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BY Walter Raubicheck, Pace University


Infidels (1983) remains one of Bob Dylan’s strongest post-60s albums. The album was Dylan’s first since the “Born Again” trio from his explicitly Christian period. Artistically, fans and critics considered the album as an advance over its predecessor, Shot of Love (1981), though they still scrutinized the album for evidence that Dylan was either still evangelizing or else had returned to making secular music. Fairly quickly a third thesis about the record arose due to the number of references to the Hebrew Scriptures and because “Neighborhood Bully” was clearly a song about Israel: Dylan had abandoned Christianity and returned to Judaism. With the passage of time it became clear that, on Infidels and beyond, Dylan had not renounced his Christian identity at all but had integrated many of the apocalyptic elements within Judaism into his worldview. Infidels is particularly remarkable for its opening track, “Jokerman,” which uses biblical imagery along with Dylan’s own brand of symbolic language. Dylan also, in “Jokerman,” addresses the persona that he adopted at the height of his mid-60s fame, making the song unique in Dylan’s canon.


Dylan has not often performed the song in the past two decades, but he did so earlier on several memorable occasions: on the David Letterman show on March 22, 1984, not long after Infidels was released, and at Woodstock 94 as part of a summer tour during which “Jokerman” served as the opening number. Meanwhile an earlier version of the song, with a number of alternative lyrics, appears on the recent release The Bootleg Series Vol. 16: Springtime in New York 1980-1985.


The very ambivalence that the imagery exhibits towards its subject has made this song subject to “almost endless interpretations” (Williamson 195). Terry Gans, in his authoritative account of the recording of Infidels, Surviving in a Ruthless World (Dylan’s original title for the album), says “the song practically sits up and begs to be taken as autobiographical” before acknowledging that the Jokerman could also be Christ or the Antichrist (80). Is it about his return to Judaism? Clinton Heylin calls it “the self-portrait of a gnostic” (556). Daniel Mark Epstein observes that “[t]he singer addresses a character central to his iconography, the Joker, the trickster who creates illusion and is himself a victim of his own trickery.…One might say that the song [is] deconstructing the myth of the hero; the joker is a figure for all men and gods, embodying good and evil, darkness and light” (270). Seth Rogovoy, in his study of the Jewish influence on Dylan’s work, after commenting on the difficulty of giving the song “a unified, coherent reading,” suggests that the figure strongly resembles the biblical King David:


Dylan overtly refers to David in the lines ‘Michelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features,’ and various other phrases suit David – and Dylan – to a t. ‘Shedding off one more layer of skin / Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within,’ he sings, with great insight into both his and David’s ever-changing personality and evasive maneuvers in their (mostly failed attempts) to avoid temptation in the form of the yetzer hara, the evil urge (237).


In “Jokerman” the composer/poet assesses the moral attitudes of the Bob Dylan who created the masterpieces of 1965-1966, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde. Looked at from this perspective, the imagery of “Jokerman” is patterned and consistent, not ambiguous or contradictory. The key line is the last one of the first verse: “Freedom just around the corner for you / But with the truth so far off, what good would it do?” These lines can be seen as a devout Christian’s challenge to his younger self, whose most famous songs celebrated various kinds of freedoms, particularly from society’s expectations and commandments. But the Dylan of 1983 proposes that these freedoms are ineffectual if they are not backed up by the Truth – which for Dylan is now the biblical heritage that all people in the western world do have access to. In other words, freedom untethered from the truth of religion is ultimately unproductive, even fraudulent. As Christian thought has always insisted, truth assures authenticity; freedom and truth are meant to be synthesized, not regarded as a dichotomy. So much for existentialism – one of the –isms often applied to Dylan in the 60s, the most popular brand of which boasted that freedom in and of itself is the guarantor of an authentic life. “Jokerman” insists that freedom without truth leads to moral indifference (“Friend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame”) and an obliviousness to evil (“You’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah/ But what do you care? Ain’t nobody there would want to marry your sister.”) Satan, the prince of this world in the biblical view, has free reign in such a world of ethical relativism (“He’ll put the priest in his pocket, put the blade to the heat/ Take the motherless children of the street and place them at the feet of a harlot.”)


The mid-60s Dylan, the one that still has its hold on the popular conception of “Dylan,” is the Beat poet who don’t look back, the anarchist who wants another cigarette, the finger-pointer who would expel Mr. Jones from the room. The refrain “Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune” recalls John Keats’s famous “Ode” and links the Jokerman to the British Romantic tradition that produced the earlier poet, a clear indication that Dylan himself regarded his mid-60s persona as a Romantic poet, just as the Beats conceived of themselves as the inheritors of the Whitmanic tradition. But the Dylan of the 80s, unlike his Jokerman self, does look back, and he sees his earlier Romantic attitude towards life and art as constricted.


By 1983 there was little of the Beat poet remaining in Dylan: That figure had given way to the biblical prophet. Infidels, and “Jokerman” in particular, initiates and contains all the themes that Dylan will explore over the next eight years, through Under the Red Sky (1990): The world as it stands is subject to the power of Satanic forces, and thus ongoing strife and war are inevitable; redemption will come only with the arrival of the Messiah. (The cover photo of Under the Red Sky beautifully conveys the artist’s position in his unredeemed world: Dylan is crouching in a wasteland observing the aridity of the desert landscape.) What distinctly marks the speaker’s description of the Jokerman is that the images are alternately positive and negative in their depiction of his behavior and attitudes. His artistic function in society is admirable (“Standing on the waters casting your bread”) but spiritually bankrupt (“While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing.”) Carrying a satanic snake in both fists, the Jokerman is doomed to a futile existence: Both “fools” and “angels” dread their futures, but the Jokerman is without one. It’s “only a matter of time ‘til night comes steppin’ in” the speaker tells us, but the Jokerman, for all his charm and power, is evidently too preoccupied with the “nightingale tune” to come to this awareness.


Yet the chorus constantly reminds us that his earlier self, despite his spiritual sterility, does have the essence of a true poet. He dances to the “nightingale tune” as the bird flies into the heavens by moonlight, a traditional symbol of beauty, like both Keats’s nightingale and Shelley’s “Skylark.” He also does manage to keep “one step ahead of the persecutor within,” presumably because he is familiar with the laws and the rituals of Judaism contained in the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and because through experience he has learned how to survive in the jungle and on the sea. Yet he has had no other teachers, so he has not learned about the Messianic truth.


Several images in the song refer to the influence of 60s Dylan on his followers. He’s a “man of the mountains” who can “walk on the clouds”; he’s a “manipulator of crowds” and a “dream twister.” The speaker is aware of the reverence with which the pre-conversion Dylan was treated: “Michelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features.” But the speaker also knows that morally the Jokerman has always been insensitive to evil: he knows what the prince in scarlet wants, but he doesn’t “show any response.”


With the release of Springtime in New York, we now have access to an alternate set of lyrics for “Jokerman,” some of them remarkable indeed, and all supporting the Messianic theme. Once again they present an ambivalent view of the title character as he vacillates between virtue and vice. On the one hand he lets “the wicked walk right into a trap,” but on the other hand “You give away all the good things that fall in your lap.” And then there is the contradiction between the Jokerman’s world fame and the emptiness in his personal life: “You’re a king among nations, you’re a stranger at home.” The song consistently implies that this state of contradiction will persist if the Jokerman goes on living with freedom but without truth.


Perhaps the most interesting lyrical change concerns the list of weapons of destruction. In the Infidels version, these weapons are waiting “behind every curtain.” In the Springtime version they are unable to drown out the sermon of the preacherman: a sermon about the “deaf and the dumb/ And a world to come that’s already been pre-determined.” “The World to Come” (HaOlam HaBa) is the Judaic term for the paradise God intends to establish with the coming of the Messiah. But before that paradise exists, and until the Messiah arrives, Satan will ensure that violence and war rule the day, culminating in the battle of Armageddon. One of scripture’s recurring symbols for evil is the wolf (i.e., “in sheep’s clothing”), and in unused lyrics for the song that Gans highlights, the wolf figures prominently: “a friend to the wolf”; “the secrets of the wolf”; the wolf will “divide your house”; and the woman in the final verse gives birth to a “wolf” today (81). In “the shadowy world” that “Jokerman” envisions, the wolf reigns, though after the coming of the Messiah, the wolf will lie down with the lamb (Isaiah) in the kingdom that the Messiah will establish.


The Dylan of the 80s, though, never ceased to be a poet as well as a prophet. Beginning with two songs he cut for the Shot of Love album but did not release at the time – “Angelina” and “Caribbean Wind” – Dylan began to move beyond biblical paraphrase to incorporate his own distinct lyrical gift. “Jokerman” continues this trend. “Resting in the fields, far from the turbulent space/ Half asleep near the stars with a small dog licking your face” shows Dylan has retained his ability to convey an indelible mood – here the mood of respite from turmoil – with just a few wellchosen images. And his list of violent perpetrators and weapons is reminiscent of his streams of language such as those in “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: Here we have “Well the rifleman’s stalking the sick and the lame/ Preacherman seeks the same, who’ll get there first is uncertain/ Nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas, padlocks/ Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain.” Of course, the idea he is implying is not that we need peace but that we will never have peace until the end of this world and the start of the new one, the Messianic age, his continual message between 1983 and 1990. As Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1984, a few months after the release of Infidels, when asked if he hoped for peace in the world: “There’s not going to be any peace…It’s just gonna be a false peace. You can reload your rifle, and that moment you’re reloading it, that’s peace. It may last for a few years.” In other words, until Armageddon (which in the same interview Dylan expects to arrive in a few hundred years), there will be “Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain.”


The other songs on Infidels convey similar messages about the state of the world. “Sweetheart Like You” describes it as “a dump like this,” and claims that to be here “you have to have done some evil deed.” “Neighborhood Bully” decries the violent hostility permanently directed towards Israel, the original Promised Land. “License to Kill” blames the human egotism (especially of the male variety) that forgets about God in the urge to violence and destruction: “Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool/ And when he sees his reflection, he’s fulfilled” (what an amazing couplet!). “Man of Peace” continues the theme that there will BE no peace in this age of the world since it is Satan who often lies behind the mask of the peacemaker. “Union Sundown” decries the oppression caused by globalist economics and the failure of the United States to combat it. (In the same Rolling Stone interview Dylan describes globalism, with its refusal to value local identities, as a symptom of the end according to the Book of Revelation). “I and I” again reasserts the need to acknowledge God as the unseen but all-powerful ruler of the universe, while “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight” describes the world as lacking any refuge from evil: “You know, the streets are filled with vipers/ Who’ve lost all ray of hope/ You know it ain’t even safe no more/ In the palace of the Pope,” referencing the then recent attack on John Paul II, the pope Dylan would perform for fourteen years later in 1997. Infidels presents a consistent vision of what human life is like once faith in God and the world to come have disappeared from the modern human consciousness.


“Jokerman,” then, is a key song in the Dylan canon because, if one regards its message as autobiographical, it marks the first time that Dylan the artist directly reflects on his own image, influence, and world view during the first decade of his career, the one when he exerted his greatest influence on the culture. It also signals the beginning of a new phase of his songwriting, one that departs from the explicitly evangelical Christianity of the so-called Born Again period – one partially derived from his fascination with Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth as well as his studies in 1979 at the Christian Vineyard Fellowship and instead stresses a theme that Christianity shares with Judaism, one he labeled “the Messianic complex” in a 1985 interview: the current world in which Satan has free reign will be followed by the period of the rule of the Antichrist, finally leading to the coming of the Messiah, after which the dead will rise and Satan will be destroyed. Both traditional Judaism and Christianity believe the scriptures (Isiah, Daniel, Paul) that insist upon the resurrection of bodies, to be reunited with their souls when the Messiah returns. Thus Dylan sings that he hears “another drum / beating for the dead that rise” in “Dark Eyes” and “In a twinkling of an eye, when the last trumpet blows / The dead will arise and burst out of your cloths / And ye shall be changed” in the song of that title. Though both religions, following Plato, have in their popular sermons and hymns stressed the immortality of the soul, the Talmudic traditions of Judaism and the Pauline traditions of Christianity are characterized by the idea that body and soul were intended by God to be reunited in the world to come, a transformed earth, though they are separated in this age by physical death. And before the end times the souls of the righteous dead do exist in a paradise corresponding to the popular conception of heaven. Dylan’s songs show that once again he found common ground between the two religions in their eschatological beliefs.


When Dylan studied with the Lubavitch community in Brooklyn in the early 80s, he presumably came to a deeper understanding of the union of Christianity and Judaism regarding the end times. So it was not that he abandoned Christianity for Judaism; rather, he had come to see that the two religions share the same vision about the meaning and goal of human life. Infidels is the record most deeply informed by this vision. Personally he had not abandoned Christianity, as some believed at the time, as his many Christian references in his later songs attest to. Dylan had used numerous Christian allusions throughout his songwriting career, but now prophetically he saw his religious beliefs within a larger, Messianic vision in which Judaism and Christianity both participate – as “Jokerman” and the entire Infidels album emphasize. Confident in his faith, he can now see that to “dance beneath the diamond sky” – or as he puts it in “Jokerman,” to “dance to the nightingale tune” – might be sufficient for poetic inspiration, but such a dance needs the music of the Lord to lead also to personal salvation.


Works Cited

Dylan, Bob. Interview, Rolling Stone, June 1984.

Dylan, Bob. Interview, Spin, December 1985.

Epstein, Daniel Mark. The Ballad of Bob Dylan. Harper, 2011.

Gans, Terry. Surviving in a Ruthless World. Red Planet, 2020.

Heylin, Clinton. Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited. William Morrow, 2001.

Lindsay, Hal, with Carole C. Carlson. The Late Great Planet Earth. Zondervan, 1970.

Rogovoy, Seth. Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet. Scribner, 2009.

Williamson, Nigel. The Rough Guide to Bob Dylan, 2nd edition. Penguin, 2006.



During the VIP opening weekend of the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Dylan Review received several reports from Mitch Blank, music archeologist and consulting archivist to the Bob Dylan Archive. The following was dictated by Mitch and captured by the Dylan Review. The reports have been edited for length and clarity.


Thursday, May 5th, 2022

Tonight was the VIP grand opening reception and dinner at the OK Pop. There was about 500 people there. At my table was someone who works for the Mayor’s office, Bill Pagel, Jeff Friedman and his wife, and a lot of other characters.


Two VIP badges with Mitch's name on them

Mitch’s VIP badges from the opening weekend of the Bob Dylan Center


There were a lot of speeches. Steve Jenkins, Director of the Bob Dylan Center, spoke and then Steve Higgins, Managing Director of the American Song Archives, gave an inspiring talk and thanked all the people who made this all happen. We also heard from Claire Dunn, who represented photographer Jerry Schatzberg. She thanked everyone and talked about Schatzberg’s legacy. Then we heard from Lewis Hyde – author of The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World. We also heard from a man named Jeroen van der Meer – Senior Director of Marketing Legacy Recordings, Sony Music Entertainment. He previewed the 2022 remake of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” It was an unexpected revamp of the original music video. Not since “Series of Dreams” have I seen so much post production work to create this new version, probably for a more modern world. It was well received, but nobody went nuts. Before you knew it, we went across the street to Cain’s Ballroom where Mavis Staples took the stage. 


Cain’s is a famous venue where every country singer in the world has played over the years. Even Bob Dylan played there once. After three years of not experiencing live music, or very little live music, the opportunity to have music vibrate through your body, but in this case not just music, but Mavis Staples’s music, was a life changing event. Could’ve been better than a massage. Mavis Staples’ band was exceptionally brilliant. We all sang along to “For What it’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield. She had us singing and she looked like she was having a great time. As an audience we were on. We needed her, and she delivered 100 per cent. She also sang “I’ll Take You There” and “The Weight.” Again, we all sang along. Mavis owns that stage. I haven’t sung in three or four years, and I haven’t had music in my presence. It’s an amazing thing. Afterwards there was a late night concert with Jeff Slate and Jesse Aycock at the LowDown, but Bill and I didn’t go to that. I was up late talking to newspaper people from all over the world.


Friday, May 6th, 2022

At 10am there were scheduled tours of the Bob Dylan Center and of the Woody Guthrie Center. My real reservation is on Saturday and Sunday, but because we’re VIPs we’re able to go anywhere we want. I’ve been to the center about three or four times at this point. The front of the building is beautiful because there’s a painting of a Jerry Schatzberg photo. When you enter, the first thing you see is one of Bob Dylan’s gates, and then as you proceed you enter the gift shop – nice and well organized. I ran into a million people here – Ratso, Sean Wilentz, writers from all over the world. Local people spoke to us, people were filming, and I even did an interview with a paper from Spain called El Pais.


Then you enter into the first floor of the exhibit of which there’s all kinds of photography and eye candy – there’s so much diversity. You work through it chronologically. There’s much in the collection throughout that Bill and I and other hardcore maniacs had never seen before. There are a bunch of wonderful things, a lot of stimulating and unbelievable footage from a variety of places, including of Bob Dylan at Albert Grossman’s house. Then you turn around and there’s a glass case of Bob Dylan’s leather jacket that he wore at Newport and Forest Hills in 1965, and next to it my program that I donated to the Center from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. It’s nice to see them together again. The whole center is all quality, well done, eye candy, delight. There’s also an interactive element that uncovers the stories of some of the exhibit items. 


Mitch standing next to Bob Dylan's leather jacket

Mitch standing next to Dylan’s leather jacket. Image provided by Bill Pagel.

A close up of the program from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

A close up of the program from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Image provided by Bill Pagel.


After visiting the Dylan Center, Bill and I went to the Woody Guthrie Center with Barry Ollman, and Kate Blalack, Senior Archivist at the American Song Archives, showed us some wonderful things in the Woody Guthrie Archive. At 10.30am there was a scheduled tour of what they call Greenwood Rising, a museum dedicated to the Tulsa Race Massacre, but I unfortunately did not get a chance to do that tour. At noon there was lunch with George Kaiser Family Foundation officers and they spoke about the work they are doing for the population concerning poverty, women’s health, and justice. There were about eight or nine short talks. George Kaiser spoke for a while and it was very inspiring and educational. He really opened our eyes to the wonderful work that the Kaiser family foundation has undertaken. After it ended, a lot of people went back to the Dylan Center. I bought a couple of shirts. We hung out there for a while and talked to another million people. Larry “Ratso” Sloman hung out with us. As usual, Ratso was dressed as a fashion victim, wearing pajama bottoms and a weird shirt. I also spoke to Patti Smith for a while, as well as Lenny Kaye and other Woodstock/Bob related characters from all walks of life.


Two general admission concert tickets, both yellow and white. The top ticket is for a Patti Smith concert and the bottom one is for Elvis Costello and the Imposters

Tickets to the Patti Smith and Elvis Costello concerts.


At the concert, Patti was deliriously happy to be there and you could tell. That band probably never had a greater audience or vibe because we all love Dylan. She started out with “Wicked Messenger” and did her other songs. She’s an artist. She was brilliant, forceful, animated, and it was a great concert. Everybody was smiling and singing along. She also did “Boots of Spanish Leather.” There was a lot of interaction between Patti and the crowd. It’s the first time she was back in Tulsa since 1978, so we’re talking 40 years or something. They loved it, they had a great time. The band was also great. Her son, Jackson, is an amazing guitarist. The concert was packed to the gills; there was no seating. In front of the stage, inches away, there were two rows of seats that said “reserved.” Before the concert started we were told by security we had to move. We told the security guard “we don’t need no stinkin badges.” And the guy said “I’m just here from security.” We’re given celebrity status here; I’m not used to this. Here I have hundreds of people coming up to me a day saying “Oh, I wanted to meet you.” I’ve just been going with the flow.


Saturday, May 7th, 2022

I spoke today with the head of The Tulsa World, the biggest paper here. There will be a big article tomorrow. I also spoke with the head of PBS in Tulsa for a long time. At around 4pm we took a cab to the home of Edith and Glenn Wilson in a beautiful neighborhood – I was very impressed. A lot of benefactors were. I got an opportunity to speak with Steve Jenkins who is now the director of the Center and I was very glad that we talked because I sensed that this gentleman has some kind of vision – I can smell some visions. He’s a smart guy. I also spoke to people associated with the Kaiser Family Foundation. There were a lot of people who donated money. Everybody I spoke to today and the people who do what I do met only nice people. The people are really friendly and they’re coming from all over, mostly from Tulsa. You meet writers, and I even had an opportunity to speak to the guy who’s in charge of the Heavens Door liquor company. I’ve had very interesting conversations, some inspirational, with a variety of people. 


You talk with people from auction houses who are trying to get something from you that they can make money on. Other people want to talk to you about books they’re writing. You got people who show up who you don’t even know who they are. I told the same guy the same joke three times. We also met Elvis Costello because we were in part of the archive with some of the official people and Elvis got a private tour. Bill spoke to him for a bit, and then we had a sighting of Taj Mahal, who is a great American Blues artist. He was here with another dignitary that we know, the famous photographer Lisa Law. Her notoriety goes back to the days of the Woodstock festival in the 60s. She took many photos of Bob and turned hippies on to muesli. I saw people I haven’t seen in 30 years. There’s a lot of hugging and a lot of smiling. I also got people to sign baseballs.


Four baseballs with signatures and doodles

A few of Mitch’s signed baseballs.


Tonight there was an Elvis Costello and the Imposters concert. It was mind bogglingly great. Elvis did “I Threw it all Away” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” The crowd was very enthusiastic. Everyone who performed was grinning like idiots. It was fun for everyone, including the musicians.


Sunday, May 8th, 2022

Today being Sunday there were no regular activities planned except the center being open for people with passes. There’s also something called Mayfair, a downtown festival with hundreds of food booths, so everywhere you go there are people everywhere. It’s like herding cats. We went to the Guthrie Center again today. I ran into a woman who’s a representative of the Duluth Armory. They want me to do a Zoom thing with them on Tuesday. Tuesday is also the opening – the ribbon cutting ceremony and then it’ll open to the public. And for me the exciting part is it opening to the public. I want to observe, what are younger people attracted to? I want to see peoples’ reactions and see what sparks them. And if I see people that are the kind of people who are entry level collectors or archivists, I’d love to have a quick conversation with them and tell them what not to do and save them a lot of time in the future.


Weirdly for me, there’s an awful lot of people who identify me and come over to me. They want to meet me, they want to talk to me. This is like a fantasy world. It’s like walking into some other planet. Everyone has a story about Bob Dylan. Lots of great stories. One of Bob’s former bodyguards, Baron, is here. He’s meeting people he used to tell to stop filming. He’s telling stories. There’s a lot of laughing going on.


Tuesday, May 10th, 2022

Today was the opening. I got up super early. We had to be at the ribbon cutting at 8.30am in the morning. I got there at about 8am. I was not a ribbon cutter, but we have photos of people cutting the ribbon, and probably a photo of Bill stealing a pair of scissors. During the ceremony people gave speeches and all of them said inspiring things. Do I remember any of it? No. Steve Jenkins, Director of the Bob Dylan Center, greeted everyone. He’s a great person to have in that position. Then Ken Levitt, Executive Director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation spoke. There was also a program of kids performing – Sistema Tulsa – doing a version of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It was very nice. Then Tulsa Mayor, G. T. Bynum spoke. After this Joy Harjo, the 23rd Poet Laureate of the US, recited a poem. While I don’t remember what she said, it was brilliant and beautiful. It was really touching. Next, Hannibal B. Johnson – author and historian – spoke for a bit. Then I’m standing next to a guy who’s shining in the light, white cowboy hat, tan, tells me he worked for Phillips 66 oil company and his nephew is playing with two other guys. They performed “I Shall Be Released” in Cherokee. I thought that was phenomenal. After this they cut the ribbon and the doors were open. 


When you arrive you go through a door with Bob Dylan’s face on it and then on the left and right is one of Dylan’s gates. The first day you had to book your entrance by hour so it wasn’t crowded, which was good because the photographers and filmmakers needed people calmly coming in. All day I was involved with the two camera guys, Jeremy Lambertson and Elvis Ripley, Steve Ripley’s son. They had a room set up at the Woody Guthrie Center where they would get quick interviews with people. You talk to all kinds of people. You stand behind people looking at something that belongs to you, or you know they don’t know what they’re looking at. All the people we talked to got excited that me and Bill were there to talk to them. I was interviewed by someone from PBS Tulsa. Then I had to interview Lisa Law.


The official program for the ribbon cutting ceremony of the Bob Dylan Center

A program from the ribbon-cutting ceremony.


Wednesday, May 11th, 2022

On Wednesday Bill and I went back to the museum. Bill took photos of every manuscript that we felt was important. We took good photos of the exhibits. We even took a photo of a letter that Hendrix wrote to Dylan. There’s three floors, so you have to take breaks. There’s so much eye candy.


Sixty years ago or so, when we all started this crazy disease and we all eventually met each other, what we were doing (specifically people who taped concerts) was considered criminal and they’d have security guards take your machine and kick you out. Sixty years ago we were criminals and now they’re calling us asking if we have things for the music. People ask me “why are you donating your collection,” and my response is – “if you don’t molt, you can’t grow new feathers.”


I want to see young people and kids here to get them excited; this is something they should learn more about. Tell them stories and make memories to get them excited. To me that’s the whole point of this – to grow the understanding of how art can expand into action and healing. I’m here because I understand that it’s important to fan the flames. I’m hoping to do that with some young people, especially young collectors. It’s important to not be a bull in a china shop. I want to identify those people and have them meet some of the people who have been doing this. I like walking around seeing people looking at things on the walls and you see that they’re engaged and you can tell them a couple of things they wouldn’t figure out about a photo. Yes it’s ego, and it’s probably punchable, but that’s what we do.



Bob Dylan and the Stanley Brothers

ARTICLE BY Bob Russell


On the road one night in the late 1940s, Carter Stanley, his brother Ralph, and their band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, were traveling back from a performance in North Carolina to Bristol, Tennessee. Carter, the main songwriter of the group, had turned on the car’s dome light to allow him to put together a new song idea en route. As Carter subsequently related to musician/folklorist Mike Seeger, Ralph complained strongly that the illumination was making his job of driving more difficult. At the end of the journey, however, Carter unveiled to the band his newly-born creation, “The White Dove,” destined to become a classic, one that poignantly hit the familiar bluegrass themes of devotion and family. As Carter put it to Seeger, Ralph “hasn’t fussed any more” about the unwanted light. On March 1, 1949, the Stanley Brothers recorded the song at the in-demand Castle Studio in Nashville’s Tulane Hotel, releasing it with “Gathering Flowers for the Master’s Bouquet” on April 4, 1949.


Fast forward 48 years to a small club, the Roxy, in Atlanta, Georgia, on December 2, 1997. To open his second electric set, Bob Dylan and band (in the tenth year of his Never Ending Tour) premiered the Stanleys’ “The White Dove,” a heartfelt rendition with a stately musical background (the soundcheck earlier in the day, perhaps more naturally, had run through an acoustic version). Bob went on to play the song live a total of ten times in all, with the final performance on April 3, 2000, in Cedar Rapids, this time acoustic. A listen to the recordings of these renditions leaves no doubt of the deep respect that Dylan has for this song and the Stanley Brothers.


This is one example of Bob Dylan’s familiarity with and admiration for the Stanley Brothers, a group considered, along with Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs, true legends of first-generation bluegrass. What other indications are there of Dylan’s longtime interest in the Stanleys and what clues can we find about its origin and influence?


Stanley Origins and Style

Carter and Ralph Stanley, born in Dickenson County, Virginia, in the mid-1920s, played together locally in the early 1940s before forming their classic band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, in 1946. This historic group lasted twenty years, up to the death of Carter due to liver failure in 1966. After a period of indecision, Ralph put together his own band and went out solo, continuing the Stanley tradition for another fifty amazing years. Musicians such as Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, and Larry Sparks passed through Ralph’s band, carrying forward the classic sound and then moving on to find their own voices.


As musicians following the same general path laid out first in the 1940s by Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys (his sidemen being Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise, and Howard Watts), the Stanley Brothers are usually classified as a traditional bluegrass band. The attributes of this genre include instrumentation (guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and bass, for example, but no electrics allowed), tempo (at times but not always brisk, with the intangible quality of “drive”), and subject matter (equal measures of Saturday night revelry and Sunday morning reverence).


While Monroe and his band created a landmark American original style out of the Southern country string band tradition, and Flatt & Scruggs turned an acrimonious departure from Bill into twenty years of success mixing bluegrass and folk songs, a somewhat different path let the Stanley Brothers stake out their own turf in that traditional trinity of bluegrass greats. What differentiated them from the other pioneers of the day was the derivation of their music from old-time mountain traditions. “Old-time mountain style, that’s what I like to call it,” Ralph stated in later years. “When I think of bluegrass, I think of Bill Monroe.” Mountain music springs from British Isles tunes, especially ballads, as modified over the years in the Appalachian Mountains, mixed with African traditions brought to America by slaves, especially those traditions related to banjos and singing style. The Stanley sound was firmly within Anglo/African musical traditions, and Ralph in his solo career took them further, incorporating the older clawhammer banjo style in addition to the three-finger style that Earl Scruggs had popularized. He also performed powerful a cappella numbers, such as the mournful dirge “O Death” for the award-winning film O Brother, Where Art Thou?


The Stanley Brothers toured tirelessly through the 1950s, covering almost exclusively the bluegrass hotbed of the American South. Bob Dylan would have had few or no opportunities to see them in concert as a young man, but would likely have been exposed to their music on the radio in Minnesota or later on Izzy Young’s Folklore Center records in New York City. Shortly after Dylan’s arrival in New York, the Stanleys performed at two concerts there sponsored by Friends of Old Time Music, a group which included early Dylan friend Mike Seeger. Although there’s no evidence Dylan attended the concerts, one can imagine the Stanleys as another ingredient in the musical stew being formed in the young man’s mind, maybe one of his first exposures to traditional mountain music (and thus indirectly to the ancient traditions of the British Isles). In 1966, Dylan told an interviewer, “I listen to the old ballads … I could give you descriptive detail of what they do to me, but some people would probably think my imagination had gone mad.” The songs of the Stanleys included such dark, pre-twentieth century ballads as “Pretty Polly,” “Little Maggie,” and “Poor Ellen Smith.” These were mixed with gospel numbers (e.g., “I’ll Fly Away”), instrumentals (Ralph’s own banjo tune “Hard Times”), folk songs (“Handsome Molly”), and, most importantly, their original songs, most from the prolific pen of Carter Stanley. What all of these musical types shared were the hallmarks of American mountain music: the ancient tone (scales) of the old music; close harmony, notably the high, lonesome sound of brother Ralph’s tenor; and spirited, if perhaps not virtuoso, “ragged but right” technique on the traditional acoustic instruments. Dylan’s later discovery of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music must have been a reinforcement of his earlier exposure to the musical legacy of the mountains and traditional folk.


The Stanley Brothers and solo Ralph Stanley have a large catalog of albums which can still be easily found. As good a place as any to start delving into their work is The Stanley Brothers – The Early Starday King Years 1958-1961, which includes versions of most tracks referred to here.


Man of Constant Sorrow

Bob Dylan’s debut, eponymous album on Columbia was released in 1962, featuring only two original tracks. To fill in the album, Dylan turned to his musical influences, covering, among others, Roy Acuff, Bukka White, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and the Stanley Brothers.


“Man of Constant Sorrow” was written around 1914 by Dick Burnett, a blind Kentucky songwriter and fiddler. Although performed by several artists in the following years, the song became known when recorded and released by the Stanley Brothers in 1950-51, with Ralph on the lead vocal. It was then re-recorded (as was common for the group) in 1959, this time with an awkward call-and-refrain added in the chorus. Their recordings and subsequent performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 led to several renditions by early-1960s folk artists. Bob Dylan’s version of the lyrics owed something to Joan Baez and others, and certainly the solo guitar/harmonica accompaniment could not reproduce that of a full string band. The vocals, though, take us right to the hills, with the 20-year-old attempting to emulate the world-weary bearing of an aging mountaineer musician (just as other cuts took on the persona of a soon-to-die Black bluesman). The way Dylan hangs on to the first syllable of each verse (like Caruso, per Bob) mirrored the Stanley recording, but with an even slower tempo to emphasize the mournful tone. The mountain music theme recurs in another song on that album, the Appalachian ballad of New Orleans prostitution “House of the Rising Sun,” as well as on “Freight Train Blues,” this time based on a Roy Acuff song.


Did Dylan match the ancient tones of the mountain, or of his various musical heroes honored on the debut album? He soon admitted, “I ain’t that good yet. I don’t carry myself yet the way that (they) have carried themselves. I hope to be able to someday, but they’re older people.”


“Man of Constant Sorrow” had a renaissance in 2000 with the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and subsequent “Down From the Mountain” concert tour, featuring Ralph Stanley and involving such Dylan collaborators as T-Bone Burnett, Emmylou Harris, Norman Blake, and Bob Neuwirth.


Rank Stranger

In May 1988, on the eve of the kick-off of the Never Ending Tour, Bob Dylan released the puzzling, frustrating album Down In the Groove. Cobbled together over four years of recording sessions using a host of musicians and sources, the release met with negative reviews and reception, with subsequent years bringing no substantial re-evaluation.


Mixed with this odd collection of insubstantial additions to the Dylan body of work was one very moving song, especially to aficionados of traditional American music. “Rank Strangers to Me” is a ballad as closely identified with the Stanley Brothers as anything they ever recorded (under the name “Rank Stranger”). The brothers recorded their popular version of this Albert E. Brumley, Sr. composition in 1960 in Jacksonville, Florida. In two spare verses and a chorus, the ballad touches on loss, isolation, longing, and death.


“I wandered again to my home in the mountains, where in youth’s early dawn I was happy and free,” begins the tale, but this would be no joyful reunion with family and friends, as the plaintive vocal (either Stanley or Dylan) makes clear. No familiar faces greet the protagonist, no recognition, no acknowledgement. The only ones in sight are utter strangers to the singer. If the young Dylan had begun in “Bob Dylan’s Dream” and “Restless Farewell” to feel growing regret at the loss of youth and early friends, this song advances that narrative to a later time when separation is total: “They knew not my name and I knew not their faces.”


Was there a positive note in Dylan’s “Rank Strangers to Me?” The sad lyric takes a hopeful turn in the second verse, with the prospect of a heavenly reunion, “Where no one will be a stranger to me.” Yet the mournful tone of Dylan’s vocal belies any immediate optimism, just as Carter Stanley’s lead did years before. The sparse instrumentation of the 1988 version recalled the Stanley version, while Bob’s distinctive voice put his own stamp on the track. A Dylan album composed completely of such older songs would wait until 1992, but in the meantime, “Rank Strangers to Me” would feature in 26 Never Ending Tour performances, always focused and powerful. Listen to the early (1988) Never Ending Tour version in Bristol, Connecticut, for an in-performance example, with fine guitar interplay between Dylan and G.E. Smith and a wailing vocal on the final chorus getting reaction from the crowd.


The Never Ending Tour

Echoes of the Stanley Brothers would be heard through Dylan’s Never Ending Tour. The aforementioned Stanley classics “Man of Constant Sorrow,” “White Dove,” and “Rank Strangers to Me” appeared at intervals through the tour from 1988 through the 2000s. For a time around the year 2000, Dylan opened many shows with a cover of older country, blues, and folk songs, representing artists such as Elizabeth Cotten and the country duo Johnnie and Jack. Usually, this opener was viewed by reviewers and fans as a warm-up, almost a throw-away to be played while audio levels were adjusted and the audience settled into seats. A closer look at the selections themselves and their performances, however, suggests that these were carefully chosen as choice representatives of the rootsy American musical tradition that Dylan had grown up loving.


Among the chestnuts used as concert openers were no fewer than four from the repertoire of the Stanley Brothers and/or solo Ralph Stanley (“I Am the Man, Thomas”; “Hallelujah, I’m Ready to Go”; “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior”; and “Roving Gambler”). “I Am the Man, Thomas,” credited to Ralph Stanley and Larry Sparks, is a gospel number telling the biblical story of the disciple (Doubting) Thomas and his meeting with a risen Jesus. Dylan was no longer performing many of his own songs from his born-again series of three albums, but he could still bring fire to this song and lyrics that would have been comfortable on Saved: “They crowned my head with thorns, Thomas, I am the Man, They nailed me to the cross, Thomas, I am the Man.”


In total, this song was performed fifty-nine times from 1999 to 2002. “‘The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs’” Dylan told Newsweek’s David Gates in 1997. “I Am the Man, Thomas” is illustrative; in less than three minutes, Dylan uses the song’s lyrics to describe pain, faith, and doubt, not didactically or intrusively, but in a simple and direct manner. The listener does not need to evaluate the singer’s own belief in the story or make a leap of faith to a theological conclusion. What the singer conveys is a heartfelt story, made real for the duration of the song.


Later in some Never Ending Tour sets was another Stanley Brothers song, “Stone Walls and Steel Bars,” a classic country theme of a “three-time loser” being led by guards to his prison execution, “all for the love of another man’s wife.” Listen, for instance, to the performance in Vienna, Virginia on August 23, 1997, and hear the extended, mournful way that Dylan expresses sadness and regret for the mistakes of a fictional life; country icons such as George Jones and Willie Nelson would be proud to call this performance their own. Bucky Baxter and Larry Campbell add characteristically atmospheric support. “Stone Walls and Steel Bars” was performed thirty-seven times in five years.


While only performed live once by Dylan, the traditional Appalachian song “Little Maggie” was one of the folk/country tracks on his 1992 solo acoustic album Good As I Been to You. The tune had been a signature piece for the Stanley Brothers, recorded first in the late 1940s, again in 1960, at the same session as “Rank Stranger,” and later rerecorded by a solo Ralph Stanley. Dylan’s released version was properly mournful and slower than the Stanley version, serving the lyrical vision of Maggie as “Drinkin’ down her troubles, over courtin’ some other man.”


The lone live version, from March 18, 1992, in Perth, Australia is an example of a fine song not served well by its new arrangement. The tune was now brisk, and Bucky Baxter, in his very first concert of the Never Ending Tour, did his best to spice it up with pedal steel licks; drummer Ian Wallace’s plodding beat, however, dragged it all down, and after five minutes, it ended. Another arrangement could have made it worth hearing, but this Maggie was never retried over the years.


One related note should be made on Dylan’s creative recasting of lyric phrases in the case of one song credited to Ralph Stanley and Chubby Anthony in 1959 and recorded by the Stanleys in July of that year. Consider the first verse of that song, “Highway of Regret”:


Ain’t talking, just walking
Down that highway of regret
Heart’s burning, still yearning
For the best girl this poor boy’s ever met.


Next see the first chorus of Dylan’s “Ain’t Talkin’,” the concluding song on the 2006 album Modern Times:


Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’
Through this weary world of woe
Heart burnin’, still yearnin’
No one on earth would ever know.


Dylan has taken a simple but heartrending tale of romance gone bad and weaved it into his own complex and mysterious meditation on life, death, religion, and whatever else the listener may draw from it. Notice also that the earlier Stanley Brothers song’s title is not wasted: the phrase “Highway of Regret” appeared in the distinctly non-bluegrass 1997 song “Make You Feel My Love.”


Another musical point should be noted about the Never Ending Tour. Over time, and until later years, Bob Dylan’s lead guitar playing became a prominent part of the band’s sound, both acoustic and electric. Some looked at this as a mixed bag, apt to be alternately shaky or exquisite (see/listen to Bob’s guitar solo in a 1993 “Forever Young” on David Letterman for the latter). There were a few pioneer country singers who could ably pick lead breaks, a practice which likely influenced Bob’s playing within his band. Floyd Tillman, Cowboy Copas, and early Dylan hero Hank Snow were prime examples that would have been in Dylan’s consciousness by the 1950s.


In the bluegrass field, the Stanley Brothers were innovators in the use of lead guitar, an instrument normally relegated to rhythm status in the genre, working with the bass to drive the songs in the absence of frowned-upon drums. Syd Nathan of King Records had suggested that the group deemphasize the fiddle and use guitars more prominently, as the Delmore Brothers had successfully done on the same label. As the band’s sound developed, musicians Bill Napier, Curley Lambert, and Ralph Mayo at various times played lead guitar, complementing Carter Stanley’s solid rhythm (the latter played with thumb and fingerpicks, a la Lester Flatt). The guitarist most associated with the group, though, was George Shuffler from North Carolina. Shuffler could lend color with a walking bass or rip through a rapid-fire lead break. Most distinctive of the Shuffler style was the crosspicking guitar style he developed, playing across a series of strings to create a rippling, shimmering sound reminiscent of banjo rolls. Dylan would have heard this lead picking in an acoustic setting from Stanley records; this and the other early country music examples would have fired his imagination about what he could add onstage instrumentally beyond rhythm strumming.


Lonesome River

In late 1997, Bob Dylan traveled to Nashville to record with Ralph Stanley, one track out of more than 30 cut for Clinch Mountain Country, a double CD with Ralph Stanley and various guest artists. The song recorded, “The Lonesome River,” was originally cut by the Stanley Brothers on November 3, 1950, as a trio vocal with Carter Stanley handling lead duty. With Dylan, the tale of lost love was recast as a duo, Dylan on lead and Ralph Stanley lending his chilling high tenor on the choruses. The first verse, sung by Dylan, sets the scene:


I sit here alone on the banks of the river
The lonesome wind blows the water rolls high
I hear a voice calling out there in the darkness
I sit here alone too lonesome to cry.


Dylan and Stanley join together on the mournful chorus in the authentic traditional bluegrass style which was a hallmark of the Stanley sound. A seminal influence now was a colleague and collaborator, and Dylan had contributed in an authentic but personal style. Ralph Stanley’s wife Jimmi called “The Lonesome River,” the best track on the project, no doubt heartfelt, but also an effective marketing quote. Dylan himself stated simply, if perhaps exaggeratedly, “This is the highlight of my career.”



Bob Dylan has been influenced by many and, of course, went on to be one of the greatest influencers in popular music. Much has been said and written about his early interest in Woody Guthrie and other folk pioneers; in Hank Williams, Hank Snow, and Jimmie Rodgers among other early country music heroes; and in the many bluesmen who influenced Dylan’s debut album and beyond.


Alongside these Dylan-influential musical genres, we must add bluegrass, an authentic American category born out of the blues and early string band music, and nurtured since the 1940s by a series of musicians, both the giants of the field and countless grass-roots bands preserving the old traditions and taking the music forward. While other bluegrass pickers and singers would have entered Dylan’s consciousness and sparked his imagination, few have had the substantial and lasting impact of the two brothers from Virginia, Carter and Ralph Stanley.


Works Cited

Björner, Olof. The Yearly Chronicles.


Cantwell, Robert. Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound. Urbana, IL: Da

Capo, 1984.

Dawidoff, Nicholas. In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music. New York, NY:

Vintage, 1997.

Dylan, Bob. Chronicles: Volume One. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Interview with Mike Seeger in March 1966, quoted by Gary Reid in liner notes to The Early Starday/King

Years, 1958-1961, Starday/King Records, 2003.

Reid, Gary B. The Music of the Stanley Brothers. Urbana, IL: Illinois, 2015.



BY Randy Turley

I’m in Oklahoma where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain,
Where the oak and blackjack trees kiss the playful prairie breeze,
Where the Bob Dylan Center casts its dancing spell my way.

I am tangled up in Bob

As the snippets of songs, albums and photos, and
The mumbling voice of the reluctantly interviewed poet
Loose me across the swamp of time—propel me through my life—

I am fourteen,

I am a high-schooler lost in my room,
A love-crazed man,
A law student,
A rotten doctor commie rat,
A divorcee,
A teacher,
A father,
A human being,

Simultaneously confused and comforted by nasally sonics
That impart more meaning than the naked words and tune,
That dredge the cryptic, mystic lyrics which convey more than they say.
I am in Oklahoma where the words hit heavy on the border line
Where the music and a tapestry of rhyme define my life, my soul, my time

I am at Bob Dylan’s Center
. . . and he is at mine


THE DYLANISTA – Spring/Summer 2022

Literary canon formation is a curious thing, and Dylan’s Nobel Prize has certainly put the cat among the pigeons on that score. There’s no question about Dylan’s commanding presence in the rock ‘n roll “canon,” if that’s an appropriate word: the canonical rock ‘n roll artists can be corralled in the second half of the 20th century. Rock ‘n roll is no longer the most popular musical form, if it’s still being made at all, and we already know the primary names of the rock canon. Apart from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and its portmanteau approach to inflating the canon by heralding little-known musical influences, no expansion is realistically possible. Rock ‘n roll is now a static form, its history set in concrete, and expanding the rock canon would be like expanding, for example, the canon of Romantic poets. We might find an interesting rocker or early influence whose discovery enriches our understanding and challenges biases, but the definition of the period would remain intact.


Nor is there any question about Dylan’s centrality to the last years of the Second Folk Movement, which can be dated to the late fifties. In an odd (and well-rehearsed) paradox, Dylan probably did as much as anyone to kill off the Folk Movement while remaining, at least to those outside the world of Dylan-watchers, the consummate 60s folksinger. The name Bob Dylan still means “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin,’” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” even if the original cultural context of those songs is long lost – whether they can be revived with cultural force is yet to be determined. And although Sara Danius suggested Blonde on Blonde as a place to start Dylan appreciation, and resist as we might this reductive equation of Dylan with his acoustic-era songs, it must be admitted that, in Stockholm on that fateful night, Patti Smith sang “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” from the acoustic Freewheelin’ album. This is the Bob Dylan even Bob Dylan himself and Patti Smith seem to recognize as his “face value.”


But Dylan didn’t win the Nobel Prize for acoustic folk, folk rock, rock, or any other kind of music (the Swedes don’t give a medal for music). Lest we forget, Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This genre-bending acknowledgment, regardless of how much we admire the Nobel Committee’s bravery, means that we must think of Dylan as part of the literary canon. He isn’t simply the most significant songwriter of his generation, nor even, to quote Richard Thomas, “the supreme artist of the English language of my time.”[1] Dylan is now a sanctioned figure in the American literary canon.


Or is he? The newest Norton Anthology of American Literature (10th Edition) doesn’t include any Dylan songs (with or without music). Not that this college tome represents the last word in canonicity.[2] But the absence of Dylan’s name, amid the welter of much less well-known authors, none of whom has won the Nobel, inevitably undermines Dylan’s new literary status. To exclude the 2016 American laureate is tantamount to denying the literariness of his work—and defying the Swedish imprimatur. It’s a puzzling omission and a missed opportunity to expand and diversify the literary canon with a homegrown interdisciplinary art form. Is this evidence of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower, or simply a case of something happening here, and they don’t know what it is?[3]


Either way, the cat’s among the pigeons. Dylan’s indefinable literary status highlights the conundrum of canon formation. In my view, the Norton omission is an editorial blunder, though it might not be in the short run. But in the longer run, questions about inclusion, exclusion, and interdisciplinary diversity will fill our heads until they fall to the floor.


Redefining the concept of “Literature” with a capital “L” is fundamental to Dylan’s bid for canonicity. Henry Louis Gates addressed a similar redefinition when he edited The Norton Anthology of African American Literature in the 1990s, announcing what was for the time “an innovation in anthology production.” Gates explained that “Because of the strong oral and vernacular base of so much of our literature, we shall include a cassette tape along with our anthology. This means that each period will include both the printed and spoken text of oral and musical selections of black vernacular culture: sermons, blues, spirituals, R&B, poets reading their own ‘dialect’ poems, speeches, and other performances.”[4] According to Gates, “The canon that we define will be ‘our’ canon, one possible set of selections among several possible sets of selections.” And he concludes, “Scholars make canons.”


While I’m skeptical about this last statement, I like Gates’s knitting together of printed text and oral performance to form the “vernacular base” of literature.[5] Dylan himself hints at the same sort of knitting-together in his Nobel lecture. As Richard Thomas points out, Dylan offers “a fascinating description of how he gained mastery of the ‘vernacular’ of the early folk artists by singing the songs: ‘You internalize it. You sing it in the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs. You hear all the finer points, and you learn the details.’” Dylan’s lecture provides a kind of road map of personalized canon formation. Thomas summarizes it this way: “Just as he becomes Odysseus later in the lecture – ‘You too have had the drugs dropped in your wine’ – so too here he has entered into the folk songs and ballads which he has hardwired and whose world he inhabits. This is what it means to live inside the world of literature and song.”[6]


Notable by their absence are the scholarly canon-makers. Dylan’s reflections demonstrate how an artist internalizes prior works and reimagines them in his own songs, and, as Thomas highlights, Dylan’s attention to the vernacular is invaluable. Gates and his co-editors expansively define “vernacular literature” to embody popular and highly influential Black musical forms. Yet, try as we might, it’s difficult to think of Robert Johnson or Billie Holliday or Duke Ellington as literary figures. Dylan, too, has a credibility problem in terms of literary status, his lyrical genius and Nobel Prize notwithstanding. Academic curricula and public impressions make it abundantly clear that – though hope springs eternal – the redefinition of “literature” is still a work in progress. Perhaps that’s as it should be – perhaps the precise definition of literature should always be in statu nascendi: in a dynamic state of coming into being. In any case, as is also abundantly clear, no canon can be determined by fiat.


Not that Dylan’s serious audience ever worried much about that. We were convinced his survival outside the conventional canon was guaranteed because we had a card up our sleeves: the irresistibility of the songs themselves. The songs would straddle canonical limits and live on in (relative) perpetuity. As Milton said about Shakespeare in 1632, before the onslaught of Bardolatry:


What needs my Shakespeare for his honored bones,
The labor of an age in pilèd stones,
Or that his hallowed relics should be hid
Under a star-ypointing pyramid?[7]


Why should Shakespeare need a marble tomb to preserve his memory? Why should his “relics” be buried under a pyramid? Such preservation efforts are pointless: Milton apostrophizes Shakespeare, asserting “Thou…hast built thyself a livelong monument” with “easy numbers” and “the leaves of thy unvalued book.”


As has Dylan, with his 600-plus songs and his numberless recordings making up his “unvalued book.” And surely Dylan’s “easy numbers,” so riveting and transformative over the years, will be enough to build a “livelong monument.” Surely our bard, our vates, has written and played and sung himself into the canon.


But which canon? Formulated how? Sustained in what medium?


I repeat the refrain: canon formation is a curious thing. For example—if I can digress from literature – Ted Gioia recently wrote in The Atlantic that, mirabile dictu, old music was far outselling new music:


Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market, according to the latest numbers from MRC Data, a music-analytics firm. Those who make a living from new music – especially that endangered species known as the working musician – should look at these figures with fear and trembling. But the news gets worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.


He records his surprise when a young cashier is singing “Message in a Bottle,” and then again at a diner, “where the entire staff was under 30 but every song was more than 40 years old.”[8]


Gioia marvels that “Never before in history have new tracks attained hit status while generating so little cultural impact. In fact, the audience seems to be embracing the hits of decades past instead. Success was always short-lived in the music business, but now even new songs that become bona fide hits can pass unnoticed by much of the population.” As fascinating as this phenomenon is, however, Gioia doesn’t address the converse situation, the elephant in the room regarding canonicity. It’s one thing to call attention to the unique historical situation where new tracks become hits “while generating so little cultural impact.” But there’s no reason to suppose that, conversely, the old songs now representing 70 percent of the US music market are generating any impact on contemporary culture. The old songs lack present identity: they’re interchangeable, it seems, a kind of musical wallpaper. Gioia asks his server in the diner, perhaps with cultural impact in the back of his mind, “‘Why are you playing this old music?’ She looked at me in surprise before answering: ‘Oh, I like these songs.’”


The banality of the server’s answer says it all: there’s no cultural connection to New Wave and the Police, just as singing along with “Norwegian Wood” would bring no thrill of contraband, no shared code – i.e., illegal marijauna. Would even the searing accusations of Neil Young’s “Ohio” be detected and understood? Fewer Dylan songs seem to stream through the restaurants and supermarkets, but if they did, how much cultural frisson could we expect from inadvertent listeners to “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” or even “Masters of War.” The excitement, or incitement, of 60s, 70s, and 80s songs has been absorbed into the sponge of streaming culture.


Some of us have been resisting this kind of absorption for a long time, trying to keep the context alive. We’ve been teaching Dylan courses, and Dylan in courses, throughout our careers. But for my part, I can’t say confidently that my Dylan courses have become part of the curriculum. They certainly don’t have the prestige or regularity of standard department seminars on Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Woolf, or Morrison, and Dylan isn’t assigned alongside other 20th-century poets in survey courses. This absence is understandable, perhaps, since Dylan’s official elevation to literary ranks is recent and teaching him has, until now, been a niche vocation. Not to mention that bringing Dylan into the literary classroom has always presented a technical issue, while expecting literature students to know something about folk music and the blues is often a bridge too far. Nevertheless, like many another Dylanista, I keep my hand on that plow and hold on, continuing to translate Dylan into the literary classroom.


But this alone won’t make Dylan part of the literary canon. Pace Gates, scholars don’t make the canon and professors can’t shoehorn him in. The best we can do as scholars is to facilitate future canon-makers. The best we can do is hope that, by interpolating Dylan into our teaching and research, we can inspire future poets, novelists, playwrights (and maybe poet-musicians) to respond to Dylan’s work, thus giving them the chance to internalize Dylan, to “master” him as part of the vernacular. Dylan’s canonical status is in their hands.


I’d like to be sanguine about this process. I’d like to think the founding of the spectacular Bob Dylan Archive in 2017 will have a trickle-down effect. But the song it is long and there’s more to be sung.


Allow me to close with an anecdote, a personal tale of erosion. Not so long ago in my university courses I would occasionally quote lines like “The pumps don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handles” or “there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off,” or, perhaps (with reference to upcoming grades), “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” I quoted Dylan—as one might quote “To be, or not to be”—to illustrate a point, serendipitously, in Paradise Lost, say, or to link a passage in Mary Wroth to the ”sound of the street.” The Dylan lines would resonate familiarly with the class, bringing a smile of recognition (and, ideally, an LED of connection). But gradually, and then abruptly, the recognition disappeared. It seemed to me to be a precipitous erosion, a mudslide. Like Hemingway’s going bankrupt: gradually, and then all at once. And while I’d like to believe Ted Gioia’s statistics about old music, I haven’t seen much evidence of it. As things stand now, alas, I get more resonance in class from straight Milton quotes than from Dylan: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” draws nods and smiles; “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” produces blank faces.


Canonicity always has an element of unpredictability – waiting for the right configuration of admirers to come along, for the times to be ready for the specific kind of innovation a writer offers. John Donne is one example of this. Known and admired in his lifetime, he never published his poetry, which only appeared in a posthumous volume. His reputation waned and by the 18th century he’d become all but invisible: Samuel Johnson didn’t even include Donne in The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets.[9] It took Herbert Grierson’s 1912 Oxford edition of Donne and T.S. Eliot’s book review of that edition to set Donne into the firmament. This is a good example of how scholars and poet/critics depend on each other. Anna Laetitia Barbauld offers another, perhaps more significant example. Celebrated in her day for her poetry and novels, she had a measurable influence on Romantic poets around the time of the French Revolution. But she was forgotten until the late 20th century, when her importance required a re-historicizing of the Romantic context and a reassessment of the Romantic canon, if not of canonicity itself.


It might be that a genuine classic like Milton reasserts himself, even if he temporarily goes out of fashion, while someone like Dylan hasn’t yet had that advantage. Time is a critical factor. Milton has had centuries to acquire his status, whether through other poets’ imitation or simply through habitual anthologizing. But Milton is a rarity. In other cases, there are lapses, as happened with Emily Dickinson or even Whitman, who was revered by a coterie after his death but needed William Carlos Williams and the Beats to acquire the canonicity he now enjoys. Melville became instantly famous with his first novel, yet when he died the New York Times misspelled his name. Critics always recognized how crucial he was to the American literary canon – Lewis Mumford’s 1929 book about him was a major effort to reestablish his importance in the public mind, as was F. O. Matthiessen’s 1941 American Renaissance. But it took John Huston’s 1956 film (script by Ray Bradbury), with Gregory Peck stumping around as Ahab, to affix Melville’s name in the cultural consciousness.


Despite the Nobel Committee’s top-down decision, Dylan’s time hasn’t yet come, at least not the way it has for others. As my own experience in class shows, in terms of Dylan’s cultural recognizability, we’re still in the cycle of ups and downs other many major cultural figures have survived. Maybe Dylan will never have the same status Milton does now, but meanwhile we’re doing all we can to ensure that the current upswing in Dylan’s reputation continues. And though we realize that scholars alone don’t make canons, the Dylan Review is our contribution – one of many from California to the New York island – to the current (and future) moment.




[1] Richard F. Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), 322.

[2] None of the other anthologies I checked included Dylan, although I’ve seen his songs in the past. Notably, Edward Hirsch’s fairly selective The Heart of American Poetry (Library of America, 2022) includes Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues [Take two]” but no Dylan.

[3] As an example of what I mean – a literary friend of mine read this last phrase and didn’t
recognize the reference.

[4] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Canon-Formation, Literary History, and the Afro-American Tradition: From the Seen to the Told,” in Falling into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature, edited by David H. Richter (Boston: Bedford), 180. The cassette tapes have evolved into CDs and password-protected digital content accompanying each copy of the book.

[5] Though beside the point here, I’m more inclined to agree with Harold Bloom, the bête noire of the canon debate. Bloom used to tell his students, “Critics and scholars don’t make the canon. Poets do.” He expanded on this idea in many books, as for instance in The Western Canon: “Poems, stories, novels, plays come into being as a response to prior poems, stories, novels, and plays, and that response depends on acts of reading and interpretation by the later writers, acts that are identical with the new works.” See The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994), 9. This is a many-sided, complex debate, beyond the purview of this column. Cf., inter alia, John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Literary Theory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988).

[6] Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters, 312-313; 314.

[7] John Milton, The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose, edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon (New York: Modern Library, 2007), 34.

[8] Ted Gioia, Is Old Music Killing New Music? The Atlantic, January 23, 2022; date accessed: June 17, 2022. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/01/old-music-killing-new-music/621339/

[9] Johnson’s Lives, though indicative of a celebrated critic’s selection, is by no means definitive. He leaves out Ben Jonson too, while including the notorious John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. And, predictably, there are no women at all in Johnson’s Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779-81).



Live from Bob Dylan’s Retrospectrum

REVIEW BY Rebecca Slaman


On April 9th,2022, Richard Thomas, Anne Margaret Daniel, Laura Tenschert, and I all converged on the Florida International University campus to meet, observe, and share our knowledge of Bob Dylan. I earned my place among these brilliant speakers by providing a voice for the youth, illuminating how Dylan is received in the internet age. Sponsored by the Humanities department of the University, the four of us were invited to check out the largest collection of Dylan’s visual arts ever assembled, and to provide some insight into the artist at a symposium. “Beyond Generations: Bob Dylan Through the Looking Glass,” was a series of events including concerts by local musicians, presentations, and the dedication of a gate built by Dylan himself. The symposium closed out the exhibit, though I am glad to have spoken on the panel before viewing the art. In the presentations, we discussed Dylan as a musical artist and his impact, though Laura Tenschert specifically provided the background on how his visual art connects to his musicianship.


The exhibit, called “Retrospectrum,” was originally shown in Shanghai in 2019. In this iteration, the existing collections of paintings, drawings, and sculpture were joined by Dylan’s latest works, called Deep Focus, completed during the quarantine stage of the pandemic. The museum also received as a gift an iron-worked gate called “Untitled.” Standing tall just outside the entrance, it joined other looming, abstract sculptures in the green courtyard space. Full of colorful toolbox contents, it cast an elongated, darkly whimsical shadow. “Untitled” welcomed us as we rushed in to check out over four hundred works crafted by Dylan’s hands.


Before viewing this exhibit, any academic, fan, or casual onlooker may have questions about Dylan’s technical skill. The greatest U.S. songwriter, one may think, can’t be so talented as a painter too. Dallying into the visual arts could be seen as a hobby; a break from his “real” work. Let me assure you, the largest exhibition yet of Bob Dylan’s visual work rebukes that notion. Aside from the sheer volume of the collection, the growth of the artist is very impressive. The curation calls particular attention to the improvement of this skill, as it encompasses a wide range of time, from sketching to painting (1973-2020.) I don’t know if I would believe Dylan was capable of creating the vast, detailed pieces of Deep Focus if not for witnessing his technical improvements over time throughout the museum. Likewise, the early forays into sketch are legitimized by the formidable paintings most recently published. The title, “Retrospectrum,” Latin for “looking back,” illuminates this concept. It’s a curious choice for Dylan, who once told a reporter “nostalgia is death.” But rather than look back with nostalgia, “Retrospectrum” enables us to appreciate a complete picture of the artist through time.


Upon entering the museum, videos and music provide background on Dylan’s impact as a musician on American culture. It first introduces you to Mondo Scripto, which transitions the musical into the visual: iconic song lyrics accompanied by drawings. Beyond this exhibit, the museum flow is not linear, so patrons can choose their own paths. The most impressive paintings, though, take some work to get to. Like a reward, Deep Focus requires one to go beyond rooms of older paintings. Just off the stairs is The Beaten Path, which is the collection released just before the latest, followed by the New Orleans series, which is from the early 2010s. Placing Deep Focus after New Orleans heightens the impact of Dylan’s skill. Being Dylan’s most recent output, Deep Focus is central, and with good reason. In the other direction is a more miscellaneous collection of older paintings, drawings, sculpture, and Mondo Scripto. The non-chronological setup flattens time, providing context to the main event.


The earliest collection of paintings, created between 1989 and 1992, were originally published in the Drawn Blank series. They have a Van Gogh like quality about them in terms of compressed perspective. The subjects are often askew, as if attempting to portray distance, but not quite getting the horizon line right. They also lack depth and shading of the subject. This gives them a flat, if fanciful, appearance. Though more abstract, the skewed perspective technique mirrors Dylan’s approach in Deep Focus, where all subjects are in focus regardless of their distance from the viewer. In the Beyond Generations presentations, Laura Tenschert commented on this philosophy across Dylan’s work. Particularly, this concept of united perspective was seen in Shadow Kingdom, where background actors and actions added meaning, if the viewer knew where to look. For example, Tenschert shared that during “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” a man moved in slow motion relative to the other actors. Paying attention to the background and context yields significant value when looking at Dylan’s art. Characters and words provide clues into what the artist is attempting to convey. The value of an academic cannot be overstated when approaching a collection of work on this scale; Tenschert’s presentation, much like Dylan’s artistic habits, brought all of it into frame and focus. I’m grateful to have been taught this concept before seeing the paintings, and luckily, future viewers of this collection will find the presentations preserved on the FIU website. Indeed, small details contain winks that feel intrinsic to Dylan’s character. Across all paintings, subjects reoccur, exposing us to Dylan’s visual world. Woody Guthrie’s name populates diner signs and newspapers, and you might spot the visage of Leonard Cohen sipping a coffee. But it’s not just Dylan’s artistic heroes – beautiful, breasty women also play a role in Dylan’s art. The female subjects are unidentifiable in the earlier work due to their abstractness, but the newer ones are based on specific actresses. The presence of these characters shows that though the style changes over his career, Dylan’s particular perspective remains.


My favorite of the collections is The Beaten Path. The first painting you see is a brilliant sunset taking up a better portion of a wall, and a road extending up into a mountain. “Sunset, Monument Valley,” the title says. Upon Googling the location, you can see the source picture, known as “Forrest Gump Point.” Just as Dylan is part of the folk tradition, where borrowing songs is commonplace, his paintings do the same. But where the distant mountain fades in the photo and the road climbs, Dylan brightens and expands the image, creating a looming effect. It’s very impressive on its own, let alone imagining Dylan physically completing such an expansive work. In this room, the paintings in frame look like snapshots of a roadtrip across America. Slightly askew, glowing with neon motel signs and brilliant sunsets, they appear both truthful and mystical. Some details are delightfully accurate, such as the font on a Coca-Cola sign, and a plentitude of words appear throughout the paintings in carefully crafted detail. In others, the words are twisted. The paintings contain as much accurate signage as they do artistic liberties. Dylan’s changes no longer portray their original subjects, but give off a more general vibe of Nowhere, America. Just as some scholars may hunt for the real-life counterparts of Dylan’s songs – Edie Sedgewick in “Just Like A Woman,” the location of “Desolation Row” – the songs’ sources matter less than Dylan’s musical alchemy, relaying an idea. In the paintings, accuracy of subject gives way to a sense of nostalgia and unreality.


The New Orleans series is a bit drab after the brightness of The Beaten Path. Slightly earlier in Dylan’s painting career, the technique is not as clear. It’s also not much out of the ordinary; it’s what you would expect Dylan to like. Indeed, in Chronicles: Volume One, he praises the locale: “There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better. There’s a thousand different angles at any moment… No action seems inappropriate here. The city is one very long poem.” Though his experience of the Crescent City’s visuals might have been interesting, I did not find the products so. The images are muted and flat. “He’s trying,” one might say, as I did to excuse my distaste. He’s clearly making more of a concerted effort here than in the earlier paintings. Still, The Beaten Path does contain a few gems, such as “Peacemaker,” which calls to mind the music video for “Tight Connection to my Heart.” Two men in beige and gray pull fists at each other while a woman in pale pink halts their action. Their clothing is reminiscent of the 80s; one man might be in the Yakuza. The composition of the image is striking, though the drapery of the woman’s cloak is not fluid enough to make sense. Overall, I call this Dylan’s flop era.


As we approached Deep Focus, Anne Margaret Daniel prepared me to brace myself. Indeed, the scale of Dylan’s pandemic output is overwhelming. Dylan completed 33 fantastic paintings in two years! As I knew from specialist Scott Warmuth, this series consists of recreated film stills, with some artistic liberties. The exhibit itself extolls “The documentary candor of photography and film, as well as their ability to manipulate reality through cropping and framing.” Not a bad description of Dylan himself; obscuring reality to get to emotional truth. The technical skill of these paintings, regardless of their source, is laudable. The brushstrokes are sometimes thick and obscuring, sometimes small and detailed, drawing one’s eye to unexpected places. In one image, “Newsstand,” Dylan repaints the film still except for one magazine, which he replaces with a cover featuring country music artists.


In addition to greeting you at the beginning, peppered throughout the museum are Mondo Scripto pages. What a profound moment it was to round a corner and see Sarah Lee Guthrie, Woody’s granddaughter, quietly gazing at “Song to Woody” in Dylan’s own hand. As these pages are scattered throughout the exhibit, they act as reminders of Dylan’s occasionally mysterious intentions. Reviewers remarked when the book was first published that Dylan is unusual in his juxtapositions of image and lyric. While some combinations are obviously linked, others are dense and cryptic, such as “All Along the Watchtower.” Next to image-heavy lyrics of jokers and princes, Dylan features a woman in a medicine cabinet. Someone can probably find the connection here, but not this reviewer. Weirdly, when I went to look up this song’s drawing online, a different image came up, one of businessmen drinking wine around a card table. How did this happen? Why was it changed? What’s more curious, in a review of the Halcyon Gallery version of the exhibit, blogger Richard Williams commented on yet another version, a drawing of Jack Nicholson’s Joker. As Dylan fans know, even his classics are never complete: you have to keep an eye out for Dylan’s quick hands. Whether in the background of a painting or a work morphing over time, his decisions can be dizzying. In the writing, you can also see the slight handwriting differences across songs, some of them more loopy and swirly and some more straight and pointed. These discrepancies prepare you for how different the art styles in different series can be from one another; it’s all a part of form fitting content, all part of the journey.


Despite these differences, there are connecting themes. There are many open roads depicted across Dylan’s visual art, including in Mondo Scripto. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” both feature empty streets. What’s fascinating about the road trip motif is it’s often solitary in the piece; just one open road in the center of the frame, stretching out onto the horizon line. The effect is lonely, but beautiful. I often found myself trying to dissect Dylan’s attention to women subjects. In the earlier works, they are often close to the viewer, sometimes looking straight out. They’re often seductive. One painting, cheekily titled “Two Sisters,” depicts women nearly naked in bed together. As the collection goes on, women begin to occupy a space of intrigue, often looking off in the distance. The voyeuristic framing is replaced with a more distant appreciation of beauty. This progression makes me think Dylan is saying, I have given up claiming to understand women.


It’s a testament to the curators that they were able to make the exhibit so cohesive. Shai Baitel, who originally conceived the exhibit for the Modern Art Museum (MAM) Shanghai, gave a riveting talk at the Symposium that encompassed these themes. He alluded to the motif of the train, which appears in many of Dylan’s works. It also is a powerful symbol that provides an “in” to the perspective of Dylan-as-painter. As with his other art, the man himself is incredibly intriguing. I and the other speakers often found ourselves pondering the “why”, as we often do. Why did Dylan use this subject, this reference, this still? Why does his signature change across paintings? Viewing his painterly perspective as a train ride is a perfect way through; what we see is what he sees.


What struck me as a bit obscuring by the curators, and maybe by Dylan, is the lack of labels beside the artwork. All the information about the exhibit was presented with corresponding numbers in a thick book, printed in both English and Spanish. In the exhibits themselves, the walls were blank except for the art, the collection titles, and a few quotes from Dylan about his process, printed large on the wall. In the same vein as his untitled gate, perhaps he does not find the art’s titles and dates important. From the curators’ perspective, perhaps they want the art to stand on its own, to establish Dylan as a “real” visual artist. As with “Sunset, Monument Valley,” knowing the title can reveal how close his painting is to a photograph, which could discredit it. Or it could be the desire to establish the art outside of Dylan’s written work. Even through titles, his writing may have been enough to distract attention from the paintings on their own. This decision did make it more difficult to follow Dylan’s framing of the works. As a writer, I missed having that information while taking notes, but it did create visually pleasing, clean rooms.


As they probably were for Dylan, these works are an escape. The man took from images he could project in his own home, and painted his way to a new place which straddles reality and imagination. Dylan takes us on a journey through his perspective, and to find it, you just have to look at the details.

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Jon Stewart. Dylan, Lennon, Marx and God. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2021. 238pp.

REVIEW BY Barry J. Faulk, Florida State University


Don’t let the eye-catching title mislead you: Jon Stewart’s new book is a dual biography of John Lennon and Bob Dylan that focuses on the evolving views of these two towering figures in pop music on politics and religion. Marx and God frequently appear but largely in supporting roles. That said, the book fully lives up to its ambitious title in its expansive scope, ranging over topics from 1960s protest music to cognitive science. You might expect a book on Dylan and Lennon to dive deeply into the cultural history of the 1960s, in particular the radical counterculture politics that played such an important role in how rock music was received at the time. Stewart’s book is informative on the contemporaneous cultural contexts that shaped Lennon and Dylan, but he also goes to great lengths to provide a 19th century backstory for their ideas about politics, religion, and history itself.


Stewart holds himself to a rigorous standard of criticism, applying three different methodological approaches to Dylan, Lennon, Marx and God. Stewart draws on R. Serge Denisoff’s sociological analysis of the 1960s protest song to frame his study of Dylan and Lennon’s contributions to the genre; he appropriates literary critic Fredric Jameson’s Marxist cultural hermeneutic to interpret how Dylan and Lennon conceived of history, especially national history, and how their music interacted within industrial and post-industrial modes of production; and finally, he applies the recent findings of evolutionary psychologists J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer to definitively explain (or explain away) Dylan’s and Lennon’s ideas about God and religion. While Stewart’s intellectual ambition is to be applauded, the book’s multiple frameworks can overwhelm at times. At its best, which is often, Dylan, Lennon, Marx and God traces the crucial role music plays in nearly every human endeavor of meaning making, whether in rituals of worship, political activism, or nation building. At other moments I wonder if it’s possible to be too methodologically correct.


Stewart’s choice to pair Dylan’s story with John Lennon’s is richly rewarded in Chapter 3 of the book, on the “anti-war protest music” written and performed by both songwriters. The comparative examination of Dylan’s songwriting alongside Lennon provides a more comprehensive view of how activist audiences in the 60s and 70s interacted with pop music than an exclusive focus on a single artist could provide. Stewart draws heavily on the findings of sociologist R. Serge Denisoff to frame his study of transformations in the protest song. Writing in the late 60s, Denisoff observed that the traditional “rhetorical” protest song that described social injustice with the aim of moving listeners first to indignation and then to action was slowly being eclipsed by what he labeled as “songs of symbolic introspective protest,” coming from commercial pop musicians (29). At the beginning of his career, Bob Dylan proudly positioned himself outside the world of commercial pop music: “(w)hat comes out of my music is a call to action,” he defiantly declares in a 1963 interview with the radical newspaper National Guardian. Nevertheless, many of Dylan’s signature songs from this era – “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” “With God on Our Side,” and perhaps most notably “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” – fit comfortably within Denisoff’s category of the rhetorical protest song that “describe a problem but offer no solutions” (37). When Dylan’s lyrics become richer in symbolism and imagery, it becomes more difficult to connect his social critique with a call to action; as Stewart succinctly puts it, “(t)he more powerful Dylan’s images, the more they obscured any political significance” (41). Songs like “A Hard Rain” already bear within them the seeds of even more introspective songs of revolt, like “Chimes of Freedom” and “Gates of Eden,” as well as songs from Dylan’s rock era including “Tombstone Blues” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” that seem to be protesting the very idea of order or hierarchy. Like the 19th-century symbolist poets that Dylan had begun to read, the lyrics of these songs are both evocative and largely self-referential, existing in their own hermetically sealed universe of meaning.


As Stewart observes, Lennon’s mid-60s Beatle songs such as “The Word” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” that present love itself as a “gesture of abstract introspective protest” (49) are impossible to imagine without the precedent of Dylan’s own refashioning of the protest song as symbolist introspection. Dylan and Lennon are arguably the chief co-creators of a new genre of protest song that purposely collapsed the boundaries that traditionally separated introspection from social struggle.


Perhaps the central reason why Stewart’s “parallel lives” approach works so well in this instance is because reality seems to have conspired on the historian’s behalf to add a fair share of dramatic irony to the story. Stewart’s chapter begins with Dylan’s reinvention of the protest song and continues with an examination of Lennon’s own contributions to introspective protest songwriting. However, having donned the mantle of pop music activist, Lennon would be roundly criticized by fans and critics alike for Some Time in New York City (1972), a double album full of protest songs explicitly targeting social injustices of the day, including the Troubles in Ireland and the Attica Prison Riot, with a bare minimum of personal “introspection.” Stewart neatly sums up the response: “(t)he visceral reaction to (Lennon’s record) demonstrated the impossibility of presenting a collection of old fashioned magnetic compositions to an audience more familiar with 1960s rhetorical or introspective styles” (59). While Dylan spent most of the late 1960s distancing himself from the role of “spokesman for a generation,” Lennon, relocating with Yoko Ono to Greenwich Village in late 1971 where he became fast friends with counterculture activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, seemed eager to assume the role that Dylan had abandoned. This was not mere presumption on the part of a Beatle: Lennon’s 1969 song “Give Peace a Chance” was both a chart success as a single and enthusiastically adopted by activists at the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, the largest mass demonstration ever held in the US at that time. An audience that had gratefully learned their new aesthetic of protest music from Lennon and Dylan now firmly rejected Lennon the political spokesperson. Nearly 50 years later, pop songwriters still struggle to negotiate the conflicting demands that Dylan and Lennon faced when they attempted to address the social problems of their day in song, often relying on the same artistic formula of “introspective protest” that the two songwriters fashioned in the 60s.


Stewart’s dual biographical approach is less rewarding, however, when it comes to establishing “just how deeply nineteenth century traditions influenced their worldviews” (1987). Stewart presents compelling evidence to suggest this is the case with Lennon, whose imaginative investment in Victorian words and images dominates his songwriting contributions to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), especially in “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” Alternately, Lennon’s 1967 song “I Am the Walrus” repurposes the linguistic mischief of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll in order to launch a full-bore attack on English institutions in post-imperial decline. In Stewart’s chapter on “Bob Dylan and History,” he mounts a similar case for Dylan, providing a genealogy for the singer’s moral intransigence as evidenced by his early 60s protest music that dates back to the 19th-century Transcendentalist writers. Stewart also traces Dylan’s highly developed rural imaginary and acute sensitivity to the natural world back to Transcendentalist sources. Stewart is a fine writer and the chapter more than establishes his skills both as a researcher and an adept summarizer of his findings: still, the account of Dylan’s 19th-century backstory feels a bit like a data dump. With the obvious exception of Walt Whitman, the chain of correspondences that Stewart constructs in the chapter are finally more exhausting than enlightening.


Stewart saves his most provocative and challenging argument for his final chapter, a detailed account of Dylan and Lennon’s evolving ideas on God and religion. The bedrock of the chapter is Stewart’s firm conviction that evolutionary psychology has decisively solved the riddle of consciousness. Emotional human experiences including religious belief are now “fully accountable by the basic constituents of brain matter”; as Thomson and Aukofer confidently assert, “We are risen apes, not fallen angels – and we now have the evidence to prove it” (148). Given Stewart’s beliefs, it’s no surprise that his account of Dylan and Lennon’s religious idealism has a slightly clinical air. At times the chapter reads like an inventory of latent mental pathologies: Stewart seems duty-bound to catalog the many and various cognitive errors Dylan and Lennon committed over the course of a lifetime. The sad history of their category mistakes begins when they are still young men. Like many of their 1960s contemporaries, Stewart notes, both artists “attributed extraordinary properties to the altered mental states generated by meditation, flights of the imagination, chemical stimulation or various forms of cognitive impairment” (149). As readers of the Dylan Review doubtless know, and as Stewart duly chronicles, Dylan’s shaky grasp of the materialist world-view never really improves; and as Stewart also demonstrates, the same can be said about Lennon, despite the popular image of the secularist projected by the lyrics to his legacy-anthem, “Imagine.”


Even before Dylan’s evangelical awakening, the songwriter looked for purposes and patterns in the sublunar world: or as Stewart puts it, demonstrated a marked propensity to “(ascribe) meaning to random events” (171). As many passages in Dylan’s Chronicles attest, the songwriter remains a strong believer in intuition, what Stewart terms in one sub-section of the chapter, “Hyperactive Agency Attribution” (157). As Stewart details in an analysis of the “mind-body dualism” so prominent in Dylan’s songwriting, Dylan never really stood a chance: he was born in error. A suspect mind-body dualism permeates all his cultural influences as a young man, from his family’s Judaism to the Christian schools he attended in Hibbing, Minnesota, to the Mississippi Delta Blues music that stirred and shaped his musical sensibilities, and that is also prominent in the work of his chief literary heroes, William Blake and the Beats.


That said, despite Stewart’s convictions about consciousness, he provides a remarkably generous and sensitive account of Dylan’s religious journey. He offers evidence that substantiates Michael Gray’s contention that what appeared to the singer’s mass audience to be a sudden religious conversion was, in a phrase Stewart borrows from William James, a “volitional” spiritual experience: one more step in a series of incremental acts of assent to religious belief that date back to Dylan’s first divorce (175). Unlike the static account of Dylan’s historical consciousness presented in the “Dylan and History” chapter, Stewart’s insights on the singer’s faith journey are original enough to set future research agendas for scholars.


To give just one example: Stewart is one of the few scholars to have noticed that Dylan’s Christian faith resulted in a radically different attitude to studio recording and record producers. Along with the “Old Adam,” the songwriter deliberately cast off the rough and ready approach to studio recording he had maintained throughout his career, regardless of the backing musicians he used. As Stewart observes, for most of his career Dylan worked “as quickly as possible to capture the feel of a song even at the expense of audio or technical fidelity” (177). However, the singer sought the help of celebrated producer and recording engineers Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett to record his Gospel music albums, Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980), and worked alongside a stellar group of musicians to craft “unexpectedly meticulous recordings.” Not only is Dylan’s new-found commitment to high fidelity recording “unexpected,” it is arguably unprecedented, fully as “shocking” as his sudden conversion; John Wesley Harding (1968), recorded as Stewart notes, “in just twelve hours with an out of tune acoustic guitar and no overdubs” is atypical but far closer to Dylan’s “norm” for studio performance (141). The recording process for Shot of Love (1981), the final album in the so-called “Gospel Trilogy,” was much more contentious than was the case with the previous two records, with Dylan assuming his old assertive role in the studio process, hiring and discarding different record producers, and rejecting co-producer Chuck Plotkin’s final mixes of the album’s songs. Still, the singer’s paramount concern with getting the sound of the record right substantiates Stewart’s claim that Dylan’s new religious convictions also transformed his studio aesthetic. Dylan’s search for spiritual authenticity apparently led him to embrace the artifice of studio recording, or at the very least, take the studio process more seriously than he had before. Much more can be said about this fascinating paradox.


Although Stewart’s concerns for methodological correctness sometimes result in missteps, Dylan, Lennon, Marx, and God will be a valuable resource for anyone interested in the history of Dylan’s political and religious ideas. As a compendium, the study provides an especially useful introduction for those who want to know more about Dylan’s art and career, but it also contains insights to inspire seasoned scholars and Dylanologists to take a fresh look at their subject. The dual focus on Dylan and Lennon makes it especially valuable for anyone interested in learning more about the production and reception of 1960s popular music and its relation to the politics, back in the day when rock music was pop music.



Larry Starr. Listening to Bob Dylan. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2021. 136 pp.

REVIEW BY David R. Shumway, Carnegie Mellon University


Larry Starr has written a book that should engage Dylan fans and scholars and surprise many in both categories. Starr’s premise is that Dylan has been regarded “primarily or even exclusively as a poet, or as a writer of lyrics,” and he proposed to attend to Dylan’s music as represented on his recordings (2). He claims, “Dylan’s art achieves its total impact as a complete package – as a personal, unique synthesis of words, music, and performance,” and he rejects the notion that Dylan is best understood as a mere songwriter, because he is also the performer of his own songs (2). If it weren’t for the way in which those songs were arranged, produced, and sung, would anyone be listening to them?


The notion that Dylan’s music needs to be understood as a complete package is entirely persuasive, yet Starr’s claim that Dylan is understood mainly as a poet or lyricist seems to me greatly overstated. The one bit of evidence offered is that he won the Nobel Prize in literature, which at best explains how a small committee of Swedes understood him. It may be true that in the world at large some significant number of people think of Dylan primarily as the writer of lyrics, but they would not be Dylan fans, scholars, or popular music journalists, who, of course, are the natural audience for this book.


What is original about Starr’s book is not that he deals with Dylan’s records rather than his lyrics, but rather that he applies a formal analysis to Dylan’s oeuvre. Others have explored Dylan’s recordings in some detail. Greil Marcus, for example, does this in both The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. A weakness of Listening to Bob Dylan is that it lacks citations, so the uninformed reader might never know, for example, that Marcus has already provided a very similar treatment of “Like a Rolling Stone.” What distinguishes Starr from Marcus and most others who have written about Dylan is that their analysis has been primarily concerned with the question of the records’ meaning, while his is concerned with how they work.


Popular music writing has traditionally been short of formalist analysis. Simon Frith memorably observed this in Sound Effects when he compared a musicological analysis of an Animals hit to an account by the songwriter entirely devoid of formalist language. The point is that neither pop music fans nor pop music writers have traditionally relied on formalist terms and categories in their experience and understanding of records. Fans and journalists tend to focus on the music’s emotional effects and cultural significance, and to invoke only a relatively limited range of aesthetic descriptors. That these descriptors have proved adequate does not, however, rule out the possibility that more detailed and precise accounts have something to offer.


Larry Starr’s book shows that for Dylan, careful formalist analysis is in fact enlightening. It is important to note that only a small part of this analysis is narrowly musicological, most of which is found in the two chapters on Dylan as a composer. Other chapters focus on such topics as vocal style, instrumentation, the harmonica, album arrangement, and live performance. Most of these chapters add significant depth to our understanding of Dylan’s music and often provide helpful new terms and categories that may well become the basis for further work by other critics.


As an example, consider Starr’s assertion that “You’re a Big Girl Now” from Blood on the Tracks is a song “in which the music is the most interesting aspect of the whole. . . . The lyrics to the song . . . are essentially a collection of clichés” (5). What makes the song work, according to Starr, is its use of two unexpected chords, one because of its relation to the home key of the instrumental introduction and the other because of its relation to the vocal melody. These musical choices establish an emotional tone that is appropriate to the lyrics, which deal with the experience of being dumped. One could quibble with Starr’s characterization of the lyrics, since he himself observes that Dylan intends a number of the clichés ironically, but he is convincing that the music allows the irony to work.


There are equally compelling insights to be had throughout the book. Starr’s classification of Dylan’s vocal styles provides a useful basis for talking about the singer’s enormously inventive range of vocal performance, and he ties these styles to Dylan’s pattern of inhabiting different personas or masks. The discussions of Dylan as a composer call attention to features of his songs that tend to get ignored because attention is more often focused on lyrical meaning and vocal performance. The importance of rhythm, for example, in Dylan’s songs is convincingly illustrated in discussion of “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” which shows that the ingenuity of the song’s phrasing is a matter of composition rather than performance “because it remains a pattern that governs the entire five-stanza song” (61). And Starr isn’t exclusively concerned with the strictly musical features of the songs. In the second chapter on composition, he focuses on the formal aspects of Dylan’s lyrics in relation to the music in a discussion of “strophic form,” wherein “a unit of music is used repeatedly for successive stanzas of lyrics” (65). Later in the chapter he takes up Dylan’s use of verse-chorus structures and of bridges. This makes us aware that most writing about Dylan’s lyrics has been so focused on interpretation that it has ignored their formal features.


Listening to Bob Dylan is an important addition to the critical literature about this great artist. Not the least of the book’s value is that it can make listening to Dylan even more pleasurable. And, you might want to carry it around with you, ready to hand it to the next person who tells you Dylan can’t sing or that his songs aren’t musical.



Sara Danius. Om Bob Dylan. Stockholm, Sweden: Albert Bonnier Förlag, 2018. 104 pp.

REVIEW BY Karl Gustel Wärnberg, Leiden University


Bob Dylan is a unique phenomenon. He is the only artist to have won a Grammy, an Oscar, and the Nobel Prize. The latter was not uncontroversial. When it was announced by the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, that Dylan had won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, the world held its breath in shock, gasped out of surprise, let out a gleeful cheer, and then scratched its head wondering if it had in fact heard the correct name. In her book Om Bob Dylan (On Bob Dylan), Danius reflects on this momentous time in history.


Danius begins her reflections on Dylan by describing another Nobel Prize laureate. Yoshinori Ohsumi was awarded the prize in medicine the same year as Dylan was awarded the prize in literature. Ohsumi studied how cells reproduce themselves, multiplying by killing off the old. Danius jokingly compares this cellular process to Dylan’s career, except the joke is only a half joke. Her point is that Dylan holds within himself an entire tradition, ranging from Petrarch, to Shakespeare, through Rimbaud, all the way to Lorca. Dylan creates something new from the old, which Danius describes by stating that “Bob Dylan is an indefatigable archivist of history, a stubborn traditionalist, and simultaneously an artist who never stops reinventing himself. He appears again and again in surprising guises.” A slightly forced comparison, one might think, but the point comes across.


The book contains many similarly forced comparisons but reads well in general. It is short and flows steadily, more like an extended essay or reflection than a book. It is clearly written by a fan who is also trying to be funny and occasionally provocative. Writing this kind of book is hard to do because who does one write it for? Is it aimed at convincing those who don’t already believe Dylan should have won the prize, or at those who already love Dylan and believe in his literary genius? Danius pitches the book in the middle ground, meaning skeptics can find arguments as to why he is given such an elevated position in the literary canon, and long-time fans might discover previously unknown details about Dylan’s Swedish reception. Although Danius provides some refutation to questions about whether Dylan deserves the prize, her book is not a polemic, and she shrugs off skepticism by stating that his prize is not actually controversial, but well-deserved. It might strike some as elitist, maybe even as a sidestepping the issue, but the book has wider aims and provides insight to the process of awarding Dylan the Nobel Prize, for which Danius provides references to other books, such as Christopher Ricks’s Dylan’s Visions of Sin.


As Danius makes clear, Dylan is an artist whom many love to hate, and others hate to love for the sheer energy it takes to immerse oneself in his music and words. The hours spent listening to the words as they speak through time can be exhausting. And on top of it all is a shrill voice in the early years, and a whiskey-induced rasp in later years. But Danius says this is exactly why Dylan’s cult status endures. His voice, like it or not, is unmistakable, and it doesn’t matter whether one likes it. If there was a museum of historic voices, argues Danius, Dylan would have a natural place in it. None of this will surprise Dylan enthusiasts, though the book is not primarily or solely written for them.


Danius could have engaged more of her own thoughts on Dylan, which she sometimes begins to do but fails to reach her destination. As a reader, I thought she would say more, given her prestigious place in Swedish cultural society and her background as a well-known literary critic, who dedicated much work to the American tradition. Danius’s book partially aims to tell us why Dylan won the prize, but this fact is connected to his qualities as an artist. Dylan won the prize for literature, yet his voice is the vehicle through which the words reach us. There is surely much more to be discussed about the relation between Dylan’s lyrics and his performance or embodiment of them.


The former permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy goes on to say that, based on these reflections, many thought that the Academy’s decision was rather bold and risky. How could a musician, and one that is often criticized even as a musician, win the Nobel Prize in Literature? The criticism should not be exaggerated, she writes. Concentrating on Sweden, Danius shows how Dylan was received favorably even in the earliest days of his career, recalling the interest and conflicts surrounding Dylan’s first visit to the country. In the spring of 1966, Göran Printz-Påhlson wrote an article for Dagens Nyheter – one of Sweden’s leading daily newspapers – where he argued that Dylan is a poet who can be read just like any other poet. The following year, a magazine tied to Bonnier, one of the largest publishing houses in Sweden, printed an article that also argued that Dylan was a poet. This article, in turn, was commented on in Dagens Nyheter, where Torsten Ekbom argued that Dylan was a champion of ‘New Poetry’, alongside artists like Frank Zappa and Ed Sanders. Old poetry was dead.


That same year, 1966, the bard visited Sweden himself. He came on a tour, captured in photographs taken by Björn Larsson Ask. Sweden was known for its old-fashioned style: jacket and tie. When Dylan arrived at the airport, journalists waited in great excitement for the global star who trailed The Beatles and Swedish folk music legend Cornelis Vreeswijk in the national charts. Dylan finally showed up, no tie, sporting large curly hair and sunglasses. He held a press conference, which left everyone irate. It was clear that the press didn’t know much about Dylan, and they asked all sorts of strange questions, writes Danius. For example, they claimed not to have listened to his music, yet they proceeded to ask him about the songs. After his concert he is reported to have turned to Swedish journalist Annette Kullenberg and said, “they like me better now, don’t they?” Many of the journalists were probably not very well acquainted with Dylan, Danius muses, and his nonchalance struck the buttoned-up Swedes as insulting. A dose of Nordic skepticism, then, tempered the Swedish critics’ early praise.


Danius also takes us behind the scenes of the Nobel Prize announcement, half-a-century after Dylan’s first visit. Stating that you shouldn’t always believe the media, she welcomes us into the story from the inside. Yet, the story is retold by Danius, a member of the Swedish Academy, just before the Swedish Academy entered a crisis with disputes between its members not seen since its founding in the 18th century. In 2018, the husband of one of the Academicians was first accused, and later found guilty, of harassment; public perception was that the Academy handled the situation poorly. The controversy split the Academy into two camps as to how to relate to the accused party, who was a high-ranking personality in Swedish culture. Several members resigned, and a fellow member wrote an op-ed in a Swedish daily claiming Danius was the worst permanent secretary the Swedish Academy had ever had. Danius’s account, then, becomes even more valuable, as she found herself in the eye of two storms: the harassment scandal, and the Dylan announcement. As Danius herself puts it, her book exists only ‘for the record,’ and it is worth considering that the Swedish Academy very rarely has to justify its decisions to the extent that it did with Dylan. The Academy usually delivers a sentence or two explaining why they have chosen that year’s laureate, whereas in this case they found themselves defending their decision in the press.


While Om Bob Dylan will go down in history as an explanation and justification of what for many was a controversial decision, unlike perhaps any other in the Academy’s century-long history, the content itself is not hugely surprising. Much of what it contains was already known to the public, and what the Academicians discussed behind locked doors leading up to the final vote is not disclosed. It would be fascinating to hear what some of the world’s most erudite people say about Dylan when the microphones are off, although this information is safeguarded under a veil of secrecy and will perhaps never be disclosed in full. In this sense, Danius heightens expectations, only to burst them with triviality, despite teasing some interesting historic trivia about Dylan’s visits to, and reception in, Sweden.


On the morning of October 13, 2016, no culture journalists speculated about Dylan as a potential laureate. His name had been brought up a few times as a potential laureate in previous years, but not this time. At 11:30am the Swedish Academy awarded Dylan the prize, with a broad majority. The reason? Dylan is a poet of the highest caliber. According to Danius, he works in the English-speaking tradition going back to Milton, via Blake, and going past Rimbaud in France. She adds that he also stands in a great oral tradition from the blues in the American South, and the folk music in the Appalachian Mountains. The analysis Danius provides in the book is not unique. In one sense, it is hard to be unique, given the many volumes of scholarship that have already been dedicated to his oeuvre. It is surprising, however, because Danius spent almost a decade in America, studying modernism and literature. Her doctoral dissertation was titled The Senses of Modernism: Technology, Perception, and Modernist Aesthetics (1997) and she worked in UCLA and the Getty Research Institute. Feminism, via Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Woolf, has characterized much of her work. This book only shows a few signs of her literary research and feminist point of view, which she applies to the Swedish Academy stating that the Academy is a “she.” This seems a rather pointed statement, given that many of the male members had been accused by the public of creating – or trying to retain – a sort of “macho-culture” within the Academy. Despite her learning, when it comes to analysis of Dylan, she seems to rely on previous scholarship rather than providing what could be her unique perspective.


At 1pm – an hour and a half after Danius made her announcement – she began trying to get in touch with Dylan, something which proved more difficult than she thought. Many in the public were furious. She received angry emails criticizing the decision, but many others rejoiced over the widening definition of literature. In fact, as Danius’s colleague Horace Engdahl pointed out in his moving speech during the Nobel ceremony, Dylan takes us back to an original understanding of literature, where words are meant to be sung and not merely spoken. Engdahl asked: “What brings about the great shifts in the world of literature?” His answer is that often “it is when someone seizes upon a simple, overlooked form, discounted as art in the higher sense, and makes it mutate.”


Finally reaching Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager, Danius received a message saying, “We’re thrilled over here!” Naturally, the message crossed the Atlantic and traveled all over the world. In the following weeks, there was much talk about Dylan’s potential skipping out on the Nobel ceremony, which he eventually did. Danius says this criticism is unjustified, and she spends several pages telling the story of how Samuel Beckett refused to show up at the ceremony. She says Beckett was in his right not to attend the ceremony, and so is Dylan, while adding that Dylan may not be the last. It is not a condition to receiving the prize. Yet, Dylan is no Beckett: he is a rockstar, as well as a writer. Dylan was about to go on tour, and it is hard not to get cynical and think the aged Swedish Academicians wanted to spend their time with a rock ’n’ roll hall of famer. Again, Danius says this is untrue and argues that the media criticism was wildly exaggerated. For example, it was stated that the Academy was angry with Dylan for refusing to commit to showing up. It was said that they found him “impolite and arrogant.” With such statements, we are back to his 1960s visit to Sweden. However, the Academician who had accused Dylan of arrogance was speaking as an individual, and not as a member of the Academy. The story was buried and twelve days later Danius had Dylan on the phone.


“I feel so very, very, honored. I don’t know what to say – I’m speechless. But I want to … truly … thank you. It’s a great honor. I can’t find the words.” Those were the words of Dylan to Danius, on Tuesday, October 25, 2016. Danius says she could hardly believe her ears. She could not get confirmation if Dylan would visit Sweden, but a few days later that came as well. He wouldn’t be able to on account of his tour. She soon felt relieved that he couldn’t come. Sure, she writes, it would have been fantastic if he came, but it would also have been a lot of work. It wasn’t until April 2017 that Dylan set on foot in Sweden again. He was there for his planned tour, performing at Stockholm Waterfront. On April 1, April Fool’s Day, Dylan visited the Swedish Academy. It was only him and the members of the Academy. No photographers and no journalists were invited. Danius was busy speaking to a colleague when an odd figure appeared through the doors. It was Dylan. He seemed nervous and shy, she recalls. They delivered the medal, 18 carat gold with 25 carat gold-plating, engraved with an inscription from Virgil’s Aeneid. Dylan recognized it immediately, laughed and spoke to the members of the Academy for a few minutes, then left.


Danius’ book is a recollection of Dylan’s reception in Sweden, a description of his genius, and an intimate narrative of the controversies surrounding his nomination and reception of the Nobel Prize, dispelling many of the rumors. Danius is a controversial figure in Sweden; she was vocal in the #MeToo movement, which shook the Academy some years after Dylan’s prize. Her book is indeed a valuable record of the events leading up to and through Dylan’s Nobel sojourn, and it is surely one which will be of value to historians in decades to come. Yet, it remains her version of turbulent times, and as she remarks, she was often tired and overwhelmed by events. The most valuable thing with the book is her reminder that no matter what, the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature belongs solely to Bob Dylan.



Anthony Scaduto, Edited by Stephanie Trudeau. The Dylan Tapes: Friends, Players, Lovers Talking Early Bob Dylan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022. xi+407 pp

REVIEW BY Ronald D. Cohen, Indiana University Northwest


Anthony Scaduto (1932-2017) published his groundbreaking Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography on January 1, 1971. A seasoned journalist, having worked for the New York Post since the mid-1950s, he eagerly launched his research in the later sixties on the highly elusive, hardly candid Dylan. Scaduto had a nose for capturing detailed, intimate, revealing interviews, hopefully uncovering more of Dylan’s shadowy, often fictional, past. Many of those he interviewed provided highly personal information, although with often shaky memories. Therefore, before publication, he asked Dylan to read his manuscript and venture any comments. Dylan responded: “Like I say, I read the entire book and closed it! And frankly it didn’t make a dent. You see? I don’t care if the book is out or not” (394). Actually he was a bit more explicit than this, but not by much: “You see, my thing has to do with feelings, not politics, organized religion, or social activity. My thing is a feeling thing. Those other things will blow away” (402). That’s actually a pretty good way to understand Dylan’s sixty-plus decades of musicianship and creativity, but hardly one that has appealed to many, including Scaduto.


Stephanie Trudeau, Scaduto’s widow – they had met in 1972 – notes in the book’s Introduction that just “before he died, he discovered all his interview tapes in our basement” (xi): thirty-six hours of conversations with twenty-five of his friends, ending with that “vague kind of guy,” as Dylan described himself (402). “Why did Tony open a dusty box in our basement,” she wonders. “He found a treasure . . . . This discovery came toward the end of his life, and when he died the task of completing his project . . . was left to me” (407). When the tapes are finally open to others, they will continue Scaduto’s explorations into Dylan’s life and artistic creations, although in the 1973 and 2008 editions of his biography he added some additional information. Of course, so much more is now known and interpreted in the dozens of Dylan biographies as well as the mountain of more focused studies. But can there ever be enough? Certainly not, particularly with access to the Bob Dylan Archive, the expanding trove of collections from numerous private collectors, and the May 2022 opening of the Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.


While much of what Scaduto learned from his interviews might now seem common knowledge, it was fresh and revealing in the late 1960s. The book proceeds in rough chronological fashion, beginning with Echo Helstrom, Dylan’s high school girlfriend, then her mother Martha, although unfortunately few of the interviews are dated. Let us assume that the chapters are not in the order of the interviews, but we do not know. There are no interviews with family members (not even a mention of his younger brother David), nor with his first wife Sara. For Echo, who spent much time at the Dylan house, Bob remained somewhat of a mystery, while her mother recalled he was “very pleasant – we thought so anyway . . . . [H]e wasn’t loud at all, or insulting, like some kids are” (35-36). Next are a couple of Dylan’s friends in Minneapolis, where he briefly lived, including the blues performer Spider John Koerner (later a member of the popular trio Koerner, Ray, and Glover).


When Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village in early 1961, he quickly became enmeshed in the local folk scene. Naturally, Scaduto’s interviews focused on a selection of his various friends, contacts, and assorted others, beginning with Mike Porco, the owner of Gerde’s Folk City, one of the local clubs that actually paid the performers (Dylan had started at the basket houses, where the only pay came from contributions from the audience). Certainly not shy, he talked Porco into letting him perform: “For me it was nothing impressive really, but look, it was good enough that he could come back” (840). And come back he did, until Robert Shelton gave him a rave review in the New York Times in September 1961, which sparked his career. There is much on Gerde’s early history in Robbie Woliver, Bringing It All Back Home (1986), and considerably more on the broader music scene in Stephen Petrus and Ronald Cohen, Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival (2015) (for Dylan 255-289). Naturally Dylan soon met Dave Van Ronk, one of the Village’s most influential, and outspoken, musicians. At first he “was pretty much the same as everybody else in the scene,” Van Ronk recalled. “In a month or two I discovered he was a pathological liar. . . . We accepted him not because of the things he said he had done but because we respected him as a performer” (94). Van Ronk has a great deal to say about their complex relationship in his colorful, highly informative autobiography (with Elijah Wald), The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir (2005).


While Van Ronk, despite his leftwing politics, was not active in the local topical song movement, Dylan quickly connected with Agnes “Sis” Cunningham and her husband Gordon Friesen, who began distributing their mimeographed magazine Broadside. Initially subtitled “A handful of songs about our times,” the first issue came out in February 1962. While various performers gathered at Sis and Gordon’s cramped apartment on West 103 St., Scaduto’s interviews barely mention Broadside. This is an odd oversight, particularly since Dylan’s “`Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” appeared in the inaugural issue, with other songs to follow. “Bob Dylan came to these monthly meetings for well over a year. Gil Turner, emcee at Gerde’s Folk City, brought him to the first one,” Sis and Gordon recalled in Red Dust and Broadsides: A Joint Autobiography (1999). “Dylan was quite shy” (276). They were happy to nurture the newcomer, later feeling that “the success of these early Dylan songs was a main source of inspiration for the whole topical song movement” (295). “Blowing in the Wind” appeared in Broadside in May 1962. Perhaps Scaduto had little interest in topical songs, since he did not interview Sis or Gordon, although by the time of their interview, Dylan had moved away from the protest genre.


Phil Ochs joined the Broadside songsters, long remaining close to Sis and Gordon while developing a fraught relationship with Dylan. “I think he basically was a very human person and wanted to keep human relationships going and I think he felt that slipping away because of his fame,” he explained to Scaduto, but these remarks came some time after their split (138). While Ochs had become a prolific songwriter with a loyal following, he was no match for Dylan’s creative powers and international renown. Besides, Dylan had no room for a continuing friendship with Ochs, with their clashing personalities. The older Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who had traveled with Woody Guthrie and helped spread his songs in the 1950s, had a harder time than Ochs appreciating Dylan, particularly as a rival. “I didn’t imagine that somebody would come along like Bob Dylan and take Woody’s style and write stuff about today,” he explained to Scaduto (152). He added, “I think he’s a little bit too paranoid about me. But he’s a very paranoid kid, and I understand that, and I know it, because I’ve seen him be that way all along. I thought, you know, he’s got it, it’s in the bag” (159). Elliott did not mention his Jewish background, but he and Dylan were often compared because of their similar identity transformations. (While Ochs and many other folk performers were Jewish, few others appeared to mask their backgrounds like Dylan and Elliott.)


Among Dylan’s early Village friendships, perhaps none was more important or well known than with Suze Rotolo, particularly since their photo appeared on the cover of his influential second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. She was not eager to talk to Scaduto, so her responses were guarded and brief: “A lot of times I just wanted out, period. For no other reason that it was, this isn’t working. It was too, we weren’t getting on. . . . I wanted out” (179). When asked if she was being difficult, she responded: “No, I get this feeling that you’re wanting this to fall into a line of what you already have. If it doesn’t, then you turn it” (183). She would later publish A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties (2008), where she is much more forthcoming (and her album cover photo with Dylan is used for her book jacket): “We discovered we had much in common, including a mutual need for a comfortable place away from the chaos of life. We found in each other a kind of safe haven, yet trouble between us slowly grew out of his facility for not telling the truth” (95). Her older sister, Carla, was more open with Scaduto, probably because she had avoided the public glare. When asked about Bob’s personality she responded: “But when he was first in the city, he was a very sweet kid. Just not too articulate. But I think that’s probably why he did hang on to Suze, for that sweetness.” Then he changed. “He decided he would pick out your weakness and then suddenly grab it and use it on you” (188). Scaduto seemed more interested in Dylan’s personal transformations – certainly remarkable – than in his creative developments.


Dylan had first met Carolyn Hester and her husband Richard Fariña at Club 47 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1961. He was soon in Columbia Studios, backing Hester on harmonica for her next album. She introduced Dylan around, and would then divorce Fariña, who next married Mimi Baez, Joan’s sister. This developing folk world, with Dylan increasingly at the center, has been well captured in David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina, and Richard Farina (2001). Perhaps Dylan was interested in Hester after her divorce, but as she admitted to Scaduto: “Yeah, I was, you know, four years older, and I did feel that I shouldn’t get involved with someone that – I felt like his sister” (252). Another key member of the inner circle was the musician and artist Eric von Schmidt, who discussed with Scaduto Dylan’s controversial appearance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival: “We’re getting to the crux of the von Schmidt theory, that the whole thing was a mistake, that people were not putting Bobby down for playing electric. It was that we couldn’t hear him. The [sound] balance was fucked up” (276). It would take a talented musician such as von Schmidt to candidly discuss Dylan’s developing creative abilities. The controversy over the audience’s reaction still continues, while von Schmidt’s version has been generally upheld, although many at that time could not accept an electrified Dylan. The best overview is presented in Elijah Wald’s Dylan Goes Electric: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties (2015).


In 1957, Israel “Izzy” Young opened the Folklore Center, filled with instruments, records, magazines, and a tiny performance space, in the heart of Greenwich Village. Two years later he launched his Sing Out! column “Frets and Fails,” full of news and especially gossip about the local as well as national folk scene. Dylan quickly headed to Izzy’s when arriving in the city, and the two became longtime friends. In Chronicles (2004), Dylan recalls: “The place was a crossroads junction for all folk activity you could name and you might at any time see real hard-line folksingers in there” (19). In early 1962 Dylan expressed his feelings in “Talking Folklore Center,” which he never recorded; however, the proud Young quickly printed and circulated the lyrics. Scaduto’s lengthy interview with Izzy represents his complex relationship with Dylan. “I had a store on MacDougal Street and he came into the store in ’61. And he almost immediately took over,” Izzy began; “Well, he would come in with songs every day, singing new songs. And singing the old songs then. . . . [E]verybody accepted him completely, especially myself, as something that fell out of the sky” (306). Izzy was so charmed that he organized Dylan’s first concert appearance, at the small mid-town Carnegie Chapter Hall, on November 4, 1961, rather than his usual performances in a Village coffee house or folk club. The small turnout discouraged neither Dylan nor Izzy; a few months later he first mentioned Dylan in his Sing Out! column. All of his prolific writings, including numerous Dylan references, appear in Scott Barrett, ed., The Conscience of the Folk Revival: The Writings of Israel “Izzy” Young (2013). Particularly fascinating is his daughter Philomène Grandin’s Don’t Forget Me: A Gripping Farewell to a Remarkable Father (2022), in which she recalls attending the 2016 Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, missing Dylan but accompanied by her ailing father. Young moved to Stockholm in 1973 and they always kept in contact. Indeed, for many, Young appeared to represent Dylan in Europe.


Joan Baez shared with Scaduto now legendary stories of her fraught relationship with Dylan. Yet she concluded: “I think it’s hard not to love somebody like Bobby. I’m really drawn to people who are exceptional” (377).


Scaduto published the first in a tidal wave of serious Dylan studies. We are now able to study his raw research, always useful with the opening of the Archive and now the Bob Dylan Center and as Dylan celebrates his many decades as a creative genius and international celebrity. What more can we ask? As for the author, he would go on to write biographies of Mick Jagger, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and John F. Kennedy. But none would have the influence of his Bob Dylan!