another way to read it. The next section of this paper will look at what Middleton thinks the passage might suggest Abraham should have done when God confronts him with this demand.


What should Abraham have done?

Dylan, for his part, shows us what the answer is: Abraham should have done as Abe did and challenge God’s request. Of course, Dylan recognizes that in reality his Abe apparently does as Abraham did in Genesis 22. That is just how the story goes. But in Dylan’s telling, Abe at least goes down swinging. Not so in Genesis. And Middleton, for his part, agrees. Abraham should have challenged God. Whereas Dylan does not explicitly state the grounds on which Abe questions God, implicitly he does so because something just sounds wrong here. Again, Middleton agrees, but he will go on to explain why and how Abraham should have questioned God, and he finds the grounds in the Bible itself.

Middleton argues that the Genesis text is signaling in the details we have recounted here that God may have indeed been testing Abraham, but not in the sense traditionally affirmed.[10] After all, the Genesis passage opens with the words, “After these things God tested Abraham” (Gen 22:1). Middleton affirms that yes, indeed, there is a test here. But unlike the history of interpretation asserts, the test is not whether Abraham would exhibit absolute, unquestioned obedience to the divine will. Rather, the test is whether Abraham would rightly discern what kind of God his God truly is.[11] If Abraham is going to follow God faithfully, he must know who this God is. Up to this point in the narrative of Abraham, God has provided opportunities for Abraham to discern this, but Abraham has fallen short of right discernment. The two episodes we observed above attest to this. First, God had promised Abraham an heir through whom all families on earth would be blessed (Gen 17:19; cf. 12:2; 15:4), but Abraham acquiesced to his wife Sarah’s demand that he father a child through Hagar. In this, Abraham chose to ignore God’s promise and choose another way, a way that introduced huge ramifications for both his family and the history of his descendants. Second, Abraham did indeed challenge God’s stated plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, appealing to God’s mercy and justice in gaining concessions that God would not destroy the cities were there to be found a requisite number of righteous inhabitants. Abraham “negotiates” down to 10 as the standard, rightly assessing that God is indeed merciful and just, but then inexplicably stops there and does not dare to lower the number to 1![12] So Abraham here does exhibit a right discernment on who his God is, but fails to assess the extent to which this God is merciful and just.

Fast forward to Genesis 22, and God apparently has decided to give Abraham one final, ultimate test. Would Abraham rightly discern God’s character? The most extreme test is presented, the sacrifice of his only son, the one through whom God would fulfill his promise to Abraham to become a nation as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore. And here, Abraham is silent! And this even after God has provided hints as to how Abraham should respond. God affirms Abraham loves Isaac, and has even framed his request with the word “please.” Yet Abraham proceeds without question to fulfill God’s request. He goes so far as to raise the knife above Isaac to kill him, and at this stage God, through an angel, stops him and has him sacrifice a ram that has been trapped in a thicket (Gen 22:9–13). The New Testament provides a positive take on this scene, attributing to Abraham a belief that God could raise the dead were he to have killed Isaac (Heb 11:17–19). And in Genesis, God affirms that he will fulfill his promises to Abraham because he showed that he would not spare his only son (Gen 22:15–18). Thus the positive assessment of the episode in Jewish and Christian traditions.

So does Abraham pass the test? Middleton acknowledges that Abraham passed the test of unquestioned obedience, but also states that this is not a quality that God actually asks of his followers.[13] The Aqedah itself, in its concluding verse, gives a clue that passing this type of test actually proved extremely costly. In Genesis 22:19, it states, “So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer- sheba.” No mention is made that Isaac came back down the mountain with him. There appears to be a breach in the relationship between Abraham and Isaac. But this is not all.

Indeed, as Genesis 23:1–2 indicates, when Sarah died, Abraham went from his home in Beer-Sheba to the place where Sarah died, Hebron.[14] Many believe that this indicates that Abraham and Sarah were estranged. To be sure, the circumstances of their marriage seem strained as indicated by the whole drama concerning Sarah and Hagar as well as the fact that the text of Genesis does not indicate that Abraham conferred with Sarah beforehand about his plan to sacrifice Isaac. Moreover, Isaac seems to have been living apart from Abraham, in the Negeb (Gen 24:62), at the time Abraham secured a wife for him. And the remainder of the story of Abraham’s descendants in Genesis shows all sorts of familial discord, with the sibling rivalry between Isaac’s sons Esau and Jacob in part fostered by Isaac’s wife, Rebekah (Gen 27:1–40), and the strife between the sons of Jacob, the key event being the selling of Joseph into slavery by his brothers (Gen 37:12–36).[15]

Middleton suggests that this is related to Abraham’s failure to discern what kind of God his God is.[16] Middleton points to Genesis 18:19, where Abraham is told that he must pass on to his descendants what kind of God this God is. So what kind of God does Isaac see in Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice Isaac? Could the lessons learned in Moriah have shaped the subsequent history of Isaac and in turn Jacob?[17]

Of course, we cannot know what the course of events might have been had Abraham challenged God. That is not how the story worked out. But here we see Middleton looking at the biblical context of the Aqedah to offer a rereading of the episode. He does not offer his alternative from the perspective of modern sensibilities; he looks to the text for clues for an alternative understanding of the passage.

There is another level of biblical context to which Middleton appeals. It is not enough to suggest Abraham should have done something other than he did. What might Abraham have done? Of course, as we have indicated, he could have done something he already did, which is to question God as he did regarding the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Here Middleton examines at length various scriptural evidence that God appreciates, indeed encourages, those who will challenge him in covenantal relationship. He examines a category of psalms known as “lament” psalms, in which complaints are raised to God over the suffering that the people of God are experiencing in an attitude of trust in God’s faithfulness to his covenant.[18] Moses offers passionate intercession on behalf of the Israelites after God has vowed to destroy them for their unfaithfulness.[19] Most dramatic is Job’s lengthy questioning of God in light of his personal suffering.[20] The appeal to Job is most poignant in this respect because in Jewish tradition there is a connection made between the stories of Abraham and Job (Jubilees 17– 18).[21] Middleton suggests that the book of Job may serve as a corrective to Abraham’s behavior in the Aqedah, showing that protest of one who trusts in God is appropriate.[22] Though God does chastise Job for the actual substance of some of his complaint questioning God’s justice (Job 38–39), he does indicate that Job’s tack is nevertheless valid, as indicated in Job 40–41, and that ultimately Job has spoken correctly (Job 42:7). These biblical examples constitute what Middleton calls “vigorous prayer” as the response of the faithful to God in times of personal suffering and distress.[23]

The great Jewish thinker Elie Wiesel perhaps sums up best what Middleton is arguing in his response to a question as to whether it is even appropriate anymore to talk about God in light of the horrors of Auschwitz:

I do not believe that we can talk about God; we can only – as Kafka said – talk to God. It depends on who is talking. What I try to do is speak to God. Even when I speak against God, I speak to God. And even if I am angry at God, I try to show God my anger. But even that is a profession, not a denial of God.

One of the most serious questions I have confronted over the years is whether one can still believe in God after Auschwitz. It was not easy to keep faith. Nevertheless, I can say that, despite all the difficulties and obstacles, I have never abandoned God. I had tremendous problems with God, and still do. Therefore, I protest against God. Sometimes I bring God before the bench. Nevertheless, everything I do is done from within faith and not from outside. If one believes in God one can say anything to God. One can be angry at God, one can praise God, one can demand things of God. Above all, one can demand justice of God.[24]

It is not enough to state that Abraham should have done something else. There needs to be some justification to suggest such. Middleton’s approach is to show that Abraham should have done so – indeed had previously done so – in light of the biblical context in which his story occurs. Middleton has persuasively suggested that the biblical context of Abraham’s own story and the larger context of the Bible has provided ample justification for his argument. And in arguing this way, Middleton has shown that Dylan was on to something in his take on the story.



Reading the Bible from within a long tradition of interpretation can dull our senses to the biblical texts themselves as we have become familiar, even overfamiliar, with what we have received. Sometimes something comes along that jars us as recipients of those traditions, presenting us with takes that drive us back to the texts to read them once again, and in that process, the stimuli that brought us back to the texts help us see something new. Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61” does just that with the familiar story of the Aqedah.

In our study here we compared the presentations of Dylan and Genesis to identify points of divergence that cause us to re-examine the biblical story in its own context. In this process, we engaged J. Richard Middleton’s provocative study of the Aqedah and in it found a reading of the text that broke from traditional interpretations of the story and did so in terms that resonated with Dylan’s depiction. Interestingly, in his book Middleton never referenced “Highway 61.”[25] We simply identified Middleton’s reading as one that might eventuate if one started with Dylan’s presentation and read the biblical text in that light. Middleton’s study, placing the Aqedah as it does within its larger biblical context, shows that tradition does not always exhaust interpretive possibilities. Sometimes we just need a push to make us look at familiar stories anew.

Maybe Isaac is not the only one sent to die on “Highway 61.” Maybe interpretive tyrannies go there to die as well.


Works Cited

Cohen, Leonard, “The Story of Isaac.” Track 2 on Songs from a Room.

Columbia Records, 1969.

Cohen, Leonard, “You Want It Darker.” Track 1 on You Want It Darker.

Columbia Records, 2016.

Dylan, Bob, “Highway 61.” Track 7 on Highway 61 Revisited. Warner Bros., 1965.

Ellis, Nicholas J. “The Reception of Jobraham Narratives in Jewish Thought.” In Authoritative

Texts and Reception History: Aspects and Approaches, edited by Dan Batovici and Kristin de

Troyer, 214–40. Leiden: Brill, 2016

Kalmenson, Mendel. “Where Was Abraham at the Time of Sarah’s Death?” Chabad.org,


Lamp, Jeffrey S. Reading Green: Tactical Considerations for Reading the Bible Ecologically.

New York: Peter Lang, 2017.

Levenson, Jon D. The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child

Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

Middleton, J. Richard. Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How

to Talk Back to God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021.

Moberly, R. W. L. “Abraham and God in Genesis 22.” In The Bible, Theology, and Faith: A

Study of Abraham and Jesus, 71–131. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Schuster, Ekkehard, and Reinhold Boschert-Kimmig. Hope against Hope: Johann Baptist Metz

and Elie Wiesel Speak Out on the Holocaust. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1999.

van Bekkum, Wout Jac. “The Aqedah and Its Interpretations in Midrash and Piyyut.” In The

Sacrifice of Isaac: The Aqedah (Genesis 22) and Its Interpretations, edited by Edward

Noort and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, 86–95. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2002.

Walsh, Brian. “Taking Abraham to Highway 61.” Canadian-American Theological Review 11

(2022): 7–11.


[1] Bob Dylan, “Highway 61,” track 7 on Highway 61 Revisited, Warner Bros., 1965.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

[3] For a summary of reception exegesis, see Jeffrey S. Lamp, Reading Green: Tactical Considerations for Reading the Bible Ecologically (New York: Peter Lang, 2017), 77–81, and the literature cited there.

[4] J. Richard Middleton, Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 137–40, 142–44, 148–49, 160–63; Wout Jac. van Bekkum, “The Aqedah and Its Interpretations in Midrash and Piyyut,” in The Sacrifice of Isaac: The Aqedah (Genesis 22) and Its Interpretations, eds. Edward Noort and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2002), 86–95.

[5] Middleton, Abraham’s Silence, 147–49.

[6] Middleton, Abraham’s Silence, 140–44. See also Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993); R. W. L. Moberly, “Abraham and God in Genesis 22,” in The Bible, Theology, and Faith: A Study of Abraham and Jesus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 71–131.

[7] Middleton, Abraham’s Silence, 154. Middleton places this in his own translation of the passage (167).

[8] Middleton, Abraham’s Silence, 171–73. Middleton suggests that the duration of the trip to Moriah may have given Abraham time to meditate on his feelings for Isaac and thus be motivated to intercede for him (176).

[9] Brian Walsh, “Taking Abraham to Highway 61,” Canadian-American Theological Review 11 (2022): 8.

[10] Middleton, Abraham’s Silence, 181.

[11] Middleton, Abraham’s Silence, 197.

[12] Middleton, Abraham’s Silence, 203.

[13] Middleton, Abraham’s Silence, 197.

[14] In Jewish rabbinic tradition, there are attempts to cast these details in such a way as to circumvent the implications of the biblical text and to show that Abraham and Sarah lived together at the time of her death. See Mendel Kalmenson, “Where Was Abraham at the Time of Sarah’s Death?” Chabad.org,


[15] Genesis 25–50 rehearse the story of Jacob and his sons, highlighting many instances of family dysfunction (Middleton, Abraham’s Silence, 208–9).

[16] Middleton, Abraham’s Silence, 197, 203–6.

[17] Middleton (Abraham’s Silence, 209–11) addresses these questions in a rather dismal tone. He argues that Gen 31:42, 53 show how Isaac is understood in connection with God, with God characterized as the “God of Abraham,” whereas God is characterized as the “fear of Isaac” (213).

[18] Middleton, Abraham’s Silence, ch. 1.

[19] Middleton, Abraham’s Silence, ch. 2.

[20] Middleton, Abraham’s Silence, chs. 3–4.

[21] So close has been the connection between Abraham and Job that Nicholas J. Ellis coined the term “Jobraham” to illustrate it (Middleton, Abraham’s Silence, 183). See Nicholas J. Ellis, “The Reception of Jobraham Narratives in Jewish Thought,” in Authoritative Texts and Reception History: Aspects and Approaches, eds. Dan Batovici and Kristin de Troyer (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 214–40.

[22] Middleton, Abraham’s Silence, 167, 183–90. Middleton even calls Job a “subversive sequel” to the Aqedah (189).

[23] Middleton, Abraham’s Silence, 63.

[24] Ekkehard Schuster and Reinhold Boschert-Kimmig, Hope against Hope: Johann Baptist Metz and Elie Wiesel Speak Out on the Holocaust (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1999), 91–92.

[25] He did, however, mention a Leonard Cohen song, “The Story of Isaac” (track 2 on Songs from a Room, Columbia Records, 1969), that critiqued American fathers sending their sons to the Vietnam War. Middleton (Abraham’s Silence, 144) notes that the Aqedah was used as a justification for fathers in Israel to send their sons to war in the Six-Day War (1967). Middleton also cites a later Cohen song, “You Want It Darker” (track 1 on You Want It Darker, Columbia Records, 2016), that uses the Aqedah to frame a prayer to God.


WORLD OF BOB DYLAN: “‘Dollitics’ and ‘Dylantics’: Folk Music and the Political Rhetoric of Dolly Parton and Bob Dylan”

“‘Dollitics’ and ‘Dylantics’: Folk Music and the Political Rhetoric of Dolly Parton and Bob Dylan.” World of Bob Dylan 2023, June 2023, Tulsa, OK.

BY Christine Hand Jones


Today, I want to talk about Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton. Now, these two may seem like a strange pairing. Indeed, Dolly Parton said that she met Dylan “a few times” but “never felt any warmth,” thinking she might have “offended him.” She said, “I love his music but he’s a weird buckaroo” (Manzoor). So why talk about the two of them together today? Well, to help show you, let’s play a little game called “Dolly or Dylan.” I’ll show you a quote and your job is simple: tell me – is it from Dolly or Dylan? (See answers in footnotes).


1) It’s a rich man’s game / No matter what they call it / And you spend your life / Putting money in his wallet[1]

2) Well, he hands you a nickel, and he hands you a dime / And he asks you with a grin, if you’re havin’ a good time / Then he fines you every time you slam the door[2]

3) Your breath is sweet, your eyes are like two jewels in the sky / Your back is straight, your hair is smooth on the pillow where you lie.[3]

4) Your beauty is beyond compare / With flaming locks of auburn hair / With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green / Your smile is like a breath of spring / Your voice is soft like summer rain.[4]

5) Well a long winter’s wait from the window I watched / My friends they couldn’t have been kinder / And my schooling was cut as I quit in the spring / To marry John Thomas, a miner[5]

6) Well, the winter came and the snow did fall / and the night was cold and still / And the rags we wore were not enough / and Joe he caught the chill[6]

7) “…Those old songs are my lexicon and my prayer book…All my beliefs come out of those old songs, literally, anything from ‘Let Me Rest on That Peaceful Mountain’ to ‘Keep on the Sunny Side.’ You can find all my philosophy in those old songs.”[7]

8) “…those old songs were the ones we heard the most. So it’s just embedded in me and it’s the easiest thing in the world. That’s the stuff that comes out of me the easiest.”[8]

9) “I don’t do politics. I’m an entertainer.”[9]

10) “I’ve never written a political song. Songs can’t save the world.”[10]

The point of these comparisons is not just to show that these two artists have a lot in common, but that they have two important things in common: 1) Both Dolly and Dylan have maintained political ambiguity throughout their careers, even while making meaningful statements about social justice, and 2) Both Dolly and Dylan’s music is deeply rooted in the folk tradition.

The folk tradition, as each of these artists has embraced it, thrives on storytelling and resists harsh categorizations. In a folk song, the mysteries of human love, sorrow, and hatred take center stage. Folk songs tell stories of their time and place that cannot help but reflect a political context, yet the driving force of the folk song is not broad categories but minute details. And what I want to argue today is that there is a relationship between folk music and this unique ability on the part of both artists to simultaneously make important “political” statements in their songs while also coloring outside of all political party lines. Folk music is universal; folk storytelling is particular. Together, these folk song traits shaped both artists’ approach to politics.

Now it may seem odd to say that folk music could lead to political ambiguity. Thanks to the role of folk music in the social movements of the sixties, “folk” and “political” may almost seem synonymous. But despite his early ties to the socialist leanings of the folk revival and his involvement with the Civil Rights movement, Bob Dylan has stood apart from his folk music peers by refusing to declare political allegiances. In a room full of Dylan fans, I don’t need to recount all the ways Dylan has resisted political categorization, but here’s a little taste of his political evasiveness in “I Shall Be Free No. 10” from Another Side of Bob Dylan: “Now, I’m liberal, but to a degree / I want everybody to be free / But if you think that I’ll let Barry Goldwater / Move in next door and marry my daughter / You must think I’m crazy! / I wouldn’t let him do it for all the farms in Cuba.”

Dolly Parton, too, has remained steadfastly ambiguous about politics. Dolly’s political ambiguity is reflected in the love that her fans from all political persuasions express for her, and she protects that love by outright refusing to take a side. Those who know her best have a word for it: “Dollitics.” Her relative and bodyguard, Brian Seaver, spoke of Dolly’s political evasions to Jad Abumrad, host of the 2019 podcast, “Dolly Parton’s America,” saying “It’s verbal judo. She’s the best interviewee on the planet. Nobody does interviews like Dolly. I’m very outspoken politically, but I try not to talk Dollitics at all.”

So Dolly protects her fans and her brand by refusing to make overt political statements, yet at the same time, she has written songs that raise awareness of social issues, particularly regarding the lives of women. Even as her song “9-5” was embraced as a political anthem in the fight for women’s and labor rights, Dolly herself resisted the term feminism. Shortly after the film, 9-5, was released, she told Rolling Stone, “A lot of people thought it was going to be women’s lib; I wouldn’t have been involved if I’d thought it was gonna’ be a sermon of some sort. Not that I’m not for rights for everybody, I’m just sayin’ I didn’t want to get involved in a political thing” (qtd in Hamessley 132, from Flippo, “Dolly Parton,” Rolling Stone 40). In 2016, however, Dolly said that she was “proud to be part of” 9-5‘s message of “preaching…equal pay for equal work” (qtd in Hamessley 132). Lydia Hamessley comments saying, “Despite her reluctance to define her beliefs as feminist, Dolly is committed to women’s rights even though she always contextualizes this within the rights of all people” (132). This commitment to a universal message of inclusion apart from politics has characterized Dolly’s stance on women’s rights as well as her statements on marriage equality and her response to the Black Lives Matter movement, when she said, “Of course Black Lives Matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones?” (qtd in Domonoske).

So both of these artists resist political labels, while at the same time writing songs of social importance that call their audience to compassion and understanding for their fellow man, and I believe that reading Dolly Parton alongside Bob Dylan helps to make sense of that seeming paradox for these two artists. Read side-by-side, the common factor here is each artist’s deep commitment to folk music as the foundation of all their work.

Let’s talk about folk music first, with a little snippet from the aforementioned “I Shall Be Free No. 10.” As the song continues, Dylan makes a meta-reference to the music itself: “Now you’re probably wondering by now / Just what this song is all about / What’s probably got you baffled more / Is what this thing here is for.” “It’s nothing / It’s something I learned over in England.” Here, Dylan’s humorous reference to a British folk heritage undermines any faith one may have had in the music’s deeper significance. But the music, of course, is significant.

In Dylan’s Greenwich village folk scene, folk music was connected to “songs of persuasion,” which R. Serge Denisoff defines as “propaganda songs,” in which the folk instruments and style provided a simple vehicle for the lyrics (6). But of course, the music is never merely a vehicle. At a basic level, the simplicity of folk styles conveyed the message of an unpretentious music – a music of the people, not of the elite. So, even when the music was meant to take a backseat to the lyrics, the music mattered. This idea of music as a way to carry political ideas forms the framework for Ilias Ben Mna’s analysis of “country music with anti-oppressive themes,” which he says “can serve as a mass-accessible vehicle” for “poignant and subversive commentary” (Ben Mna 1-2). He counts Parton’s “9-5” as an example, noting that with its folk-influenced melody, “Dolly Parton’s anthem provides a gateway…directing the rural and urban poor against a patriarchal capitalism” (Ben Mna 12). So on one level, folk and country music conveys social and political messages effectively, simply because it is accessible and relatable.

But on another level, folk music communicates effectively because folk melodies are cross-cultural and universal. Because folk music is often modal, the melodies revolve around a five-note pentatonic major or minor scale, a scale that occurs in every mode (do, re, mi, so, la). Some music scholars see in the “complementary and mutually dependent” folk melodies a communal alternative to the hierarchy, dominance, and hustle culture of capitalism (Shepherd 109), asserting that “pentatonic tunes…are not trying, like Western man, to ‘get somewhere’ but live in an existential present, affirming an identity with nature, even with the cosmos” (Mellers 32). Furthermore, the pentatonic scale can be considered the most “natural” scale because it comes “most directly from…the fifths and fourths of the [natural] harmonic series” (Mellers 32). From this perspective, the foundation of folk music is not just “for the people”; it’s derived from nature itself. Pentatonic scales immediately establish a deep musical connection that cuts across time and geography in a way that other musical styles simply cannot.

But if folk music has this kind of power, what makes Dylan or Dolly special? Dolly’s reliance on modes and the “old world” sound set her apart from her country counterparts, but Dylan’s use of modes was hardly unique in his 60s folk circles. Why wouldn’t every song based on a folk tune move the listener as Dylan’s and Dolly’s have? To answer that, we need to look at the lyrical content of folk songs and at how both Dylan and Dolly maintain a connection to folk tradition in their writing that prioritizes storytelling over sermonizing.

Of the types of old-world songs that influenced both Dolly and Dylan, ballads are at the top of the list. We know that Dylan was highly influenced by ballads. He stole/borrowed some of their melodies outright and he has talked at length about the effect of these songs on his life. To name only one example, Dylan’s “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” is based on the murder ballad, “Pretty Polly.” Likewise, Dolly borrowed the melody for “Little Sparrow” from the folk tune “Wayfarin’ Stranger,” and its subject matter from the ballad, “Come all ye fair and tender maidens.” Dolly learned the old ballads from her mother, who used to sing them. In Dolly’s words, “Mama told us that’s how people used to carry the news, they used to write it in songs, carry it from village to village… A lot of the stuff in those old-world songs were true stories that happened” (qtd in Hamessley 68).

Lydia Hamessley describes ballads as “stories of a far-off time…filled with the supernatural, fantastical settings, bravery and deceit, and love gone wrong, often in tragic, violent, and even gory ways” (67). Speaking of violence and gore, the murder ballad — a ballad that, you guessed it, tells the story of a murder, deserves its own mention for how it influenced both writers. Frank Mehring explains, “With their origins in seventeenth century Europe, murder ballads have become part of American folk music pronounced in the hillbilly music, Appalachian and…blues traditions” (Mehring 108). Importantly, a large number of these murder ballads describe women being murdered, usually by a lover, and often in situations involving pregnancy or suspected cheating. “Pretty Polly” is a great example – Polly is led off to a lonesome place by her lover just so he can kill her. These ballads demonstrate what Frank Mehring calls ‘“inherently ‘intermedial powers’” that “penetrate both public and political spheres, offering creative and self-reflexive responses to social realities” (108). In other words, a murder ballad is never just about recounting grisly details of a killing but is a way for for the singers and listeners to reflect on important social issues – for example, with Dylan, racism or poverty. And if you want a wonderful, concise discussion of murder ballads and Bob Dylan, I strongly recommend the recent episode of Laura Tenschert’s “Definitely Dylan” podcast, where she does a deep dive through Dylan’s early murder ballads. Finally, Hamessley explains that ballads are “usually sung…in a dispassionate way with little to no moralizing. The fine grain of ballads is in the dialogue and descriptions of actions, not in explaining motives or exploring emotions” (67). Hamessley’s last point is worth reiterating: ballads are not about morals or motives, but details and descriptions. So although other songwriters in the 60s folk revival scene were influenced by ballads, where they used their songs to moralize, Dylan and Dolly manage to avoid that trap.

One of Dylan’s earliest attempts at a murder ballad, “The Death of Emmett Till,” shows the fledgling songwriter still finding his way, with the heavy-handed moral: “But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give / We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.” Two years after he wrote it, he called it a “bullshit song,” saying his “reasons and motives behind it were phony” (qtd in Heylin 87-88). Dylan later moved past such sermonizing, eventually outpacing his topical-songwriting peers by moving to the heart of the stories of the marginalized and avoiding the more overt, even propagandist tactics of his fellow songwriters.

One such example is “Oxford Town,” written in response to a Broadside competition to write about James Meredith’s enrollment in the University of Mississippi (Heylin 131). Betsey Bowden calls Phil Ochs’ song on the topic “inflammatory journalism,” “a musical editorial,” in contrast with Dylan’s “Oxford Town,” which “uses topicality as a springboard for artistic complexity in performance and for political effectiveness” (13). The key to that complexity and effectiveness is the song’s storytelling, which provides specific details of the Oxford Town experience and allows the narrative to remain unresolved.

Time and again in Dylan’s ballads, he allows a story’s details to speak louder than a predetermined message. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” modeled after the ballad, “Lord Randal,” takes “show don’t tell” to a whole new level with its barrage of vivid, sometimes disturbing images. The harrowing “Ballad of Hollis Brown” delivers no moral in its story of Brown’s mass family murder/suicide. “North Country Blues” issues no condemnation for the deserting husband or sympathy for the jilted wife. Instead, the details immerse the listener in the story and allow the listener to decide. And in songs that do have a moral of some sort, the villain is not an individual so much as it is broken society, as in “Only a Pawn in their Game,” or a failed justice system, as in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol.” And this list only scratches the surface – we lack the time to go into “Dear Landlord,” “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” or “Hurricane,” but in all of Dylan’s ballads, he tells the stories of the marginalized, he pushes the boundaries of the narrative form, he leaves things unresolved, he identifies with the “villains” or the “other,” and he repeatedly shows his audience, “I can’t think for you, you’ll have to decide” (“With God on Our Side”).

Dolly, too, resists stereotypes and simple portrayals or solutions in her ballads. She tells complex, often dark stories that let the listener in on the real lives inside. In “Daddy’s Moonshine Still,” “Joshua,” and “Robert,” she “invoke[s] negative stereotypical images of Appalachia, such as the moonshiner, the mountain hermit, or incest,” but, Lydia Hamessley explains, “Dolly does not move into parody or ridicule in them” (58). Instead, Dolly uses the ballad to sympathize and humanize these figures.

Even Dolly’s mega-hit, “Jolene,” which strays from the typical ballad formula, succeeds largely because of the ways it borrows from balladry. It uses that “old world” modal harmony to tell a story. The song’s account of Jolene, with her “flaming…hair,” “ivory skin” and “emerald” eyes evokes the lush descriptions of women from traditional ballads. But what makes “Jolene” stand out is the way it strays from the country music formula of the “other woman” song. Unlike Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City,” “Jolene” is not a song about getting revenge or sitting at home crying while the husband cheats. The narrator of “Jolene” takes the situation into her own hands, treats the cheating woman like a fellow human being, and has a talk with her, woman-to-woman. Dolly preserves the humanity of both the cheating woman and the cheated-on narrator, even as the ambiguous ending leaves the tale forever unresolved.

Dolly applies the same sensitivity and humanity to her many other ballads, songs that often delve into the difficult lives of women and do not shy away from such controversial topics as unwed pregnancy, suicide, and abortion. Dolly has called these her “sad-ass songs” – and she has a lot of them. But more than being merely sentimental, these ballads “reflect the complexity of women’s lives without seeming to take an overt political stand” (Hamessley 131).

“Daddy Come and Get Me” is a prime example of a “sad-ass song” that sheds light on unjust circumstances. In it, a woman calls for her father to come get her out of a mental institution that her husband put her in just “to get [her] out of his way” so that he could have an affair. Dolly wrote the song with her aunt Dorothy Jo, and it was based on more than one true story of people they knew. Dolly says, “It was a situation that nobody knew how to handle” (Parton, Songteller 87). In Dolly’s song, we never learn how the situation is handled. We do not know if the father ever comes for his wrongly institutionalized daughter; we are left only with her “looking out through…iron bars.”

In another song about the plight of women, “Down from Dover,” Dolly paints the sad picture of a jilted, pregnant young woman through poignant details:

I know this dress I’m wearing doesn’t hide the secret
I have tried concealing
When he left he promised me he’d be back
By the time it was revealing
The sun behind a cloud just casts the crawling shadow
Over the fields of clover
And time is running out for me I wish
That he would hurry down from Dover

In true “sad-ass song” fashion, the baby dies at the end of the song, and the woman is left alone. Dolly needs no sermon on the sexual double-standard for men and women; she simply lets the details give the message.

Another particularly moving song is Dolly’s “The Bridge.” Like so many of Dolly’s other sad ballads, this one is modal – Mixolydian – and it unfolds its story of love through specific, lovely details of the moon and the meadow, so that the last verse and chorus come as a shock:

Tonight, while standing on the bridge
My heart is beating wild
To think that you could leave me here
With our unborn child
My feet are moving slowly
Closer to the edge
Here is where it started
And here is where I’ll end it…

In some live performances, Dolly finishes the line and the slant rhyme with “…on the bridge,” but the official recording leaves the ending unresolved. All these sad songs bear a direct relationship to the sad ballads that Dolly grew up hearing and singing. “It was so lonesome when Mama would sing,” Dolly says (Hammesley 68). Nowhere is that sadness more acute than in the subgenre of folk songs known as murder ballads.

Though most of Dolly’s sad songs were not precisely murder ballads, their focus on women’s lives, particularly on women who find themselves in the same situations as the unlucky women in the old ballads, allows Dolly to rewrite the endings of those traditional songs and provide women with some empowerment, or if not power, at least pity. “The Bridge” is a great example. Its suspenseful narrative structure and haunting music leads Lydia Hamessley to call the song “as gripping as a murder ballad” (148). Thus Dolly takes the usual expectations from murder ballads and subverts them to focus on the female experience. In the murder ballad “J.J. Sneed,” which she wrote with her aunt Dorothy Jo, a jilted woman is the one who does the killing:

The good old days are over as we stand here in the rain.
J.J., I’m gonna shoot you now I hope you’ll feel no pain.
I hear hoofbeats of the horses and the posse’s on my trail.
I guess I’ll join you soon, but for now, J.J., farewell

Hamessley notes that in this song and others like it, “Dolly modeled ways for women to flip established gender scripts and reimagine their own participation from a place of power and authority” (139).

By reversing gender roles in murder ballads, Dolly Parton continued the tradition of Black, female blues singers like Victoria Spivey, who made a career out of singing murder ballads, which Frank Mehring says “functioned as a musical outlet to carve out a role that was far from the stereotype of the passive female victim” (114). So for Dolly Parton, as for other female songwriters who came before her, traditional folk music tropes provided a framework to challenge the patriarchy while dressing that challenge in the guise of a good story.

In the “Dollitics” episode of the Dolly Parton’s America podcast, host Jad Abumrad tries to get Dolly to speak out against President Trump or to at least make a definitive statement about him, but she refuses. Finally, she says, “Why don’t we pray for the President? If we’re having all these problems, let’s just… why don’t we just pray for Mr. President?” Growing up as I did in an evangelical subculture where “praying for the president” was code for very different things depending on whether that president was a Democrat or a Republican, my initial response to such a phrase is skepticism, but Dolly’s history bears witness to her sincerity. And it made me think of another quote about the president, this time from Bob Dylan: “Even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked” (“It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”). These may seem like very different sentiments, but they both express an important truth: the President is human too. Perhaps it is naive to think that folk songs can help us to better see one another in our common humanity, but Dylan and Dolly’s work, steeped in the storytelling traditions of the folk ballad, gives me hope that there may be a way for us to view one another in our universality and our particularity.


Works Cited

Abumrad, Jad. “Dollitics.” Dolly Parton’s America, NPR, 12 Nov. 2019. NPR,


Adams, Char. “Dolly Parton Explains That Controversial Emmys Moment with 9 to 5 Costars

Jane Fonda & Lily Tomlin.” People Magazine, 3 Oct. 2017,


Ben Mna, Ilias. “This Country Ain’t Low-The Country Music of Dolly Parton and Johnny

Cash as a Form of Redistributive Politics.” Arts (Basel), vol. 12, no. 1, 2023, p. 17–,


Bowden, Betsy. Performed Literature: Words and Music by Bob Dylan. Bloomington: Indiana

UP, 1982.

Denisoff, R. Serge. Great Day Coming: Folk Music and the American Left. University of

Illinois Press, 1971.

Domonoske, Camila. “‘Of Course Black Lives Matter,’ Dolly Parton Tells Billboard.” NPR,

14 Aug. 2020, http://www.npr.org/2020/08/14/902506007/of-course-black-lives-matter-dolly-


“The Folk and the Rock.” Newsweek, vol. 66, no. 12, Sep 20, 1965, pp. 88, 90. ProQuest,



Hamessley, Lydia R. Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton. University of

Illinois Press, 2020.

Heylin, Clinton. Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan 1957-1973.

Chicago, IL: Chicago Press, 2009.

Manzoor, Sarfraz. “Dolly Parton: ‘I’m a Working Girl. I like Waking up Early and Going to

the 24-Hour Supermarket with My Husband’: An Unforgettable Audience with Dolly

Parton.” Daily Mail Online, 27 Apr. 2014, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/event/article-



Mehring, Frank. “Murder on Record Ballads about Love, Death, and the Deep South.” Lied

Und Populäre Kultur, vol. 66, 2021, pp. 107-123.



Mellers, Wilfrid. A Darker Shade of Pale: a Backdrop to Bob Dylan.

London: Faber and Faber, 1984.

Pareles, Jon. “Interview with Jon Pareles, The New York Times, September 28, 1997.” Dylan on

Dylan: The Essential Interviews, edited by Jonathan Cott, Hodder, London, UK,

2007, pp. 391–396.

Parton, Dolly. Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. Chronicle Books, 2020.

Shepherd, John. Music as Social Text. Polity Press, 1991.

Tenschert, Laura. “’Her heart blood did flow’: Bob Dylan’s Murder Ballads of the Early

1960s,” 17 May 2023, Definitely Dylan, www.definitelydylan.com/podcasts


[1] Dolly Parton, “9-5”

[2] Bob Dylan, “Maggie’s Farm”

[3] Dylan, “One More Cup of Coffee”

[4] Dolly, “Jolene”

[5] Dylan, “North Country Blues”

[6] Dolly, “Gypsy Joe and Me”

[7] Dylan, Interview with Jon Pareles, The New York Times, September 28, 1997

[8] Dolly, in Sarah Liss, “Blond Ambition: Country Treasure Dolly Parton Comes Alive,” CBC News, Nov. 9, 2009, quoted in Hamessley, 66-67

[9] Dolly, quoted in Adams, Char. “Dolly Parton Explains That Controversial Emmys Moment with 9 to 5 Costars Jane Fonda & Lily Tomlin.” People Magazine, October 3, 2017

[10] Dylan, quoted in “The Folk and the Rock.” Newsweek, September 20, 1965, 88.


WORLD OF BOB DYLAN: “How Long Can We Falsify and Deny What Is Real: Bob Dylan Is the Funniest Person Alive, and Why We Need to Talk About It”

“How Long Can We Falsify and Deny What Is Real: Bob Dylan Is the Funniest Person Alive, and Why We Need to Talk About It.” World of Bob Dylan 2023, June 2023, Tulsa, OK.

BY Harrison Hewitt


I’d just like to say before I start that it’s one of the pleasures of my life to be able to be in this room with you people today – to talk about Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan, who wrote “Desolation Row.” “Desolation Row,” which is my favorite song. I’ve said if “Desolation Row” were the only song on Highway 61 Revisited, Highway 61 Revisited would still be my favorite album. If “Desolation Row” were the only song Bob Dylan had ever written, Bob Dylan would still be my favorite artist. That’s how much I love “Desolation Row.”

If you listen to the earliest live performances of “Desolation Row,” there’s something interesting that happens and that is that the audience reacts like it’s Def Comedy Jam in 1992 and Bob Dylan is Bernie Mac. The crowd reacts like it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever heard in their lives. They’re losing it after almost every line, and Dylan – far from being unsettled – is loving it. Not physically possible, I suppose, but you can hear him smiling.

Anyway, what’s my point with this? Good question. I hope I remember. Here it is: Dylan has played “Desolation Row” well-nigh 600 times. And it’s only in those early performances that the audience reacted this way. What changed? The song didn’t change. Okay, that’s not exactly true; in later years Dylan would omit certain verses – most notably the verse about the mermaids because, as Allen Ginsberg relayed, Dylan came to view the imagery in that verse as “dopey.” But the point is the essential character of “Desolation Row” has not changed. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying “Desolation Row” is “Hello Muddah, hello Fadduh, here I am at Camp Granada.” It’s not a novelty song, it’s not a comedy song. I listen to “Desolation Row” every day and have for many, many years. It takes me up, down; makes me hot, makes me cold; makes me light, makes me heavy. Like Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row” is many things. But one of the things it is, is funny. And that’s the aspect that’s been lost, at least insomuch as you won’t hear an audience laugh at the funny lines anymore, the way they did when both the song and its author were young.

This, to me, is a metaphor for Bob Dylan’s career. There are surprisingly few explorations of Dylan’s sense of humor, and the ones there are tend to focus heavily – if not exclusively – on early Dylan. The implication being that at a certain point Dylan dropped the comedic side of his character and became a figure of great seriousness. Is that true? Did Dylan change, or is it the response to Dylan that changed?

I would submit it’s the latter. And I would explain it like this: If you go to a show and you hear something you think is funny and other people are laughing, you’ll be happy to join in. But if you go to a show that people say is super serious and important, even if something strikes you funny, you don’t want to be the one person who laughs because you’ll look like a goof. You’ll seem juvenile, shallow, like you don’t really understand or appreciate the gravity of what’s happening. In other words, the more Dylan was built up by the culture as a figure of great importance, the less folks were willing to admit that he’s funny, or even to recognize that fact.

It can also be a way of inflating oneself. If Dylan is this flesh and blood fella who’s cracking wise, then that can be easily appreciated. But if I elevate Dylan to be an artist who is so profound and so pure as to be untouchable, or at least to be somebody who can only be handled with white gloves – then I seem smarter for “getting” him. The more serious and important Dylan is, the more serious and important is the person who claims to understand and appreciate his work.

Well, I am not an important person, and I don’t care about being perceived that way. I’m quite happy to paddle around in the shallow end of the pool. And I encourage others to join me! Because it’s fun. Bob Dylan is a fun person. Bob Dylan is a funny person. Some would say Bob Dylan is the funniest person.

But why take my word for it. Let’s go to the quotes!

In 1965, Bob Dylan did an interview with the great Nat Hentoff, may he rest in peace, for Playboy magazine. The audio of this interview is out there, and it’s pretty straight. That is not the interview that appeared in the pages of Playboy. Here’s Nat Hentoff telling the tale:

There were two interviews. The first was really an almost unusually straight interview. As I recall, it was a quite sober, almost historical, biographical account, a lot of opinion, a certain amount of his – you know [Dylan] can’t avoid being sardonically funny, but just a straight interview. The galleys were sent to him and I don’t recall him making more than two changes of no significance. Then the final set came to him after they messed with it [at the Playboy offices] in Chicago. I don’t know what they did but I think they put some words in his mouth. They fooled around with it. I got a call and he was furious. I said, “Look, tell them to go to hell. Tell them you don’t want it to run.” And he said, “No, I got a better idea. I’m gonna make one up.” … He made up an interview. I helped, I must say. Some of the good straight lines are mine, but all the really funny stuff is his. It was run with absolutely no indication it was a put-on. I remember I saw him two or three times in the month or two after and he’d say, “Hey, when’s it coming out, when’s it coming out?” He thought it was a really funny caper, which it was.


Perhaps the most famous part of this put-on interview is when Hentoff asked Dylan what made him decide to go the rock ‘n’ roll route. Dylan responded:

Carelessness. I lost my one true love. I started drinking. The first thing I know, I’m in a card game. Then I’m in a crap game. I wake up in a pool hall. Then this big Mexican lady drags me off the table, takes me to Philadelphia. She leaves me alone in her house, and it burns down. I wind up in Phoenix. I get a job as a Chinaman. I start working in a dime store, and move in with a thirteen-year-old girl. Then this big Mexican lady from Philadelphia comes in and burns the house down. I go down to Dallas. I get a job as a “before” in a Charles Atlas “before and after” ad. I move in with a delivery boy who can cook fantastic chili and hot dogs. Then this thirteen-year-old girl from Phoenix comes and burns the house down. The delivery boy – he ain’t so mild: He gives her the knife, and the next thing I know I’m in Omaha. It’s so cold there, by this time I’m robbing my own bicycles and frying my own fish. I stumble onto some luck and get a job as a carburetor out at the hot-rod races every Thursday night. I move in with a high school teacher who also does a little plumbing on the side, who ain’t much to look at, but who’s built a special kind of refrigerator that can turn newspaper into lettuce. Everything’s going good until that delivery boy shows up and tries to knife me. Needless to say, he burned the house down, and I hit the road. The first guy that picked me up asked me if I wanted to be a star. What could I say?

Hentoff: And that’s how you became a rock ‘n’ roll singer?

Dylan: No, that’s how I got tuberculosis.

This interview fits squarely in the early period when it’s understood and accepted that Dylan could be funny, but I would argue that this spirit of playfulness, of Dylan approaching interviews as capers – is something that’s never left him.

And this is the part of the talk where I find myself struggling, because there is so much material I could include I don’t even know where to begin. If you print out every interview Dylan’s done, it’s about 1500 pages, depending on font size and spacing. And you can just about pick any one of those pages at random and you’re gonna find something funny.

In 1976, Dylan did an interview with Neil Hickey for TV Guide – one of our greatest periodicals – and Dylan was asked what kind of music he listens to… what records does he play for his own amusement?

Dylan said: “Personally, I like sound-effects records. Sometimes late at night, I get a mint julep and just sit there and listen to sound effects. I’m surprised more of them aren’t on the charts. If I had my own label, that’s what I’d record.”

In 1984, Dylan did a really long interview with Bert Kleinman, a career retrospective-type deal, that was cut up and formed the basis of a radio special called Dylan on Dylan. Also in the room was Artie Mogull, who as an executive at Witmark Music signed Dylan to a publishing deal back in 1962. Dylan is cutting loose the whole time, it’s great fun.

At one point he goes:

People say, well isn’t it great to be able to do what you do? Well, you know, yeah, it is to a degree; but you forget that touring performers, anybody that’s an artist, that’s out touring, that’s playing live from town to town night after night – you think that’s easy, it’s not easy! You think that people are having a ball? I mean, people talk to you on the phone: “What’re you doing?” “Oh, I’m in, uh, Schenectady.” “Oh yeah, well you’re having a great time, you know, I’m stuck here… in Orlando.”

My favorite Dylan interviews are the unofficial ones. The tapes of Dylan talking to reporters for print pieces, for example. The kind of interviews that weren’t done to be broadcast, so Dylan’s not doing his performative speaking voice, he’s just talking. You get a sense of the actual guy – in the moments between the moments.

In fact, somewhere along the line of that Dylan on Dylan deal, Dylan is so funny that Kleinman says to him: “You’ve been smiling a lot and laughing a lot here. You don’t do that much on stage. But you say you really enjoy yourself. You look so serious.”

Dylan goes: “Well, the songs take you through different trips, you see. I mean, how you gonna sing ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,’ or ‘Tangled Up in Blue,’ or ‘With God on Our Side,’ or ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ or ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ or ‘License to Kill,’ or ‘Shot of Love,’ or ‘Poison Love’ – any of that. How can you sing that with a smile on your face? It would be kind of hypocritical.”

Joni Mitchell told a great story, in an interview she did with Dave DiMartino for Mojo in 1998. She was talking about the Great Music Experience, this big concert in Japan that both she and Dylan played in 1994.

She said: “[Dylan] called me up just before we went over and he said, ‘I forgot how to sing – but I remember now, I remember now. The trouble is they want to me do all those Bob Dylan songs – and they’re so heavy.’”

Mitchell lamented that both she and Dylan have been typecast as solemn: “It’s like Meryl Streep at a certain point decided to do comedy. I’ve done drama, he’s done drama; we’ve done it very well. But we both have a sense of humor.”

In 1985, Dylan did an interview with Time magazine’s Denise Worrell, which was published in her book Icons. Dylan said: “There’s some humor in my songs. I don’t know, I think so. Some other people might not get it. I think there are funny things inside a lot of them. Some there aren’t. It’s kind of mixed up so much that I wouldn’t be one to just point and say, ‘This is funny.’”

As I say, that’s something Dylan said in 1985. A few years before that, in 1981, Dylan came out with a record called Shot of Love, which he has repeatedly called his favorite album. I don’t have time to get into that now, but I made a video about that which you can find on the www computer. Dylan has called Shot of Love his favorite album a half-dozen times. He’s never called any of his other albums his favorite even once.

One of the things Dylan said about Shot of Love was that the reason it got short shrift is that people didn’t understand what he was doing on that album. And I would argue nowhere is that more evident than in the reaction to “Lenny Bruce.”

“Lenny Bruce” is a song Bob Dylan wrote which appears on Shot of Love, as well as on every list of the worst Bob Dylan songs. You know, every site now is a repository of lists. I’m waiting for somebody to do a list of the Top 150 Bob Dylan Lists. And every list of bad Bob Dylan lyrics is an opportunity for the person doing the list to sneer at “Lenny Bruce” and talk about how incredible it is that Dylan could miss the mark that badly.

The line in “Lenny Bruce” that critics always cite as one of Dylan’s worst, most embarrassing, cringiest lines is when Dylan sings of Bruce: “Never robbed any churches nor cut off any babies’ heads.” And people say things like, “gee, Bob, rather faint praise, don’t you think? Might want to raise your bar for what constitutes an accomplishment, I’ve never mutilated any babies, maybe you’d like to write a song about me.”

Then there’s another line: “I rode with him in a taxi once / Only for a mile and a half, seemed like it took a couple of months,” Which people love to point out could easily be read as an insult.

Here’s the thing: Why are we assuming this was a misfire, instead of Dylan knowing exactly where he was aiming and hitting the target dead-on?

If we think of Lenny Bruce – the man, not the song – what are some words we could use to describe him? Well, “funny” would obviously be one, on account of he was a comedian. Another would be “outrageous.” “Shocking.”

Now let’s swing back to “Lenny Bruce” the song. What are some words we could use to describe the song? Well, “funny” would be one. “Outrageous.” “Shocking.”

So let me get this straight: Bob Dylan writes a song about a funny, outrageous figure, the song is funny and outrageous – and I am supposed to believe this was an accident? That those lines strike you and I and anybody who’s ever heard them as funny, but Bob Dylan – in writing the song, in recording the song, in singing the song on stage over 100 times – it’s never occurred to him that those lines are funny?

I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that for a second. I believe Bob Dylan knew exactly what he was doing. He knew Lenny Bruce lived on a lightning bolt – that Lenny Bruce took extreme chances, showed extreme courage, had extreme failings. So Dylan honors him by writing about him using extreme language. The line Dylan has about killing babies; Lenny Bruce said: “If there were absolute freedom, people would run over babies and charge admission.” Dylan is saying, “Yeah, but not you, Lenny. You were one of the good ones.” The whole song is like that. Dylan not only praises Bruce, he praises him in the language that Bruce spoke. It’s a clever song, and I applaud Dylan for not folding under the weight of everybody who says it’s stupid, or that it’s at best unintentionally funny.

You hear this all the time with Dylan – how unintentionally funny he is. Well what is more likely: that this guy has unintentionally stumbled into saying and doing funny things consistently for sixty years, or that he’s just a funny person who says and does funny things because it’s funny?

I would submit, every time you hear that Dylan said or did something unintentionally funny, you can subtract the word “unintentionally” and you’ll be closer to the truth.

The Philosophy of Modern Song is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. You read the reviews, you’d never know it. It’d be one thing if critics said the jokes aren’t funny, but they reject the idea that they’re even jokes. Just a total negation of the whole tone of the book.

It’s like reviewing a Rodney Dangerfield show: “Mr. Dangerfield repeatedly stressed that he gets no respect. I find this hard to believe, he’s a comedian of great renown, well regarded by his peers.”

Or look at Rough and Rowdy Ways. Unlike The Philosophy of Modern Song, Rough and Rowdy Ways received good reviews, but again the funny bits got short shrift. You ask people to name funny bits in Dylan songs and the answers tend to be “The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken,” “They asked me for some collateral and I pulled down my pants,” or to take a later example: “Man says, ‘Freddy!’ I say, ‘Freddy who?’ He says, ‘Freddy or not here I come.’” Or people talk about the dad jokes Dylan would tell in his band intros. Joke jokes. I love all that stuff. But there are joke jokes and there are conceptual jokes. You listen to Rough and Rowdy Ways, or Tempest, and Dylan’s all over the place bludgeoning people and knifing them and mucking with their corpses. I for one find this very funny. Reminds me of Warren Zevon, who Dylan is a big fan of and who was a master of making the ridiculous seem grim and the grim seem ridiculous. It’s as if, after Zevon died, Dylan felt he had to take up the comically morbid mantle. And it’s particularly amusing in light of the fact that so many of Dylan’s peers are writing these moving meditations on their mortality, getting ready to make their transition from this world to the next. Meanwhile Dylan’s over here gathering gunpowder. Dylan’s saying: “If you guys want to die so bad, how about I kill you!”

In 2018, Dylan did an art exhibition called Mondo Scripto, for which he handwrote the lyrics to sixty of his most famous songs and then did a corresponding illustration for each song. The exhibition catalog contains a Q&A with Dylan, which to me reads like another Dylan caper where he’s supplying both the Qs and the As.

Those of you familiar with Mondo Scripto will recall that Dylan’s illustrations are very much on the nose. “Lay Lady Lay” has a line about a big brass bed – Dylan draws a big brass bed. There’s a lot of that going on.

As if anticipating that people might call these illustrations uninspired, the person questioning Bob Dylan – who may or may not be Bob Dylan – raises the point that the illustrations are “very literal,” thus allowing Dylan to explain that not only is this not uninspired, it’s extra inspired, and that it’s predicated on Mary Jo Bang’s translation of Dante’s Inferno with its corresponding drawings by Henrik Drescher. Which… say no more, Bob. Say no more.


This Q&A also includes other revelatory moments such as:

Did it take some time to figure out how [the songs] would be organised on paper?

It did, because the songs vary in length.

Do some songs lend themselves more easily to illustration than others?

The ones that are more visual do.


And my personal favorite exchange:

Was it difficult to come up with concepts for illustrations?

At first it was a bit of a dilemma, but then I started experimenting with other people’s songs. The Tom Petty song “Love is a Long Road” – I drew a picture of a dirt road. For the Billy Joel song “Moving Out” I drew a picture of a moving van. The Prince song “Darling Nikki” – I drew a picture of a young girl masturbating in a hotel lobby. I saw that, okay, it can be done, so then I did it with my songs.

Some of these responses call to mind another of my favorite semi-recent-ish Dylan interviews, and that was an interview Dylan did in 2009 to promote Hohner’s “Bob Dylan Signature Series Harmonica.” Dylan did this interview with the Director of Sales and Marketing for Hohner, Inc., and boy let me tell you it is illuminating. Keep in mind, the purpose of this interview was to promote the new Bob Dylan Signature Series Harmonica. Here are some of Dylan’s responses:

Does the harmonica play a role in your songwriting process?


How do you feel your harmonica playing has influenced today’s players?

I’m not sure it has.

Are there any young harmonica players today that capture your attention?

Not really. But I hope one comes along soon.

Of course I would be remiss if I left without mentioning what to me is Dylan’s comedic pièce de résistance, and that is an interview Dylan did while on tour with Carlos Santana in 1993. MTV sent a young reporter to speak with Dylan and Santana in Seattle, and rather than ask him about music, the reporter asked Dylan about pressing societal issues – because that always goes so well.

Do you think the availability of guns is a big problem today?

I don’t think there’s enough guns.

What about guns among kids? Do you think it’s just too prevalent?

Toy guns. There are moy toy guns than real guns, really.

Where do you think kids get these guns?

They get ’em in a toy store.

It is impossible to overstate how quick Dylan is with his responses here. Somebody might ask, where did he get these reflexes?

In 1968, Bob Dylan’s parents – Abram and Beatty Zimmerman – were interviewed by Robert Shelton. Really a fascinating document; Dylan’s father died a few weeks later so it’s not something that was or could ever be replicated. Anyway, there’s a section of this interview in which Shelton is probing to figure out how Dylan became such a skilled writer. And it inadvertently shows where Dylan got his comedy chops. It’s a print interview, so we can’t be certain of speed and inflection, but tell me this doesn’t remind you of somebody:

Robert Shelton: Was there anybody in the family that was a writer?

Bob Dylan’s Father: [pausing] No, outside of me there was no one.

Bob Dylan’s Mother: What did you ever write, a letter?

Bob Dylan’s Father: I could write if I wanted to write

I should say, in 2017, Dylan was asked by Bill Flanagan – in an interview posted on Dylan dot com – about the idea that he was the “jester” in Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Dylan did not take kindly to this idea.

In Don McLean’s “American Pie,” you’re supposed to be the jester.

Yeah, Don McLean, “American Pie,” what a song that is. A jester? Sure, the jester writes songs like “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “It’s Alright, Ma” – some jester. I have to think he’s talking about somebody else. Ask him.

This would appear to run counter to everything I’ve just said, but I don’t think it does. To say somebody is funny is very different from saying somebody’s a jester. A jester is somebody who uses humor for a particular purpose, and that purpose is flattery. A jester tries to ingratiate himself with his supposed societal superiors by playing the fool. Well, it goes without saying but Bob Dylan is nobody’s fool. One of the reasons Dylan doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his sense of humor is because it’s wholly his own. His objective with his jokes is to amuse himself, which is part of his larger mission to stay true to himself. If other people get what he’s putting down, comedically or otherwise, that’s great. But as he told Denise Worrell in 1985, he’s not gonna go out of his way to say “This is funny.” People are either gonna laugh or they’re not. And he’s good with it either way.

All right, there are many more avenues I’d love to wander aimlessly down before eventually passing out, but in the interest of time I gotta get to the big finish. Why does any of this matter? Here’s why I think it matters, or at least this is why I think it’s worth caring about, and you can decide whether you think it’s worth caring about too. I’m a Bob Dylan fan, as I suspect most people in this room are. It’s a heck of a conference to come to if you aren’t. Although I suppose everybody’s gotta be somewhere.

As a Bob Dylan fan, my interest is in expanding the Dylan fandom. My interest is in ensuring that interest in Bob Dylan doesn’t die when he dies, or when we die. And the only way to ensure that is to bring new people into the fold. How do we do that? Two words: Timothée Chalamet.

I think that’ll help. But the way to do it, the real way to do it, the only way to do it – is to meet people where they are. To not put up walls. There’s a peculiar impulse in society today that says: “If somebody doesn’t like something as much as I do, I’d rather they didn’t like it at all. If somebody doesn’t know as much about something as I do, I’d rather they knew nothing.” And that is death.

There’s nothing wrong with serious people doing serious scholarship as it relates to Bob Dylan – I love it. I thank everybody doing that work. I think I’ve proven that it is not work I’m capable of doing. But I also think there’s space for sillier stuff. And I think that it is through some of this sillier stuff that we can welcome in new fans. People for whom Bob Dylan can feel like homework; people for whom Dylan can seem like a remnant of a bygone era. My experience has been that if you show these people that Bob Dylan is not only one of the most profound, important artists of his time, but that he is also hilarious, both in his work and just as a dude – you can connect Dylan with people who otherwise would pass him by. And then from there those people can drill down deeper if they want. Or they can just chill out and have fun on the surface. Whatever works.

I hope this worked. Thanks, everybody.


WORLD OF BOB DYLAN: “Mr. Tambo & Mr. Bones, Play a Song for Me: Foster & Poe in Dylan’s ‘Nelly Was a Lady’ Chapter.”

“Mr. Tambo & Mr. Bones, Play a Song for Me: Foster & Poe in Dylan’s ‘Nelly Was a Lady’ Chapter.” World of Bob Dylan 2023, June 2023, Tulsa, OK.

BY Graley Herren, Xavier University


Robert Hunter, longtime Grateful Dead lyricist and sometime Dylan collaborator, wrote an interesting foreword to David Dodd’s book The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics. In his opening paragraph he observes, “When fans hear a song they like, they internalize it, dance to it, sing along. Tape it, collect it, trade it. When scholars hear a song they like, they annotate it” (Dodd xi). Now, if this were Dylan talking, I’d expect him to throw in a dig at nerds like us who waste our time annotating his songs. But instead Hunter offers a more sympathetic view: “There is more than one way to love a song. There are as many ways as there are listeners” (xi). Amen! Hunter appreciates that annotation – the shadow chasing of tracking down allusions to their original sources – isn’t an attempt to minimize, sterilize, or euthanize a song: it’s just another way to love it. The same holds true for The Philosophy of Modern Song. Writing the book is just another way for Dylan to love the songs of other artists. But sometimes his love speaks like silence: the art of the unsaid.

He devotes a chapter to “Truckin’,” a song written by Robert Hunter and performed by the Grateful Dead (and by Dylan in his 2023 Japanese and European tours). He describes Hunter as “steeped in the songs of Stephen Foster” (138). David Dodd identifies several Foster allusions in Hunter’s lyrics, including “the Doo-dah man” in “Truckin’,” a reference to Foster’s “Camptown Races” [“Camptown ladies sing this song / Doo-dah! Doo-dah!”].

Dylan is also steeped in the songs of Stephen Foster. He acknowledged his debts to Foster long ago. Readers of The Dylan Review are probably familiar with his touching rendition of “Hard Times” on Good as I Been to You (1992). In a 1985 interview with Robert Hilburn, Dylan reflected on his role models for songwriting: “But you can’t just copy somebody. If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to. Anyone who wants to be a songwriter should listen to as much folk music as they can, study the form and structure of stuff that has been around for 100 years. I go back to Stephen Foster” (1337).

In that same interview, Dylan tipped his cap to another artistic mentor from the nineteenth century: “I had read a lot of poetry by the time I wrote a lot of those early songs. I was into hard-core poets. […] Poe’s stuff knocked me out in more ways than I could name” (1340). Maybe he couldn’t name it then, but he has been naming Poe lately. He name-drops the poet in “I Contain Multitudes”: “Got a tell-tale heart like Mr. Poe / Got skeletons in the walls of people you know.” Dylan may also be nodding in Poe’s direction by naming his book The Philosophy of Modern Song, which sounds an awful lot like Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” a detailed explanation of how he wrote his most famous poem “The Raven.”

In Chapter 24 of The Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan focuses on “Nelly Was a Lady,” composed by Stephen Foster in 1849. Like many chapters, this one is very brief, consisting of a five-paragraph riff followed by a two-paragraph commentary, accompanied by one full-page and two half-page pictures. There’s a lot more going on here than first meets the eye – lots of breadcrumbs left for us annotators to trace back to their sources. Dylan’s most explicit statement of what he’s up to comes in the first sentence of the commentary: “Stephen Foster is the counterpart to Edgar Allan Poe” (115). He just drops that stone in the water and lets it sink. But a sinking stone gathers ripples. I want to follow some of those ripples through a series of annotations connecting Poe and Foster to one another and to their counterpart Dylan.

Poe published “The Raven” to instant acclaim in 1845, and he wrote “The Philosophy of Composition” the following year. In the essay he asserts: “the death […] of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.” Pretty creepy if you think about it – a beautiful woman must die in order for a man to mourn her loss beautifully. The canons of poetry and song are filled with countless examples, including “Nelly Was a Lady.” The opening verses depict this very same scenario:


Down on the Mississippi floating,
Long time I travel on the way.
All night the cottonwood a-toting,
Sing for my true love all the day.
Now I’m unhappy, and I’m weeping,
Can’t tote the cottonwood no more;
Last night, while Nelly was a-sleeping,
Death came a-knocking at the door.
Nelly was a lady.
Last night, she died.
Toll the bell for lovely Nell,
My dark Virginia bride.


Here is Dylan’s translation of the singer’s situation:


You’re hauling the timber on the grand river, the big river, river of tears, manifest destiny – you hoist the cottonwood logs, the silver bark poplars, that make bright shiny tables and furniture, but you’ve reached the station in life where the work is meaningless, and it’s been this way ever since grief came to knock. Knocking when the cock crowed – grief and gloom in the first light of morning, knocking out the bright lights of the heavens. (113, italics mine)


There’s a lot worth annotating here. Let’s begin with that knock-knock-knocking. We cannot miss the self-allusion to Dylan’s own song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” He does this repeatedly in The Philosophy of Modern Song, forging understated links between the songs he comments on and the songs he composed. I also hear strong echoes of Poe. Death comes a-knocking at the door in “The Raven,” too. The grief-stricken narrator first mistakes a person (or a ghost) rapping at his chamber door before realizing it is a bird at his window. Readers will doubtlessly hear another Dylan echo from the end of “Love Minus Zero / No Limit”: “My love she’s like some raven / At my window with a broken wing.”

Poe’s speaker grows increasingly frantic, interrogating the bird about its motives. He desperately seeks a message from his dead lover Lenore, some sign that they will one day be reunited. Unfortunately, he gets nothing from the raven but croaks, which he hears as “Nevermore.” Lenore, Eleanor, Nell, Nelly – it’s basically the same name. Both Poe’s “The Raven” and Foster’s “Nelly Was a Lady” dramatize the same circumstances: a first-person widower grieving for his dead wife. Dylan hears those intertextual echoes and writes a riff that at times could apply just as well to either work, as well as to some of his own songs. Poe, Foster, Dylan. I even wonder if he had an elegiac trio in mind when he inserted an image of three time-scarred mausoleums in Chapter 24.

“My dark Virginia bride.” Let’s pause over Virginia. After Poe’s father abandoned the family, his mother moved them to Richmond, Virginia. He briefly attended the University of Virginia but had to drop out because he couldn’t afford tuition. If you know anything about Poe, it’s probably that he wrote scary stories, was a drunk and drug fiend, and married his thirteen-year-old first cousin. You may also recall the name of his child-bride: Virginia Clemm. She died at the tender age of 24, and 40-year-old Poe followed her into the grave two years later in 1849, the same year Foster wrote “Nelly Was a Lady.”

“My dark Virginia bride.” Why dark? Because the singer and his lost love were slaves. What Dylan conspicuously neglects to mention in Chapter 24 is that “Nelly Was a Lady” was written by Foster for the minstrel stage and was originally performed in blackface and in dialect. Remember what Dylan told Hilburn when discussing his influence from Foster: “If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to” (1337). Dylan doesn’t explicitly reference Foster’s background and the minstrel roots of “Nelly Was a Lady,” but he did his homework and sneaks in obscure footnotes.

For instance, here’s an example of Dylan’s clever sleight of hand. This is from the Jeff Slate interview Dylan gave about The Philosophy of Modern Song. Slate asked him if it matters where you first hear a song. Dylan’s meandering answer makes you wonder if he’s lost his train of thought:


One of my granddaughters, some years back, who was about 8 years old at the time, asked me if I’d ever met the Andrews Sisters, and if I’d ever heard the song ‘Rum and Coca Cola.’ Where she heard it, I have no idea. When I said I’d never met them, she wanted to know why. I said because I just didn’t, they weren’t here. She asked, ‘Where did they go?’ I didn’t know what to say, so I said Cincinnati. She asked me if I would take her there to meet them. Another time, one of the others asked me if I wrote the song ‘Oh! Susanna.’ I don’t know how she heard the song, or when, or what her relationship to it is, but she knows it and can sing it. She probably heard it on Spotify.


Dylan is crazy like a fox. I suspect he knows that the Andrews Sisters are not from Cincinnati but rather from his old stomping grounds in Minneapolis – even an 8-year-old could Google it. I guarantee you the “Oh! Susanna” reference isn’t arbitrary. Stephen Foster worked as a bookkeeper for his brother’s shipping company in Cincinnati from 1846 to 1850. The offices of Irwin & Foster overlooked the bustling Ohio River wharf where goods were loaded and unloaded onto steamboats. Foster also frequented the bars and theaters of Cincinnati, where traveling minstrel shows did booming business. Inspired by what he saw on the wharf by day and the stage by night, he wrote several of his most famous songs while living and working in Cincinnati, including “Oh! Susanna” and “Nelly Was a Lady.”

Intrigued by Foster’s local connections to my adopted hometown, I went downtown to walk in his footsteps. He lived at a boarding house on Fourth Street. For many years afterwards, the building was converted to the Guilford School, and today it contains corporate office space and a fitness center. I found a commemorative plaque on the front of the building that reads:


On the site of this school between the years 1846-1850 lived Stephen C. Foster, master of the art of song, composer of ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’ ‘Swanee River,’ ‘Old Black Joe,’ and many others. In native ballad form and melodic strain distinctively American, he sang of simple joys and pathos to all the world.


We know that Dylan sometimes likes to visit homes where songwriters he admires lived in their youth. I don’t know if he ever visited the Guilford School building, but it would have been easy to do. Walk a couple blocks northwest from Foster’s former residence and you’ll run into Taft Theatre, where Dylan played his first concert in Cincinnati in March 1965, and where he returned to play in 2007. I made that short stroll myself, and on the way I was delighted to pass by the Edgar Apartments building. Total coincidence, of course, but a delicious one. Even the streetscape of Cincinnati invites connections between Foster, Poe, and Dylan.

Foster is sometimes called “the Father of American Music,” but much of his legacy now seems offensive and destructive. He perpetuated derogatory racist stereotypes through his so-called “Ethiopian melodies.” Foster frequently indulged the myth of slaves pining with nostalgic affection for Southern plantation life. Hell, he more than indulged it: he was one of the myth’s chief architects, and he cashed in on the popularity of this fraud through his popular minstrel songs. But, if you study blackface minstrelsy in any depth, as Dylan clearly has, then you’ll also learn that it’s more complicated than that.

Readers of this journal may be familiar with the 1993 book published by Eric Lott titled Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Dylan was apparently familiar with at least the title, since he borrowed the idea for his 2001 album “Love and Theft”, a collection of songs steeped in the minstrel tradition. While fully acknowledging the fundamental racism of blackface minstrelsy, Lott also finds other economic, ideological, and psychological forces at play in the tradition, including envy, class-conscious anxiety, and desire – in short “love and theft.”

Foster penned many famous minstrel songs, but Dylan’s choice to focus on “Nelly Was a Lady” is telling. Scholars often credit this song as a turning-point in Foster’s career, where he pivoted away from racial mockery in favor of sentimental ballads designed to elicit sympathy. The singer demands dignity for Nelly. She is not a figure for ridicule. She is a lady, and she deserves respect and commemoration. Dylan makes a redemptive gesture of his own by spotlighting Alvin Youngblood Hart’s version of the song. Hart is an African American blues singer, and his sensitive interpretation isn’t tarnished by blackface appropriation. “Alvin sings the song in its pure form,” as Dylan puts it (115).

But. There’s only so far one can go to purify “Nelly Was a Lady.” We shouldn’t pussyfoot around by whitewashing out the burnt cork. You might accuse Dylan of laundering Foster’s reputation, giving him a free pass and an undeserved promotion, by setting him up as counterpart to Poe, instead of minstrel patriarchs like Daddy Rice or Dan Emmett. If Dylan wants to put Foster’s work in conversation with Poe’s, it seems worth mentioning a fundamental distinction, namely that “Nelly Was a Lady” is “The Raven” in blackface.

As composed by Foster and sung by Alvin Youngblood Hart, it’s a genuinely moving ballad. “A lot of sad songs have been written,” writes Dylan, “but none sadder than this” (115). However, viewed in its original context – published in Foster’s Ethiopian Melodies and performed by the Christy Minstrels – the song was tangled up in blackface. No matter how sympathetic Foster’s intentions may have been, he was working within a denigrating theatrical form dedicated to the proposition that all men were not created equal.

Now let me dismount my high horse and give Dylan some credit. In certain subtle but unmistakable ways, he signals his awareness of the problematic minstrel history behind “Nelly Was a Lady.” Let’s return to a line I quoted earlier and reconsider it from another angle. “You’re hauling timber on the grand river, the big river, river of tears, manifest destiny” (113, italics mine). As a student of nineteenth-century American history, Dylan knows that the concept of “Manifest Destiny” had specific significance for that era. American nationalists believed it was the divinely ordained mission of the United States to expand its dominion over the continent, spreading democracy and capitalism, and seizing land from indigenous people and people of color. Manifest Destiny was the driving force behind the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) which greatly expanded U.S. territory out west. Stephen Foster stayed back in Cincinnati and helped run the office while his brother Dunning went south to fight in the Mexican-American War.

Another sign that Dylan is conscious of context comes in the final paragraph: “The guitar turnarounds are a slow cakewalk between heartbroken verses, loss shared on the front porch” (115, italics mine). The cakewalk originated as a Black dance tradition in the U.S. South around the mid nineteenth century. Blackface minstrels soon recognized that the cakewalk made for a highly entertaining spectacle in live performance, however, and started working these numbers into their shows. By the late nineteenth century, cakewalks were routine on the minstrel stage. Dylan’s cakewalk reference isn’t accidental here. But it’s not elaborated upon either. He gestures obliquely in the direction of minstrelsy, but he doesn’t spell it out, leaving us annotators to lift that barge and tote that bale.

In my book on Time Out of Mind, I interpret the songs recorded for that album as a series of dreams working on multiple levels. In the final chapter, I argue that, on one level, the singer dreams his way into the experiences of a fugitive slave. This imaginative exercise may be what prompted Dylan to start considering his own work in relation to the minstrelsy tradition with greater scrutiny and urgency. Something certainly sent him down this path, because it kept reappearing in various guises in the first decade of the twenty-first century. I’ve already mentioned the minstrel show influence on 2001’s “Love and Theft”. In 2003, Dylan co-wrote and starred in the film Masked and Anonymous, which includes his performance of the minstrel staple “Dixie” and an encounter with the ghost of a minstrel performer (Ed Harris in blackface). In 2006, he extended the pattern on the album Modern Times, lifting several lines from the so-called “Poet of the Confederacy” Henry Timrod, and reworking an old minstrel song into the haunting ballad “Nettie Moore.” [My friend Rob Reginio has an excellent chapter on this song in Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan’s Road from Minnesota to the World.] Then his fascination for the subject seemed to fade. Or maybe it just got channeled into the descendants of the minstrel legacy: the songs of Tin Pan Alley, Dylan’s major musical interest in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

Now in the century’s third decade, he reminds us that minstrelsy is a recessive gene in the DNA of modern song. Dylan focuses his final chapter on “Where or When.” The song was written by Rodgers & Hart for their 1937 musical Babes in Arms, but Dylan pays particular attention to the 1939 film adaptation, which includes a blackface performance by Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Dylan describes America’s sweethearts “slapping on the blackface and mugging incessantly through a simulacrum of a traditional minstrel show, with Rooney portraying Mr. Bones, Garland portraying Mr. Tambo, and Douglas McPhail portraying the straight-man interlocutor. All three characters were minstrel show mainstays, which explains but does not excuse their presence” (332). He neglects to mention that Rooney and Garland’s grotesque travesty opens with a performance of Foster’s “Oh! Susanna.” The phrase “explains but does not excuse” applies to Foster’s troubling entanglement with minstrelsy in “Nelly Was a Lady” as well, and to some of Dylan’s own excursions into this cultural minefield.

Eric Lott devotes a chapter to Dylan in his 2017 book Black Mirror: The Cultural Contradictions of American Racism. Lott speculates, “I would guess that Dylan regards minstrelsy, say, whatever its ugliness, as responsible for some of the United States’ best music as well as much of its worst” (201). Lott further asserts that Dylan “wants to step up and face the racial facts of one of the traditions he inherited” (202). Does Dylan “step up and face the racial facts” of “Nelly Was a Lady” in The Philosophy of Modern Song? Not exactly. He foregrounds the things he loves about the song while remaining largely silent about its more disturbing elements. That said, while hopscotching his way through Chapter 24, he purposefully drops tell-tale clues that point towards the skeletons in Foster’s walls. He draws circles around his own omissions and calls attention to things he avoids confronting directly – presumably so that annotators like me have something to write for journals like this. In his signature style for the book – the art of the unsaid – Dylan makes furtive glances and winking innuendos to insinuate connections between Foster, Poe, and his own work. Then he leaves the shadow chasing to us.


Works Cited

Dodd, David G. The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics. Simon & Schuster, 2015.

—. “Hard Times.” Good as I Been to You. Columbia, 1992.

Dylan, Bob. “I Contain Multitudes.” Rough and Rowdy Ways. Columbia, 2020.

—. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Columbia, 1973.

—. “Love Minus Zero / No Limit.” Bringing It All Back Home. Columbia, 1965.

—. “Love and Theft.” Columbia, 2001.

—. “Nettie Moore.” Modern Times. Columbia, 2006.

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

—. Time Out of Mind. Columbia, 1997.

Foster, Stephen C. “Camptown Races.” Songs of America.


—. “Nelly Was a Lady.” Songs of America. https://songofamerica.net/song/nelly-was-a-lady/.

—. “Oh! Susanna.” Songs of America. https://songofamerica.net/song/oh-susanna/.

Herren, Graley. Dreams and Dialogues in Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. Anthem Press, 2021.

Hilburn, Robert. “Rock’s Enigmatic Poet Opens a Long-Private Door.” Los Angeles Times

(4 April 2004). Every Mind Polluting Word: Assorted Bob Dylan Utterances. Ed. Artur

Jarosinski. Don’t Ya Tell Henry, 2006, pp. 1337-43.

Lott, Eric. Black Mirror: The Cultural Contradictions of American Racism.

Belknap Press, 2017.

—. Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Oxford University

Press, 1993.

Masked and Anonymous. Directed by Larry Charles. Written by Sergei Petrov and Rene

Fontaine (aka Bob Dylan and Larry Charles). Sony Pictures Classics, 2003.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy of Composition.” Poetry Foundation.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/ rticles/69390/the-philosophy-of composition.

—. “The Raven.” Poetry Foundation.


Reginio, Robert. “‘Nettie Moore’: Minstrelsy and the Cultural Economy of Race in Bob

Dylan’s Late Albums.” Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan’s Road from Minnesota to the

World. Eds. Colleen J. Sheehy and Thomas Swiss. University of Minnesota Press, 2009,

pp. 213-24.

Slate, Jeff. “Bob Dylan Q&A about ‘The Philosophy of Modern Song’” (20 December 2022).

The Official Website of Bob Dylan. https://www.bobdylan.com/news/bob-dylan-interviewed-by-wall-street-journals-jeff-slate/.


WORLD OF BOB DYLAN: “‘The future for me is already a thing of the past’”: The Philosopher’s Nostalgic Dilemma in The Philosophy of Modern Song”

“‘The future for me is already a thing of the past’”: The Philosopher’s Nostalgic Dilemma in The Philosophy of Modern Song.” World of Bob Dylan 2023, June 2023, Tulsa, OK.

BY Jim Salvucci


Bob Dylan clearly loves the past, and The Philosophy of Modern Song is steeped in seeming nostalgia. Almost every song selection is old, a few very old. The photos and illustrations are mostly vintage, many in black and white. The prose itself is old-fashioned, harkening back to the hip rhythms of the Beats and the diction of the hard-boiled detective novel. Even the themes of the book are often backward looking – the casual sexism, the risible machismo, the dated references.

I could tell you the origins of the term nostalgia, that it was coined in the eighteenth century by a Swiss physician to document a mysterious madness associated with homesickness experienced by Swiss soldiers during deployment. Or that by now, no longer a malady, it has been reconceived as a mere a fondness for the past, particularly an idealized or romanticized past, or as Dylan describes it, “the sanitized versions of life.” I could tell you about all that, but I won’t. I will tell you that one problem nostalgics have is that to be truly nostalgic, one must eschew optimism. After all, to focus on the past as ideal makes moving forward undesirable if not impossible. The only future that nostalgics long for is one that replicates a past that never really was. This is the dead end of all retrograde ideologies, such as MAGA and other Lost Causes, and backward-looking trends, such as the vinyl revival. Unless you are willing to force a future based on a false past, there is nowhere to dwell but back in that misremembered past, and that past has passed if it ever existed. In the specific case of vinyl records, it has passed with a skip and a hiss and maybe another skip.

Yes, Dylan loves the past and lovingly pays tribute to it in The Philosophy of Modern Song. But for Dylan, as this book makes clear, the past is just fodder for the future. It’s merely a source that feeds the pastiche nature of his art and thinking. He builds anew from the pieces of the past. He assembles his philosophy from what we can preserve while always looking for the next thing. As has been established, particularly in the last quarter century, Dylan’s writing technique is roughly parallel to his approach to metallic sculptures: elaborate and wholly new constructions framed by old scraps, many unremarkable and otherwise forgotten. A newness literally assembled from the old. Moreover, his nostalgic tone furthers his irony and highlights satiric moments. If nostalgia is a fondness for an idealized past, Dylan cannot be a nostalgic, for, as a creator, he is an undoubted if cynical optimist.


The Philosophy of Modern Song is quite deceptive. On its surface, it looks like a slightly undersized coffee-table book. The black and white cover features retro red lettering. The cover photo itself at first may seem familiar, one you have seen many times. But look again. Sure, there is Little Richard, but he is posing with whom? On the right is Eddie Cochran, a promising young rock musician who died in a car crash at age 21. In the middle, the only one with an instrument, is Alis Lesley, one of the many “female Elvises” who seem about as historically abundant as all the “new Dylans.” Her career also ended abruptly at the age of 21 when she quit. The photos and illustrations throughout are so old that some of the more modern ones can be a bit jarring, such as the sudden appearance of an ebullient Jackson Browne outside a tour bus that sports the image of a launching space shuttle for some reason. It’s a great full-color shot of Browne, but it does not fit with the flow of black-and-white vintage images, the old- time movie posters and advertisements, the retro postcards, the sideshow signage, the paparazzi snapshots, the myriad photos of random older folks doing older-folk things. The colorized photo on the back cover anticipates (if a back-cover photo can anticipate) the nearly dozen photos of record stores, record displays, record labels, record factories, and just plain records that are sprinkled throughout with nary an image of an 8-track, cassette, or CD, let alone an MP3 player.

Song Selection

It is much the same with the song selection, which skews old, older, and older still, challenging the implication of “Modern” in the book title. The second-most recent recording that appears is 2003’s “Dirty Life and Times” by Warren Zevon, itself a look back in time, albeit a more jaundiced and personal look than Dylan’s. By far the oldest composition in the book is “Nelly Was a Lady” by Stephen Foster. In a twist that is most fitting for this collection of turns, Dylan’s chapter on Foster’s song features bluesman Alvin Youngblood Hart’s version from 2004, a year after Zevon’s recording. Thus, the oldest song is represented by the most recent recording.

Diction and Style

In line with the hoary song selection is the diction and patter of Dylan’s prose, which sometimes reads like Raymond Chandler, the hipster years. It is a charming mélange – quick, quirky, canny, and occasionally cranky – that, as many have noted, recalls Dylan’s style from his Theme Time Radio Hour days. Here too, as with the illustrations, occasional contemporary references or language rip us from the patter of Dylan’s retro style. Here is just one example selected at random. It’s a from the middle of the “El Paso” chapter.

El Paso – the passageway, the escape hatch, the secret staircase – ritual crime and symbolic lingo – circular imagery, names and numbers, transmigration, deportation, and all in the cryptic first person, the primitive self. The stench of perfume, alcohol, a puff of smoke, the duel, the worthless life, pain in the heart, staying in the saddle, love in vain, the grim reaper, and a love that’s stronger than death, and other things. (108)

The paragraph continues for several more lines in that paratactic style that Dylan uses so much throughout the book with nary a predicate in sight.

As with the illustrations, sometimes more contemporary terms or references can be quite jarring in the context of the more old-fashioned yet not stale prose. One small example, in the chapter on the Osborn Brothers’ bluegrass number “Ruby, Are You Mad?” Dylan abruptly references heavy metal music and guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen. He then compares the Osborns’ song to “speed metal without the embarrassment of Spandex and junior high school devil worship” (143-4). Such anachronistic shifting occurs throughout The Philosophy of Modern Song, including in one of the more flagrantly nostalgic chapters, the one addressing Sonny Burgess’s unreleased late 50s track “Feels So Good.” After Dylan laments “the late great country you grew up in,” he describes the origin of the term “rock and roll.” He identifies the term as a “thinly veiled euphemism for copulation” (223), which is of course itself a coy euphemism for “fucking” (a term he has no compunctions using elsewhere.). After that he pivots to 60s drug use, The Rolling Stones and then to Skype, Zoom, and Face Time, diverging by miles from the song’s 1950’s origin.

Specific Passages

It is extraordinary how many chapters, sections, paragraphs, and sentences in The Philosophy of Modern Song start with time designators such as “back in the day,” “in the past,” “today,” or “now days.” Even Dylan’s commentary on contemporary culture is steeped in a comparison with bygone days. One of my favorites is from the chapter on The Who’s “My Generation”:

Recently, we have entered a new phase, where anyone entering the age of twenty-two as of 2019 is now a member of Generation Z. While people make jokes about millennials, that group is now old news, as obsolete as all the previous generations –– the baby boomers, Gen X, the Fragile Generation, the Intermediates, the Neutrals, the Dependable, the Unshaken, and the Clean Slate. (43)

Dylan’s sardonic take on the industry of generational labeling distances him from bygone generations (even his own). It betrays no allegiance to any particular period, past or present. So much for the voice of his generation. In contrast, the nostalgia-soaked chapter on Burgess’s “Feels So Good” ends with this zinger: “This is the sound that made America great” (224). Your mind might have automatically added an “again” at the end, a phrase Dylan slyly employed in full earlier in the chapter: “maybe you’re wondering what happened to the late, great country you grew up with or how you can make America great again” (223). Dylan’s invocation of this charged slogan seems apolitical and, in fact once more, sardonic. You are not supposed to recoil in horror. Nor are you to pump your fist and chant “U S A!” Instead, he inspires a knowing smile and chuckle. At least that’s how it worked for me. On top of all that caginess, much of the chapter is an inexplicably a moral rant about drug use.

Other passages throughout the book drip with longing for the bygone, whether it be his ongoing affection for old-time sociopathic outlaws, his fretting over the way religion is practiced nowadays (“as a thing that must be journeyed as a chore” (97)), or the passage on Hank Williams’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart” that starts with “That’s the problem with a lot of things these days,” that everything now is too niche and “overly fussed with” (165). But even this curmudgeonly rant is offset by the next passage when Dylan, tongue-in-cheek, speculates about Williams singing all the hits of his day, such as “How Much Is that Doggie,” “Que Sera, Sera,” and “Stardust.” We will see this pattern again and again, a nostalgic romp juxtaposed to or immersed in humor, sarcasm, or jolting contrasts. That rant about religion these-a-days, morphs into a bizarre riff about the “excitement” Dylan experiences while reading the Book of Job, which wryly concludes with the seeming non sequitur, “Here’s another way to look at a love song” (97). As he says in that same paragraph, “Context is everything” (97). Dylan does make a strong argument, albeit not an original one, in favor of old media:

We all shared a baseline cultural vocabulary. People who wanted to see the Beatles on a variety show had to watch flamenco dances, baggy pants comics, ventriloquists and maybe a scene from Shakespeare. (325)

That shared experience opened minds to new realities and possibilities whereas he continues, “Today the medium contains multitudes and man needs only pick one thing he likes and feast exclusively on a stream dedicated to it” (325). It’s the old we-used-to-have-a-shared-national-knowledge-base-and-therefore-a-shared-national-discourse-which-we-have-diluted argument, not entirely untrue. He also expresses his fondness for old movies throughout. It’s hard, though, to not imagine that he included the Drifters’ 1964 song “Saturday Night at the Movies” solely so he could wax on about some of his favorite films, mostly in black and white (317). Indeed, not once does he mention the ostensible topic of Chapter 64, that being the Drifters and/or their song. He only discusses movies! The chapter ends with another sardonic MAGA reference: “People keep talking about making America great again. Maybe they should start with the movies” (317).

Dylan’s last chapter on Dion and the Belmonts summarizes his view of how the past informs the present. He lists items that have more-or-less remained the same over time and concludes, “you can be absolutely sure that it happened before and will happen again –– it’s inevitable … if it’s not happening now, it wasn’t happening then or ever” (329).

Not Nostalgia

So much of this sounds like nostalgia, right? That praise for the past that implicitly or explicitly deprecates the present and holds little hope for the future. It is important, though, to watch the juxtapositions of theme, word, image, and so on to catch the nuance of Dylan’s message here. For one small example of how this works, that chapter on “Saturday Night at the Movies” – when Dylan proposes making America great again by making movies great again – also features a black and white, World War II-era Weegee photo of a grabby sailor awkwardly groping a woman in a movie theater. The woman’s clothes are a bit disheveled, and while her face is largely obscured, she appears either indifferent or unconscious in the moment. The two other moviegoers in the frame are less interested in both the movie and the nearby maritime sounding than they are in the creepy photographer lurking in the dark. If this is the scene Dylan chooses to represent the superiority of erstwhile movie viewing, what does it really mean to make movies great again, let alone America?

A little more exploration of one chapter in particular will help illustrate what Dylan is up to. Chapter 25 on bluesman Johnny Taylor’s 1973 number “It’s Cheaper to Keep Her” is arguably the most sexist in The Philosophy of Modern Song and is one of several chapters where the song and the artist barely make a cameo. In it, Dylan uses the song to launch a broadside on divorce lawyers as a race of greedy manipulators who are “by definition in the destruction business” and who “feign innocence with blood on their hands.” He also approvingly notes that in bygone days, “God-fearing members of the community regularly gave divorced folks the skunk-eye” for their general untrustworthiness (118). Later he preaches about “the laws of God” that “override the laws of man” (119). He is out-and-out sententious about the duty of divorced parents to support a child, before determining that “Ultimately, marriage is for the sake of those children.” He then concludes matter-of-factly, “And a couple who has no children, that’s not a family. They are just two friends” (118). I generally recoil at commentators who drag Dylan’s biography into every discussion of his work, but I would be remiss if I did not mention that this man, Bob Dylan, has been married and divorced at least twice himself, which certainly explains his animus for divorce lawyers but not his preachy traditional-marriage screed. This, of course, is all a prelude to the noxious solution he will propose at the end of the chapter, and subsequently we are subjected to Dylan’s polygamist fantasy, which starts as an argument specifically for polygyny. He doubles down on his inherent sexism (and heteronormativity) with his assumption that it will typically be the husband in a divorce who has sole responsibility to pay support. Then he treats us to this anti-feminist, self- pitying salvo:

Women’s rights crusaders and women’s lib lobbyists take turns putting man back on his heels until he is pinned behind the eight ball dodging the shrapnel from the smashed glass ceiling. (121)

Notice that in this amalgam of wretchedness and mismatched metaphors he refers to the victim of all this feminist oppression as a generalized “man,” not “a man” in particular. But wait, there’s more! He then tinges his defense of his anti-feminism with misogyny, arguing any “downtrodden woman” would welcome a rich man’s protection by joining some sort of harem. It’s a statement worthy of Alex Jones minus the dietary supplements. In yet another twist, Dylan then helpfully points out that all along he never explicitly precluded the practice of polyandry before sarcastically declaring, “have at it, ladies. There’s another glass ceiling for you to break” (121).

And what does this have to do with nostalgia? Well first, there are the retrograde attitudes obviously. Is this Dylan’s pining for the casual sexism of yore? But what also of the language used? While “glass ceiling” is still a prevalent term, “women’s lib” is moribund, drolly archaic even. When was the last time you heard that phrase used in conversation? When I Googled it, all the first-page hits were explanations of the term, not actual usage in the vernacular. I will bet there are younger readers who don’t even recognize it. A reader who is affronted to distraction by Dylan’s sexist tropes may not even notice it slip by. As with other similar sections and passages, this obnoxiousness is accompanied by exaggerated language, extremist posturing, odd or comical images, and other hijinks. All this is to suggest that there is a wink-wink here, accompanied by a nod-nod.

In her book Irony’s Edge, Linda Hutcheon describes the “meta-ironic function” or marker, the textual or visual indicator that one is in the presence of irony or that irony will soon appear (154). The meta-ironic marker can take many forms – such as, “gestural,” “phonic,” or “graphic” (155). It is the equivalent of a tongue planted firmly in the cheek or finger to the nose. The markers of irony can be structural too (154) or meta-ironic and structural (156). The oddball factoids Dylan includes, the jarring juxtapositions, the sly illustrations, the knowing tone, the sudden reversals, and even the curmudgeonly voice that pervades the text operate meta-ironically to enable us to “get” Dylan’s irony. So how does his irony work? I would argue that Dylan’s irony here is meant sometimes just to amuse and sometimes to further a satiric point. I am not suggesting that The Philosophy of Modern Song falls into the genre of satire, but it is, like much of Dylan’s output, a work that contains satiric elements without being fully satiric. Case in point, “It’s Cheaper to Keep Her” is all by itself a fairly knuckleheaded song, a churlish novelty number, the product of a clueless era that may induce a mordant grin or a low groan. Meanwhile Dylan’s riffing on women’s lib and the mechanics of polygamy ultimately punch up the song’s ideological shortcomings – a subversive commentary that exposes the arguably offensive foibles of the song. In other words, satire. Then, after four pages without having once mentioned the subject matter of the chapter, Dylan seemingly out of the blue ends it with, “It’s cheaper to keep her, indeed,” thus at last connecting his commentary and the song. Dylan employs flagrantly sexist tropes in other chapters as well – notably the one on the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman” (253). But meta-ironic markers arise there too, my favorite being an illustration featuring a too-literal portrait of a five-member band of eagles.

So, this is the philosopher’s dilemma in The Philosophy of Modern Song. How can you simultaneously honor the past, critique the past, and build the future upon it? Dylan loves the past, but he is not delusional about its shortcomings. The past is a component, an ingredient in the farraginous recipe that Dylan is whipping up in his Promethean kitchen. That he uses boorish jokes, odd and deflating juxtapositions, a few bizarre choices, and even flagrantly outdated thinking at once obscures his mission and marks it. People often talk about Dylan’s overlooked humor, but he is even less recognized for his considerable accomplishments as a satirist. In The Philosophy of Modern Song, when he plays the curmudgeon, the fuddy-duddy, the stick in the mud – shaking his harmonica rack at the neighborhood kids and yelling, “get off my private beach!” while carping on the nation’s decline – he is evoking a faux nostalgia that serves a more complex purpose. Dylan is no philosopher, at least not any more than he is a nostalgic. He is not out to write a philosophy of song any more than he is out to write a full- length satire. Instead, he seeks to tease out the philosophy in the songs he addresses, but – not interested in academic exegesis – he opts instead for a more subtle, dangerous, and interesting approach, using style and form to subtly make his substantive points. In all his work, Dylan regularly traffics in humor, irony, and satire – perhaps just for the fun of it. His seeming nostalgia in The Philosophy of Modern Song is one part of the mix. All this old stuff, though, is merely material for Dylan’s next work, be it a song, book, or whatever. Dylan loves the past as it serves and informs his creative future.


Works Cited

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

Hutcheon, Linda. Irony’s Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony. New York: Routledge, 1995.


WORLD OF BOB DYLAN: “‘The Laws of Time Didn’t Apply to You’: Bob Dylan and the Zeitgeist of the Discontent”

“‘The Laws of Time Didn’t Apply to You’: Bob Dylan and the Zeitgeist of the Discontent.” World of Bob Dylan 2023, June 2023, Tulsa, OK.

BY Court Carney, Stephen F. Austin State University


At first glance, Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song, published in late 2022, overwhelms. The book features so many different songs and interpretations. Like a giant puzzle or, from a different perspective, a Joseph Cornell box. Intricate and mysterious. Where was the key? There also was a flurry of great immediate takes along the lines of “Can you believe what this song you’ve never heard says about our history?” Yet, something throbbed from the pages, less connected to the specific songs and more akin to a threat, sadness, or dissonant inchoate hum. I began to think of the book less in terms of songs and what Dylan likes (and, by extension, via omissions, what he dislikes) and certainly removed from the language used, authorial identity, or an accounting of demographics. All worthy, important topics. And topics that will continue to spin out thoughtful and engaged work. But I kept being drawn to something else in the book’s totality. A new song began to emerge, but one of loss, searching, ambivalence, anti-modernism, or at least its cousin, ambi-modernism. I began to situate Dylan’s book within a more significant age of discontent. From films and books and infinite news pieces, the past couple of years has been defined by a particular form of cultural discontent. A gloominess brought about by the modern condition and then, of course, reflected and refracted by it. We have lost a lot along this road toward progress as defined by late-stage capitalism. And traditionalism, whether good faith or not, has collapsed too, under a shift away from decorum politically, socially, and culturally.

A look at The Philosophy of Modern Song through this lens and somewhat detached from the songs themselves allows for a perspective at once defiant and driving. None of this is new, of course, and much of this modernist contempt leeches into the soil of the blues songs and motifs that defined large parts of Dylan’s career. Greil Marcus, in a timely reprint of an old column on World Gone Wrong and Good As I Been to You: “On both records, the music is all about values: what counts, what doesn’t, what lasts, what shouldn’t.” As Dylan himself notes: “it’s about Ambiguity, the fortunes of the privileged elite, flood control – watching the red dawn not bothering to dress.”[1] Dylan has long walked through this undergrowth of dissatisfaction and world-weariness. And in some ways, this entire discussion dates back to the various waves of postindustrial fears. As we have seen, nostalgia plays a role here but also something thornier. Still, I think something newer and more specific is happening. Throughout The Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan checks in with this pulse of ambi-modernism – a concept that gets at a certain vibe. I don’t see Dylan as offering a gauzy-eyed and uncritical tribute to the past, or that there was necessarily some eternal truth in 1949 or 1957 or 1961 that forever was corrupted. He’s more nuanced than that. But there is a sense of loss or a feeling that something has been lost in terms of options or, as Marcus notes, “what counts, what doesn’t, what lasts, what shouldn’t.”

We see this throughout The Philosophy of Modern Song.

On “Detroit City”: “Like thousands of others, he left the farm, came to the big city to get ahead, and got lost.”[2]

On “Pump it Up”: “Why all the monotonous and lifeless music that plays inside your head?”[3]

On “Take Me From this Garden of Evil”: “But you’re in limbo, and you’re shouting at anyone who’ll listen…you want to be emancipated from all the hokum. You don’t want to daydream your life away, you want to get beyond the borderlands and you’ve been ruminating too long.”[4]

On “Money Honey”: “People with no discernable income buy flawless knockoff watches with one letter misspellings to thwart copyright. And then wealthy people buy the same “Rulex” [sic] so their six-figure real watches won’t get stolen when they are out at dinner.”[5]

On “My Generation”: “Every generation gets to pick and choose what they want from the generations that came before with the same arrogance and ego-driven self-importance that the previous generations had when they picked the bones of the ones before them.”[6]

On “Nelly was a Lady”: “You’ve reached the station in life where the work is meaningless….Now you live life absent-minded and distracted, but you won’t give in to emotions, if you did you’d be sunk.”[7]

On “Ruby Are You Mad?”: “But people confuse tradition with calcification. We listen to an old record and imagine it sealed in amber. A piece of nostalgia that exists for our own needs, without a thought of the sweat and toil, anger and blood that went into making it or the thing it may have turned into….A snapshot can be riveting and artful, but it is the choice of the single moment plucked from the stream moments that makes it immortal.”[8]

On “Your Cheatin’ Heart”: “That’s the problem with a lot of things these days. Everything is too full now; we are spoon-fed everything…Perhaps this is why music is not a place where people put their dreams at the moment; dreams suffocate in these airless environs.”[9]

On “Blue Bayou”: “You’re looking forward to contentment and happiness on Blue Bayou, although right now you’re friendless, all by yourself, and feel marooned, ill at ease and edgy.”[10]

On “Midnight Rider”: “The midnight rider wants to return things back to a pre-corporate economic order and wipe the slate clean….The midnight rider has sympathizers.”[11]

On “Everybody’s Crying Mercy”: “[This song] offers a jaundiced view of the current state of the world – both when the songs were written and, sadly, now.”[12]

On “Feel So Good”: “Put it on repeat….and maybe if you’re wondering what happened to the late, great country you grew up with or how you can make America great again perhaps this record can give you some idea….Of course, this was before America was drugged into a barely functioning torpor…but it’s always hard to recognize yourself in someone else’s photo.”[13]

On “Big Boss Man”: Modern man is your employee – servile and hypercritical, he’s the informed citizen, the rational being, the yes man and the ass kisser, and his temple is the movie theater. He’s working for you around the clock, and he’s dehydrated. It would take oceans of water to cleanse him from his previous lives. He needs his rivers of poetry and music, but you won’t let him pause or stand down for a second from his chores…. You’re the Cyclopean giant – you’re on the right side of history. The supreme oligarch, the Generalissimo, the over-the-top Overlord who treats the whole world like butlers and chambermaids. You’re a man of distinction. You should be happy that people want to emulate you.”[14]

On “Strangers in the Night”: “Tramps and mavericks, the object of each other’s affection, enraptured with each other and creating an alliance – ignoring all the ages of man, the golden age, electronic age, age of anxiety, the jazz age. You’re here to tell a different story, a bird of another feather.”[15]

On “Saturday Night at the Movies”: “Sequels and remakes roll off the assembly line nowadays with alarming frequency and astronomical budgets but they still can’t recapture the wonder and magic of the originals….Those who dismiss movies from before their time as merely simplistic are missing out.”[16]

On “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”: “This song is a remembrance of things past, you’re looking back to olden times, to things that have happened before now.”[17]

You have these constant repetitions here: the unconventional life destroyed by normalcy – the constriction of creativity. The fear of being hemmed in, of being suffocated, vitality snuffed out by all the thou musts and thou shalts. It’s all about escape, reinvention, obsolescence, out-of-date, despair, suffering, mistranslation, generational shifts, generational static, and desperation. The noise of the Now drowning out the What Could Be or Could Have Been. Not negative, nor positive, optimistic, nor pessimistic: a more self-assured Zen take on loss. What have we lost? And who are the heroes? The deserter, the outlaw, the hobo, the maverick, the tramp. The enduring heroes of Dylan – no surprises here – but clearly, this book has a thumb on the scale in terms of values and needs and desires. Early reviews of the book took the title as a joke or an oversell. How do these songs cohere to something resembling a philosophy? And yet, from a distance, at least one perspective yields something definitive. How do we deal with the modern world? Here are several dozen songs that perhaps provide a path.

At the end of 2022 and into 2023, several prominent media pieces began to build a constellation of sameness: something was going on with Gen Z. After years of millennial handwringing over millennial destruction of all things holy, such as dairy to doorbells, a new culture of Not For Us, we demanded something different, something new, something that was commonplace 25 years ago. In December 2022, the New York Times ran a piece on “Luddite” teens. Every new generation discovers Kerouac, but now it’s poetry and flip phones. The Luddite club, which wanted a reprieve from constant connection and social media, soon encountered the Privilege Backlash. “You follow your kids now,” one parent said, “you track them. It’s a little Orwellian, I guess, but we’re the helicopter parent generation. So when she got rid of the iPhone, that presented a problem for us, initially.” “Well, it’s classist to make people need to have smartphones, too, right?” Mr. Lane said. “I think it’s a great conversation they’re having. There’s no right answer.”[18] Just a few weeks later, in January of 2023, the New York Times, featured teens who craved standalone digital cameras – not quite reliving the Polaroid/Lomography craze of the 00s and 10s. “Over the past few years,” the reporter notes, “nostalgia for the Y2K era, a time of both tech enthusiasm and existential dread that spanned the late 1990s and early 2000s, has seized Generation Z.”[19] “When I look back at my digital photos” – from his actual camera – “I have very specific memories attached to them,” Mr. Sondhi said. “When I go through the camera roll on my phone, I sort of remember the moment and it’s not special.”[20]

Two moments help show the way Dylan taps into moments of explosive historicism. Songs tether to particular moments but then vector backward and forward to highlight the past’s impact on the present and the Now’s imprint on the Then. The expansive nature of a song connected to a popular culture moment is slotted through the lens of Dylan. The movie that best captured the tensions here was Jordan Peele’s Nope. From its opening title card to its plot protection of analog cameras and vinyl records, to its questioning of 1990s media and nostalgia, to its provocative climax at the “Winkin’ Well,” the “old-timey” non-electric large format camera, Nope prods the audience to examine, horrifying monster or not, the cultural oxygen of modern life. Peele prefaces his film with the rarely quoted minor prophet Nahum: “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.”[21] Seeing these words offers a call back to Dylan’s speech in 1991 after accepting a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award:

My daddy, he didn’t leave me much, you know he was a very simple man, but what he did tell me was this, he did say, son, he said …He said, you know it’s possible to become so defiled in this world that your own father and mother will abandon you, and if that happens, God will always believe in your own ability to mend your own ways.[22]

In Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan uses remarkably similar language in discussing The Temptation’s “Ball of Confusion” from 1970:

Everything is rotten and tainted, even your punch-drunk brother, he keeps talking about love, but what’s that to you? The more you think about it, the less sure you know what it means. The new Beatles record intoxicates you – but you’ve no idea what you heard. [23]

Every ten seconds another news flash, another scandal, more headlines, more news commentators and they’re giving you the creeps. Everything is spoilt dirty, everything you touch on. [24]

But then again, things might not be so simple, you may be hallucinating, making too much of it all, blowing everything out of proportion. You just might be a difficult person to get along with. [25]

This idea that everything is “spoilt dirty” resonates. Back to 1991. Back to 1971. Back to the 7th century BCE. The promise of the past shaking the foundation of the present. And the Nope trailer? Set to “Ball of Confusion.”

A similar argument can be made with a connection between Dylan and the television show Mad Men. A Dylan motif runs through the entire series. Sometimes overtly: the use of his music, two characters plan to see him in concert, and often through allusion as with assumed identities, masking, and a traipsing across a rather obdurate generational divide. Dylan: “Like with many men who reinvent themselves, the details get a bit dodgy in places.”[26] “There’s lots of reasons folks change their names,” Dylan writes in his chapter on “Old Violin,” “And then there are those who change their own names, either on the run from some unseen demon or heading toward something else.[27] In 2007, AMC aired the inaugural season of Mad Men, a television show set in the early 1960s and centered on the world of New York advertising. The pilot episode culminates with Vic Damone’s “On the Street Where You Live.” After living with Don Draper’s seemingly single, carefree Manhattan life, the audience is shown the bait-and-switch as he ends his day at home with his wife and children – the romance of Damone, then, in high contrast to the duplicity at the heart of Draper. In his chapter on Damone, Dylan writes, “maybe that’s as close as you can get with somebody. Being on the street where they live.”[28] Trouble is avoided through charisma, perhaps, but for how long? For Draper, about a decade.

The first season culminates famously with “The Wheel,” a poignant episode centered on the run-up to Thanksgiving 1960. The episode closes out with Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” a song released in 1963. Bob Dylan runs through the entire seven seasons of the series, if only at times as a glancing aside. Dylan’s appearance in the first season’s finale provides a multifaceted tableau of the (a)historical. The episode’s theme relates strongly to the dark gravity of nostalgia – both in terms of individual emotional life and packaging the potency of longing for an unobtainable past. As the main character imagines a Thanksgiving weekend with family and without strife, Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” slides into the soundtrack. The song works on several levels in the scene. A vital element of this conversation relates to the anachronistic aspects. The season ended in 1961, but Dylan would not release the song until 1963. Critics tended to get hung up on the inaccuracy. Still, it can help frame the discussion as the anachronistic nature of its placement allows for a meta-discussion of how popular culture projects history and historical tableaus to audiences. A straightforward plot discussion quickly unravels as the soundtrack pushes against these narratives.

All these vectors converge in the book’s final chapter in an essay centered on “Where or When” by Dion and the Belmonts. This particular song, so simple on the surface but endlessly deep on repeated listens, underscores the metanarrative of The Philosophy of Modern Song. “This is a song of reincarnation,” Dylan writes, “one repetitious drone through space, plugging the same old theme, nonstop over and over again…where everything is exactly alike, and you can’t tell anything apart.” “History,” Dylan argues, “keeps repeating itself, and every moment of life is the same moment, with more than one level of meaning.[29] Memory, too, matters in all of its fallibility and, thus, its potency. “But so it is of music,” Dylan writes, “it is of a time but also timeless; a thing with which to make memories and the memory itself. Though we seldom consider it, music is built in time as surely as a sculptor or welder works in physical space.”[30] As a preface to the chapter, the book includes an uncited photograph of two young lovers on a bench beneath L’Heure de tous, a striking sculpture outside the Gare Saint- Lazare in Paris. Created by French-American artist Arman, the piece is a fusion of bronze clocks, each set at different times. Where or when?

The creaking ropes of the buried camera in Nope spit out chemical images of the metaphoric and real. The nostalgia of Mad Men, with its slide projector clicking and shuddering through personal memories, scatters psychic wounds against a blank screen. We see this, too, in two paintings that help set the scene. One is by Norwegian painter Harald Oskar Sohlberg, currently in the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. And a second is by Bob Dylan, based on a film still. Sohlberg’s Country Road (1905) shows a dirt path bisecting a dark, twilight landscape of stillness. Yet, the eye is drawn to the telephone poles spiking the center of the frame. Sohlberg crushes the past and present (and anticipated communicative future) into one image of striking ambivalence. The painting’s deep purples, browns, and greens evoke a spectral scene of change and continuity. The poles pose both a threat and a promise. Seemingly built out of the wood from the trees surrounding the road, the telephone posts beckon and fade simultaneously. Dylan’s painting serves a similar purpose, though from a different direction. The scene in Texas Boneyard centers on a dilapidated drive-in movie theater with a wrecked screen and faded marquee standing as silent monuments to the entertainment of the past. The marquee sign in transition also shows up in The Philosophy of Modern Song, as a worker replacing Frank Sinatra and Tony Curtis’s war picture Kings Go Forth (1958) leaves “FRANK SIN” in midair.[31] In their dreamy blues and greens, both paintings suggest time passing with technology spreading and dividing the scenes in challenging and complicated ways. Nostalgia. But for what? Perhaps anti-nostalgia. But to what end? The emotional sentiment (shy of sentimentality) of both paintings forces the viewer to register past/present/future while maintaining a grasp on their connection to their contemporary moment.

Dylan’s painting comes directly from the final scene in John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996), where the two main characters, following a rather uncomfortable moment of awareness of blood realization, stare into the ruined drive-in (the El Vaquero). Forget all that stuff. Forget the Alamo. A film obsessed with the falseness of memory ends with an admonition to forget everything that came before. Dylan, too, must have been struck by that scene and its fever of wistful forgetfulness, the ambiguity of the half-remembered. It’s the ambiguity here that must be evoked. Not new, but still, a nuanced ambivalence runs through this book – a theme and a mood that reaches back to earlier anxieties about earlier industries and technologies. Put another way, as Richard “Rabbit” Brown sang in “James Alley Blues,” a song caught on tape by a young Dylan on the cusp of fame: “Times ain’t now nothing like they used to be.” On a related note, in his discussion of John Trudell’s “Doesn’t Hurt Anymore,” Dylan hits directly at this point. “How do you identify with a world that has set you aside, a world that took everything from you without asking, a world that’s asleep, bedded down and deep into slumber- land taking one long endless siesta?” “You’ll go into the mythic land of rebirth,” Dylan argues, “stare up into the mirror of the night sky and talk to your ancestors. They’re wide awake.[32]

In his interview with Dylan in December 2022 for the Wall Street Journal, Jeff Slate asked how he listened to music. “I listen to CD’s, satellite radio and streaming,” Dylan replied:

I do love the sound of old vinyl though, especially on a tube record player from back in the day. I bought three of those in an antique store in Oregon about 30 years ago. They’re just little, but the tone quality is so powerful and miraculous, has so much depth, it always takes me back to the days when life was different and unpredictable. You had no idea what was coming down the road, and it didn’t matter. The laws of time didn’t apply to you.[33]

With its specificity and invocation of the magical, this response sums up much of the discussion in The Philosophy of Modern Song. So much of the book focuses on this connection of life to music via technology, and however complex and even infuriating the technology piece is, it remains the bridge between lived experiences and memory and art and existence. Writing on “Where or When,” Dylan argues that “music transcends time by living within it, just as reincarnation allows us to transcend life by living it again and again.”[34]

The laws of time didn’t apply to you.

The outmoded camera, the rickety slide projector, the drive-in movie, the stacked clocks, the telephone poles bisecting nature, bisecting time. Is it a rejection of the new and a grasping of the old? Is it fetishistic? It is interesting that young people want to recover the cameras of the past – the cameras from 2008, from 1998, from 1958. They seem to seek better approximations of their lives in yesterday’s warped, woozy imperfect photos. Of course, in a generation, the filtered Instagram world of 2023 might seem hopelessly authentic to those similarly trapped in their current search for authenticity. The archive of memory rejects any simple cataloging. These images run through Dylan’s book, and it is here where he clearly delineates the contemporary moment of cultural discontent. The “philosophy of modern song,” indeed.


[1] Greil Marcus, “Days Between Stations” (December 1993).

[2] Bob Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 5.

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

[4] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 15.

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

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

[7] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 113.

[8] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 144.

[9] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 165.

[10] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 170.

[11] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 174.

[12] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 209.

[13] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 223.

[14] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 259.

[15] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 301.

[16] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 314.

[17] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 319.

[18] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/15/style/teens-social-media.html

[19] https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/07/technology/digital-cameras-olympus-canon.html

[20] nytimes.com/2023/01/07/technology/digital-cameras-olympus-canon.html. Of course, the rise of AI (especially across college campuses) has driven new conversations about old topics. Earlier this year, Medium published a piece: “AI and the New-Luddites.” https://medium.com/electronic-life/ai-and-the-neo-luddites-6e154260da28. But more noise was felt in art and film, for the films of 2022 defined much of this discourse. Tár’s take on generational critique and criticism. The Fableman’s take on childhood nostalgia/anti-nostalgia and film. And White Noise, released just a couple of weeks after The Philosophy of Modern Song with its satire, by way of 1985, of consumerism and consumption. LCD Soundsystem provides a mission statement of this feeling in their “New Body Rhumba,” written for the soundtrack (and featured in the film’s choreographed ending). “The distance is growing but so is the longing,” James Murphy sings, “which leaves the in-between.”

[21] Nahum 3:6.

[22] https://www.expectingrain.com/dok/int/grammiesspeech.html

[23] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 76.

[24] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 77.

[25] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 77.

[26] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 23.

[27] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 147.

[28] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 134.

[29] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 327. “Life in the wasteland, where there’s no tomorrow and it always seems like only yesterday, where we share the same faults over and over, where reincarnation overtakes you. Where the past has a way of showing up in front of you and coming into your life without being called….Where if it’s not happening now, it wasn’t happening ever.” Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 329

[30] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 334.

[31] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 337.

[32] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 196.

[33] https://www.bobdylan.com/news/bob-dylan-interviewed-by-wall-street-journals-jeff-slate/. “How do you discover new music these days? Mostly by accident, by chance. If I go looking for something I usually don’t find it. In fact, I never find it. I walk into things intuitively when I’m most likely not looking for anything….Obscure artists, obscure songs.”

[34] Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song, 334.


WORLD OF BOB DYLAN: “‘Lame as Hell and a Big Trick’: Dylan’s Comment on Popular Art as Resistance in The Philosophy of Modern Song.”

“‘Lame as Hell and a Big Trick’: Dylan’s Comment on Popular Art as Resistance in The Philosophy of Modern Song.” World of Bob Dylan 2023, June 2023, Tulsa, OK.

BY Erin C. Callahan, San Jacinto College


In Chronicles, Vol. One, when Dylan writes, “I just thought of mainstream culture as lame as hell and a big trick,” it’s reasonable that he viewed mainstream culture “lame as hell” because it mindlessly affirmed hegemonic post-industrial values (Dylan 35). The “big trick” of mainstream culture is that those in control of the government, military, and economy in America, the “power elite” as C. Wright Mills designated them, exploit their positions of power and celebrity culture to distract and manipulate mass society. Mills writes, “As each of these domains has coincided with the others, as decisions tend to become total in their consequence, the leading men in each of the three domains of power – the warlords, the corporation chieftains, the political directorate – tend to come together to form an elite power in America” (The Power Elite 9). Particularly, in the post-World War II era when Mills wrote his seminal texts The Power Elite and The Sociological Imagination, he argued that the “pace” at which contemporary society changed exceeded people’s ability to adjust or “orient themselves in accordance with cherished values” (The Sociological Imagination 4). It’s not only that American society was changing, but also the way in and the rate at which those changes occurred that caused a values crisis among Americans who felt their values threatened. Mills continues, “Even when they do not panic, men often sense that older ways of feeling and thinking have collapsed and that newer beginnings are ambiguous to the point of moral stasis” (The Sociological Imagination 4).


Dylan echoed Mills’ ideas in Chronicles when he described post-World War II America. He wrote, “The world was being blown apart and chaos was already driving its fist into the face of all new visitors. If you were born around this time or were living and alive, you could feel the old world go and a new one beginning” (Chronicles 28). Part of that change was caused by atomic anxiety and the other was caused by the centralization of power via the power elite. Both led to the conformity of the 1950s, a homogenization of culture and society largely through mass media transmission and consumption. Dylan’s formative years in Hibbing, Minnesota, a town “that looked like every other town out of the 40s and 50s” provided little opportunity for rebellion due to its brutal climate and proximity to the Hull-Rust Mahoning Open Pit (No Direction Home 4:23). However, a radio with a turntable in the basement of his childhood home provided the escape he needed (No Direction Home 4:50). Listening to “Drifting too Far from the Shore,” Dylan describes that “the sound of the record made me feel like I was somebody else” (No Direction Home 3:56). Radio stations streaming from across the country exposed Dylan to songs that weren’t played on mainstream radio stations. These were the songs that opened his mind to possibilities outside of and provided intellectual and artistic resistance against mainstream culture. In Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan states “It’s what a song makes you feel about your own life that’s important” and that “Ricky [Nelson] made rock and roll part of the family… magically transforming the image on a black and white television into the American Dream. But mostly it was the records that did it” (The Philosophy of Modern Song 9, 52). Subsequently, in The Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan also demonstrates how the songs he included and deconstructed, many of which he likely listened to on that radio during his youth, challenge the zeitgeist of their social and cultural moments.


There are several ways in which Dylan employs Mills’ theories. First, he does so through an examination of how mass media serves the interests of the power elite. In Mills’ assessment, centralization of corporate media markets through radio, television, and movies diminished the quality of public discourse. As a result, “with the increased means of mass persuasion that are available, the public of public opinion has become the object of efforts to control, manage, manipulate, and increasingly intimidate” (Mills The Power Elite 310). This creates a single national media market that shares fluency in, is influenced by, and responds to the signs, signals, logos, slogans, and jargon of corporations and mass media. The result of this increasing influence, according to Mills, is that it gives people in mass society an “identity,” “aspirations,” technique to fulfill their aspirations, and “an escape” (The Power Elite 314). That ideal reinforced heteronormative, patriarchal, middle-class, consumer culture. It provided a template of how modern men and women should look, act, dress, what jobs they should have and what they should purchase. Mills asserts, “The chief distracting tension is between the wanting and not having of commodities or of women held to be good looking” (The Power Elite 315). Americans aspired to own a home in the suburbs, have a family, own the newest appliances, cars, or clothes based largely on the wave of new media in their lives. Simply stated: to “keep up with the Joneses.” That lifestyle was most successfully achieved through men securing a “good” or “stable” job, while women took care of the children and the house. This led to anxieties and frustrations as people attempted to achieve the ideal, of those who failed to “live up to” it, and alienation of those who failed or refused to conform. Second, by applying Mills’ theories to the songs in The Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan demonstrates how ideas communicated through the songs – nearly all of which achieved success on one or several of Billboard’s charts – provided intellectual resistance to the power elite in plain sight.


To start, Dylan’s critique of the power elite centers on their exploitation of individuals and society’s institutions through their monolithic control of American life. He indicts them as “common criminals” in Chapter 10, “Jesse James”: writing “Criminals can wear badges, army uniforms, or even sit in the House of Representatives. They can be billionaires, corporate raiders, or stockbroker analysts. Even medical doctors” (Dylan The Philosophy of Modern Song 47). These figures possess institutional power in which they control laws, justice, the economy, and defense. They also benefit and profit from their relationships with each other and reciprocal protection of the institutions they control (The Philosophy of Modern Song 47). They are the “aristocratic establishment, the upper-class landowners” in Dylan’s chapter on “Pancho and Lefty” (The Philosophy of Modern Song 59). Similarly, Dylan’s analysis of Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” depicts the bourgeoisie middle-management using Mills’ language – “chieftain” and “overlord.” The boss man overworks his employees and is unphased by “labor unions, uprisings, revolts, empty threats” because he “is above it all.” In Chapter 4, “Take Me from This Garden of Evil,” Dylan again uses Mills’ language to describe the collapse of old values to moral ambiguity. He writes, “this song presses the panic button” and that the “newer beginning … is a garden of corporate lust, sexual greed, gratuitous cruelty, and commonplace insanity” (The Philosophy of Modern Song 17). The “masses of people” Dylan refers to have undoubtedly been “hypnotized” by mass media, consuming it without considering its meaning or the consequences of their mindless consumption (The Philosophy of Modern Song 17). The characters in these songs recognize the ubiquitous influence of the power elite and either reject participation outright or ask to be “delivered” from it.


Similarly, throughout The Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan highlights the centralized economic control of corporations in American life. During this period, national chains replaced local small businesses and local ads were replaced by national commercials. This consolidated brand identity, brand recognition, and consumer appetites. Additionally, corporations provided stable employment with opportunities for advancement, benefits, and a retirement plan. Each of the sixty-six chapters includes an aspect of American consumer culture. Dylan uses words like “merchandise” “manufactured,” and “cars” and refers to specific cars associated with affluence like “Cadillac,” designer watches like Rolex, smart phones, Les Paul guitars, record stores, movie theaters, and flat-screen televisions. His descriptions of products and fine clothing are accompanied by corresponding images. The readers’ mass media literacy aids in making those connections between image and word – sign and signified – effective. The title of the book’s first song, “Detroit City,” is paired with a photo of the Ford Motor Company factory that reinforces Dylan’s analysis. The character in the song left his rural hometown to secure employment and the American Dream in the city. Dylan writes “[w]hen this song was written, Detroit was the place to run to; new jobs, new hopes, new opportunities” (The Philosophy of Modern Song 5). However, the singer’s fantasy to “go home” and leave the monotony of his days in the factory and nights at the bar expresses his desire to escape modern life and return to something familiar and comfortable. The singer isn’t really a “dreamer,” but someone who is “caught up in a fantasy of the way things used to be” (Dylan The Philosophy of Modern Song 5). He is Mills’ modern man, the same person Dylan referred to in Chronicles affected by the swift changes in American life. The song “works,” as Dylan writes, because listeners can relate to the anxiety and disillusion expressed in it. This man could easily be Jackson Browne’s “pretender,” a man “who has sold himself for a bit of the American Dream,” whose “life is a broken record” of home and work, of “success depend[ing] on being someone he’s not,” of being “trapped in the lesser world” in which he abandons a life of passion, music, and art (Dylan The Philosophy of Modern Song 61). Dylan describes the pretender’s middle- class life as “single-minded,” a “capitulation”: “buying everything in every window display and … commercial ad” (The Philosophy of Modern Song 63). Dylan’s version of “The Pretender” appears in “Ball of Confusion,” performing a prescribed role described as a “new form of oppression” and every symbol of institutional power is a corrupt failure (The Philosophy of Modern Song 76). In “Big Boss Man,” Dylan describes the overworked employee as “modern man,” “servile,” a hypocritical ass-kisser” a “yes man” who finds escape through movies – movies that reinforce images of who he should be, but who he is not. These figures depict unsatisfying or unfulfilling images of those who have achieved or strive to achieve success in post-industrial middle class America or the American Dream.


Conversely, Dylan romanticizes an outlaw’s rejection of mainstream culture and refusal or inability to conform to it as a more honest or authentic existence. His analysis of The Allman Brothers “Midnight Rider” depicts someone who once played a role in civilized society but became a frustrated vigilante. He is “[a] sworn enemy of political bureaucracy, power brokers, election fraud, decadent union leaders, party hacks, corporate parasites, sugar daddies and other bankrollers” (Dylan The Philosophy of Modern Song 173). The midnight rider challenges the accepted order and “wants to return things back to a pre-corporate economic order and wipe the slate clean” (Dylan The Philosophy of Modern Song 173-4). Similarly, Dylan’s other outlaws, Jesse James, Pancho and Lefty, outlaws like them, or those who sing songs about them, “[exploit] their [the middle class’s] false values, materialism, hypocrisy, and insecurities” (The Philosophy of Modern Song 59). They stand alone as figures of rebellion against the power elite and the conformity of the middle class.


Further, Dylan’s discussions on war expose the military industrial complex and underscore the connection between history-making events, the decision-makers, and the effects of those events on individuals. His analysis of Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass” focuses on a veteran who wrestles with the “degenerate and demonic things” he’s seen and done that reduced him to “mental bondage” (Dylan The Philosophy of Modern Song 21). Attending a “ritual celebration where he is being honored as a hero,” he feels he is “surrounded by the enemy” (Dylan The Philosophy of Modern Song 22). Dylan notes the veteran has “been betrayed by politicians” and “stabbed in the back by legislators and members of his own government” (Dylan The Philosophy of Modern Song 21). Here, Dylan’s interpretation focuses on the effects politicians’ decisions have on individual men and women who are deployed to the warfront. The veteran experiences a crisis due to his participation in war activities that have allowed him to become “unfaithful to the human spirit” (Dylan The Philosophy of Modern Song 21). Dylan raises the question of whether the veteran would regret or be haunted by his actions if he had been on the winning side. The passage’s opening – “It’s hard to be on the losing end of a lost cause, a lost enterprise, a cause with no object or purpose, unequivocally false from start to finish” – suggests a tenuous relationship between the abstract political decisions made to enter wars and the consequences of those decisions on individual lives (The Philosophy of Modern Song 21).


Dylan further develops this analysis in Chapter 43, Edwin Starr’s recording of The Temptations song “War,” which reads like an extension of Mills’ work, drawing a line from World War II to the veteran in “There Stands the Glass,” forward to both gulf wars. Citing a “sequence in the documentary The Fog of War,” Dylan explains how former defense secretary Robert McNamara and General Curtis LeMay would have been “prosecuted as war criminals” if they had lost the war (The Philosophy of Modern Song 214). Dylan notes, “For the rest of his life, McNamara wrestled with the question, “What makes it immoral if you lose, but not if you win?” (The Philosophy of Modern Song 214). This, too, is the question the tortured veteran who “has a lot to answer for” wrestles with in “There Stands the Glass” (The Philosophy of Modern Song 21). The war crimes explained in both songs’ chapters are similar – rape and brutal violence against civilians, including women and children. Dylan juxtaposes war propaganda employed to gain public support against the immoral, yet sanctioned, acts of war justified as the cost of national security.


Shifting to both Gulf Wars, waged by the power elite in and administrations of a single family (the Bush family), Dylan stresses the dubious justifications for both wars. Graley Herren’s analysis of Chapter 15’s “Whiffenpoof Song” for the Dylantantes substack illuminates that song’s reference to The Whiffenpoofs, “an independent a cappella group at Yale University” who counted as an early member Prescott Bush, “father of George H.W. Bush” and “grandfather of George W. Bush.” Herren also notes Dylan’s references to the more secretive and exclusive Yale society, Skull and Bones, whose “members are sworn to lifelong secrecy about the group … But: alumni from Skull and Bones have gone on to exert major power in the United States and across the globe.” Similarly, in The Power Elite Mills asserts that the link among the “institutions of modern society” – “families and churches and schools” – provide the basis for and support the centralization of power and that “these hierarchies of state and corporation and army constitute the means of power” (6-7). Giving a bit of cover to George H.W. Bush because Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait prompted the first Gulf War, Dylan focuses on “post-9/11 paranoia” and false claims about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction underlying the 2003 invasion under George W. Bush as more problematic and indicative of the continued consolidation and centralization of power among America’s power elite in the twenty-first century. He concludes by returning to LeMay’s thoughts on war criminals, suggesting that both Bushes would be considered as such. To conclude the chapter, Dylan also indicts Americans as war criminals for supporting war propaganda, not asking questions and, more importantly, not acting to prevent or end the conflicts.


Though Dylan is cynical about the purpose of the song, arguing “[i]t’s clear that one answer to the question posited in this song is the bottom line,” and links it to the earlier Motown hit “Money,” he uses this point to make parallels to war-profiteering and the atrocities of war (The Philosophy of Modern Song 213). The analysis includes a reference to Smedley D. Butler whose speech “War Is a Racket” was “written by a Major General in the Marines who was an American military hero, but became disillusioned with the profiteering, propaganda, and injustice of the military-industrial and intelligence-foreign policy establishments, and came to oppose American involvement in foreign wars designed to benefit financial and industrial interests” (Butler 1). Butler “confessed to his own actions on multiple battlefronts that hurt large numbers of people to ensure the profits for a few” (The Philosophy of Modern Song 213). Here, we can imagine Smedley as the celebrated, yet tortured, veteran in “There Stands the Glass.” Dylan then cites labor leader and civil rights leader Asa Philip Randolph who “said in 1925… ‘Make wars unprofitable and you make them impossible’” (The Philosophy of Modern Song 213). However, as long as war remains lucrative, news media, advertising, movies, and television will continue to romanticize it and promote it as necessary to national security.


Just as Dylan demonstrates how the songs in The Philosophy of Modern Song point to the adverse effects of media, government, corporations, and the military, he also shows readers the prescription for rebelling against the traps of modern post-industrial consumer society: art, love, and movement. Allusions to, references to, and quotes from poetry, literature, music, and visual arts stand in contrast to the over-commodified kitsch of most “mainstream culture.” His remedy for the “modern man” in “Big Boss Man” is “rivers of poetry and music” (Dylan The Philosophy of Modern Song 259). Poetry written by Poe or Rilke, literature penned by Kerouac or Burroughs, songs in The Great American Songbook, and jazz, blues, salsa, bluegrass, or country music encourage active and thoughtful engagement rather than mindless consumption. The many songs Dylan includes about love and his interspersed commentary on it suggest that love, not love as a legal agreement or social contract, but passionate love, love as connection and not conquest, is a salve. Dylan also gives us songs like “On the Road Again,” “Truckin’” “Keys to the Highway,” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” Images of keeping things new, of movement, of becoming, of being delivered provide an escape route to avoid the stagnancy and stasis of conformity. Being “On the Road Again,” keeps us from being “bogged down by anything,” even the monotony of daily chores like taking out the garbage (The Philosophy of Modern Song 92). Dylan’s analyses repeatedly suggest individual agency and meaningful participation in one’s life as pushback against consumer culture’s artifice.


Perhaps this is the philosophy of modern song – the place where the personal – the problems of modern life as they affect individual men and women – becomes the political – identifying and commenting on the issues of society that contribute to or cause the problems of individual people through art. To be sure, Dylan would argue that he’s apolitical. That’s fair. But you can’t ignore his critiques of conformity and of power structures that exploit and control social and cultural institutions. Though mainstream culture is generally a tool of the power elite, passively consumed by the masses without consideration of its effects or consequences, thoughtful analyses, deconstructions, and examinations of it as Dylan has provided in The Philosophy of Modern Song reveal substance that challenges its typical reception. That may be the signal point. Art, even art conceived, produced, and consumed in mainstream popular culture, serves as intellectual and artistic resistance needed to survive the artifice of contemporary society.


Works Cited

Butler, Smedley D. “War Is a Racket.” Heritage History. https://www.heritage-


Dylan, Bob. Chronicles. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

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

Herren, Graley. “Come You Whiffenpoofs of War.” Dylantantes, Substack, 22 November 2022.


Mills, C. Wright. The Power Elite. Oxford University Press, 1956. With a New Afterword by

Alan Wolfe, 2000.

—. The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press, 1959. With a New Afterword by

Todd Gitlin, 2000.

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan. Directed by Martin Scorsese. American Masters. PBS, 2005.


WORLD OF BOB DYLAN: “Come Writers and Critics”

“Come Writers and Critics.” World of Bob Dylan 2023, June 2023, Tulsa, OK.

BY Rebecca Slaman


Every Dylan fan has, at some point, had to defend Bob to friends, strangers, and enemies. As the community of fans has intimately connected in the digital age, it can be baffling for us to be reminded of what other people think of our favorite artist. Of course, it’s been well-documented that Bob Dylan has critics. Even before his first musical controversy, certain groups did not embrace Dylan’s voice nor his politics. So what did fans have to say when those politics changed? What made people stay when his voice did, too? With a career as varied as his, there are myriad reasons for people not to like him. But criticism, while sometimes unpleasant, can reveal a lot about the critic and the culture they live in. Likewise, a fandom’s defense mechanisms reveal what they truly value about the artist. I believe the marriage of fandom and criticism is the key to Dylan’s legacy continuing and prospering.


The academic discipline of Fan Studies has some terms that describe the relationship and social dynamics of fandom. Bob Dylan is a producer, and fans engage in two ways: affirmationally and transformationally. In his article “Towards a Theory of ‘Appropriate Fandom,’” Mark Stewart, describes these two: “Affirmational fan practice is seen as ‘restating’ the object of fandom, reifying the canon, and by extension, engaging in ways which privilege depth of knowledge and economic engagement. Transformational fan practice, conversely, is more commonly positioned within a productive space; a space of fan fiction, vidding, shipping, and slash; a space where the textual meaning sits in the hands of the fans, rather than the industrial producer.” Affirmational is more often a male fan practice, accepting the canon, more economically productive and therefore encouraged by producers through Fanagement. Transformational is often female-coded, and inherently questioning of the canon. This transformational space can be fraught, controversial. It is the more rebellious engagement.


How does this apply to Bob Dylan? To describe our engagement with him personally, it’s like throwing our thinkpieces into a bottomless pit. If you asked Bob, the critics or fans don’t and can’t matter, though we know criticism can sometimes spark creative magic, even with Dylan: Judas comes to mind. I’ll give you some examples of these practices using iconic Dylan-goes-electric moments. The cry of Judas fueled the legendary performance of “Like a Rolling Stone”; we can easily see the cause and effect of critic on artist. To cite this moment is affirmational of the canon of Bob Dylan. The live Newport version of “Maggie’s Farm” is rip roaring and rock ‘n’ roll. We see it as rebellious. But also you can see in the footage of his acoustic set after the infamous reaction tears rolling down his face. This isn’t a widely discussed idea, it doesn’t fit into the canon narrative of Dylan’s attitude, so this is my transformational theory on Bob’s dealings with criticism. These are two different takes: He doesn’t care and it fuels him to be an adversary versus he cares deeply and this trauma forced him to put on that persona. We can’t know why Bob retreated from the spotlight in the late 60s, but threats and boos probably played a role. Beyond that point, he saw that criticism is creative poison, hypocritical.


But criticism plays a different role to an artist than to their fans/everyone else. Though Bob isn’t personally managing his image here, there is a (niche) industrial complex. Affirmational practice is kind of what we’re doing here: legitimizing him in the canon and affirming that he deserves a place in history. As we move forward with scholarship, however, it’s going to become more transformational, and in some ways, critical. The world has changed so much since Bob became famous; we can keep studying history within its own context and look at Dylan and his work with fresh perspectives. Since Bob’s not answering or doing any “fanagement” anyway, fans have to make their own answers and meaning, in alignment with the culturally accepted version, or against it. We should ask ourselves, when handling criticism, are we aligning with the more economically productive answers? Are we “selling out?”


Fans have also been critics themselves; criticism is necessary for someone with as much power as Dylan. With social media, more diverse fans of music are driving discussions about the reconciliation of someone’s art with their personal beliefs and actions. With Dylan, these conversations include misogyny in The Philosophy of Modern Song, possible theft of Black artists, and relevancy due to Dylan’s age. This certainly aligns with the larger cultural discourse of today.


In the early days, his whiteness was not as much in question, but rather his Judaism. You can bet his Jewish identity was held against him in addition to his sympathies with the civil rights movement: he was protested by TACT (“Truth About Civil Turmoil”) and “American Patriots for Freedom.” This group wrote in the New York Times, “It isn’t surprising that John Hammond would be interested in Bob Dylan’s brand of culture for Mr. Hammond, according to official US Government records, has made himself a party to at least seven communist fronts.” Though this is all obviously silly, this critique of Dylan being too political manifested when he was barred from performing “Talkin John Birch Blues” in 1963 on the Ed Sullivan show. Someone else’s fear of critics directly affected Dylan’s ability to convey his music to an audience, and that had to affect him.


It’s interesting how this cultural pushback goes from “young commie Jew” to “old irrelevant white man.” Don’t scoff too much at the latter one though, because many people who’d criticize today’s young artists might have had the same idea back in 1965 towards Bob. The criticism of “young people’s music” is equally as farcical as more biased reasons; it has nothing to do with the artist himself. On December 26, 1965, there was a letters to the editor section entirely around the debate on whether Dylan was a poet. It was in response to an article by Thomas Meehan about a young/old divide on the subject. College students called Dylan (24 at the time) their favorite contemporary American writer. As one English professor from the University of Vermont responded, “Anyone who calls Dylan the ‘greatest poet in the United States today’ has rocks in his head. That is such an irresponsible statement as to deserve no attention. Since his appeal (apparently) is to irresponsible teen-agers, I can’t take him seriously. Dylan is for the birds, and the bird-brained.”


It’s funny that this same discourse popped up around the Nobel Prize In 2016, interestingly on the other side of the young/old divide… or rather, old and slightly less old. I think the only young people who cared were students roped in by English teachers. Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh said “I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.” Brutal!


This is the kind of criticism that clearly doesn’t hold over large periods of time, no matter who it’s addressed to. If you say something is only for young people, those people grow up, and even the radio Disney anthems of my youth are now played at parties to much acclaim. The fact that I’m writing this today [as a young Dylan scholar] shows that artists can transcend their own initial time and audience.


Interestingly, both of these examples are aimed at people who are fans of Dylan. They can be boiled down to one incredibly frustrating word: Overrated. It means that something, to someone, is saturated in the culture past the point of its merit.


And whatever merit Bob Dylan had when he was at his first peak, people have acted like it has been taken away at each consequential era. Bob Dylan has been praised for his “authenticity,” though most of us know that doesn’t mean he’s always telling the truth. The emotional and musical truth is what gives him that merit in the first place, and to most of us, that doesn’t go away no matter what genre he’s adopting. But even our beloved scholars have criticized him in this way:


Greil Marcus: “For me – and Dylan says this himself, too, somewhere I’m not locating at the moment – the marking point is John Wesley Harding, and every album after that…up until the kinship albums Good As I Been to You, World Gone Wrong, and Time Out of Mind, is some kind of mistake, put-up job, a disguise you could see right through, a lie.”


(And this guy’s a keynote speaker!) As I cannot find a source of that “Bob” sentiment, I’m classifying this claim by Mr. Marcus as transformational fan practice.


Just as Dylan once blindly called the shot of his Nobel Prize in Hearts of Fire, one critic did this amazing callout in 1988. “The words have become less clear,” says Jerome Rodnitzky. “Finally, Dylan, like Walt Whitman, might turn on his critics and declare: do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” Pretty incredible stuff we can find in criticism, even when we disagree. Maybe Bob Has listened, who knows?


Criticism is constantly transforming its image of Bob. It has to, as time and people change. The issues people have with Bob’s music share consistencies across the eras, though those people become louder depending on the cultural attitudes in general. His voice, for one, was probably more palatable at the initial burst of rock ‘n’ roll when culture was radically new, and artists with unconventional voices had a place. Introducing to young people a smart cutie with a rebel streak made his vocals matter less. Also, people read more back then. But as more and more people discover him and time goes on, culture prefers more polished sounding music, and the criticism grows. It must have reached Bob, for he said “Critics say I can’t sing. I croak. Sound like a frog. Why don’t critics say that same thing about Tom Waits? Critics say my voice is shot. That I have no voice. Why don’t they say those things about Leonard Cohen? Why do I getspecial treatment? Critics say I can’t carry a tune and I talk my way through a song. Really? I’ve never heard that said about Lou Reed. Why does he get to go scot-free?


Because Bob, everybody hates the popular girl.


In my research, I expected his initial shift to “singing” to elicit more distaste, or at least, some McCartney-esque conspiracy theories. He gets in a motorcycle accident and emerges three years later with a new voice, face, and style? I would say, that’s not the same guy. It turns out, change was still largely welcome. If people called out his “phony, swallowed style of vocal production,” Nashville Skyline was extremely commercially successful. The Beatles got mustaches, Bob got a new voice, everyone grew up. If anything, this transformation helped him escape the label of has-been. On Jan 25, 1976, John Rockwell wrote of Desire: “But can Dylan ever really come back from the position he occupied ten years ago? Is there a place in the grey, workaday 70s for a legendary hero from the mythological 60s?”


The answer is yes. At least in the mainstream, Dylan was canonized. This is where affirmational fan practice begins, building up a positive image. Coverage of his musical exploits remained important as reward for being part of a great musical time. He’d earned his place, though of course that leads to backlash. Some felt he was done after a certain point. A scathing profile in Spy Magazine in August 1991 by Joe Queenan called him a pathetic kook, basically hoping he’d die so he’d cement his legacy: “Only now, any hope for the return of Dylan’s sustained wit, intelligence, and passion, may finally, finally have died.” Queenan clarified that does not take away from the great music he made, if anything he thinks it supersedes anything he would do from that point on.


Now, on Twitter, I see defenses for the albums he’s referencing and more, based on criticism I didn’t even know existed. I don’t see much new criticism for his art. The only people paying attention really, are us. People barely see him part of the present moment. We, of course, know about Rough and Rowdy Ways and Shadow Kingdom and the tour, but most think of Dylan as a historical figure. Remember when “Murder Most Foul” went #1 like a month into the pandemic? Most people don’t. In fact, it wasn’t two years before people claimed Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well (Taylor’s version),” at 10 minutes, to be the longest #1 ever on the Billboard charts. Regardless, the publication of the Philosophy of Modern Song caused a bit of a resurgence in criticism. John Carvill wrote a now infamous screed in Popmatters against the book that I would call, brave. Commenting on this criticism feels more dangerous having personally witnessed the discourse that followed it. Nonetheless, his is one of the few published, well thought out, criticisms of Dylan’s deification. While Dylan’s defenders engage in affirmational practice of nearly all of Dylan’s work, Carvill went against the mold and offered a transformed image of Dylan as an artist. This image includes the artist’s work he admires, but also a plagiarist, ghostwritten, misogynist, hack. Many disputed the writer’s projection that Dylan was an old ranting grandpa, but that projection is not any less valid than anyone else’s. We have to have a bit of transformation to hold or deify Dylan in our heads.


Fans that don’t match Dylan’s demographic do this especially well. If you’ve been on Dylan twitter, you might have seen me and my friends calling him gay, calling him a baby, saying objectively ridiculous things about him. We aren’t being insane, we’re engaging in transformational practice. Our canonizing of him may be playing with the truth in a very Dylan- esque way, but it’s fun, and takes it all less seriously. If we were to engage with Dylan, or any of our artists, critically all the time, it would be a bummer, like we don’t need to do Allen Ginsberg discourse 24/7. It makes sense if you consider the hurdles we already have to cross in terms of access. In some ways, it’s an asset: those who have to transform art to see themselves in it may unlock new, unexpected meanings. But critical conversations are being had online, where spatiality and temporality don’t dictate who can take part. In terms of criticism, I would be remiss to bring up the whole women’s perspective of it all.


Misogyny was difficult to research for obvious reasons: very few female Dylan academics have been published, and the male ones are often more sexist than Dylan himself. Though Albert Goldman said of his first published book of lyrics in 1973 that “Dylan’s anger and peculiar vindictiveness toward women are diminished in print,” Laurie Stone printed just this year that “Bob Dylan has never imagined the effect of his lyrics on a woman, or else, you know, the words would not be so sneering, and he would give us a picture of the woman and not just her effect on him. Bob doesn’t address women. He writes to men about women.” I would argue Bob has given us pictures of women, otherwise how would we know their jelly- faces all sneeze? Both of these responses go back to Dylan’s attitude being a huge part of the accepted narrative. They include extra projections about what a “man with attitude” could mean: a brutish misogynist. This is a way the affirmational canon elicits more criticism because who has been allowed to shape it. The inherent biases of the loudest Dylan fans can turn someone off from the joy of an art that doesn’t even reflect those ideas. A different perspective on women’s response to Bob Dylan comes from Mark Beaumont: In his negative article about Dylan’s legacy: he mentions that all his past girlfriends have tried to convert him to fan!


This is at the heart of most modern Dylan criticism: it’s us. It comes down to us. Our fandom is loud and ubiquitous. We “overrate” him, pushing people away from the demand of liking him. We are annoying.


The upcoming film A Complete Unknown starring Timothée Chalamet is garnering anticipatory criticism, and a fair bit of apprehension. Regardless of its quality as a film, it will undoubtedly draw young people’s gaze toward Dylan. This will create a new transformational fandom if I know anything about Timothée Chalamet and his fans. There are already Bob fan edits and headcanons out there, some created by yours truly, but it is mostly limited to my friends in Bob Nation. A certain following is expected at least for the movie, and I anticipate a new set of critical criteria. When this happens, I ask you to engage with this criticism with an open mind about what fandom can be. Being a fan is supposed to be fun, and criticism can also be fun. Affirmational fandom has been the norm for a long time, but if Dylan’s legacy is going to continue, our engagement will have to transform.



The Dylan Review met with Happy Traum in person, June 4, 2023, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the day after his rousing keynote address at the 2023 World of Bob Dylan conference.


Dylan Review: You went to the Woody Guthrie center yesterday and Bob Dylan center today. What are your impressions?

Happy Traum: Oh, I love them both. Woody has a lot of resonance for me, because I grew up on Woody. After hearing Pete Seeger, and Pete Seeger was kind of a natural channel straight to Woody. So I dove into those Dust Bowl ballads, and “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya’,” “Hard travelin’.” I learned them all – most of them are three chord songs anyway, so they’re not that hard. But I love his voice and everything else about him, even though it was more than a world away from where I grew up. It was all an education for me to hear Woody. Part of that exhibit was in New York last year, at the Morgan library of all places. That’s something to think about too: Woody Guthrie in J.P. Morgan’s library. It’s a weird world, isn’t it? Because Woody was as far away from J.P. Morgan as you can imagine. And I know the Guthrie family, I know Nora quite well, I know Arlo somewhat. So that was moving to me in the sense that I knew the story well, and the Dylan Center was even more impressive in its size. It’s a bigger place, and just the depth of stuff. A lot of it was nostalgic for me, because the sections I knew best were his 60s stuff. They didn’t have a whole lot from Woodstock. It’s probably a revolving exhibit. I know they have tons of stuff in their archives, but I find it very moving, especially the depth of stuff he’s done since his teenage years. And I saw some pictures that brought me back in time. I enjoyed both immensely.


DR: Were there any Dylan artifacts that especially stood out for you?

HT: There was one thing that I was very surprised about, which I had never seen. There was a little part of the exhibit about the interview I did with John Cohen and Sing Out! Magazine in ‘68. They had the magazine there, and then they had a letter from John Cohen to Bob, next to the magazine, talking to Bob about how there was a line in the ending that Bob had taken out, but John thought it should go in, and he mentioned something like “I spoke to Happy about this.” I hadn’t seen that letter, I didn’t know it existed. One thing that struck me was the photographer Ted Russell took these early pictures of Dylan, like ‘62, in his apartment on West Fourth Street. And also, there were a few photos of Gerde’s Folk City. Wonderful photographs. The very first picture was of Dylan and Mark Spoelstra, who was a terrific songwriter, a twelve-string guitar player, and a good friend of mine. They’re playing together in this little space in the basement of Gerde’s, which euphemistically was called the dressing room, but it was really a horrible basement down these rickety stairs. There was nothing nice about it at all. But where that picture was taken was the very spot where Gil Turner taught The New World Singers – Bob Cohen, Delores Dixon, me – “Blowin’ in the Wind” from a sheet of paper that Bob had given to him. And I think my memory is right, we then went upstairs to the stage of Gerde’s and sang the song for the first time. It was in our repertoire from then on, and that picture just rang that memory for me.


DR: You mentioned yesterday in your keynote address that you were first to record both “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” What’s it like to be the first one to put the songs down?

HT: We didn’t know at the time. We were the first ones to do “Blowin’ in the Wind” because Bob gave us the song for us to sing. He liked our group a lot. He used to follow us to different gigs around the city, the Village. He’d show up late night, one in the morning, when there were twelve people in the audience and we’d need to do some songs, some we’d do together. So we knew it was a special song, but we didn’t know how special. We didn’t know, historically, that we’d still be talking about it sixty years later. But with “Don’t Think Twice,” you know, Freewheelin’ hadn’t come out yet. And he taught that song to Gil Turner, and he was the de facto leader of our band, The New World Singers. We learned it, we took it to Atlantic Records while we were making our one and only album for them, and they decided they wanted to put it out as a single. They cut it down to two verses or three verses or something because, until “Like a Rolling Stone,” nobody played on the radio anything longer than two and-a-half minutes. And so we recorded it. We did have a minor hit in the south with it. They were pushing it – Atlantic – but it never got anywhere. And then of course Freewheelin’ came out and everybody and his brother and sister recorded that song. There’s probably a thousand recordings of that song. I don’t think it says in any history books, but ours was definitely the first time it was recorded.


DR: How did you get into traditional music? And what were some of your early influences?

HT: Pete Seeger was the conduit right from the start. He was the guy who I heard play banjo, sing folk songs. And the songs he was singing had nothing to do with anything that I ever heard on the radio. Just the fact that somebody could play for himself, sing, and get a big audience – and he was very charismatic, Pete in his younger days. And he got everybody singing. He was always the big cheerleader. Everybody had to sing along with him. So that got me started, going out and buying guitar and then buying a banjo and learning how to play. And it was a process. When you get passionate about something like that, which I did – you know, I have no musical background. I took piano lessons for a few years and, total failure. To this day, I can’t play the piano. But suddenly, there was this kind of music that I could do myself, and I found a cadre of kids at my high school, and also then in Washington Square Park, who also could play three chords and sing a hundred songs. I’d go to the record stores and see what else was out there. There was a record store in New York, it was called Doubleday, part of the Doubleday bookstore on Fifth Avenue. They had listening rooms, where you could take the records, vinyl records, into the listening room and play them to decide if you wanted to buy them or not. We spent hours in there playing records.


DR: They never chased you out?

HT: I don’t think so. I don’t know how many records we scratched up. I remember hearing Lead Belly for the first time and it was a little rough for me. I wasn’t sure. There was another store called Sam Goody, and they sold “seconds,” which were records that sometimes didn’t have the covers, and they had a hole punched in the label to show that they were somehow defective or had something wrong with them. Instead of three dollars, you could get them for one dollar. And I have a bunch of records at home to this day that have the hole punched in them. And then I finally got Lead Belly’s Last Sessions and started listening to him and just got immersed, I just could not stop. I didn’t get into the more hardcore blues until a little later, but I got into Josh White, and some of the folk singers of the day. Odetta was just coming on the scene then in the mid 50s. I actually heard her in concert at the Folklore Center, forty people there, folding chairs. And she was standing there singing. Wow. Huge. And people who were down hanging out in the Village we’d run into at various coffee shops, or the Limelight where a lot of the Irish guys would hang out. Liam Clancy was often there, holding forth with some fiddle player. And I got into whaling ballads, Ewan MacColl. Everything I could get my hands on that was folky, I liked.


DR: Eventually you took guitar lessons with Brownie McGhee. How did that come about?

HT: I loved his music. I had a record of his that I just played over and over. And eventually, I looked him up. I was going to college, up at NYU’s main campus. This was in the Bronx, not Washington Square where it has now been for a long time. But it was a big open campus with a quad and the library, a beautiful place overlooking the Harlem River. My friend said Brownie lived in New York, and to look him up, so I did. I called him and went down to audition for him in a way. He said, “Let me see what you can do.” I could play a little bit at that point, and he took me on and it was probably two or three years. I went frequently – not every week, but whenever I could or when he was around. He was going on tour at that point a lot with Sonny Terry, who was getting more and more popular on the folk circuit. But Brownie was a very interesting guy. He was the only one of those blues guys that I really got to know pretty well rather than casually saying hello to. I got to know his family, I spent time in his apartment, we took some trips together.

Brownie knew how to navigate the difference between the Black community and white, liberal New York. He came to New York in the 40s, from Kingsport, Tennessee, and then he was in North Carolina, where he met Sonny Terry, and then eventually came to New York and there was a whole milieu of of leftist folkies around – Pete Seeger, the Almanac Singers, Woody Guthrie, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Josh White – it was this community, most of whom came out of the leftist communist or close to communist world. And I’m not saying that Brownie himself was politically communist at all, but he was in that world. Leadbelly was very much a part of that too, because Alan Lomax was a communist. So these guys created the New York folk scene, really, in the 40s, before my time. Brownie learned a lot from that, and he was very interesting too, because he was very smart. And he could straddle those worlds. He also played electric guitar in an R&B band in Harlem and he once took me to a ballroom where he was playing, and his brother was Stick McGhee who had a big hit called “Drinkin’ Wine Spo- Dee-O-Dee.” So Stick and Brownie, they had a band and Brownie was playing through an amp, I think he was playing his acoustic through an amp, and that was a Black scene, so he straddled those worlds very successfully. That’s why Brownie and Sonny were a big hit on the circuit, because unlike the other blues guys, they knew how to put themselves across in a way that was acceptable to the college kids.


DR: How much fusing of folk and the blues was there in that community around Washington Square?

HT: It was very much a part of it. Everybody played some blues guitar, some more than others. Dave Van Ronk, of course, was pretty steeped in blues, and also early jazz. My first year at NYU, there was a guy named Ian Buchanan, and Ian had a depth of knowledge of blues guys I never heard of, and he and I spent a lot of time in his dorm room listening to records and playing together. I learned a lot from him. And interestingly, he left NYU his sophomore year and went to Antioch, and I lost touch with him. At Antioch he met Jorma Kaukonen, and Jorma’s a big blues guy, a big fan of acoustic blues. And Ian taught Jorma a lot of stuff. But there were quite a few really good blues players around the Village in those days. Dave Van Ronk comes to mind first.


DR: Did Bob Dylan distinguish himself as a quality blues player?

HT: No, I don’t think so. He picked up from the blue stuff, he listened to a lot of that stuff. “Fixin’ to Die Rag,” all that stuff. He had a lot of that stuff in his repertoire. When he first came to New York, he only played traditional stuff. He was just playing folk stuff. Woody Guthrie songs. “House of the Rising Sun,” which he learned from Dave Van Ronk. Songs like that. If you look at his first album, he had a lot of those bluesy kinds of songs, but nobody would have mistaken him for a blues singer. But he definitely incorporated that in his early style. And then there are two original songs and I remember hearing at Gerde’s Folk City. I remember hearing him sing “Song to Woody,” the first song I ever heard that he wrote, and everybody went, “Whoa, what was that?”


DR: Did you know he had written it?

HT: No, I don’t think so. I just heard him singing it, you know “Hey Hey, Woody Guthrie,” and I thought, “wow, that was really cool.”


DR: You spoke last night about being arrested in your early days for protesting a compulsory air raid.

HT: In those days, we were very anti-nuke, anti-war, and we were doing demonstrations. I actually met Gil Turner on a peace march in Groton, Connecticut, because they have a submarine base there. And we were demonstrating – fruitlessly, of course, no impact at all – but we had a march down the streets of Groton, Connecticut to the shipyard where they had this nuclear submarine which we were trying to stop from being launched – fat chance. And Gil was on that march. So he and I and Bob Cohen, also from the New World Singers, though I was not in the group at the time: April, I think, 1961. We went to City Hall Park (in New York City), because in those days it was compulsory to take shelter when the sirens went off and there was an air raid drill. When I think about it now it was, what, fifteen, sixteen years after World War Two, so air raids were serious. It was a serious thing. But we were of the mind that these drills made it seem like it was safe to have nuclear war, and we want to make it clear that, no, you can’t talk about nuclear war and safety, you can’t just jump in a building and be safe, or dive in the subway. So we went to City Hall Park, and the police came with a bullhorn. The sirens went off and they said, “If you don’t take shelter, you’ll be under arrest.” And because we had our guitars and banjos and stuff, we were their first targets.

They grab me, they grab Gil Turner, and about fifty others out of something like a thousand people there. They took us all to the tombs which is where, when they arrested you for something like drunk and disorderly, they threw you in the tombs – downtown New York, and the courthouse was there. They broke the fifty of us up into different groups, and I was in a group with maybe ten guys, no women. We were out on bail, fifty dollars or something, and we got a lawyer, a pro bono civil rights lawyer. Nice guy. He said, “Get together fifty dollars. You’ll each pay a fifty dollar fine. It’s not a felony, it’s a misdemeanor. Don’t worry about it.” On the court date, my wife Jane comes down with me to the courthouse. It was my birthday, in May. We’re standing there, and the judge says, “Do you have anything to say?” One guy of the ten of us stands up, his name was Perlman, and he makes a statement. He says, “Yes your Honor. The reason I did this, and the reason I would do it again in the future is because this is unjust.” The judge says, “Anybody else?” So somebody else says something, and somebody else. Then I stand up, and my whole statement is, “We did this non-violently, it was out of respect, we didn’t resist, it was just to make a statement.” And the judge says to me, “And you agree with Mr. Perlman?” And I said, “Yes.” And the judge said, “Those of you who spoke up in court, thirty days. The rest of you, fifty dollar fine.”


DR: What were you feeling at the time?

HT: I was in shock. Yeah. I’m this Jewish boy from the Bronx, and my family was mortified. My mother was freaked out. My father had just died the year before. So my mother and my grandmother were like, our family doesn’t do that.


DR: There was no part of you that thought “Hey, I’m being martyred here, for a cause”?

HT: Definitely. I was also proud about it. It turned out and there was a group called The War Resisters League that we were connected with, which was a very radical pacifist group in New York. Probably nationwide too. Several members of the War Resisters League refused the fifty dollar fine, in solidarity. In subsequent trials they said, “you have to put us in jail too.” There were maybe ten other guys who ended up on Hart’s Island where I was, and they purposely separated us all out. They wouldn’t let us near each other – different areas of the facility. But we did come together at various times, and one of those guys became a lifelong friend. Wonderful, amazing guy. And those guys helped me. Some of those guys had actually gone to jail for not taking part in World War II – that I couldn’t really get into, but these guys were such strong pacifists. They just said, “I’m not fighting. I’m not killing anybody. I don’t care who they are.” For World War II? That was a little much, but they were fabulous people. They really helped the cause and made me feel pretty strong about being there. And I got letters from people. I was a guitar teacher then and a lot of my guitar students sent letters. I didn’t get them until later. It was tough. It was hard. I got sick. By the time I got out I was running a high fever. It was a serious time.


DR: And this was a workhouse on Hart’s Island?

HT: Yes, it’s not a prison anymore. But it’s a potter’s field, for indigent people, when there’s nobody to claim the body. Our job as prisoners was to move bodies around to make room for the new ones, to consolidate. I do think that Bob must’ve known about that when he chose me to sing “I will not go down under the ground / ‘Cause somebody tells me that death’s comin’ ‘round.”


DR: You’re thinking in retrospect this may be why he gave “Let Me Die In My Footsteps” to you?

HT: That’s the only thing I can think of. Why pick me to sing that song when Pete Seeger was there, Gil Turner, who he was very close to, was there. I never asked him, but it occurred to me years later: he chose me to sing that song.


DR: How did you feel when Dylan “went electric”?

HT: I had mixed feelings about it. I was never one of those guys who would get frayed. First time I ever heard him with The Band was at Carnegie Hall. Bob did the first half solo, acoustic and then he broke these guys out – guys I became really good friends with later, but I didn’t know them at the time – but he broke these guys out and suddenly it was rock ‘n’ roll. It took a while. I didn’t love it. I mean, I didn’t hate it. I wasn’t like, “Oh, my God it’s the end of the world.” But it took me a while to see what he was doing with that. I did catch on pretty quickly. And then I met those guys and got to know them, and they turned out to be one of my all time favorite bands. Music from Big Pink was life changing, for everybody.


DR: Did you ever plug in? Were you ever tempted to do so?

HT: In ‘65, ‘66, my brother and I had an electric band, kind of Beatles influenced, called the Children of Paradise. We played around the Village, we went up to Canada, we played in Boston. And I lasted with them for not quite two years. I didn’t like it myself. I just wasn’t comfortable playing electric instruments. I didn’t think I was contributing enough. I just didn’t feel right with it. My brother, Mark Silber, who was the bass player, and Eric Kaz went on to write mammoth songs. But that was a kind of Beatles-ish – striped outfits, really wacky, British mod kind of clothing. So then I moved to Woodstock. A year later, my brother moved to Woodstock too, and we formed a band that did have some electric instruments and drums and stuff like that. We were rocking a little bit, but we were still pretty folky.


DR: When you move to Woodstock, you’re in this creative environment where Dylan was right down the street, The Band was nearby, George Harrison was filtering through…

HT: George Harrison was coming through, Paul Butterfield. John Hall and Orleans, Richie Havens. (Jimi) Hendrix’s manager was living there so he was coming through from time to time. It was this fertile ground, like Greenwich Village suddenly all moved up to Woodstock. In the early 70s a lot of folkies came too from the Boston area. Geoff Muldaur, and Maria Muldaur. A whole bunch of people who came over from Cambridge. It was just like a big mishmash of different kinds of musical styles. A lot of really great jazz players came to town.


DR: Do you have any favorite material that came out of that time?

HT: My brother was a very creative songwriter, and also a really good guitar player, much better than me. We formed a duo and then we brought around us Eric Kaz. We had a really good bass player and sometimes a drummer came and went. We would bring different people in, and eventually formed a group called the Woodstock Mountains Review, and we made four records. Eric Anderson was part of it, John Sebastian was part of it. It just revolved around great local musicians. So early on, ‘68 and ‘69, through the intercession of Bob Dylan – he put us together with Albert Grossman, as manager. Albert got us on Capitol Records. We made two albums for Capitol, which was big time. We also got to the Newport Folk Festival in ‘68 and ‘69.


DR: Was that your first time there?

HT: Yeah. And we did really well there. And then by 1970, we were recording for Capitol and we had a career together for several years after that. And that was a very primal time for me.


DR: You spoke last night about recording with Allen Ginsberg and that whole troupe of people for Jelly Roll Blues.

HT: I did get to meet Allen then, and play some of those songs. The (William) Blake songs, and “September on Jessore Road,” that poem he put to music. Also the Jimmy Berman song (“Jimmy Berman (Gay Lib Rag)”). But then Alan took a liking to me and my family. We did a bunch of gigs together. At some point, I don’t know what year, he and Peter Orlovsky went to London, and Jane and I were in London, and they called us. We went out on a kind of punk pub crawl. We went to a place called the Marquee Club, which was one of the centers of the punk rock world. We were trying to get in, it was very crowded. Nobody knew who Allen was. Finally somebody recognized him and Allen spent the next two hours we were there talking to everybody. People were like, “who is this old guy?” Kids with safety pins through their faces, and he’d talk to anybody. That was a really fun night.


DR: And then you had a lifelong friendship with Allen Ginsberg?

HT: Pretty much, yeah. I didn’t see him in his last years, and I was sad when I didn’t even know he was sick and dying, because we kind of lost touch a little bit, and we were off to other things. So I didn’t see him before he died, and I was sorry about that, but he would make our house his sort of stopping off place when he came to Woodstock.


DR: What was his orientation to Bob Dylan?

HT: He just adored Dylan. He just was in awe, which is kind of amazing when you think, “it’s Allen Ginsberg,” you know? And I think it was somewhat reciprocal, but I don’t know how much Dylan was in awe of Allen. I’m sure he was very fond of him. Allen, especially in his later years, became a very lovable guy. I didn’t know him, of course, when he was younger. I think he was much more hard-edged, from what I’ve heard. And evidently, Alan had psychotic episodes – I never saw any of that. And he never missed a chance to ask, “Have you seen Bob?”


DR: What was that special Thanksgiving you mentioned with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and The Band?

HT: One special moment, in ‘70 or ‘71, Bob invited my brother Artie and me over to his house on Ohayo Mountain and Artie and I and George and Bob spent three hours playing old folk songs together. Playing guitars and playing everything that came to mind. No rock and roll, just folk songs. And George adored Dylan. George was just in awe of Dylan, and Bob, you know, he liked that. He liked the fact that somebody like George Harrison was that enamored. But George was a lovely guy. He was very open. And I’m sorry now I was a little too intimidated – first of all, I never thought to take a picture. I never wanted to be intrusive, but now I regret it. If I had a picture of Bob and George and us and our acoustic guitars, it would’ve been great.


DR: It seemed to me last night you still love performing for people.

HT: I do. I feel like it’s the one thing I can do that brings joy to people. And I feel like at my age, I’m still playing pretty well. I can still handle the guitar. I still have my voice – whatever it was, it still is. I do other things, obviously – make instructional videos. Homespun (Music Instruction) has been a big part of our life since we started in ‘67.

One time, in ‘68, ‘69, Bob turned to me – and this is very ironic, because it could’ve been taken as encouragement or a put down; I’m not sure how to take it, because I’m a musician – Bob said, “You know, you ought to go into the mail order business.” Why would you say that to somebody? But in fact, that’s how I ended up making my living. So he was right. I never would’ve made a comfortable living by playing music. It wasn’t because he said that, that we went into the mail order business, but he was right.

Another funny story: I was one of the few people in Woodstock who had Bob’s phone number. There were a few people, but it was highly classified. Like, it’s good Trump didn’t have it. So one day, I got a call at the house from Clive Davis, and Bob was on Columbia at this point. He said, “I’ve lost Bob’s number, could you give it to me, please?” I said, “I’m sorry Clive, I’ll tell Bob you were looking for him, but I can’t give it to you.” I’ll never forget that. He said, “Okay, please tell Bob,” and I called Bob right away and I said “Clive Davis is trying to get in touch with you.” Several years later I ran into Clive and I reminded him of that and we both laughed. I mean, telling Clive Davis, “I’m sorry I can’t give Bob Dylan’s phone number.” What could I do? I don’t know whether Bob wants me to give you his phone number.


DR: You could’ve lost your privileges!

HT: I could’ve! That’s right.


DR: Do you ever talk to Bob Dylan now?

HT: For some strange reason I haven’t been able to get a hold of him. I mean, I’ve tried very much, but we saw him in 2001. He did a concert at Madison Square Garden, after 9/11, and it was a very moving concert. It was one of the best I’ve ever seen. And he only did songs that he wrote in New York. He made a statement to the audience, which he rarely does anymore. He said, “All the songs I’m doing in this concert I wrote in this city, and this is a great city,” because everybody was still in shock. Through Jeff Rosen’s office, through Bob, Jane and I got backstage passes, and we went to hang out with Bob backstage a little bit. We had a nice conversation, he asked about our kids. I said, “You should come up and see us again. Come by.” And he said “Yeah, I’m sure I could still find your house.” It was all very congenial and nice. And then he said, “Come walk with me to the car,” the underground garage where his SUV was waiting for him. And we walked him to his car, and he was totally friendly and open and said goodbye, and that was the last time I saw him.


DR: Twenty-plus years, huh?

HT: Yeah, so I’m grateful for those years that we spent a lot of time with them. There’s still this family connection, strangely enough My oldest daughter, who lives in L.A., is still in touch with his daughter-in-law, Stacy, married to his son Sam. She’s also in touch with Maria, Bob’s oldest daughter. And I’ve seen Jacob a few times. So we still have some family connection, and Jacob knows a little bit of the history, though I think he was too young to remember Woodstock at all. Back when he came to play in Woodstock, maybe ten years ago, I went to hang out with him. He said, “I don’t even know where we lived.” And I said, “I’ll be glad anytime to take you up there and show you,” but I haven’t had that chance.



If you say he’s serious
BY Justin Hamm

If you say he’s serious
you can be sure he is not.
If you say he is not
you can be sure he will
pry open the liquor cabinet
of the divine
and fill up two shot glasses.
Reach for one. He squints
and tilts his head,
maybe even offers up
the impression of a smile.
Now look back down.
Both glasses are raven’s feathers,
the table a wooden galleon
sailing the constellation night.